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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways to Be a Successful Co-Teacher

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 04, 2019 14 min read
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(This is the final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is the best advice for co-teaching arrangements (Special Needs, ELLs, etc.)?

Part One featured the commentaries of Elizabeth Stein, Jenny Vo, Becky Corr, Andrea Honigsfeld, and Maria Dove. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Elizabeth, Jenny, and Becky on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two‘s guests were Tan Huynh, Abby Shink, Gloria Lodato Wilson, Joan Blednick, Heather Stinson, Dr. Catherine Beck, and Dr. Heidi Pace.

Amber Chandler, Margaret Searle, Bradley Witzel, and Wendy W. Murawski wrap up this three-part series. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is the 2018 AMLE Educator of the Year, author of The Flexible SEL Classroom, and an 8th grade ELA teacher in New York:

Teachers often joke about their “work wife” or “work husband.” We spend so much time with our co-teachers that they frequently begin to feel like our other half. I’ve always liked this comparison because just like our spouses, after a few years, our co-teachers can finish our sentences, know exactly which story you are getting ready to tell, and exactly how we take our coffee.

After nearly 20 years of marriage to my husband, I feel confident saying that the secret to our success is that we see our partnership not as 50/50 all of the time; rather, some days, I’m shouldering 80 percent to his 20 percent. Other days, he’s got 90 percent to my 10 percent. Our dynamic changes based on our job demands, children pulling us this way or that, and our own physical and emotional state. The key, of course, is that the dynamic has to change based on our needs, not just one of us. We are so cognizant of this dynamic and the positive impact it has had on our ability to weather multiple jobs, multiple moves, two children, a live-in-mother-in-law, illnesses, unemployment, demanding promotions, and times of great joy and other dark times of mourning and frustration that we say, “Look, I’m calling it. I’ve cornered the market today on stress.”

My “work wife” and co-teaching partner, Laura, and I have honed our relationship around this same philosophy. We’ve both decided that between the two of us, we can make our classroom a safe, supportive, and student-centered learning environment where we focus on the social and emotional needs of students. However, we recognized immediately that if one of us is not “on” that the other one needs to pick up the slack. I tend to overextend myself, and Laura will grab a stack of papers without saying a word or pull some of the challenging kiddos into a group and take the lead through the lesson, allowing me to breathe a bit. When she found out her son had juvenile diabetes, I made sure she knew that family is first and that I’d handle our classroom if she needed to be out for tests or needed to check on her son.

Another secret to success with my husband is to recognize the strengths we each have, as well as our weaknesses, and truly function as the others’ “better half.” My husband will not complain in a restaurant, make returns to stores, or generally do anything that might be considered confrontational in regards to customer service; he finds this mortifying. So, when we find ourselves in situations such as these, he’ll take the kids and excuse himself. I know this. It has been true and it always will be. That’s me being the “better half” than him, handling what he can’t. In the same way, I am what we’ll call “frugal,” though others might say “cheap.” When one of us needs to make a big-ticket-item decision, or even buy kiddos expensive shoes, I feel anxious and irritated at the same time; thus, when the washer breaks or my daughter asks for Uggs or a Vineyard Vine T-shirt, I start to sweat and feel sick. My husband doesn’t blink in these situations, and I never look at the price tag.

In exactly the same way at school, Laura and I together form a great team. I myself can’t hand out papers and talk at the same time (embarrassing I know, but I lose my train of thought while I count), so she always hands them out. I proofread her emails and tell her to go home when she is staying too late. It takes time to build these relationships, and that is why I always encourage administrators to keep movement to a minimum. When co-teaching is a year to year thing, it is like a revolving door of new roommates; no matter how much you might like the new one, without some consistency, it is hard to be a true partnership.

The best advice I have for co-teaching arrangements is that the balance is not 50/50, not even in the most perfect situations. Life isn’t like that, and to believe that co-teachers can split the load—whether it be who is direct instructing, who is grading, who is planning, or who is disciplining—is unrealistic and sets the pairing up for failure. Additionally, true partnerships capitalize on each others’ strengths while minimizing the others’ weaknesses. When the paradigm takes these two considerations into account, co-teachers can function as each others’ “better half” and create a safe, supportive, and student-centered classroom where everyone’s social and emotional needs are met—even the teachers’!

Response From Margaret Searle

ASCD author Margaret Searle has been a teacher, principal, and curriculum supervisor and has served as an adviser for elementary and secondary education to former President George H. W. Bush. She currently serves as an educational consultant to districts across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Her favorite topics are: practical ways to apply brain research in classrooms, how to diagnose and prescribe for behavior and academic problems, and ways to strengthen executive-function skills:

The best advice for deciding upon co-teaching arrangements is to be open to a variety of ways and purposes for assigning faculty. The arrangement you choose should be based upon the needs of both the adults and the students. Many people think co-teaching is an intervention specialist with a general education teacher, but, as effective as that arrangement is, it limits the possibilities for meeting needs.

