Straddling the Co-Teaching Fence
A MiddleWeb Blog
My virtual colleague Johnny Cataffo is a 15-year special education veteran and currently a fourth grade teacher at Charlotte Anderson Elementary (Mansfield ISD) in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metro area. He’s also the author of Sally Singletary’s Curiosity (as J.M. Cataffo) and oversees the Eaa Learning Foundation, a site devoted to all things education and how to improve our classrooms for our children.
I’ve invited Johnny, who has been both a co-teacher and a “general” teacher working with a co-teacher, to share some of his experience and insight as my first guest author! – Elizabeth Stein
by Johnny M. Cataffo
Co-teaching can be challenging, but it’s not without its rewards. Students’ academic gains aren’t the only improvements teachers may see in a co-teaching environment. Confidence, contentment, and risk-taking are all attributes that can soar when students are given a chance to experience success with their peers.
I speak not only as a special educator who taught in classrooms as a co-teacher for five years, but as someone who has “worked on both sides of the fence.” I am now a fourth grade general educator working in a co-taught classroom with a wonderful special education partner. My special education background has certainly given me perspective that some general teachers may lack when they first have a co-teacher in the room. And of course I’m gaining new insights as I see the relationship from a different vantage point.
One of the biggest challenges special educators face as we move into a General Education classroom from a self-contained environment is becoming accustomed to the expectation of time.
In the past, time was irrelevant to Special Education. Even after the move into a co-taught room, I held onto the belief that my Special Education students should be given more time to learn things. They were, after all, “slower” than the other students. Eventually, though, I began to realize that the amount of time they needed depended less on their disabilities and more on my expectations of what they could do. Like many other special educators, I had fallen into a pattern of giving my students accommodations upfront, because I was sure they needed them, rather than giving them the chance to show what they could do first. I began to change my outlook.
Seeing the situation from the general educator’s side of fence has reinforced my decision to change. More than ever, I can see how much it hurts students to “water down” their experiences. Rather than determining the level of support and accommodation ahead of time, we allow all of our students to try things on their own and bring in supports as needed.
We are finding that more often than not, the students rise to the challenge, relying on fewer tools and modifications. Even students whose disabilities are more severe have surprised us with what they can do. I’m not saying students should not be given accommodations, but that our practice of accommodating as a last resort has really shown us the true picture of what a child needs to reach and grow.
Every student is different
In General Education, I have found the “one-size-fits-all” syndrome is all too common. Many teachers, whether they realize it or not, fall into a pattern of uniform expectations. I’m not talking about the differences between general and special education students here, as much as the differences among general education students.
Special educators come to differentiation by nature and training. After 15 years in the Special Education world, I have witnessed overwhelming evidence that all students are unique and so are their educational needs. Every student, whichever side of the fence we place them, needs differentiated learning experiences to be successful.
Differentiating in the inclusion setting
So how do we offer different instruction in the inclusion classroom? We use another concept brought over from Special Education: station teaching/ability grouping. Many teachers already use this concept, but not effectively. They group students according to reading levels, and those groups stay the same through most of the year. True ability groups are fluid, changing based on periodic assessments and observations of each student’s growth and development.
Small groups should be the focus of a lesson, not an afterthought. In my fourth grade classroom, most of our students are far more successful when they are taught in small groups than when we try to teach the whole class at once. Each day, my whole class lesson lasts no more than 10-15 minutes (shorter, if I can). Our small groups are where the bulk of my attention lies.
Small groups are the perfect opportunity to fully utilize both the general and special education co-teacher. The small groups can be tailored based on the students who are struggling with a particular skill (not a general reading score, etc.). Neither teacher is “stuck” with the same kids each and every day. And the same is true for the kids. Students get the benefit of teacher variety while their needs are better met.
With the main focus on small-group teaching, flexibility expands significantly — group times and participants are fluid, adjusting to changes in schedules and the results of formative assessments.
These are some of the actions my co-teacher and I have taken since I’ve made the transition from Special Education to General Education teacher. I hope to cover these and other practices with more depth in future posts.
Meanwhile, if you happen to be a teacher who has taught on both sides of the co-teaching partnership, what are some of your own aha moments?