Each year, our school district promotes a district-wide theme. ‘Expect the best and get it!’ and ‘What you believe is what you achieve!’ are examples from years past. Tag lines like these provide annual encouragement, direction, and inspiration – a district esprit de corps.
This year’s theme is ‘Imagine if…’
The ‘imagine if…’ message invites our community to dream … to imagine … and to fill in the blank. The ellipsis periods are a deliberate part of the invitation.
So, let’s imagine that we could put our theme to the test. For example, imagine if every child was taught by a caring, confident, and competent teacher in every class, every day. Wonderful! Now, imagine if we could have two caring, confident, and competent teachers in every child’s classroom. Would twice as much be better – especially for our special education students who need specialized instruction?
If so, is more better?
This is a question I ask myself over and over again after I walk-through co-teaching classrooms. Theoretically, two teachers should be able to plan meaningful, purposeful, and engaging lessons for students that meet their specific learning needs on a daily basis. But I ask, is more better?
Successful co-teaching takes more than just putting two teachers in a room. The co-teaching classrooms I observe generally use the ‘one lead/one assist’ model (Perez 2012). In this scenario, one teacher, usually the general education teacher, leads instruction in the content while the special education teacher supports students by circulating around the classroom and offering help spontaneously. For all intents and purposes, the special educators are checking in. From time to time, the assisting teacher will offer a comment or two that rephrases a statement or restates a direction that the content area teacher previously offered. That’s not really team teaching either!
To my way of thinking, the one lead/one assist model has become a ‘default’ co-teaching model in many classrooms. Regardless of the learning target at hand or the nature of accommodations required, teachers seem comfortable working with a co-teaching partner using this model day after day. But, is that what we hoped for?
Is that what we imagined?
For practical purposes, I would argue that the one lead/one assist model is simply a push-in model and not the full inclusion model that we hoped for or imagined. In fact, I rarely see the assisting teacher collecting data or taking anecdotal records as the one lead/one assist model intends (Perez 2012).
In order to move away from the default model, we should improve instruction in our inclusion classrooms by using the array of models that best match a learning target and offer the best strategies based on students’ learning needs. So the next question is “How do we get there?”
The Blind Date
Have you ever been on a blind date? I have. Frankly, it wasn’t good. Just because two people are paired together by a third person doesn’t mean it is a marriage made in heaven. This analogy can be applied to co-teachers. Kluth and Causton suggest that administrators often arrange the co-teaching partnerships in isolation and then tell teachers about the pairings ‘blind date style’ (2016). Although the metaphor sounds somewhat humorous, the results of these pairings can get off to a rocky start. If the pair does not blend together well, they may miss the mark.
As a result of ‘blind date’ assignments, school leadership may not properly socialize co-teachers in order to set them up for success. More importantly, if the pair is not a natural fit, then one teacher will plan the lesson and deliver instruction while the other assists. Certainly, this is less than what we hoped for.
Collective Teacher Efficacy
If the partnership is going to work, teachers need to move beyond mere collaboration in order to form a true commitment to working together. My belief is that the magic of the partnership may be found in the teachers’ sense of collective efficacy (Hattie 2018). As Hattie states, it is a “shared belief that teachers possess the capabilities to produce the desired results.” Nurturing this shared belief system in themselves can make a difference.
Another step is for school administration to participate in carefully constructed plans to help build relationships. One place to start is with Drs. Kluth and Causton’s 30 Days to the Co-Taught Classroom (2016). This text is designed to help co-teachers think about how to build a strong relationship so that students benefit from the partnership. And, if they commit to the manual as the authors suggest, they can do so in 30 days. Perez’s The Co-Teaching Book of Lists can be helpful as well.
At our district, we created a two-year professional development plan around the following essential question: How can we inspire the co-teaching team to be truly collaborative and commit to their work in the inclusion classroom?
Our first step was to invite a group of skilled co-teachers to become part of a ‘Think Tank” of special education and regular educations teachers. We invited them to the table at the outset to determine needs, develop training modules, create a training manual and deliver effective and impactful training from colleague to colleague. Recently, we sent co-teaching pairs to the middle schools and high schools to see what classrooms look like across the divisions. We are breaking down silos and helping teachers see what truly happens at other levels. What emerged was an excellent foundation for our district, and one that helped to get our pairs off to a good start.
Over the course of the year, we offered follow up training and support. We even offered open door days, (pineapple days), where teachers could see others at work in their own buildings. These visitations, unfortunately, were of limited success. Teachers did not take the opportunity to visit others, plain and simple. As such, this was a great disappointment.
Regardless of how often we talk about the need for strong partnerships, the reality is there are some pairs that just don’t work. Obstacles, we find, are situational, coming in the way of scheduling difficulties and too many separate partnerships across a variety of disciplines. (Friend 2010). Despite the failure in some areas, we have seen success in others.
Let’s imagine co-teaching that works!
Both teachers ‘own’ their students, ‘own’ instructional planning, and ‘own’ delivery of instruction equally. Both teachers are conversant in the content, in the accommodations and in the modifications students need. Both teachers are crystal clear about their objectives, confident in their assessments, and highly selective in the co-teaching model they employ in order to get the best outcomes for their students. They believe in their students, and they believe in themselves.
Co-teachers should blend their expertise for the benefit of their students, and limit the use of the one lead/one assist model that results in limited impact. Administrators need to take time to socialize teachers into collaborative models of teaching. We need to avoid blind dates whenever possible.
Sounds simple? No, it’s complex. But if co-teaching is implemented at the level intended with parity & ownership in mind, we might … get what we imagine!