The potential benefits of co-teaching have been well documented. However, it is also widely accepted that co-teaching is challenging. Without the correct conditions, co-teaching can (and often does) fail to meet its potential.
Through my research, I have come to realise that co-teaching is most commonly associated with special needs education. It is becoming increasingly common for general classroom teachers to team up with special needs experts. In our context at Victoria Shanghai Academy (Hong Kong), co-teaching is part of our bilingual model of education. Each class has a native English-speaking teacher and a native Mandarin-speaking teacher. Apart from English and Mandarin language classes, the curriculum is delivered bilingually through co-teaching.
The general definition below covers all reasons for co-teaching. Whatever your aims, I hope that this post will help you and your partner to make a success of it.
“Co-teaching involves two or more certified professionals who contract to share instructional responsibility for a single group of students primarily in a single classroom or workspace for specific content or objectives with mutual ownership, pooled resources and joint accountability.”
Marilyn Friend and Lynne Cook, 2016
With permission from husband and wife PIRATE authors, Dave and Shelley Burgess, I have created my own PIRATE acronym for co-teaching. I am a huge fan of their books (especially Lead and Learn) and I’m honoured to contribute to the PIRATE collection in my own small, unofficial way.
Co-teaching is not about having an assistant, helper, mentor or guide. Co-teachers are equal partners and must be perceived as such by the students. As the quote above outlines, co-teachers must accept “mutual ownership” and “joint accountability”. This is surprisingly difficult for many educators. It’s often helpful to think of co-teaching as a marriage (with a classful of children). In an ideal family, there should not be one dominant parent. Parents need to be a team of trust and consistency. Like all marriages, there will be disagreements and challenges along the way. However, in front of the students, co-teachers must be a united, equal partnership with shared values and consistent expectations.
What does co-teaching look like in practice? Team teaching is perhaps what springs to mind, but there are several other models. In fact, the team teaching strategy is generally considered to be the most difficult to successfully implement. It relies heavily on a strong relationship, rapport and togetherness. These cannot be achieved overnight. Without them, the team teaching model can feel uncomfortable and unnatural. What are the alternatives?
Marilyn Friend outlined six models of co-teaching:
- One teach, one observe
- Station teaching
- Parallel teaching
- Alternative teaching
- One teach, one assist
For more details, click here.
Although he discusses only four models, Dr. Richard Villa’s article outlines the strengths and weaknesses of each. I encourage you to take a look. Co-teaching is not about committing to the best model. PIRATE co-teachers are flexible. They are aware of various strategies and choose their approach depending on the lessons and the students’ needs. When choosing a model of co-teaching, the aim is always to maximise learning.
The ‘R’ in PIRATE (pronounced “Aaaarrrgghh”, obviously) is different to the partnership described in the ‘P’. Like I said, an authentic relationship cannot be created overnight. A relationship (both personal and professional) is built over time. PIRATE co-teachers will make a conscious effort to build this relationship and, perhaps more importantly, they make a conscious effort not to damage it. When issues arise, continue to communicate openly and honestly. Being able to overcome problems without damaging the relationship is vital. Furthermore, trust is absolutely essential between co-teachers. In Lead Like a PIRATE, Shelley Burgess and Beth Houf describe trust as “the oxygen of our school systems” and, as stated in the quote below, it is an essential component of collaboration.
“Without trust, we don’t truly collaborate; we merely coordinate or, at best, cooperate.”
Stephen M. R. Covey
Through trust, positivity, support and humour (very important), a positive relationship can flourish. Over time, co-teaching becomes more natural as both teachers ‘loosen up’, bounce off one another and enjoy working together. The more challenging co-teaching models become easier to implement.
Bacharack and Heck (2011) describe co-teaching as an attitude. I prefer to think of it as a mindset (but ‘M’ doesn’t fit the acronym). Firstly, the shift from ‘I’ to ‘we’ is paramount. Furthermore, co-teaching requires certain character traits in order to work well. The support and inspiration that co-teachers can get from one another is an exciting part of co-teaching. To make it work, PIRATE co-teachers are collaborative, empathetic, open to new ideas and have a positive outlook towards disagreements. I absolutely love the following Churchill quote:
“If two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.”
Sir Winston Churchill
In a nutshell, disagreements are inevitable in any collaboration. In a recent guest post by my principal, Ross Dawson, he discussed the bad wrap that has been given to disagreements. In fact, disagreements are a fantastic way to stretch thinking, challenge ideas and make more informed choices. Although disagreements can be immensely positive, they must be handled with respect, open-mindedness and professionalism. When two teachers work well together with the correct attitude, they consistently model positive behaviour and interactions.
For co-teaching to achieve its potential and have the most benefit for students, co-teachers need to regularly schedule collaborative non-contact time together. It is easy to fall into the trap of simply splitting the workload. For example, one teacher could plan maths for the upcoming week while the other teacher organises the field trip. This approach does not take advantage of the collaborative opportunity. Moreover, during lesson time, the teacher who was not involved in the planning tends to take on an assistant role. PIRATE co-teachers reject isolation and embrace collaboration.
I’m not sure where the term came from. It was not coined by the International Baccalaureate, and yet all IB schools seem to have them. At our school, we craft essential agreements with students and colleagues. Classes and staff teams will create these, as well as staff partnerships. It is easy to think of them as a bit of pointless paperwork, but they actually hold an important purpose and could be key to an effective partnership. By creating an essential agreement, co-teachers have the opportunity to discuss their philosophy, teaching styles, strengths and routines. It is also an opportunity to share weaknesses and our own annoying habits (we all have them). By having these discussions, problems can be pre-empted and co-teachers can consider how they can best complement one another. For an example, click here. It’s perhaps not the best example, but consider the meaningful discussion that took place between co-teachers in order to reach the agreement. Just like a class agreement, it is important to “live it, not laminate it”. The agreement should be revisited, referenced, refined and demonstrated throughout the whole year.
Like anything, you get out of co-teaching what you put in. PIRATE co-teachers display the necessary characteristics, enjoy working together and truly understand the value of collaboration. I am now entering my fourth year of co-teaching. I do not believe that I am the shining example of a co-teacher. I have made many mistakes over the years and fallen into many of the traps. However, I do believe that I have learnt important lessons along the way and I have learnt to appreciate co-teaching and the wonderful opportunities that it provides for both teachers and students.
What are your key ingredients for co-teaching? What have I missed? Please continue the discussion in the comments section below. To keep up to date with my blog posts, please ‘like’ my Facebook page or find the ‘follow blog via email’ link in the sidebar.