Co-teaching guru Anne Beninghof once gave a conference hall of trainers-to-be the following piece of advice: “The way a team decides to decide is the most important decision it makes.” Being honest, the sentence initially stuck partly because it's fun to say out loud. (Go ahead, give it a shot.) Now, this phrase is one of my go-to pieces of advice because I’ve seen the effects of both pre-planning and poor planning on co-taught classes.
When I visit co-taught classrooms, I notice telltale signs of effective planning. Teachers are both fully present in the lesson, moving fluidly between leading and supporting roles. Students respond equally well to directions given by both teachers. Well-designed lessons meet the students’ needs, so they're engaged.
These classrooms don’t reach this level by chance. They are intentionally designed through focused planning. To paraphrase Beninghof, these teams decided how to decide, and that decision made the difference.
Three Decisions to Make with Your Co-Teacher
What is your shared vision for your co-taught class?
Think about the strengths each of you brings to the table and decide how to structure your class so that you both can shine. I observed in a secondary classroom with a math teacher and a special education teacher. Their shared vision was that the students would learn to self-monitor their learning processes, draw on strategies to persevere through challenges, and advocate effectively when they were stuck. By learning these skills, the students would be able to learn the math content at deeper levels. With this vision in mind, the co-teachers identified that the math teacher would take the lead in delivering the math content; the special education teacher would focus on the metacognitive aspects of the lessons. When I visited the class, I could see how this decision played out: the math teacher introduced a new concept while the special education teacher modeled how to ask questions. As the lesson progressed, students began to form and ask their own questions. Students left feeling like they understood the new concept because they were empowered to ask questions that were meaningful and timely. Both teachers’ instructional goals were met.
What routines and procedures will you have?
I liken this to the difference between setting up a shared space together and inviting a guest to come to your space. When you set something up together, you both know where things belong, and you can both easily retrieve things. When you're a guest in someone’s space, you have to ask for permission and directions (e.g. Is it alright if I use the blahblahblah? Where do you keep it? ). In the middle of a lesson, it is disruptive and wastes time if the guest teacher has to wait for the classroom owner to reach a good stopping point to ask for help with basic management details. There is a direct correlation here: the more detailed discussions about routines and procedures at the beginning of the partnership, the more smoothly the class can run later. It is worth taking time to discuss everything from how students sharpen pencils to how to connect with parents.
How will you keep each other on track?
Let's be honest. Life happens. We may have had grand plans for our vision in August, but we got busy and now it's March. This decision is like having an “emergency preparedness plan”—a way to reset if the need arises, but also having a monitoring plan in place to prevent disaster. I recommend having three plans in place:
Here are a couple tips to help you stick to your plan. When you meet regularly for co-planning, plan first. Talk about individual students last. If you start your planning sessions by telling stories or sharing concerns about individual students, you’ll go down a rabbit hole of conversation and you’ll run out of time. The next tip? Tell your co-teacher how to bring up concerns. Try this sentence frame: If you're feeling like I’m falling away from our shared vision, you can let me know by . I promise that when I hear this from you, I will .
Take the time to decide: it's worth the investment. Happy co-teaching!
If you’d like more information about co-teaching, check out Anne Beninghof’s website, Ideas for Educators. Here’s the article "Co-teaching Isn't Taking Turns, It's Teaching Together" to get you started.
If you teach in Rochester Public Schools you have access to an invaluable tool: an Instructional Coach. Each of our schools has at least a 0.5 Instructional Coach and a designated Special Education Coach. The reason that our district has invested in this resource is summarized by the table below:
It is clear that coaching is the method of training that has the greatest impact on outcomes. Here are some of the unique ways that teachers are using Instructional Coaches in the RPS district:
This post brought to you by Heather Willman, APOSA overseeing Secondary Curriculum and Instructional Coaching
If your college education was anything like mine, your preparation for teaching involved little to no discussion about how to work collaboratively with a paraprofessional assigned to work with students in your mainstream classroom. In part it is because of this lack of training that in my second year of teaching, when I first had a para assigned to my room, that I had no idea what to do with him. He was there to help ensure that three EBD students stayed on task and behaved appropriately; for this reason, I just had him sit in the back of the room and watch his three EBD students. Yep, he just sat there... He sat there for about a month, and then he stopped me after class one day.
"Heather, I feel like all I do in your class is just sit and wait for behavior issues. Are there other things I could do to help?" he asked.
Yes, I thought, there are tons of things you can do to help. But where do I start? What is he allowed to do? I thought he could only help those three EBD kids...
