Strategies for Successful Co-Teaching

By Kelli J. Esteves, Ed.D., and Elizabeth Whitten, Ph.D., coauthors of RTI in Middle School Classrooms: Proven Tools and Strategies

Strategies for Successful Co-TeachingWe asked middle school teachers to share the questions and concerns they have about co-teaching in schools that have implemented response to intervention. The questions they asked get to the heart of what it takes to make co-teaching successful while meeting the diverse needs of the students.

Do you have suggestions for helping classroom teachers become open to the idea of co-teaching?
—Ashley Ristau, special education teacher

Co-teaching has the potential to make a profoundly positive impact on learners. An inclusive classroom can lessen the social stigma associated with segregating students who struggle academically and/or behaviorally from their peers. It lowers the student-to-teacher ratio for all students, and it offers the opportunity to model collaboration, something we routinely ask of our students.

When considering these benefits, why do some teachers resist the idea? First, make certain your colleagues know what you mean by “co-teaching.” To many, co-teaching involves one teacher carrying the heavy load of planning, teaching, and assessing while the other wanders aimlessly around the room, silently judging and critiquing his or her partner. Who would be open to that type of partnership? Make it clear that you are suggesting a partnership that involves encouraging and supporting one another in a shared effort to teach all students. Suggest different co-teaching models that meaningfully and actively engage both teachers and all learners in the lessons. Point out the potential for real-time, in-context professional development. Teaching is so wonderfully dynamic and complex that, regardless of your career stage, you have something to offer and something to learn. If a colleague is not initially open to the idea of co-teaching, suggest that it could be a chance to strengthen one another’s pedagogy. When you are co-teaching, notice an aspect of teaching that your partner does well and intentionally study it. Don’t forget to tell your co-teaching partner how you are learning and growing based on the time spent together.

Of the five models of co-teaching (complementary, station, parallel, alternative, or shared), what do you feel is the best one to use at the middle school level?
—Margaret Livingston, special education teacher

All five models can be used at the middle school level. Both teachers’ knowledge and experience as well as the lesson plan drive the choice of the model or models used during a lesson. Complementary teaching is perhaps the most traditional approach to co-teaching. The lead teacher takes primary responsibility for teaching the lesson but is supported by input from the support teacher. Often, when a co-teaching team is new and/or the special education teacher is in the beginning stages of exposure to the content, a complementary teaching model is most beneficial. A more experienced co-teaching team may begin the lesson with a complementary teach and then, for the last twenty minutes of the lesson, move to a parallel teach that benefits from small group delivery and instruction. In the parallel teach, the students are divided into two or more groups to reduce the student-to-teacher ratio allowing the teachers to generate a higher student response rate.

Examples of Using Co-Teaching Models at Each RTI TierWhen introducing new content with multiple objectives, it may be most effective to utilize a station teach model by chunking the information and dividing the class into groups that rotate through the stations. Students who do not understand the content can be pulled into an alternative teach after the lesson or at some point during the school day. This alternative model of instruction takes on a different form to better meet the individual learning needs of the student. Shared teaching is used when the content of the lesson is jointly delivered to the whole group. Often, co-teachers use this model in combination with other models.

Once you become familiar with the five models of co-teaching, don’t be afraid to experiment with the models by using two or more during one lesson. Use the models to enhance your lesson and ensure the students comprehend the content. A successful co-teaching experience can make teaching exhilarating!

Bonus! Download Examples of Using Co-Teaching Models at Each RTI Tier from RTI in Middle School Classrooms.

I know co-teaching requires co-planning. How can I best and most effectively co-teach if my co-planning time is limited?
—April Enicks, special education supervisor

Co-planning involves relationship-building, and both aspects are essential for successful co-teaching partnerships. Ideally, co-teachers will find a large block of time early in each semester for long-range planning. Meeting face-to-face for in-depth discussions will pay off in the long run. Daily or weekly check-ins will also be necessary, but these can be done electronically if face-to-face conversations are not possible. Using cloud-based systems like GoogleDocs, Evernote, or Dropbox for lesson planning and assessment can be very helpful.

Co-planning involves more than designing lessons. Early on in co-teaching partnerships, educators should take time to get to know one another personally and professionally. Discussion of topics such as why you chose to become a teacher, your educational philosophy, and the expectations you have of teachers and students will build empathy and understanding. In order for co-teaching to work, you don’t need to have perfect alignment of ideologies, but you do need to have an understanding. You can even agree to disagree. These efforts will go a long way in building the level of trust needed for planning, teaching, assessing, and reflecting together.

Co-teaching with multiple partners can make this level of investment difficult, and you may need to find other ways to get to know your colleagues throughout the school year. Because so much time and energy goes into relationship-building, a strong case can be made for co-teachers to stay together from year to year. When there is continuity, teachers can work more efficiently and effectively.

The reality is that you will need to make time for co-planning and relationship-building. Once you create it, you need to protect it because it is absolutely necessary for co-teaching to be successful.

How do special education teachers share a general education teacher’s classroom without stepping on his or her toes?
—Mindy McNulty, special education teacher

If you have already co-taught, then you know there are a range of obstacles to overcome, from lack of administrative support to personality conflicts. Often, teachers are not given the choice on whether they co-teach, and as a result, the attitudes of teachers toward co-teaching may hinder success. First and foremost, if one or both of you do not feel adequately prepared to engage in this form of instruction, the success will be hindered. Frequently, this can be addressed through schoolwide professional development.

Another key ingredient to avoid stepping on each other’s toes is ensuring you have adequate time to engage in lesson design and evaluation. Toes are most likely to be stepped on when you have not had the time to plan your lessons and delineate your roles and expectations.

What can co-teachers do to educate themselves on the best practices of co-teaching?
—Evelyn Phillips, special education teacher

Support for co-teaching is a reciprocal process—general and special education teachers learn and support one another as they plan, teach, assess, and reflect while co-teaching. Some activities to support this process are as follows:

• Attend a professional conference together to gain more knowledge on best practices. This experience not only allows you to learn from the conference content, but you also have an opportunity to spend time together and strengthen your relationship.

• Read the same article or book that focuses on effective teaching, collaborative practices, or a specific area of need at the district level. Share reflections of the reading through GoogleDocs, Evernote, Dropbox, etc., or talk about it over coffee or lunch.

• Plan together and present a short in-service for your staff on the models of co-teaching with examples on how you have co-taught.

• Share a strategy of the week with each other to increase your bank of evidence-based strategies. Keep the list of strategies at hand to draw from when planning your co-teaching.

There are many more activities in which co-teaching partners can engage, but it is best to pick one that appeals to both of you and stick with it for nine weeks or a semester. Most importantly, don’t give up!

If you have questions about RTI and co-teaching, please let us know. Contact us at elizabeth.whitten@wmich.edu and kesteves@butler.edu.

Kelli J. Esteves, Ed.D.Kelli Esteves, is an assistant professor of education at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. Kelli has experience as a special education teacher and reading specialist in the Rockford (MI) Public Schools.

Elizabeth Whitten, Ph.D.Elizabeth Whitten, is a professor of special education and literary studies at Western Michigan University. Prior to her eighteen years in higher education, Elizabeth was a teacher and administrator.

Free Spirit books by Kelli and Elizabeth:

RTI SuccessRTIinMiddleSchoolClassrooms


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One Response to Strategies for Successful Co-Teaching

  1. Mallory Myers says:

    What an enlightening article! Reading this has given me some profound insight on some of the positive aspects of co-teaching I had not thought of before. I think it is so important to focus on one another’s strengths and to pull from that, to essentially cancel out your own weaknesses. Really good read, thanks!

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