Successful Co-Teaching

need to know

By Wendy Murawski, Ph.D.

Special educators need to step up and advocate for co-teaching.  Learn what successful co-teaching looks like, what administrators need to do to support co-teaching, and how you can help your administrator understand the benefits of having two teachers in the classroom, working together for the benefit of all their students.

Visualize the prototypical classroom of the 1950’s.

   two adults with paper in classroom

Do you picture the school marm up front holding her ruler as she looks down rows of homogenous students while they memorize their lists of facts? Great.

Now take your mental eraser and replace the homogeneous faces of the students with an extremely diverse group of students with and without disabilities.

Replace the rows with small groups and replace the ruler with an iPad linked to the SmartBoard.

Replace the list of facts with a UDL activity linked to college and career-ready standards.

Last but not least, put a smile on that school marm’s face and put another educator in the room, ready to teach with her. Now you have the classroom of today!

Today’s teachers are contending with changes to curriculum and the introduction of new standards, with changes to instruction and the infusion of more technology, and changes to classroom make-up with the embracing of inclusive education.

How do we do it all alone? We don’t. We collaborate! In fact, in many cases, we co-teach.

Co-teaching isn’t new, but we are seeing an increase nationally – and even internationally – in inclusive classrooms where two or more professionals work in the same environment to co-plan, co-instruct, and co-assess a group of learners .

What successful co-teaching looks like

Everyone knows that it takes more than just content knowledge to really teach well; teachers have to plan, implement their ideas with kids in the classroom, and then evaluate themselves and the students to see if it went well.

The same holds true for co-teaching. Co-teaching cannot be successful if two teachers are just plunked down in the same room with no professional development to help them with expectations, no time to help them with planning, and no rapport to help them with their day-to-day efforts. So what does it take to be successful?

In a nutshell, co-teaching is like a marriage.  It’s two adults who are working together to nurture a group of children. They know the kids will try to play parent against parent, they know they shouldn’t criticize their partner in front of the children, and they know communication is the most important component for any good marriage.

The groundwork for co-teaching

Unfortunately, many schools are undertaking co-teaching without putting the important components into place for success. They are putting two teachers in the room in an “arranged” marriage, with no time for teachers to get to know one another, to learn how to co-teach, and to establish norms, goals, and expectations that both can embrace.

Administrators who want to increase the chances of co-teaching being successful need to:

  • Provide professional development for all faculty regarding what co-teaching is and is not.
  • Allow for teachers to volunteer to co-teach and have a voice in their partnerships.
  • Create a schedule that ensures there is time for common planning and that teachers do not have too many partners.
  • Continually observe and provide feedback to help co-teachers grow as teams.

Nationally, we are finding that many schools are having similar issues related to co-teaching. Teachers are thrown together, have multiple partners, and no planning time. As a result, the interactions in the classroom are often not that of two equals who have systematically planned what they are going to do to meet the diverse needs of learners.

Instead, the classroom looks much like that of a typical general education classroom, with the general educator doing direct instruction and the special educator along in a supporting role, occasionally interjecting ideas or questions. Calling this “one teach, one support” does not make it true co-teaching. More importantly, the research has found that it also does not result in changed outcomes for students (Murawski & Goodwin, 2014).

Importance of UDL

To change outcomes for students, we also need to change input. Doing the same thing, just with another adult physically present in the room, doesn’t make those changes. That’s where Universal design for learning (UDL) comes in to proactively help all learners, instead of waiting for issues to arise and be reactively addressed during class time.

Teachers who plan universally designed lessons are ensuring that students have multiple means of representation (input), engagement (activity), and expression (output) (CAST, 2013).   Many resources, ideas, and more descriptions on UDL can be found at www.cast.org.

Differentiation is the concept that students learn differently and thus may need to have different adaptations or accommodations to help them be successful (Tomlinson et al., 2003). Most special educators are extremely familiar with the phrase “Fair does not mean equal. Fair means you get what you need.” (Lavoie, 1990).  Both UDL and differentiation are concepts that a special educator can and should bring to the co-taught classroom.

How to be a successful co-teacher

The purpose of co-teaching in inclusive classes is not to double the content knowledge of the instructors. The purpose is to figure out ways to meet the needs of the students in the room in a way different than has been tried and was unsuccessful in the past.

To ensure that your co-teaching relationship succeeds, you need to:

  • Come to the co-teaching relationship armed with a toolkit of strategies, accommodations, modifications, differentiation techniques, knowledge of disabilities and their typical manifestations, positive behavior support strategies, and an understanding of the way students learn.
  • Be vocal advocates for students, unafraid to make suggestions for changing up the pedagogy from what has been done in the past. 
  • Be capable of taking intervention approaches that they used to implement during pull-out and bring them into the general education classroom so that more students can benefit.

With the current climate change from memorization and regurgitation to bigger picture problem-solving and learning how to think that is characteristic of career- and college-ready standards, now is a great time to co-teach. Many general educators are overwhelmed by the changes in content, instruction and technology, and they need support, ideas, and collaborative partners! That’s us!

Not co-teaching yet?  Here’s how you can get started.

Find a compatible partner.  If your students are included in general education classes you should actively seek out partners and potential team members, marketing yourself as a professional who brings a great deal of expertise to the table.  Talk about what you can do, what you can add to the classroom, and how co-teaching involves parity and a sharing of ideas, responsibility, goals, and accountability.

Get buy-in from your administrator.  Now is an excellent time for potential teams to sit down with their principals and describe how co-teaching could be beneficial for all of their students if the teachers can have a consistent schedule together – one in which planning time is provided and considered sacred.

Don’t forget the “co-“ in co-teaching.  Explain to your administrator why the special educator should not be pulled from the co-taught class for an IEP meeting, or to substitute another class, or for other side duties. You can enumerate the benefits that will be present for all students, with and without disabilities, if you are able to truly “co-plan, co-instruct, and co-assess.”  Ask for an opportunity to get professional development, to ensure you are able to truly engage equally and meaningfully in the classroom.

Decide on your approach.  You should strive to use regrouping approaches, such as Parallel, Alternative, and Station teaching, as much or more than you use the whole group approaches of Team Teaching and One Teach/One Support. Calibrate assignments together to ensure you are comfortable with co-assessing (Conderman & Hedin, 2012).

Don’t forget assessments.  And, of course, you should regularly check in with one another to discuss pet peeves, successes, challenges, and next steps (Dieker, 2006). Trust me, it will make a difference for the student outcomes, and isn’t that what it’s all about?

Students with disabilities are increasingly in general education classes and included in typical school activities. That’s good.

What is not good, is if those students are failing their classes or not having their social/behavioral/academic needs met.  A teacher standing on the sidelines in the same room with another teacher or occasionally helping with proximity control will not help meet those needs.

Special educators and general educators need to step up, collaborate, and plan how to meet the needs of all their students, while keeping expectations high, including rigor, managing large class sizes, and being as engaging as a video game or a movie.

It’s not easy, but wouldn’t you rather have a partner to help you do it all?

Me, too.  Let’s co-teach!

Wendy W. Murawski, Ph.D., is Executive Director & Eisner Endowed Chair of the Center for Teaching & Learning at California State University, Northridge, and co-author with Lisa Dieker of Leading the Co-teaching Dance: Leadership Strategies to Enhance Team Outcomes (CEC, 2013).