Top Co-teaching Tips

If you know how important inclusion is for students, both those with disabilities and those without, you know co-teaching is an essential model for schools.  It has emerged as a powerful strategy that celebrates collaboration, diversity, and the collective expertise of educators. This approach involves two or more teachers working together in the same classroom to create an inclusive and effective learning environment. If you have co-taught before or just are starting this journey, this blog post is your comprehensive guide. We’ll explore the benefits of co-teaching, outline practical steps to get started, and offer insights into fostering a successful and harmonious co-teaching partnership.

Understanding the Power of Co-Teaching

Co-teaching brings together educators with diverse skill sets, backgrounds, and areas of expertise. One is the certified general education teacher and the other is the special education teacher.  The core premise is simple yet profound: by combining their strengths, co-teachers can provide a more personalized and inclusive educational experience for all students. Whether you’re an experienced educator or new to the concept, co-teaching can offer a wealth of benefits for both educators and students.   However, it can be challenging at times as well.  To have an effective co-teaching model, it will take time from the start to build the foundation between the two of you before even working with students.

Step 1: Co-Teacher Connection – Forming a Synergistic Duo

1. Forging a Co-Teaching Bond: Embark on the co-teaching journey by finding a co-teacher whose teaching style harmonizes with yours. This first step involves identifying a partner who resonates with your educational philosophy and brings a unique perspective to the co-teaching dynamic.  Now this is not something that is going to be able to happen depending on your school and principal.   Many times, the principal assigns the co-teaching team based on what they think is best.  

Even if this is the case for you, try talking to your principal about specific co-teachers that either would or would not make a good fit for you and why.  There may be social dynamics they do not even know about and will appreciate the feedback you give them.

2. Open Communication: Establish clear lines of communication with your co-teacher. Regular meetings and open dialogue set the stage for effective planning, problem-solving, and sharing insights. This starts day one. Be clear on your philosophies and goals while also asking about theirs. Remember, you are going to be spending a lot of time with this person, so be sure to ask questions about them as a person- not just a teacher.  

You can lay the groundwork for open communication by asking your co-teacher how they view the co-teaching model. if they are okay with texting outside of school hours, and what some of their philosophies are.  It is okay not to agree- the goal is to create open lines of communication!

3. Identify Strengths: Recognize each other’s strengths and areas of expertise. This knowledge allows you to allocate tasks effectively and make the most of your collective abilities. Start by writing them down! Most times, general education teachers are the experts in the curriculum.  They more often than not stay in the same grade where the special education teacher may move.  The special educator is an expert in all things accommodations, modifications, finding adapted instructional materials. and  IEP paperwork etc. 

However, your discussions about strengths can go beyond this.  Maybe one of you loves to teach math.  If this is the case, maybe that educator can take the lead on teaching that subject when you are team teaching.

Step 2: Aligning Goals and Expectations

1. Shared Vision: Define a shared vision for the co-teaching experience. Discuss your goals, aspirations, and what you hope to achieve for your students. Now these may not be exactly the same, but try to come to a consensus so you can agree and work towards the same goal. This shared vision will help you meet the needs of all of students.

2. Expectation Setting: Clarify roles and responsibilities. Define who will take the lead in different aspects of teaching, how you’ll address challenges, and how assessment and grading will be handled. Get down to the nitty gritty- who takes the lead on behavior challenges? Who is taking IEP data? It is also important as a special education teacher to explain that there may be times that you have to do additional testing or have additional meetings and you may be pulled from the classroom.

3. Flexibility: Embrace flexibility in your roles. Co-teaching often involves a fluid exchange of responsibilities based on student needs and lesson objectives. This takes time.  It can be awkward to get up in from of students and teach with another adult.  Be sure to try out the various types of co-teaching model such as parallel teaching, station teaching, or alternative teaching to name a few.