The primary purpose of co-teaching, in my opinion, is to build capacity in as many faculty members as possible. Once this purpose of co-teaching is clear, it becomes easier to decide which arrangement serves that purpose most effectively. For example, if I have multiple ELL students in my class but have little experience with this type of student, my partner should be an ELL specialist. For the year we are together, my mission is to learn as many ELL strategies from my partner as I possibly can. If I do this well, I will be more competent meeting the needs of ELL students in years when I am on my own. The good news is that this arrangement is not a one-way street. The ELL teacher will become more familiar with the content of the grade we teach together as long as we enter into the partnership with the intent of teaching each other.

If I am a kindergarten teacher, it is likely that I will have multiple children in my room every year who need language development. The speech therapist is probably the perfect partner for me. If I pay attention to and participate in what the therapist is doing on the day we work in the room together, many children can receive language support who would never qualify for therapy, and students who do qualify can receive daily follow-up support from me.

If my class has many students with social/emotional problems, I probably need to partner with a counselor or behavior specialist. As this person models techniques, gives me feedback on my use of discipline and feedback strategies, and co-plans ways to head off problems, I will become a more competent classroom manager for the rest of my career. In return, each of these specialists will become more in-tune with the day-to-day curriculum as they work at various grade levels. This type of embedded professional development is a win/win for both adults and students.

Response From Bradley Witzel

Bradley Witzel, Ph.D., is an award-winning teacher and researcher who works as a full professor and program director of the MEd in Intervention at Winthrop University. Dr. Witzel has authored 10 books and delivered nearly 500 presentations on strategies for students with academic needs:

Co-teaching requires a professional marriage of sorts. Become a partner with your co-teacher:

a) Set the purpose of the co-teaching of the content. Remember, co-teaching doesn’t necessarily increase student content performance. Therefore, it is important to set multiple purposes and assess those purposes throughout the process. Consider social dynamics, resilience, and teamwork.

b) Set a common planning time so that the two of you can be on the same page with each lesson. Both co-teaching partners do not need to have the same content knowledge, but they need to understand and trust each other. Time and planning provide that possibility.

c) Ensure interchangeable roles to strengthen each other and not let students think that one teacher is superior to the other.

In order not to fall back into the ‘One Teach One Assist’ model of co-teaching, make detailed plans as to what will happen throughout the entire lesson.

The following example shows a station-teaching design for co-teaching:

8:05-8:15 Ms. Abbott opens class with a warm-up while Mr. Babbitt checks homework.

8:25-8:35 Class breaks off into stations with Mr. Babbitt at the instruction station for the content of the day and Ms. Abbott at the intervention table working on different foundational skills based on the needs of different student groups.

8:35-8:45 Stations continue.

8:45-8:55 Stations continue.

8:55-9:05 Whole class practice of the content of the day while both teachers monitor and support.

In this brief outline above, both teachers are accountable at all points throughout the lesson, and no one teacher is more important to the lesson than the other.

Response From Wendy W. Murawski

Wendy W. Murawski, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at California State University Northridge. Author of nine books on inclusive education and co-teaching and an international keynote speaker, Dr. Murawski is also the CEO of the educational consulting company, 2 TEACH LLC (www.2TeachLLC.com). @wwmurawski:

Successful co-teaching arrangements require relationships, logistical support, and professional development.

Relationships include educators who respect one another, trust in each other as colleagues and professionals, and who thus have parity (i.e., equality) in roles. Those roles do not need to be the same; in fact, differences are why we work together! We do, however, need each partner to feel valued and recognized for what he or she brings to the table. For example, one partner might know the content well, while the other may have instructional or technological expertise. Educators need to be willing to share control and be flexible. They need to communicate regularly and openly, as well as be willing to have difficult conversations with one another.

Logistical support includes time for planning, scheduling, and even physical arrangements. Administrators interested in having successful co-teaching need to ensure that planning time is provided for teachers. There are myriad ways to do that—from common planning periods to substitute teachers to stipends to reduction of duties. Scheduling includes making sure co-taught classes do not feel like a mecca for every child with a special need, resulting in more of a special education class than an inclusive one. Special educators need to not be spread too thin across multiple partners, and the master schedule should have the students with special needs put in first. Physical arrangements can include where the classrooms are situated on campus, making it easier for co-teachers to collaborate, as well as the size room in which a co-taught class is provided. The larger the room, the more co-teachers will be likely to engage in regrouping activities such as parallel, station, and alternative teaching. Other support can include making sure both teachers’ names are on the door, report cards, schedules, and letters home to parents, while both teachers have access to the grade book and key to the classroom.

Finally, professional development will help ensure that teachers know what co-teaching entails and how to maximize the use of two adults in one room. The essential question for co-teaching is: “How is what the two teachers are doing in the co-taught classroom substantively different and better for kids than what one would do alone?” (Murawski & Spencer, 2011, p.10). The more educators recognize the different ways in which they can work together in the classroom, the more effective and creative they can be. It doesn’t matter if a co-teaching marriage is between a general and special education teacher, a classroom teacher and an ELL specialist, a speech language pathologist and a special educator, or so on. What matters is that two professionals are coming together to support students by sharing their frames of reference and areas of expertise. Their willingness to collaborate, share roles and responsibilities, universally design lessons, and let go of control issues and egos will not only provide an excellent example to students but will also result in inclusive classes that support students academically, behaviorally, and socially. That’s what we want for all classes!

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Amber, Margaret, Bradley, and Wendy, and to readers, for their contributions!

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