We often teach the way we were taught. When I became a language specialist, I parroted the well-meaning intentions of my teachers by pulling multilingual learners (MLs) out of their classes to receive dedicated English instruction. But impact and intention are two different things. Pulling MLs out resulted in their being labeled as “other” by their classmates and receiving a watered-down curriculum.
Now I have come to realize that co-teaching is a more equitable model, where MLs can remain in the class with their peers to receive grade-level instruction from both the content or homeroom teacher and the language specialist. When I talk to teachers about the benefits of co-teaching for MLs and as a form of excellent professional learning, they often ask, what if the co-teacher is hesitant to collaborate?
To respond, I always share renowned education advisor Sir Ken Robinson’s quote: “Farmers and gardeners know you cannot make a plant grow.... The plant grows itself. What you do is provide the conditions for growth.” Likewise, our job is not to make our colleagues work with us but to create the conditions where they want to work with us.
More important than the strategies we offer and our understanding of language is how we make our colleagues feel when we collaborate with them. Fortunately, there are specific things we can do to create the optional conditions for dynamic co-teaching relationships to thrive.
3 Ways to Strengthen Co-teaching Relationships
1. Build on ideas. To win our colleagues’ trust, build on their ideas instead of rejecting them and offering new ones. Rejecting a colleague’s idea is the fastest road toward a dead end in a relationship. For example, your colleague wants students to write an essay. Support their idea and offer to work with them to incorporate scaffolds such as drafting an outline to guide students’ essays.
In this example, we accept and recognize our colleague’s goal of having students write an essay. By offering to produce an outline for the MLs, we honor our colleague’s original idea while still providing valuable support to those students who need it. The colleague leaves the session with their confidence intact, the MLs feel successful, and you are able to extend your expertise.
2. Bridge the need. When teachers don’t have a chance to co-plan ahead, we can still help students engaged in a learning task. I offer a framework for serving students without co-planning. The framework is as follows:
- Analyze what teachers want students to do.
- Identify the language that students need to be successful on the task.
- Offer the support needed.
This framework helps our colleagues see that we are instructional leaders capable of supporting students’ achievement. Our colleagues are more likely to work with us because they see that we are partnering with them to have students achieve a goal set by the teacher.
Let’s return to the essay example. You know that the teacher wants students to write an essay. You read the instructions and realize that it’s a cause-and-effect essay. You then bring a small group of students together and help them identify the causes. This spontaneous co-teaching move serves both the students and the content teacher. Each time we do this, we intentionally sow a seed of trust that nurtures the relationship.
3. Start with co-planning. Co-teaching is not the only way to collaborate. We can also co-plan with our colleagues. This is often an easier, more accessible place to start our co-teaching journey. For those unfamiliar with co-teaching, having another teacher in the room can make the collaboration feel like an evaluation. To ease into co-teaching, start with co-planning to do such things as these:
- Draft content and language objectives
- Scaffold teaching materials
- Agree on the roles and responsibilities
- Differentiate assignments and learning experiences
For example, you and your colleague can look at the essay before giving it to students. You can work together to write clear instructions, incorporate prompts to guide students’ thinking, and weave in sentence starters and frames to structure the language.
Co-teaching is about realizing that we are striving for the same goal: student success. Each of us must contribute our expertise so that students succeed. However, our expertise requires the optimal conditions for them to blossom. We cannot simply wish our colleagues were more willing to collaborate. We must reflect on how we are nurturing trust and cultivating interests in colleagues to invest in the co-teaching relationship.