Are You Co-Teaching or Just Taking Turns?

A MiddleWeb Blog

2-teachers-nobordr-210Let’s make all co-teaching classrooms strong! This week’s post is going to get right to the point. I’m talking to all co-teachers here — the special education folks and the content area folks.

This year is likely the only chance your students will have to be in your learning space. They’re depending on you and all the opportunities you create to guide them to gain the knowledge and skills you are teaching.

This is the year – the time is now! So enough talk about how we may someday create effective co-teaching classrooms. Let’s just do it. And let’s do it with style and meaning.

Consider these scenarios…

Scenario #1: Teachers A and B

Grade 6: math class. Two teachers take turns demonstrating math problems on the board. Each teacher models his/her thinking while the students copy the mathematical process in their notebooks. Both teachers are actively up at the board providing the content through visual and auditory modalities.

You decide: Are these two co-teaching or taking turns?

Scenario #2: Teachers C and D

Any grade: social studies. Teacher C shares a PowerPoint with videos along with leading the class in discussion based on the key points of the content. Teacher D walks around the room to notice students’ attention and note-taking actions. Teachers D and C also alternate reading the information on each PowerPoint slide. As Teacher D walks around the room, he jots down the names of students who will need a copy of class notes to make sure they get all of the information.

You decide: Are these two co-teaching or taking turns?

Still not sure? Need more convincing?

Ask yourself: Is there any evidence of specially designed instruction (SDI)?

Specially designed instruction describes the types of unique instructional services needed by a child or youth with a disability to accomplish IEP goals and objectives. These services include alterations, modifications, and adaptations in instructional methods, materials, techniques, media, physical setting, or environment….”

After considering these expectations, take a second look. Is there any SDI evidence… anywhere? If you see any, let me know in the comments. (Giving students a copy of class notes, as mentioned in scenario #2, just does not make the cut for evidence of meaningful SDI.) Ask yourself, What is being offered to students who need additional supports to not only have access to the curriculum, but to also become resourceful, self-regulated learners?

Your Turn words on two red dice

The answer is nothing. Teachers are taking turns to read. They are providing visual and auditory supports to learning that meet the general needs of students. But what about those students who have additional needs stated on their individualized education plan (IEP)?

For example, let’s say Jimmy is in the Scenario #2 classroom. He has an IEP goal that states he will learn effective note-taking strategies. Does giving him a copy of the class notes after he tried taking notes on his own count as support?

It doesn’t. If, instead, the teachers had modeled a specific note-taking strategy such as Cornell Note-Taking throughout the lesson, then we would have an example of SDI: teachers modeling with an evidence-based note-taking strategy to guide students’ understanding and application.


I’m figuring by now we’re all on the same page. Both scenarios are pretty bleak when thinking about the strong co-teaching that needs to be offered to assure maximum student learning.

Make the time to read through Anne Beninghof’s article, Co-teaching Isn’t Taking Turns; It’s Teaching Together. It really begins to turn co-teachers’ thinking upside down. When you can, devote a few minutes to her post and then think about how the two scenarios above could become stronger examples of meaningful co-teaching.

Two smiling women show off their biceps

Make the Time – Take the Vow

Strong Co-Teaching doesn’t develop overnight – but it can happen with great timing when both teachers join forces. Great co-teaching begins when the two teachers in the room:

  • Are active in ways that address needs of ALL students and tap the expertise of both teachers. A focus on the content AND the PROCESS is accentuated;
  • View learning from students’ perspectives and never make decisions without asking students what they need;
  • Make way for specialized instruction by looking at how student IEPs align strategies and goals with the natural learning in class. The note-taking example above is just one of endless possibilities to guide all students to connect to the curriculum.


  • Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an effective way to be proactive when planning lessons for our variable learners. It can create opportunities for masterful teaching and learning that is good for everyone. It builds that bridge between individual students and meaningful learning. But in co-taught classrooms, there will be those students who have additional needs as stated on their IEP’s. And that’s where the specialized instruction comes in!
  • Some examples of strategies that create strong specialized instruction may include:
    – Teacher modeling and direct instruction
    – Chunking the material – creating processing time
    – Preview-teach-review
    – Create a visual outline of key points
    – Teach note-taking and how to determine importance when reading or listening
    – Make time for cooperative learning such as having students pair up to paraphrase information just listened to or read.
    Mnemonic strategies to guide working memory and long-term memory

Cooperation GrowthA successful co-teaching classroom has two active teachers who bring a unique set of teaching skills, knowledge, and talent into each daily lesson. And when this happens, the students have opportunities to connect with learning within a relaxed, exciting environment where they know what it takes to be a part of the learning process. Where they know they will grow!

Your thoughts? Your connections? Please share!

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

4 Responses

  1. Christie Flayhart says:

    Thanks, Elizabeth! It’s so helpful to have examples of what co-teaching IS and what it ISN’T to share with our teachers. Specialized instruction is critical for our students to make progress on their goals. Why else would we have two teachers in the classroom?

  2. Doreen says:

    I am an ESL teacher and I perform what my district considers “co-teaching” with 6 teachers during the day. This year, my day begins at 9am, and with the exception of 1-1:45 (time I use for lunch), I move from class to class approximately every 45 minutes. I co-teacher Monday-Thursday in whatever content area happens to fit with the schedule I have to create and each Friday, I meet with each teacher to plan our lessons for the next week. We work very diligently at the team teaching approach and I try to arrange my schedule to be in a classroom at the beginning of a lesson to be involved in direct instruction of our accommodated lesson. We’ve also had one training UDL instruction. Many are the days that I dream of a true co-teaching experience with two teachers in the classroom all day!

  3. Lori Moriarty says:

    Christie, your last statement was exactly what I wondered when I joined the VVSD faculty this year …in a co-taught math classroom. Although my co-teacher and I are planning much more purposefully together, I agree that the examples of what co-teaching is and is not will be VERY HELPFUL as we go forward.

  4. Lori Moriarty says:

    The idea of “viewing learning from students’ perspectives and never making decisions without asking” what they need really stood out as I read this. I know my co-teacher and I conferenced early in the year with each student, but I would like to commit to doing it more frequently and more purposefully next semester.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.