Co-Teachers: What a Tangled Web We’re In

A MiddleWeb Blog


Consider yourself warned. Maybe I shouldn’t be writing this week’s post right now, today, in these moments. And then again, maybe it’s the perfect time.

I am in one of those deep reflective states where I am feeling like I am surrounded by water, and I just can’t kick fast enough for the pace of the rising water level. I have been sucked into the same backward moving vortex that is apparently driving our educational reform movement—yet again. I know I’m mixing metaphors here – what about the tangled web? Glad you asked . . .

My frustration veers off in two directions that stem from the same topic: Student achievement in inclusion classrooms.

The grade-level tangle

tangled-web-275In one direction I ask how can co-teachers close the personal achievement gaps of students with disabilities when the gap seems to build up and sometimes gets larger each year—or at best stays one year below grade level because even though the student is making progress, he is always at least one year behind as a new school year begins.

So, for example, if a student with disabilities comes into 7th grade reading on a 4th grade level—but he makes progress and leaves 7th grade at a 6th grade level—this student is still entering 8th grade nearly 2 years below grade level.

Summary of Rant #1: Co-teachers must work together to do whatever it takes to make the instructional time meaningful for all students. Instructional time must meet the needs of the varied ability levels in the classroom. Otherwise how will students’ personal gaps be closed? In addition, parents must support positive learning at home. And open communication between home and school is a must!

The teacher evaluation tangle

In the other direction, how can special education co-teachers be evaluated on the success of their teaching based on students’ scores on state testing? It’s a hot topic out there. But as stakeholders remain indecisive, we are living the nightmare of the stress and unrealistic demands current state testing places on students and educators.

Here’s the typical situation:

a) Special education teachers do not have full responsibility for teaching their students—this instructional time is a shared responsibility that is often compromised and too often results in hasty retrofitting due to lack of co-planning, time, support, and eventually, energy.

b) Forty-minute periods create a race against the clock to teach the grade level curriculum AND fit in skill and strategy work needed to guide those students whose personal achievement gaps create a running-from-behind effect. This again comes down to the necessity and urgency for sufficient amounts of co-planning (which is non-existent in far too many schools!)

Summary of Rant #2: Not enough time, time, time. Not enough co-planning, co-planning, co-planning. But lots of evaluation, evaluation, evaluation.

We are mostly NOT addressing these critical questions:

• How do we plan for, encourage, and nurture students’ achievement in inclusion classrooms?

• How do we ensure that students take charge of their own learning, so that true learning can transfer?

• How do we set up an inclusion program that ensures true inclusion—so that our students with disabilities have the opportunities to work on closing personal achievement gaps, while they are inside the co-taught inclusion classroom?

I know I punctuated here—but that was for your benefit. In my mind, every word so far was expressed in one very long, very loud, very passionate plea for solutions. Let me explain.

What I’m hearing . . .

tangled-web-175The past two weeks I have been hearing about dedicated, tireless teachers who received an “ineffective” or “developing” teacher evaluation rating due to the score their students received on last year’s New York state testing.

Just – plain – wrong.

I’m also coming off of a week where I met with parents who, along with me, are working so hard to guide their students to achieve. Yet that starting line that’s drawn behind the general education students is daunting.

These parents want to know why Johnny still has “…will master the multiplication facts through the 12 times table” on his IEP since 3rd grade! Good question. It is just plain crazy!

I am determined that this is the year Johnny will finally internalize those facts—but I am left with the weight of the Common Core curriculum, which takes for granted that every student has mastered the multiplication facts by now. Result: there’s just no time during the school day to provide instruction for that. Yet I find ways. Because I have to….I have to.

Time to talk solutions

untangled-rainbow-web-275I think the answer lies in the necessity to focus on creating opportunities for students with disabilities in inclusion settings to close their personal achievement gaps. Whatever that takes.

Inclusion classrooms cannot be a time to teach band-aid style, where instruction focuses on getting across facts to remember for tomorrow’s test or complete today’s assignment or tonight’s homework.  It’s got to be a place where learning is long-range. It must be about instruction that supports the creation of students who take charge of their learning—fail-forward style.

Here’s what I think:

  • Students must begin to feel the success of their efforts.  Regardless of the system’s tendency to focus on isolated grades, students must focus on personal gains. A growth mindset must win out over the straight-jacket of limitations in order to create expert learners for life. Check out the work of Carol Dweck to learn more about growth vs. fixed mindset—and then weave it into your teaching repertoire whenever possible!
  • Definitely check out the work of David Rose and his colleagues at the National Center for Universal Design for Learning and the Center for Applied Technology (CAST) to learn more about creating and developing expert learners. Students with disabilities are capable of much more if they are not expected to advance by leaps and bounds before they have the opportunity to take lots of confident steps.

