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10 Ways to Optimize Classroom Co-Teaching

By Wendi Pillars — October 26, 2015 5 min read
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Imagine teaching with another teacher.

I’m so fortunate that I get to work right alongside other teachers—every single day. How cool is that? According to many survey results such as this one, observing other teachers teach is a prime factor in promoting success and satisfaction at school. You could say I am living the dream. And I truly am.

But that’s not to say it’s always easy.

Co-teaching, as you’ve probably heard before, is much like a relationship. It’s complicated, as most relationships are, but can be absolute magic when it goes well. Although my co-teachers and I haven’t mastered it quite yet, I’d like to offer some firsthand, hard-earned insights for both the core teacher and co-teacher. Keep in mind that these are suggestions for success that don’t depend on the often-elusive mutual planning time, joint professional development, levels of administrative support, or other external forces. Instead, let’s reevaluate key aspects the two of you have control over, on a daily basis.

Be honest with yourself. Know what your non-negotiables are—both of you. Yes, that means communicating these basic needs. Too often we begin our co-teaching relationships only with content—which is a great start—but I believe it’s more valuable to get anything that is non-negotiable out front. Maybe it’s about physical space, classroom management, or knowledge levels of certain topics. Use anything that is non-negotiable to view your content through a mutual lens that supports your strengths and needs. Then attack the content.

Appreciate this gift of co-teaching. Let’s face it, not all teaching partnerships are wanted, requested, or even supported. Plus it can be daunting to teach in front of someone. This means we need to appreciate what we do have, with intention. If you’re going to be together for the year or semester, choose to make it work. After all, you’re both there for the students and their learning. Non-negotiable No.1, right?

Remember that co-teachers are “real” teachers, too. Each of you brings a lot to the table. As both a classroom teacher and co-teacher, I’ve been loving this profession for 19 years now. I’ve co-taught with first year teachers and thirty-year veterans—in all subject areas and ages, from elementary through high school. I’m not a master, but I do have a ton of varied experience under my belt. I’ve learned something new every single day, and I can only hope I’ve contributed as much. It’s critical for students to see co-teachers as collaborative partners: Include co-teachers on your syllabus, your letters home, in parent meetings, and in your planning. Introduce them by name on day one in class, and refer to them as “teachers.” Share the lesson load, and know that even though they may not be the “teacher of record,” they shoulder equal responsibility.

Be explicitly grateful. Relationship researcher John Gottman says the ratio of positive to negative interactions should be 5-1. If you support each other, back each other up, remain present for each other, and realize that doing so equates to success for both of you, your respective values will skyrocket. Extend it one step further. What if you tried to achieve this interaction ratio as a team, with each student? What difference would that make within your classroom community?

Be realistic about timing. Miracles don’t occur overnight. As much as we may want to see immediate results of the most amazing and seamless co-teaching partnership ever, remember that this is an investment. Commitment means persisting through countless challenges, communicating, and moving forward reflectively. Baby steps are still steps forward.

Reflect. Savor the good things, but when things go amiss, stop to see, think, and wonder. Just like when we analyze images, make an initial observation without judgement. Next, think about what that means, and how you know that. What evidence do you have that it didn’t go well? Lastly, extend that thinking into a place of wonder—from here, what if we…?

Focus on yourself first. I’m not perfect, but when my partner is teaching, I’m observing him or her and our students. It’s easy to see what I “could’ve done differently” because I don’t have the pressure of being the one that is front and center. I could nitpick all day long, but what purpose does that serve? Instead, I look to myself, and ask what I can do to extend our teaching. I’m constantly learning, too, but what expertise can I share to complement his or her knowledge? It’s not the same as being “all about me”—but more about what skills, knowledge, and prospects I can develop and bring to make a good thing even better.

Practice. Yep. Practice, practice, practice. The more you co-teach, co-plan, and co-reflect, the more lessons—both content and otherwise—will stockpile in your mind. You not only become more adept at addressing challenges, but also more agile when it comes to on-the-spot improvisation and playing off one another. Savor those moments and reflect on their manifestation. Co-teaching is a mindful, intentional, and daily process. Embrace it.

Be loyal. For better or for worse, you’re truly “wed” together (Working Every Day) as a team. As in any relationship, if you’re talking to others about what’s happening inside the relationship, but not telling those things to your partner, you’re destroying mounds of trust. There are lots of books on how to have tough conversations, but nothing compares to 5 minutes of sucking it up and mindfully airing your solutions-oriented thoughts.

Be open and resourceful. Finding that time to formally plan and communicate can be tricky. Develop a skeletal scope and sequence for the year and or the semester at a minimum, and take notes as you go. Text, call, email each other about ideas, vocabulary, groupings, objectives, and activities. Determine roles, and when reflecting, take more notes. Request pairing together again when possible, confident that your integrated approach can only improve.

Co-teaching is challenging, but when supported and nurtured, a common vision and mission can be more readily articulated and implemented. It can become a cornerstone of professional learning communities, one that inspires trust, interdependence, camaraderie through shared experiences, and intriguingly, a growing mutual obligation, not only to colleagues, but also to our many diverse learners.

Keep these tips in mind when you’re frustrated about all the “could haves” and wishes for magical co-teaching; let’s remember we actually do have a lot of influence over our collaborative impact. There is power in teachers coming together, whether they are “in formal or informal” teaching partnerships. Use the gift of co-teaching to build upon and amplify each other’s knowledge, to create new understandings, and to develop more effective practices.

Above all else, use your unique relationship to support and inspire each other to be even better.

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