In the United States, several hundred thousand classroom educators “co-teach.” Most are special education teachers who work in tandem with general educators, most often in the same room. In some settings and situations, these paired teachers are supportive partners and collaborators. Other times there’s considerable friction, as methods, goals and personalities collide.
In a new MiddleWeb blog, Two Teachers in the Room, two outstanding middle grades special educators — Elizabeth Stein (Long Island) and Laurie Wasserman (Boston) — will explore this co-teaching terrain. Both are NBCTs, published authors, and current classroom teachers in co-teaching roles.
In our first post, Elizabeth Stein introduces herself and shares several goals she and Laurie have for Two Teachers in the Room. We’re excited about this opportunity to recognize co-teachers and promote a deeper understanding of their work. You can follow our Two Teachers blog by checking in here, and also subscribing to MiddleWeb SmartBrief where we’ll feature their weekly posts. Most of all, we hope you’ll engage them in conversation by leaving your own thoughts and comments at their posts. — John Norton, MiddleWeb co-editor.
by Elizabeth Stein, NBCT
My first experience co-teaching was twelve years ago. I walked into my co-teacher’s classroom the day before the students were to arrive. My smile was met with the serious grin of someone who seemed to be remembering something painfully unpleasant.
My genuine, “Hello, it’s nice to meet you,” was met with, “Don’t be so enthusiastic—I don’t think this is going to work—it hasn’t worked for me yet—and I’ve been doing this a long time.” My extended hand was met with a person rushing by me carrying a stack of textbooks across the room.
Although taken aback, I remained positive and replied, “Tell me about it.” She related some of her experiences that resulted in her unfavorable view of co-teaching. And she had no problem sharing her qualms that I was new to the co-teaching scene. I decided to interpret the frankness of her negative greeting and outlook as a positive sign. We had already begun what co-teachers need most of all (and what some co-teachers can only dream about) — we took that first step toward honest, open communication.
My simple mantra
My philosophy on co-teaching begins with this simple mantra—just make it work.
For me, there is no other choice. The two teachers must do whatever it takes to provide instruction that meets the academic, social, and emotional learning needs of each child, and of the class as a whole.
The learning environment must be created by two teachers who focus on effective instruction and positive student engagement. The decisions the two teachers are able to reach are so critically important that they will make or break the classroom learning connections.
The idealistic view of co-teaching creates the vision where two teachers have:
- a shared philosophy
- shared planning time
- shared responsibilities
- mutual respect
Okay. Now cue that loud buzzer sound that blinks you back to reality. We all know school is not a perfect world. And so, the realistic view of co-teaching does not always include a perfect “sharing” or sense of parity. There are so many variables that come into play while working toward creating an effective co-teaching experience, some of which are out of the co-teachers’ control.
Still, the bottom line remains…the two teachers must find a way to communicate, plan, share, and respect the roles, responsibilities, and personalities of one another. If teachers become submissive against the tide, and too quiet to change the current, then the reality of co-teaching can be daunting.
So here we are: Two co-teachers, ready to explore
Laurie Wasserman and I first came into contact through the Teacher Leaders Network and the collegial friendship we both developed with MiddleWeb’s founder John Norton, who also co-founded TLN. Laurie teaches in Boston; I teach on Long Island. We’ve both been through the National Board certification experience, where deep reflection about one’s teaching practice is valued highly. We are both passionate about meeting the needs of our students and making co-teaching work on their behalf.
It is through that determined lens that our blog will explore the broad view and many variables that are involved in making co-teaching work. We will share the specifics of how to feel empowered as teachers, so that students may feel empowered as learners. We will make the time to bring all of the elephants into the room (perhaps one or two at a time) and consider how we as co-teachers will no longer ignore, fear, or run from those elephants when they arise. We hope to have conversations with our readers in this blog space and help them build their own repertoire of strategies to guide that positive co-teaching mindset of doing whatever it takes to just make it work.
My own co-teaching experience
My personal experience with co-teaching runs the gamut from blissfully perfect to painstakingly tolerable. Over the years, I’ve learned that the key for me does not depend on who my co-teacher is—the secret to success lies in what I will do to create the kind of learning environment all of our students need. I stay focused on doing my part for our students—with the hopes of blending seamlessly with my co-teacher.
And what of my first co-teaching experience, mentioned at the opening of this post? It turned out to be one of my most successful co-teaching experiences to date. We were two teachers who kept the lines of communication open, which allowed us to co-plan, co-teach, and ultimately respect one another’s views and responsibilities. My experiences with co-teaching over the years, with all its ups and downs, has brought me to a satisfying point in time, and I am excited to share and learn with readers of our blog.
My current co-teaching situation places me in three different 7th grade co-teaching classes each day. I teach English, math and social studies. In addition, I teach one daily period of study skills. This study skills class is for the students with disabilities who are in the inclusion classes. It’s a powerful time to pre-teach and re-teach content area materials, teach organization, strategic thinking, and study skills that may guide my students toward independent, successful learning within the general education setting. It’s all about guiding the students to easily access the general education curriculum.
Co-teachers are connected, wherever they teach
Just as open communication is the key to successful co-teaching, collaborating with other colleagues who co-teach is instrumental in the personal and professional growth of teachers.
Personally, it keeps me sane. In addition to collaborating with my face to face colleagues, it is such a privilege to connect with Laurie as we share our experiences.
In order for co-teaching to work, teachers must reach in and reach out. They must share, and they must listen. It always amazes me how co-teachers near and far share a common language—a natural bond. We face the same obstacles, and often find similar solutions.
Sometimes, sadly, one or both of the teachers in the room give in to the potential struggles of co-teaching. In those cases—this blog’s for you! It is also for those teachers who co-teach and thrive and are ready to share your secrets.
Our blog is a place we can celebrate the success stories, and problem solve. The trials and tribulations of co-teaching are not unique to any one classroom. Co-teachers are connected—no matter where we live or where we teach. We understand the issues, and we know that the only way to effectively educate all students in classrooms—together—is to focus on solutions.
In our next post, you’ll hear from Laurie and learn something about her background and her current teaching life. We are both looking forward to your comments as we begin to push the co-teaching conversation forward!