As far as teacher evaluations and testing students with disabilities, teachers must stay focused on the true meaning of student achievement.

It’s not the teacher evaluation rating that defines a truly highly effective teacher. Currently, the results of so many poorly constructed evaluation systems snag all teachers — whether they are truly highly effective or not. It is a meaningless system of dehumanizing those who are dedicated to their students 24/7.

Not to mention that in New York last year’s scores are based on a test that far outpaced the instruction and readiness of the students. Seriously, how could anyone expect that students whose personal gaps remain after years of running behind could just jump in and take a test based on the Common Core? Most especially when the Common Core instruction hadn’t even rolled out completely?! There is just no sense to be made of that.

untangled-rainbow-web-175Some other thoughts on the topic, as we look for solutions:

  • Check out CEC’s position on evaluating special education teachers—and then take a deep relaxing breath, start advocating for that position, and feel the rejuvenated energy to give your students all you’ve got!
  • Read through some of the nonsense about the thinking around giving students with disabilities easier tests.  Just plain ridiculous! So many students in inclusion settings are so capable—they just need consistent, positive, strategic, high-quality instruction. We need to kick up the co-teaching experience to make sure that the content is truly accessible to ALL students. We need to work with parents in ways that guide positive transfer of skills. We need to work with students to strengthen their executive functioning skills, so that they have the skills needed to learn anything, anywhere. With the consistency of accessible instruction, students will have the chance to perform at higher levels—and teachers’ rating just might be more in line with reality. Then again…who really knows.

Bottom line: Co-teachers must do what is humanly possible to keep communication open, instruction accessible, and sanity within reach. Always seek solutions—do not get caught in the tangled web of lost hope that is being spun around us!

We can make co-teaching classrooms a place of true learning for all students. We must do this. The question is how? Please share your thoughts here. Let’s get in solution-seeking mode together. Right here—right now.

Elizabeth Stein

Elizabeth Stein has more than 20 years teaching experience spanning grades K-8, specializing in universal design for learning and special education. She’s currently a special education/UDL instructional coach and new-teacher mentor in Long Island NY’s Smithtown Central School District. Elizabeth is National Board Certified in Literacy, and a contributor to Education Week and other publications. Her books include Comprehension Lessons for RTI (Grades 3-5) (Scholastic, 2013), Elevating Co-Teaching Through UDL (CAST, 2016) and Two Teachers in the Room: Strategies for Co-Teaching Success (Routledge, 2017). Follow her on Twitter @elizabethlstein and #coteachat

6 Responses

  1. Wonderful. As always…a great read. Sharing now. :)

    • Elizabeth Stein says:

      Thanks, Tim–your feedback is always rejuvenating! Also, thanks for sharing–hope your readers comment as well–we have to share our questions, concerns, and ideas for solutions–many thanks!

  2. Reading this for the 2nd time. Very well said…thank you! It’s so easy to get caught in the web. Communication, staying positive, and focusing on the true meaning of achievement are key…and band-aids don’t close any gaps.

  3. Elizabeth Stein says:

    Maureen, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. As we keep communication open, we must support one another–it helps in the detangling process! Thanks for being a part of that process! All the best!

  4. Lisa Norris says:

    Nice job Elizabeth, this is a rant I have been having in Virginia for at least 15 years with the implementation of our SOL’s. You made some excellent points, it really is important for the co-teachers to keep focused on the goal of teaching the kids to the best of their ability. They must stay focused on planning excellent instruction, using models in the classroom that elevate engagement and implementing daily formative assessment to check for understanding.
    As hard as it is to embrace, the teacher evaluation systems can not be the special educator’s focus or priority. My hope is that somehow the “powers that be” stop and think about what they are saying when rating a teacher below average when there is proof that their students have made two years growth. What other educator is being asked to make that level of growth with our typically developing youth? Fair…I think not!

    • Elizabeth Stein says:

      Thank you, Lisa. It’s great for educators to come together here to support one another–it is definitely empowering to know that we are in good company. And then we put our energy into our students–do what we can to elevate the teaching/learning experience for ourselves and our colleagues–and let the chips fall where they may. Your hope is also my hope…”the powers that be” must “stop and think.” And maybe even throw in a little listening to teachers’ voices, too! We can hope. A balance of common sense must be found.
      Thanks so much for your comment!

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