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.
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