By Elizabeth Whitten, Ph.D., Kelli J. Esteves, Ed.D., and Alice Woodrow, coauthors of RTI Success: Proven Tools and Strategies for Schools and Classrooms (Revised & Updated Edition)
Response to Intervention (RTI) as a multi-tiered system of support takes a collaborative approach by a team of educators to be successful. Teachers have opened their classroom doors to better meet the needs of their students by providing differentiated support through collaborative teaching, also known as co-teaching. Effective co-teaching is a key ingredient to the success of students of all ability levels in the general education classroom. Co-teachers will need to communicate with one another on a continual basis in order to help students reach their learning goals. Clear and ongoing communication can promote a positive culture of collaboration, making teachers feel connected as a team.
Here are some practical tips to help you communicate effectively with your co-teacher.
Remember, the Students Are Watching
Look for ways to authentically encourage your co-teaching partner in front of students. Supporting one another’s decisions shows students that you are united partners and demonstrates the uplifting effect of validating someone’s ideas. Even the subtleties of your word choice can make a difference. Use we and our instead of I and my whenever possible.
You will inevitably have misunderstandings and disagreements with your co-teacher. Some issues can be resolved while students are present so that students can observe how to resolve a problem in a positive and collegial way. When issues are complex, you will need to find a time to have a conversation when students are not around. You will always have certain students who are keenly aware of tension in relationships even when you think you are camouflaging it. Do all you can to maintain a harmonious relationship with your co-teaching partner.
Routinely Plan and Reflect Together
A true gift of co-teaching is the opportunity to plan and reflect together on a regular basis. Brief daily check-ins are beneficial, as are longer, more comprehensive meetings. Finding time for daily check-ins is typically a challenge, but developing a user-friendly communication system for planning and reflecting can help. This could include an electronic or a handwritten journal for when you don’t have time for face-to-face conversations. The journal could be a place to document questions, observations, or ideas. It can also be a valuable resource to guide conversations during your comprehensive meetings. If journaling doesn’t fit for you, find a method that does. It could be texting, email, or leaving notes for each other. The important thing is that you come up with a method that works for both of you.
Long-term planning meetings, combined with conversations about what is going well and what is not going as well, are so valuable that they should not be left to chance. Schedule biweekly meetings, perhaps over a cup of coffee or tea, and protect the time. When co-teachers take a step back and mindfully consider the efficacy of their teaching, they can plan concrete steps for improvement. It also serves as a reminder of what unites the team: helping students meet their learning goals.
Create a Shared Language
In order to maximize the time you have together as co-teaching partners, it is helpful to have a shared language for discussing the use of the models of co-teaching and the roles and responsibilities within each model. When you come together to talk about content and in-class assignments, you can save time and be more effective if you match the right co-teaching model with the objective of the lesson. When each co-teacher has assigned roles and responsibilities for each model, the communication will be more efficient and effective.
Nonverbal signals can also be a valuable form of communication between co-teaching partners. If signals are established beforehand, they allow seamless transitions to occur mid-lesson without a disruption to instruction or loss of instructional time. For example, imagine that during the instruction of new content by the lead teacher (complementary model), it becomes evident that some students need to slow down and scaffold the information while others are catching on quickly. A nonverbal signal to move into a small-group model (parallel model) where students are broken up between the two teachers will ensure you meet the needs of all students in the class in real time.
To Sum Up
Effective team collaboration and communication is a vital ingredient in the overall success of a co-teaching team. Planned collaboration gives co-teachers equal opportunities to share ideas, better understand and respect each other, and make informed and focused decisions for success in the classroom. Ongoing communication unifies team members and better prepares them for the obstacles and challenges they face daily in the classroom. Don’t leave your “talk time” to chance.
Elizabeth Whitten, Ph.D., is a professor of special education and literary studies at Western Michigan University. Prior to her 18 years in higher education, Elizabeth was a teacher and administrator.
Kelli J. Esteves, Ed.D., is an associate 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.
Alice Woodrow, Ed.D., is director of special education at Allegan Area Educational Service Agency in Allegan, Michigan. Alice has also served as the supervisor of special education in the Comstock (MI) Public Schools.
Elizabeth, Kelli, and Alice are coauthors of RTI Success: Proven Tools and Strategies for Schools and Classrooms
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