Step 3: Planning and Designing Co-Taught Lessons

1. Co-Planning: Collaborate to plan lessons, incorporating each teacher’s expertise. Develop a shared understanding of the content, instructional strategies, and learning outcomes.  Try to come up with a shared planner.  Google docs can be very helpful for this.  This makes it clear what will be taught when and can be referred back to as often as needed.  Remember, the general educator will have a better sense of the scope and sequence of the lessons and units but the sped teacher brings the knowledge of accommodations and modifications.  Be sure to request that you have a common planning time- this is a crucial piece to making co-teaching work. This can take up much time when trying to meet if you do not have a common planning time.

Even if one teacher is the more experienced teacher, both teacher bring value and expertise to the table.  Newer teachers come with fresh ideas and typically are more fluent in technology which can be a huge support to all students! 

2. Differentiation: Utilize your co-teaching partnership to differentiate instruction effectively. Address the diverse needs of students by offering a variety of teaching methods and approaches. Differentiation does not have to just be for the students with IEPs, and shouldn’t.  Truly inclusive classrooms provide differentiation for any student who needs it- regardless of them requiring and IEP. That means both teachers should and can work with all students! 

3. Accommodation and Modification: Identify students who may require accommodations or modifications. Develop strategies to support their learning and participation. Many times this will be identifying on the IEP.  It should be part of the planning process how each lesson will include these in the classroom setting. The physical space can be a challenge for many co-teaching teams, but many times getting creative in how the space is used can be helpful with providing these necessary supports.

Step 4: Establishing Classroom Management Strategies

1. Consistency: Establish consistent rules and routines in the classroom. This unified approach creates a sense of stability for students and fosters a cohesive learning environment. This means that the co-teaching pair needs to discuss the rules and routines prior to teaching the students.  For example, if one classroom teacher wants students to always ask before using the restroom and the other does not mind if they go and use it themselves, this can lead to both frustration in the adults and possible problem behaviors with the students.

2. Communication with Students: Clearly communicate the co-teaching partnership to your students. Emphasize the collaborative nature of the approach and the benefits it brings to their learning. Refer to all adults in the classroom as the teacher. Many times co-teaching rooms have other adults such as teaching assistants or related service providers.  It is important to refer to all adults as teachers so there is not confusion or disrespect by students.

3. Conflict Resolution: Anticipate that disagreements may arise- it is inevitable. Establish a process for resolving conflicts respectfully and professionally to maintain a positive co-teaching environment. Try to talk about all of these head on- even if it is uncomfortable for you.  If you are constantly pretending things are not bothering you, it will make for a long school year and probably not an enjoyable one.

Step 5: Reflect and Adapt

1. Ongoing Reflection: Regularly reflect on your co-teaching experiences. Discuss what’s working well and where there’s room for improvement. Adapt your strategies based on these reflections. Ask yourselves, are we meeting the needs of all students or do we need to adjust? Is there a way we can teach better to further increase student achievement? 
2. Feedback: Provide constructive feedback to your co-teacher and encourage them to do the same. This feedback loop promotes growth and continuous improvement. Although it is powerful in making a change for the better in your own teaching practice, it is probably going to be uncomfortable to do at first.

Benefits of Co-Teaching

1. Enhanced Student Learning: Co-teaching offers a diverse range of instructional strategies that cater to various learning styles and needs, enhancing overall student learning. It is proven that through effective co-teaching strategies, all students will see more growth in a co-teaching classroom than a general education classroom alone.  This is due to the fact that there are more adults, smaller group sizes, and the ability to differentiate!

2. Professional Growth: Collaborating with another educator exposes you to new teaching methods, approaches, and perspectives, fostering your professional development. No matter your role in the co-teaching relationship, you are going to learn new little strategies from your partner. Embrace those- and be sure to tell your partner when you learn from them!
3. Improved Classroom Management: Co-teachers can manage classroom dynamics more effectively, providing timely support and guidance to students. Issues can be resolved faster and more preventative measures can be done.

Co-teaching is a journey that embraces collaboration, diversity, and the shared goal of providing an exceptional educational experience. By building a foundation of communication, aligning goals, designing lessons, establishing classroom management strategies, and fostering continuous reflection, you can create a co-teaching partnership that benefits both educators and students alike. 

As you embark on this journey, remember that the key to successful co-teaching lies in open communication, mutual respect, and a commitment to creating a dynamic and inclusive classroom environment.

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