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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- Have fun!!