“Oh, that’s one of your students, isn’t it”? Even typing that sentence out, I cringe a little—but I cringe even more when I hear it. As a special education teacher, whose students tend to need more support and supervision, I understand the struggle that comes with working with students who have learning disabilities. Yet when I hear that question from a colleague, it makes me wonder, “Why are we treating them like my students or your students? Why do we not work as a team when the success of all students is ultimately our responsibility?”
At the start of this year, I decided to change a few things with one of my co-teachers, and we came up with a few simple ideas that have created very positive impacts in our classroom.
3 Strategies for Better Co-teaching
1. We work as a team and make sure our students know it: Working together is a vital part of being a successful co-teaching team. One way to further increase the effectiveness is to plan less and grade our students’ growth together. Now, this sounds like extra work for the special education teacher who also has other students on their caseload and needs to keep track of their specific data, but finding the time to work as a planning and evaluative team will pay off for all students in the room.
As we grade together, we know students’ struggles and successes precisely. This makes our co-planning sessions efficient and effective, and we can co-create the success criteria we want to see our students achieve.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but I feel it has had one of the most significant impacts on how our co-teaching classroom has functioned. Since the start of the year, both my co-teacher and I have expressed that we are both the teacher for the room. We constantly reinforce that idea throughout the week as we are equally teaching together. Even before the students were in our room, we would complete home visits together. Throughout our mini-lessons, we talk about how we are planning their learning together and decide as a team what their next steps and goals should be.
2. We make sure we work with all groups of students: Working with all of the students in the room is one of the fundamental reasons co-teaching is an effective teaching practice. One flaw I have seen is that as teachers we gravitate toward certain groups more. My co-teacher and I decided to plan specifically to see all students throughout the lesson, pulling different students constantly.
There are multiple benefits to this. The first is that you can see all of the students in the room at some point in time. That way, you know how all of the students are doing as they are mastering the content. The second is that neither teacher gets burned out when working with more challenging students. This works both ways. Just as teachers get frustrated, students’ patience can wear thin with their teachers. Lastly, each teacher has a chance to teach to their strengths. This allows the students to hear the lesson from different viewpoints, increasing their odds of finding a method that resonates. While planning together, you can devise specific groups that each teacher will work with. This gives students a chance to see the same problem solved multiple ways.
Ultimately, the goal is for both teachers to be working with all students, and if a stranger walked into the room, they would not be able to tell the general education teacher from the special education teacher, or the gen ed students from the special ed students.
3. We equally hand out positive reinforcement and redirect negative behavior: In many rooms that I have been in, the teacher and I have shared correcting negative behaviors but have not shared rewarding students for positive behaviors. It can be draining always having to play the bad guy with your students.
What my co-teacher and I have done in our room is intentionally share the responsibility of both rewards and consequences. We share the load of correcting behaviors and having those difficult conversations with students. We also share handing out prizes and reward lunches with the students we see being leaders in the classroom. This includes meeting with parents, whether that is to discuss positive behaviors or to address concerns.
The students know that either of us can hand out positive rewards as well as correct negative behavior. Usually when a student is having an exceptionally difficult day, we will tell them that we as teachers need to talk about their next steps together so that we are on the same page. This has proved helpful to the room because if one of us is absent or stuck in a meeting, the behavioral expectations remain constant.
These simple co-teaching changes may seem like minor things to incorporate into your classroom, but they will create a significant difference in how the students interact with both adults and one another. Co-teaching builds a team mentality, not only with the teachers but also with the students in the room. It’s not always perfect, as there are days that we as co-teachers step on each other’s toes, but what we have seen is that when we work as a team for our students, the return from them is great.
These changes need to be implemented purposefully and consistently to see the difference with your students. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but when you and your co-teacher have a mindset to help all students in the classroom, you’re on the right track.