Co-Teachers: Seamless but Not Interchangeable
A MiddleWeb Blog
So pull up a chair, and as you read, think about what you are thinking—this could get very interesting….
Wait — actually, before moving on, it’s a good time to share that I recently attended a BER conference presented by Dr. Marilyn Friend. That’s right, the awe-inspiring educator, consultant, professor, and co-teaching expert (I could go on and on!) who established the six models of co-teaching along with Dr. Lynne Cook.
Meeting Dr. Friend was definitely on my “things I hope to do during my career” list. Mission accomplished.
Dr. Friend shared so many thought-provoking ideas throughout the day that I decided to dedicate this post to just one of her ideas – the one that sparked my ah-ha moment. So here goes (now is a good time to get comfortable and sit back in that chair I told you to pull up).
Some background thoughts
We know that co-teaching is all about including all learners in a general education setting where they learn together. These learners are blended together within flexible grouping experiences to maximize learning for all. When we think about what the two teachers are doing, I am reminded of what I have always heard college professors, administrators, and colleagues say.
Specifically they’ve said that ideally when a visitor comes into a co-taught classroom, this visitor should not be able to distinguish the general education teacher from the special education teacher.
Have you ever heard this? This vision of the ideal co-taught classroom goes on to say that there should be a flow and a balance of teacher responsibilities, resulting in a fine tuned parity that blurs the line between the two educators. You just shouldn’t be able to tell who’s who!
I always liked the way this sounded. I mean come on—what special education teacher doesn’t want to be viewed as a valued teacher in the room!
But so far throughout my career, I’ve never really felt comfortable living out this expectation that visitors will be left to solve a “will the real special education teacher please stand up” puzzle. Up until now I could not explain why. And then came the moment during Dr. Friend’s presentation when it all became clear to me…
In speaking about what effective co-teaching looks like, Dr. Friend offered a “what-if” question. I’ll summarize here.
What if, she asked, there were two general education teachers co-teaching? Well, you would get two teachers who focus on the material and the pacing—making sure that all of the content is taught. And what if you put two special education teachers together? Well, then you would get mastery of skills across the classroom.
Now continuing with our what-if fun: what if you put one general education and one special education teacher together? Dr. Friend responded with her signature enthusiasm…”you should get KA-BOOM!” The general education teacher shares her business-like “let’s get this content out there” mode, while the special education teacher shares her knowledge of strategies, scaffolding, prompting and other tools to build a solid bridge between the content and the learners.
“The joy of co-teaching is NOT for each teacher to be the same,” Dr. Friend said. “It is to celebrate, maximize, and understand what it means to guide every student to succeed.” And there you have it. My ah-ha moment.
I never really wanted a visitor to see me as an equivalent general education teacher. I never wanted to just blend in. I am a special education teacher—hear me roar!
Seeing the Difference
I think any visitor should come into a co-taught classroom and clearly see that each teacher brings a special skill set that ramps up the learning in unique ways. And as the co-teaching relationship develops, each can learn from the other and perhaps they can even exchange roles.
So, if the situation calls for it, you might see a general education teacher focusing on the scaffolding and data collection, while the special education teacher teaches the content. But special education teachers should always add something different—something should be added to the class that creates specialized instruction.
Just ask yourselves, “How is the teaching and learning process in our co-taught class different from other classes?” If there isn’t anything different, then why co-teach?
And dare I say, if nothing different is happening in the co-taught classroom then learning is not happening for many students in the room. It’s as simple as that.
The Road to True Parity
My deepened awareness brings me to five actions that the two teachers in the room can pursue to create true parity.
1. Value Expertise of One Another: Each co-teacher should recognize the expertise and potential in the other. Put aside egos and realize that each of you brings a specific ability that can amplify learning for all learners in the room (including the two of you!). For example, the special education teacher can share instructional methodologies, behavior or classroom management techniques, and data collection ideas that can lead to more success across the room.
2. Do your Homework: Each teacher should expand his expertise. For example, the special education teacher should learn the content well. We are best at exerting our learning expertise when knowledge of the content is embedded in the process. The general education teacher should become adept at using strategies and methodologies that facilitate learning and positive classroom culture.
3. Be Seamless but Not Interchangeable: Each teacher should be an active part of class time. The special education teacher should be bringing something different to the classroom as the content is being effectively shared. See my last blog post about specially designed instruction for more details.
4. Create Co-Teaching Routines: In addition to varying the co-teaching models, Marilyn Friend suggests that co-teachers look for patterns. For example, the two teachers can decide on routines for every time they introduce a new unit, preview vocabulary, or conclude class time. These patterns can guide the learning process and ease the instructional responsibilities with limited co-planning time needed.
5. Check-In Often: Co-teachers must stay connected. They must be willing to have critical co-teaching conversations and also check in with one another often to share, reflect, plan, and then put it all into action!
So here’s the hot button question—what do you think? Should the two teachers in the room be unidentifiable? Should you be able to tell who’s the general education teacher and who’s the special education teacher?