Co-Teaching Tips from a Special Educator

Posted: August 8, 2016 in Uncategorized

businessman and woman hold "partnership" written puzzle pieces

I am a special education teacher. My classes are all either self-contained or collaborative. What does a collaborative, inclusive class look like? The answer? It depends. My two co-teaching classes could not have been more different. One class is led by an ex-military man. This is his second career. He was a Russian Translator in the Air Force and the kids love it when he talks to them in a different language. He teaches old school: lecture at the board, then assigns problems for students to work at their desks. Students sit in rows, and there is no collaboration or group work. He prefers that I help students when they are working through problems, but he rarely lets me teach. He is not a techie like I am. The only technology used in his classroom is our TI-84s, though I have gotten him to use the LCD projector a couple of times. We discuss what we are teaching and in what order, but he plans the class, writes the assessments and grades everything by himself. I offer to help; he thanks me, and we continue on.

My other collaborative class is truly a collaborative class. It is hard to tell which of us is considered the “teacher of record” and which is the special educator. We both plan lessons, search for new materials, teach the class, plan, and grade assessments. We are both innovative educators, using lots of technology and collaborative group work and activities. We are constantly emailing, texting and calling each other to communicate ideas and thoughts. This is so important because we work in different buildings, only coming together for this one class. We just clicked. Our personalities mesh well, and we have become friends outside of school. We even finish each other’s sentences sometimes.

Most collaborative relationships fall somewhere between these two extremes. So in this spirit, let me offer the following tips for those of you who are planning to co-teach in the future.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Reach out to your co-teacher BEFORE you go back to school. Go grab lunch or a cup of coffee and chat. Go somewhere neutral so you are both on even ground. Talk about your likes, dislikes, pet peeves, deal killers, and must-haves. Be honest. If there is something that you know drives you crazy, share it. Be open to what you are hearing. In a lot of ways, co-teaching is like a marriage. You need to find a way to operate cohesively for the benefit of the students. And this initial meeting will feel a lot like a first date. And that’s okay.

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  • Set aside some time before school starts to figure out routines for your classroom. And when I say your classroom, I mean your classroom, plural. For that period, it is both of yours, equally. Both of you must have a stake in what happens in that room, and those decisions must be made together. Are you going to do warm ups? Are you helping the kids or letting them struggle? Graded or not graded? What will homework look like? Discipline? Will you be using interactive notebooks? Or just lecture and practice problems? How about exit tickets? How often do you plan to assess? You won’t address everything, but you should plan as much as possible. The more prepared you are, the smoother the experience.

Jigsaw Pieces Being Joined Shows Teamwork And Collaboration

  • Identify your teaching styles. Find ways they complement each other. Play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses. You may find yourself with a co-teacher who knows little about your subject. That’s ok. Find out what they do bring and use it. There are several ways two teachers can run a classroom. Both can take turns teaching and circulating. One teacher can work with a small group while the other leads the class. The class can be divided into two sections with each teacher taking half. Stations can be set up, and both teachers can circulate, helping students as necessary. The best co-teaching uses a mix of all of these, depending on the day, the students and the material. As special education teachers, we all have strategies to help make the material more accessible for students with disabilities. Most of these strategies will work across multiple subjects. We have so many resources and ideas in our heads; please use us! Mix it up so both teachers are working with all students. My collaborative students are generally relieved when they realize they won’t be singled out.

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  • Plan and reflect together. Even if it is only once per week, try to find even thirty minutes to plan lessons and activities and reflect on the good, the bad and the ugly. Include your co-teacher in classroom decisions. Make that person an integral part of the class. Email, text, Skype, Hangouts, whatever works. If possible, attend some subject-specific PD together. Knowledge is power.

Industrial worker with the construction plan

  • Lean on each other. We all know not every day is sunshine and rainbows. Not even every week. My co-teacher and I know each other well enough that we can talk each other off the ledge when we need to. You have someone in the room with you who has your back. Laugh together, cry together, whatever you need. It will make you a stronger team.

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  • Take risks. Try things you have never tried before. Having two teachers in the room changes things. Find something you always wanted to try and go for it!

