George Lucas Educational Foundation
Classroom Management

Strategies for Creating an Effective Co-teaching Relationship

When general and special education teachers collaborate as equals, their students benefit.

May 13, 2024
SolStock / iStock

Throughout my career as a special education teacher, I’ve had many opportunities to co-teach in collaborative classrooms. Some of these experiences were positive, others more challenging. With the ever-increasing demands of today’s classrooms, many school districts are relying on co-teaching to meet the needs of all learners. Yet teachers aren’t often trained in co-facilitation. 

It’s important to fill this gap. Below, I offer insights on how to begin.

Treat Each Other as Equal Partners

In my view, the most important element of a successful, inclusive classroom is parity. For collaborative teaching to be effective, both teachers should be viewed as equals. 

Often, a special education teacher co-teaches in a general education classroom. When entering the room, both teachers should be viewed just as that—the teachers.  Too many times, as a special education teacher, I’ve walked into a classroom and encountered the assumption that I was only there to work with students with special needs. 

But for classrooms to be most effective, every person in the learning community, from teachers, to paraprofessionals to students, must view co-teachers as equal entities there to work with all students. When a teacher is viewed as “less than” a teacher, they have a lesser impact in the classroom.   

For example, I once co-taught fifth-grade social studies. On my inaugural day in the district, I walked into the room, and six heads turned; these students had not met me yet, but they walked to the back of the room and sat at a table where I was sitting. I looked at them and asked, “What are you doing?” “Social studies,” they replied.  I sent them back to their desks. My co-teacher stopped what she was doing and gave me a questioning look, as if to say, “What’re they doing?” It was obvious that their previous co-teachers required students with special needs to work with the special education teacher in the back of a regular education classroom. They were separating themselves by rote.  

For teachers, it can be difficult to find a common planning time. However, co-teachers must work together to find a way to communicate—whether via email, text, meeting before or after school, or having phone conversations. Having a consistent flow of information and ideas enhances parity. In addition to instructional planning and discussing roles and responsibilities for each lesson, you can share information about specific students, types of disabilities and their impact on student performance, or content gaps you can work to strengthen together.

Share Responsibilities

I think back to my first teaching position, when the concept of co-teaching was relatively new. In a co-taught elementary science class, I was told by my counterpart that as the special education teacher, I was expected to sit in the classroom, and if the science teacher needed help (such as with handing out materials) or a student demonstrated inappropriate behaviors, I would get the nod to step in.   

But the strategy above—treating both teachers equally—means this model is inappropriate. Both teachers should assume that the class is “our” class and never “my/your class.” They should both have responsibility for preparing lessons, planning activities, creating assessments, and teaching. 

Be mindful that neither teacher is the primary source of instruction while the other offers support. If one teacher is always teaching the main lesson, the second is seen as a helper and not viewed equally by students (or colleagues). Instead, work with your co-teacher to devise a plan for frequently switching roles and responsibilities.  

When both teachers are teaching, learning improves. Content knowledge, teaching strategies, assessments, classroom management—all are doubled. Teachers grow and learn from each other, improving the quality of the educational experience for all students in the room.

Co-Own Accountability

Another way to create parity is ensuring that both teachers feel responsible for all students’ outcomes. Share the goal of student learning and achievement. 

In the scenarios above, it was clear that the expectation was for one teacher to be concerned with the general classroom population, while the other was expected to work only with certain students. This segregates some students within their own classroom and wastes resources.   

No matter which co-teaching model you choose, make it a practice for both teachers to work with all students, and have student success at the forefront of the strategies you employ. For example, rather than referring to, say, “Mr. Vogel’s students” during pull-out subjects or small group activities, be sure that all students interact with both teachers and don’t feel grouped in any particular way.

Share Knowledge

Co-teaching presents powerful opportunities to learn from colleagues—deepening their understandings of disabilities and how they affect student performance, for example, or filling in content gaps to strengthen the teaching experience.  

I was a high school learning support instructor for a portion of my career. I was assigned to co-teach an algebra class. I was completely intimidated by the content. That year, we worked with a student diagnosed with cerebral palsy who used a wheelchair for mobility. The algebra teacher also seemed intimidated by creating an inclusive learning space. Working together, we were able to grow professionally, and all students benefited.  

Co-teaching, when done collaboratively, can be an amazingly powerful tool in today’s schooling environments. When both teachers are viewed as equal entities, the success of the classroom will be evident.

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  • Special Education
  • Teacher Collaboration

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