So, I asked him, "Tony, what kinds of things would you like to do?"
Tony's honesty, combined with my simple follow-up question, began a collaborative relationship that I will never forget. He took small groups of students who were struggling with a task out into the hallway and worked with them one-on-one, he jumped into class discussions to provide perspectives that I did not have; he monitored students while they watched a film or did in-class reading so that I could have one-on-one discussions with students about missing work. We developed systems so that Tony could come in to the room at the start of the hour and know instantly what I was planning do that day and how he could help. We learned what made the other tick and soon became a well-oiled machine. Sure, there were times when Tony had to pause and deal with one of his three EBD students, but most of the time we worked together in a way that benefited all students, not just his three.
This experience with Tony led me to try and recreate it with other paras in the years that followed. After some trial and error, I finally stumbled upon a four part system that worked well for me and those paras with whom I collaborated.
A Shift in Perspective
I first needed to shift my own perspective. During class periods when a para was present, it was no longer my classroom--it was ours. We were working together on a shared focus: together we wanted to ensure that all students were successful. I just knew that I had to do the planning, or at least the bulk of it, because paras worked in multiple rooms with multiple teachers and had no prep period: by default, that made me the lead teacher, but it didn't mean a para couldn't assist. We needed to be a team, and that meant I had to see each para as an asset to my class as a whole, not just to the few students they served.
In order to work collaboratively, you need to have a way to communicate your vision and preferences with your paras while also providing a way for them to communicate the same with you. This is complicated by the fact that you likely share no open time together, so one-on-one communication is often out of the picture unless you can squeeze it in during the class hour. Therefore, you have to devise a way to communicate that works for you both. For me, this meant creating a survey that I would have paras complete at the start of a semester (shown and attached below): it opened the door toward clear communication.
Going hand-in-hand with communication is having a clear system for working together. For me, that meant having a "Para Box" on the back counter of my classroom that a para would check at the start of the period. Here I kept the agenda for the day with notes regarding what my para could do to assist, a stack of sticky notes so he could easily communicate concerns to me mid-period without having to verbally interrupt me, a notebook where he could leave notes at the end of the hour regarding things I needed to be aware of or ideas for the next day, and supplies that would likely be needed during the hour. Of course, the "Para Box" is not the only possible system--I have colleagues who send an email to their paras at the start of each day, who use a clipboard as a means to share plans and ideas, or who have a designated time and place during the class period where they verbally touch base about the class period. Any system, as long as you have one and it works for both you and your para, will help add clarity and enhance productivity.
Get to know each other
In the past when I struggled with a certain paraprofessional, it was often a result of clashing personalities. In these situations in particular, I found it ideal to shed a little light on what made each of us tick. There are many free, easy-to-take, online personality tests that can help a teacher and para better understand each other: I would occasionally use these with my paras. Each of us would take the survey and then share our result; this often opened up a dialogue between us that had been otherwise stilted. (If you wish to try it, my personal favorites are the DIRT Temperament Survey and the 16 Personalities self-assessment.)
This four part system helped me to collaborate with paraprofessionals over the past 17 years: by working together we bolstered student success. Prior to working together--during the month I just had Tony sit in the back of my classroom--my students weren't gaining much, if anything, from having a para in the room. Not to mention the fact that Tony was underutilized, often bored, and very unsure of his role.
Should you have any questions about how to collaborate more with your paras, please do not hesitate to reach out to me for more ideas and resources.
This post brought to you by Heather Lyke, Secondary Implementation Associate
In my role as a Library Media Specialist, I have the privilege of spending time in many different classes and collaborating with teachers in a variety of ways. In my position, collaborative teaching is based on specific needs in a class or department, rather than on the stipulations of an assignment or master schedule. For instance, a teacher might approach me to co-teach a lesson on using and citing sources in academic writing; to collaborate on integrating information literacy skills into a new unit; or to work intensively with a few students on strategies for reading nonfiction. Although I don’t consider myself an expert on the subject of collaborative teaching, it is a skill which I have the opportunity to exercise frequently and in which I’ve done some reading and research.
In this post, I will use “collaborative teaching” and “co-teaching” more or less interchangeably. By these terms, I mean coordinated instruction that is done by two or more educators simultaneously with a given group of students. In some cases, co-teaching is done by a general education teacher and a special education teacher, but the practice is much more far-reaching and adaptable.
