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All the Co-Teachers, Now Put Your Hands Up: Revving Up for Teaching Together

The economic bubble burst in 2009 and so did my sense of invincibility. By this time, I had been teaching in the primary grades for six years and having recently relocated back to my home state, I was first on the chopping block in this new district. Regina, my principal, called me into her office and sat me down. Her eyes told the story I begrudgingly saw coming. Words like “I’m so sorry...budget cuts...shrinking student counts...I can’t believe we’re losing you” gently sailed across her desk in my direction. She offered me substitute coverage, as it had been previously arranged, for the remainder of the day, and I respectfully declined. My students were waiting. There were things to be learned. Children to be taught.

In the days ahead, life lurched onward, waxing and waning with worry. Stress over no money, a new baby on the way and an imminent move back to New Jersey, in hopes of any job at all, left little room for self-concern or pity. Optimism and hope became my daily tonic. After packing many boxes with an ever expanding baby bump, my family returned to NJ where I welcomed a second child, weathered one winter, and saw a spring and summer bring promise renewed. Against the odds, and while the economy continued to flounder, I landed a job: a glorious teaching job that was a buoy cast out into the sea of my life. I became a middle school special education teacher in a co-teaching classroom. This was surely new territory, but a landscape I happily traversed in pursuit of growth, challenge and full family health benefits.

I would spend almost seven years in this position and learn a great deal about myself and others. There is nothing quite like working side by side, minute by minute, with another adult to bring your strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies into glaring focus. There were good days and bad days, and days when I wish I had been a better, more humble and yielding person.

These days, I celebrate encounters in my consulting work with teachers who hold co-teaching and special education positions. What often strikes me is that there continues to be an absence of purposeful dialogue and support around both the joys and perils of this demanding work. This got me wondering: Why isn’t there more professional learning for co-teachers? How can we better support our students by nurturing our teaching relationships? As inclusive classroom settings become more common, why are we sending so many teachers out without life vests? This can’t be what’s in the best interest of our students.

Though there are certainly many resources available to us in the work of Kylene Beers, Toby Karten, Lynda Fote, Richard Allington, Colleen Cruz and more, let’s simply begin by taking a moment to explore a few ideas together in the rich, yet acrobatic work of co-teaching. Here are three possible places to begin your conversation.

Communicating Beliefs and Values

Author and business entrepreneur Seth Godin encourages, “We can’t change the culture, but each of us has the opportunity to change a culture, our little pocket of the world.” The hours, weeks and months of a school year can move at a clip. It’s easy for us to forget the importance of knowing and sharing ourselves with those around us. In the case of co-teaching, it’s particularly important to understand the professionals with whom we are teamed. Some of us are very good at dedicating the time to know our co-teaching colleagues in personal ways--knowing birthdays, takeout order preferences, children’s interests, political leanings, favorite teams. These things are all well and good. But how many of us truly take the time to know the educator? In the same way that we cherish and recall important life details, our teaching could benefit from exploring a few questions of educational philosophy and practice:

  • What do you value in your work with students?

  • What practices might have the greatest impact on student growth?

  • What would you like to try or prioritize in your practice?

  • How do you want students to feel in your classroom space?

Though these questions are simple, they turn our attention to the broader experience of the student and the ways in which co-teachers build a common vision and belief in their shared space and practice.

Common Planning Time

Time. It’s often the thing we complain of never having. In a co-teaching classroom, time to plan and determine roles is essential. In some of the schools I visit, teachers talk about a lack of shared planning time. This is a real world problem and it often makes for tough co-teaching, and teachers feeling on the outside of instruction. Some teachers have even admitted to feeling like an aide or a “helper.” Inclusive classroom settings call for a dynamic and comprehensive approach. How can we achieve this if our colleagues, by no fault of their own, are out of reach and out of touch with what’s next? We need to speak up and make our needs known to our building administrators and department supervisors (sharing this blog just might nudge the needle). It may take time for us to claim some shared planning time. In the meantime, perhaps we can start with some basic, yet fundamental questions to set up a shared framework:

  • What are our shared goals for these learners?

  • How can we achieve these goals with practice and gradual release in mind?

  • In what areas or instructional methods do I/we feel most ready to teach?

  • How can we lean on each other to learn and grow and expand our expertise?

Let’s challenge ourselves to not wait for more time to appear in our schedules, but rather choose one area where we’ll regularly communicate. For example, over the next month, let’s touch base on student goals and ask ourselves and our students how the work is going. This week, let’s try to pre-teach for the upcoming unit and get students ready for new content. Today, let’s meet with students about their writing and support them, using a mentor text. These conversations can help us make small shifts in a common direction.

Sharing the Reigns

Sharing classrooms with students is one thing. Sharing it with another grown up is quite another. When I think back to my very first professional experience in co-teaching, the shoe was on the other foot. I was the general education teacher while my colleague Tracey was the special education teacher. At the time, I thought I had a fairly good handle on this co-teaching thing. Tracey and I got along well. In addition to her being smart, she was kind-natured and subdued. I was efficient, at times effusive, and dedicated. We had an awesome year with students who were curious, joyful, and diligent. Looking back, I now realize that I missed the boat and the point. Tracey wasn’t just smart; she was brilliant. Her voice should have mattered as much as mine, but I don’t think I knew yet how to leave the space or opening for anyone other than me. I hogged the floor and missed the chance to learn from her.

Sure, that year was great, but it likely could have been much more. Even just a few tools would have helped me unlock and embrace co-teaching in a different way. Co-teaching has taught me, and continues to teach me, the humble task of living in the other person’s shoes. We have to find a way to allow both teachers to have a voice and an active presence that honors each person’s style and instructional approach. When faced with the incredible opportunity to co-teach, you might find it helpful to start within. Ask yourself, “How do I want others to feel? How can I make the space for someone else?” This is a healthy practice for us in all our school relationships: considering the feelings of another and our own role in shaping these feelings.

In The Art of Possibility: Transforming Personal and Professional Life, Zander and Zander, invite us to explore the idea of “leading from any chair.” The authors explain, when leading from any chair, “...I began to shift my attention to how effective I was at enabling musicians to play each phrase as beautifully as they were capable” (2000, p. 67). How marvelous is that? If only we could imagine teaching from any chair and truly live in the shoes and skin of another in order to imagine and make space for their maximum potential. When we assume the position of anyone else, whether it be our co-teacher or a student in our class, and then examine how we can help that person make “the most beautiful music,” we open our eyes to the other’s potential and allow ourselves to imagine new ways to support, recognize, encourage and teach.

Your beginning might be as simple as literally sitting in a chair other than the “teaching chair.” Don’t relegate yourself or others to the seat behind the desk or the read aloud chair or, worse still, a chair in the back or the side of the room. Change your vantage point. Neither co-teacher nor general education teacher should assume the lead at all times, but rather learn to open the lead to one another as we discover each other’s signature style and unique gifts. In teaching from any chair and not always assuming the reigns, we may find someone else’s music to be rather lovely. Here is where we learn to be brave and examine our practice together, learn to sit side by side as colleagues and friends and people who share a deep and vested interest in the growth of every student.