In the United States, several hundred thousand classroom educators “co-teach.” Many 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 introduced herself and shared something of her co-teaching philosophy and aspirations for Two Teachers. Now we hear from Laurie Wasserman.
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 Laurie Wasserman
Elizabeth, as I read your first experience as a co-teacher, I was smiling and nodding my head: your story could have been my story. I started co-teaching officially about 15 years ago. Our district had changed from kids in 6th grade being a part of the elementary school to now being a part of something new called the middle school.
We had lots of training on how to “co-teach.” Even so, I had the challenge of working with eight 6th grade teachers on two teams. My “room” was a small area in an old guidance suite, with a blackboard and a desk. I spent my day traveling up and down the halls along with my students, clutching my jam-packed schedule, notebook, binder, books and pencil bag. In some classrooms I had no desk so the other teacher designated a student desk for me to place my belongings. More often than not, I was told: “I’ll let you know if I need your help.” Or, even worse perhaps: “I didn’t have time to wait in line at the copy machine, could you run off 100 of these, now?”
There were also teammates who insisted that I share all of the teaching, presenting, correcting, grading and creating of projects with them, equally and cooperatively. These were the moments I cherished.
It has to be about “our kids”
As our school evolved into a true middle school, it became apparent that we needed two special education teachers, one for each team. There were times I loved co-teaching: working with colleagues who relished another pair of hands in the room — a knowing exchange of glances when a student said something so outrageous that we both thought, “He didn’t really say that out loud did he?!” We had some great moments doing team activities: Student of the Month, Greek-Roman Day, and one of my favorites, when teachers and even our principal dressed as Men in Black (yes, I know I’m dating myself!).
I realized as the years went on and we moved to brand new schools with (gasp!) computers and the Internet that we would be teaching in a whole different way. In the best situations, we learned together as educators. In your words, Elizabeth, we just figured out how to make it all work.
One of the challenges in a co-teach situation is moving away from talking about “your kids” and “my kids” to talking about “our kids.” I often found myself coaching my colleagues on their word choices, because if we’re doing the job right, we both work with all the students in the room.
Although as special education teachers we are directly responsible for working with students on IEPs, nothing gives me more pleasure than to work with a “shade of gray” student who is lost, confused or just needs a quiet pep talk. I love working with the kids who are gifted and need a challenging problem while they wait for their classmates to figure out a task — or to encourage a shy student who just needs the confidence to participate risk-free.
Co-teaching requires compromise
Here’s something Elizabeth said in her first post: “The decisions the two teachers make are such a vital link that will make or break the learning connections.” That should be a theme for all of us who team and co-teach. One of our most difficult challenges as co-teachers is to come to a decision that we can both stick to. If one of us feels it’s okay for a student to pass in an assignment or project late, for example, and the other feels it’s not okay to miss a deadline, conflict can result, as well as confusion for our students. (This kind of situation reminds me of a family in which a child knows one parent will say yes and the other no).
Sometimes co-teaching requires compromise. I remember a situation with one co-teacher that illustrates the consequences of failing to forge that “vital link” you talk about. She was a math teacher who was adamant that students never, ever retake tests. On the other hand, I felt very strongly that students should have an opportunity to retake math tests if they fail.
We both shared our reasons: hers was that a child either knew the material or didn’t, and if they failed the test the first time, and then retook the test and passed, the assessment wasn’t really an accurate one. I felt, and still do, that math is skill based and some kids need more time to fully master the skills and should be allowed to demonstrate their understanding after more practice and review. Sadly, it created a lot of conflict for us because we could never reach a compromise.
On the other hand, I’ve worked with some excellent, collaborative colleagues with whom there were deep and meaningful professional discussions, and we were able to reach a consensus that benefitted all of our students.
Currently I team with a phenomenal math teacher who works with kids at lunch and after school. If they want to learn from their mistakes on tests, they can, and then they can retake the tests and improve their grades. She and I have discussed what we learn from these serial assessments, both about the learning pace of different students and the ways we can make our own instruction more effective. That kind of shared reflection around our students’ work and our teaching practice can only make for better learning experiences for the kids. This is what co-teaching should always be.
In my next post, I’d like to address the elephant in the middle of our co-teaching classroom: What happens when Elizabeth’s “idealistic view of co-teaching” doesn’t result in a partnership where two teachers have a shared philosophy, shared planning time, shared responsibilities and mutual respect?
I’m truly excited by the enthusiastic early feedback we’ve gotten in favor of MiddleWeb’s decision to publish a blog dedicated to co-teaching. I’m look forward to my new virtual teaching partnership this year with my fellow middle school special needs colleague, Elizabeth Stein, as we share ideas, stories, and experiences from our classrooms and urge you to share yours.