There are many benefits to collaborative teaching, some of which you may have encountered in your own experience. Anne Beninghof, the author of Co-Teaching That Works: Structures and Strategies for Maximizing Student Learning, writes that benefits for students include improved instruction, enhanced differentiation, and increased access to teacher support. Not to be overlooked is the benefit to teachers that Beninghof emphasizes: professional growth (10-13).
In every school community, there are many people with skills and knowledge different from our own. Through collaborative teaching partnerships, we can tap into these resources and provide our students with deeper and richer learning experiences. Possible co-teaching partners might include: instructional technology specialists, library media specialists, gifted and talented specialists, literacy specialists, instructional coaches, counselors, social workers, success coaches, EL teachers, special education teachers, other general education teachers, minority liaisons, administrators, paraprofessionals, parents or community members, or even students. If you find yourself struggling with an instructional dilemma or content snafu, or are just looking for a new teaching experience, consider reaching out to one of these individuals in your school community.
Collaborative Teaching Models
There are numerous models to depict the array of collaborative teaching tactics. Beninghof describes nine different models for co-teaching in her book, detailing pros and cons for each. However, in the interest of simplicity (and brevity!), I tend to refer most often to the six approaches described by Marilyn Friend in her book Co-Teach! A Handbook for Creating and Sustaining Effective Classroom Partnerships in Inclusive Schools. These models are:
One Teach, One Observe
In this practice, one instructor observes the goings-on of the classroom and collects data either formally or informally on a pre-arranged area of focus. The roles may also reverse at some agreed-upon point. It is key that the two teachers debrief following the lesson. This tactic is often used in instructional coaching practice, but does not have to be exclusive to this relationship. Perhaps creating an opportunity for an EL teacher or technology integrationist to observe your lesson would assist in devising new ways to reach your students.
In this practice, each instructor presents different content to a smaller group of students. Additional stations may have students working individually or in small groups. The groups may rotate to each station or the stations may be devised to present differentiated instruction to specific groups of students. Although stations may occur within the same classroom, an alternate version is to have spaces designated in several places in the building (such as in the classroom and the Library Media Center). I’ve had success with teaching an isolated research skill like note-taking as an intervention or extension activity for students selected based on their point of need.
With parallel teaching, both instructors simultaneously present the same material to a divided portion of the class. This model may be selected in order to differentiate instruction, to facilitate a small-group discussion, or to provide students with more focused attention from a teacher.
This model features a small group of students working with one teacher while the other instructor teaches the majority of the class. This style of co-teaching can create scenarios in which students can catch up on missed content, receive supplemental instruction, and receive highly focused customization. This model is commonly employed with various specialists as they call pull out students for targeted work on academic, behavioral, or social skills
This approach is often considered to be the most challenging to implement, as it involves wholly shared responsibilities for planning, teaching, re-teaching, and assessing. This model embraces the diversity of skills and aptitudes brought by each instructor, while ensuring each has opportunity to shine. Successful implementation of this model results in a classroom and lesson that are shared equally between two individuals.
One Teach, One Assist
In this model, there is a clear lead teacher whose instruction is supplemented by the expertise of another. Often this approach results in one teacher leading the lesson while the second instructor circles the classroom to provide clarification and support, as needed. Sometimes I am invited into this model when a teacher feels a lack of confidence in their knowledge of a particular topic (such as the recent changes to the MLA citation style and handbook).
These six models do not exist in silos, and teachers may move among several different approaches in a given unit, week, or even in a single lesson. The selection of one co-teaching model over another can be based on the skills or personalities of the teachers involved; the time available for planning and implementing the lesson; and the specific needs of the students. Ideally, collaborators consider all of these elements before selecting instructional strategies.
Challenges and Opportunities
Collaborative teaching can create deep learning experiences for students, but I’ve found that it seldom requires less planning time than developing a lesson in isolation. However, my most rewarding teaching experiences are those in which I had the opportunity to collaborate deeply with a colleague who possessed very different skills and knowledge than I. Together, we planned, created, and delivered material that neither of us could have created individually. If you find yourself overwhelmed by the prospect of co-teaching, perhaps dip your toe in by approaching a trusted colleague and brainstorming new ways to approach a single objective or lesson.
In Interactions: Collaboration Skill for School Professionals, Marilyn Friend and Lynne Cook emphasize that the strong collaboration is voluntary, based on mutual goals, and dependent upon shared responsibility and strong communication (6-11). Above all, collaborators should share a desire to improve the learning experience for their students. With this as the starting place, flexibility and cooperation flow naturally, and meaningful student learning abounds.
This post brought to you by Ellen Range, Media Specialist at Century High School
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