Secrets of Strong Partnerships
In last week’s post at Two Teachers, Elizabeth Stein opened the door to the co-taught classroom and found some elephants. In a great article, Elizabeth stressed that a successful co-teaching partnership must begin with a frank conversation about teaching philosophies, strengths and weaknesses, and instructional best practices. To help promote this key discussion of “difficult truths” (and ultimately draw positive energy from it), Elizabeth suggested four places to start the dialogue.
In this post I want to write from my own experiences with some of the co-teaching elephants — and share some additional thoughts about the key elements of strong partnerships.
Because no two teachers bring exactly the same philosophies or strengths and weaknesses to the table, co-teaching is always about finding balance.
Some of us are more “warm and fuzzy” — some of us are more firm and strict. These two personalities can actually complement one another. Some kids need a combination of both, some need more of one than the other, depending on the situation. It helps to have discussions ahead of time about the what-if’s. For example, if a student is complaining that he or she is afraid of tests or speaking in front of the class, who will speak privately to the child and what is a fair resolution?
I work with one colleague, a man, who is firm and structured, yet he has a wonderful sense of humor and will suggest to a student that they come to his room at lunch to present his/her monologue, project, etc. instead of during ELA class. He will also joke with the student to make them more relaxed. Because I’m soft-hearted, I can be guilty of “giving away the farm,” as one of my colleagues pointed out. He’s my reality check, and I don’t take his comments personally when we discuss how best to approach the delicate situations.
Here’s another example of balance: Over the years, my math partners and I have frequently had to “negotiate” acceptable errors in math. I’m lucky that my partner this year believes that the right answer is not the beginning and end of assessment; she agrees that it’s just as important for our students to get credit for work that shows they are mastering the concepts and process.
I’ve worked in situations where the co-teacher and I needed “marriage counseling,” and a principal had to step in and mediate because kids weren’t meeting their goals and objectives of their IEPs even with numerous accommodations and modifications. I consider this a last resort. Once an administrator steps in, it can become uncomfortable. But sometimes it’s necessary if balance can’t be found voluntarily.
Shared planning time is one of the biggest challenges co-teachers face because often they aren’t in control of their schedules. In my building our special education teachers teach a study skills class when our general education teaching partners have their prep periods, and we have a break during their “double block” periods. We have tried to fit in four periods a week when we’re all free at the same time so each of us can meet individually with a subject teacher. Sometimes it works and sometimes we have to be creative.
Not long before Halloween, I called my math partner after I visited a pumpkin fair — thinking it might be fun for the kids if I brought in a pumpkin and we had them estimate how much it weighs, to the nearest tenth of a pound. We were starting fractions on Monday and our common planning time wasn’t until Wednesday. So we actually planned a quick activity on the phone.
Sometimes we do the same with tests and projects using e-mail at night or on weekends, or we have a “working lunch.” We use whatever time we can steal. It can even be a hallway chat between classes. With all of the technology available to us as 21st century educators, why not text or Skype if you’re both comfortable with the particular tech? I think the goal is always to plan lessons, activities, projects, etc. before the kids walk in the room, even if it’s a “rough draft” of what we want to accomplish.
Ideally, if teacher teams can meet with their principals before the kids receive their schedules and block out even two periods per week when everyone is free, it makes the year (and the teaching) a lot better. In my situation, four periods a week is ideal: one for each of my co-taught subjects, and one to meet with exploratory teachers (art, PE, computer, music, library, reading, etc) as well. Sometimes, if the common planning time is limited, or a colleague has to cover for an absent colleague, we can split a planning period in two: half for one subject and half for another.
When I first started co-teaching, it was a real insult to me when I was asked to copy handouts for colleagues who didn’t feel like waiting in line or “didn’t’ have time.” I felt as if I was being viewed as an office assistant, not a teaching partner.
Looking back, I think it was also a lack of communication on my part. As I’ve worked with various colleagues over the years, I got better at having a frank discussion about responsibilities, if needed. These days, my co-teachers and I share equally if possible. It really doesn’t matter as long as we it get done.
I work with some colleagues who need a break to stretch their legs and grab a cup of coffee, use the restroom, etc. If so, I’m there to present the lesson. I’m not the complete master of the copy machine (jams, toner cartridges, yikes!) If they’ll do that, I’ll volunteer to grade the latest project or quiz.
When we co-plan, we discuss who is doing what in terms of presenting big ideas, labs, etc. We play to our strengths. I’m not strong in grammar, but I love writing, so in ELA I will create the journal prompts and writing projects. My partner Paul is strong at coming up with activities that get the kids moving (pantomiming verbs and playing concentration games for test reviews) so we often divide things up that way.
I love life science, but I’m not so good at teaching the physical science standards (water and nitrogen cycle, or the phases of the moon, which I’m mastering finally after 20 years in 6th grade science), so I’ll offer to go shopping for the candy when we do our solute/solution lab.
As Elizabeth wrote in her first post, it really doesn’t matter who does what, I’ve learned, so long as there is a shared sense of responsibility for getting the work done.
Gaining mutual respect
It’s really hard when two teachers work together in the same room and have very different teaching styles, personalities and belief systems. It is often like an arranged marriage — plus kids. As Elizabeth has said, our goal is “working toward creating an effective co-teaching experience, and to find a way to communicate, plan, share, and respect the roles, responsibilities, and personalities of one another.”
If you think about it, most teachers in America seldom see other teachers teaching. They’re isolated in a room with kids, doing their own thing. I’ve learned a lot from my colleagues that’s helped me improve my teaching practice, and that is one of the best benefits of co-teaching.
I co-teach with a 54-year veteran (she’ll be 77 on her next birthday) who does weekly trivia in Ancient World History. I was always terrible at social studies, never good at remembering the facts, names and geography. But I learned that not only is her activity fun and ‘sticky’ for the kids (they create the questions and answers for their peers), but from a special education point of view, it’s also an opportunity to address the “review and repetition” that shows up on almost all of the students’ IEPs.
From a second-year science teacher, I learned how to set up a classroom to accommodate a student who had Asperger’s syndrome and would become stressed when he lost his science notebook. (She designated a spot on her counter where his notebook and handouts would always “live,” so he always knew where to find them.)
I could go on and on about the things — both simple and profound — that I’ve learned from co-teaching colleagues. I feel as Elizabeth does that the collaboration and the communication make all the difference between a mediocre co-teaching experience and a powerful one.
When the co-teaching is going right, I feel just like my 54-year veteran teaching partner, who I often hear say: “When I wake up in the morning, I don’t feel like I’m going to work. I feel like a student who’s excited because he’s going to learn something new at school.”