Collaborative Team Teaching: Challenges and Rewards
What does CTT stand for? Some people think it's "creative thinkers thinking," or "cool teachers teaching." Others say it's "conflict tackling together." While CTT means all of the above, it stands for "collaborative team teaching" and refers to the idea of a co-teaching partnership.
Over the years, I have taught in seven co-teaching partnerships in a wide range of classroom environments. This is the path for many dually certified special education teachers in New York City as the push for inclusion continues to spread. My partnerships have led me on an emotional rollercoaster, yet through thick and thin, my belief in inclusion and collaborative team teaching has remained constant. Though we are making strides in the right direction, we are still in the process of identifying what works in co-teaching.
Having co-taught in first grade, second grade and sixth grade, I feel confident in saying that the greatest challenge is finding a working model for middle school co-teachers. While teaching first and second grade, I had one co-teacher for the entire school year. Whatever challenges came our way, we certainly didn't lack the time to work them out. During my time in sixth grade, I co-taught ELA, math, science and social studies. Teaching with four co-teachers leaves little time for co-planning or problem solving. Many middle schools use stronger co-teaching models where the special education counterpart teaches two subject areas or one subject and small groups, but even in those cases, co-teaching in middle school presents challenges.
What Makes a Strong Partnership?
Strong co-teachers provide seamless instruction for their students. Both teachers must come to a mutual agreement that they are equals in the classroom, and students must perceive both teachers as invaluable members of the classroom community. This can be particularly difficult for teachers who have taught alone for many years. Sometimes we don't realize how many decisions we make alone in our classroom on a daily basis. Making decisions as a team is key to a strong partnership, but it is often an adjustment for veteran teachers.
Strong co-teachers also eliminate the "mommy/daddy" issue in the beginning of the year through a series of open conversations. The "mommy/daddy" issue refers to when a student says something like ". . . but she said I could!" in order to manipulate a set of co-teachers. This happens quite often at first. Strong co-teachers do not always agree on everything, but they realize that the time for disagreement is not during class.
Finally, strong co-teachers solve problems together. In fact, that is the best part of co-teaching; you're never in it alone!
Benefits of Co-Teaching
Having two minds facilitate a classroom community allows students to connect with different personalities. Co-teaching allows more opportunities for small group and one-to-one learning, and stronger modeling during lessons. The co-planning process encourages two teachers to bounce ideas off each other in order to deliver the strongest, most creative lessons. I always enjoyed using my partnerships to model behavior and positive peer-to-peer interaction for students. When students experience their teachers working together, they understand the power of respect amongst peers.
Let's not forget the most important part: it is nice to have another adult in the room! One year, I taught with a co-teacher, a student teacher and four paraprofessionals. While things got a bit hectic at times, I loved the community we were able to develop in our class. Teaching is overwhelming, but co-teaching can provide a support system so that we can do our jobs, yet remember to have fun along the way.
Common Challenges of Co-Teaching
Co-teaching has its benefits, but be sure to understand that it has its challenges as well. The most common complaint I've heard from colleagues in co-teaching partnerships is that it is difficult to work with someone whose teaching style and philosophy differ from your own. In my own experience, success is less dependent on similar philosophies and more dependent on an open mind and willingness to compromise. If you are in a co-teaching partnership with someone who views learning and teaching differently, make sure to talk about it. Look at it as a chance to widen the scope of your practice by incorporating multiple styles into your teaching.
Another common challenge is in regards to the inequality that often forms in the classroom. Special education teachers often struggle to present themselves as equals to their students, and this becomes even more evident in the middle school setting. Elementary co-teachers share a classroom all day, but a middle school special education teacher can feel like a guest in a general education teacher's space. It is crucial to have conversations with your co-teacher surrounding these issues. Setting up the classroom with your co-teacher in September can help build a strong foundation for an equal partnership. Practicing a variety of co-teaching models also helps foster equality.
A challenge that followed me through many of my partnerships was the issue of grading. Do you grade all students together? Does the special education teacher grade all students with IEPs? Does the general education teacher truly understand the purpose and implications of an IEP? These are all important questions to ask. I have found that it works best when you discuss this issue at the beginning of the year. While more time-consuming, grading all students together as co-teachers is the most fair and consistent way to grade. Grading together allows the special education teacher to share his or her expertise in IEP goals with the general education teacher, and it allows the general education teacher to weigh in on IEP goals for his or her students.
Five Tips to Becoming a Strong Co-Teacher
- Say this mantra: "All students are our students."
- Come to planning meetings prepared (with an agenda) to maximize co-planning time.
- If you feel something, say something! Open communication is the key to a successful partnership.
- Realize that the success of your class depends on the strength of your co-teaching relationship.
- Use a variety of co-teaching models to help maintain equality.