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  • Have fun!! 
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Comments
  1. Great post! I really enjoyed reading your tips and perspective. 🙂

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  2. Amy Spencer says:

    Thank you for sharing these ideas. Each of my inclusion classes is different (as it should be with a different group of students and co-teachers with different personalities). I am sorry to say that I have never gotten to a good point of co-teaching due to a lack of time coordination. It is so difficult to get on the same page when one person arrives to school just in time for the bell after putting a child on the school bus, the planning periods and lunch periods do not line up, and the other person leaves right after school to coach sports or pick up a child.

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    • lisakmcleod says:

      You really hit the nail on the head. For a collaborative relationship to work, time HAS to be given for teachers to work together. My co-teacher and I were seamless when we shared a room. She was split ms and hs and was at the hs for three teaching periods. We shared my room, and both of us had last period free every day, so we spent it together. My principal observed me that year during our collab. class and was amazed at how well we worked together. Said if hadn’t known who was who, he would not have been able to guess, nor would he have known who the sped kids were. Last year, the only class she had at the hs was the collab. with me. No prep time together, and we are in different buildings. With zero time to plan together, it did not work nearly as seamlessly. I felt more like an aide than a co-teacher. Districts have to realize this and force it into the schedule somehow. Otherwise, it is just two bodies in a room. It frustrates me to no end.

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  3. agilin says:

    This was a great post Lisa! Interesting to hear the two different classroom dynamics that you are a part of. Great tips, I really like the first tip of communication. I’m sure getting it all out on the table (pet peeves, etc.) makes for a much smoother year! Thanks for sharing!

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    • lisakmcleod says:

      You have to be upfront and honest about your expectations and everything else. Both of you do. Otherwise, someone will be upset, and it will fester. You may not be bosom buddies outside the classroom, but you have to find a way to make it work inside it. I think my biggest pet peeve is when we are treated like assistants. I have had teachers assume my role is behavior management, making copies and running errands. Um, no.

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  4. Lisa, you make some excellent points for everyone, even those of us who are not in a co-teaching situation. Communication and collaboration are so important. I give you a lot of credit for dealing with what must be a frustrating co-teaching situation at times.

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    • lisakmcleod says:

      Good point Joanna! I hadn’t thought outside the sped/reg. ed box but you’re absolutely right. For as different as my collabs are, I love both my co-teachers. Mr. Military is the department chair and has bent over backwards to make sure that I am fully integrated into the math department. I’m certified in both math and sped but tenured in sped. He has been my rock and has always had my back. We’ve been together for ten years and while our teaching styles clash, I cherish his friendship. My other co-teacher and I are pretty tight. Sharing a room will either make or break a relationship. It cemented ours. There has been more than once that I have emailed her to say,”Let’s do an activity. Not feeling it today.”, only to open one from her with the same thought in it. I picked up self-contained 8th grade next year so won’t get to collaborate with her. She’ll teach one section of 9th grade in my room at the hs, while I teach two sections of 8th grade in her room at the ms. I’m excited about 8th grade but sad to lose our class together.

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  5. Katy Cooper says:

    Great Post! This is an over-looked topic that is happening more and more. I feel this could be a valuable post when even just considering working with a special education teacher to best support students that have IEPs in a regular ed classroom. I think a lot of frustration in the past for me has been from lack of communication… or feeling uncomfortable asking for help from the special education teacher (totally on me). I do recognize that many special education teachers have an entire other workload that we do not see, but there is no harm in opening the communication ways and asking questions.

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    • lisakmcleod says:

      Please don’t ever feel uncomfortable asking for help! That’s what we are here for. Until colleges start to include classes that deal with special education in regular education certification, our expertise is needed. Most of us are very approachable and genuinely want to help. Yes, our jobs are demanding and yes, there is a lot of paperwork, but we are a team. I would prefer to spend some time suggesting modifications and ideas in the hopes that we can keep a kid from being labeled, than having him added to my caseload when I might have been able to prevent that. It takes a village…..

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      • Amy Spencer says:

        My college required education majors to take a 1 credit course about students with special needs. I graduated college 8 years ago, so it isn’t even like we are talking about a completely different generation. They changed the requirements about 3-4 years ago so that students need a 3 credit course on special needs instead. That is completely not enough to even scrape the surface.

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  6. lisakmcleod says:

    Sadly, that is more than I got when I went through college. There was no mention of special education at all. Nada. Zip. It wasn’t until I started teaching in an adolescent psychiatric center that I realized I needed to go back to school. Quickly! Talk about a trial by fire.

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