By Marilyn Friend, Ph.D.
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Representative to the Representative Assembly (RA) for the Teacher Education Division (TED)
When it comes to topics of interest related to collaboration, co-teaching is probably at the top of the list. In this blog, I thought I would offer ramble a little about the problems constraining the potential of co-teaching from being realized. These ideas come from keeping up with the professional literature on co-teaching as well as my own frequent work in schools. The dilemmas include these:
- Lack of initial and ongoing professional development for co-teaching partners.
Would anyone in the world of business expect a sales representative to introduce a new project without first being taught about it? Would a surgeon try a new procedure without training? Of course not. But it seems in education that professionals often are left on their own to figure out how to implement new ideas and practices. When teachers’ styles and approaches are complementary, this might not be a huge issue. However, presuming that all teachers will naturally form strong classroom partnerships isn’t realistic. They should receive professional development—together. This enables them to discuss expectations for co-teaching, negotiate classroom roles and responsibilities, discuss student matters, and so on. Professional development is important for elementary teachers and critical for middle and high school teachers. I suspect that better professional development (and initial teacher training) would eliminate many of the situations in which special educators are functioning, for all intents and purposes, as classroom assistants in their allegedly co-taught classes.
Among the tens of thousands of professionals with whom I have worked, the lack of common planning time is the top topic of concern, a fact supported by over two decades of professional literature. I think we have to look for new ways to find common planning time and then be sure it’s used wisely.
For example, in some school districts, co-teachers cannot be released during the day but they receive professional development credit for the hours they spend outside the classroom, and they hours count as their required staff development hours. In other school districts, special educators will, once each month, cover another team’s co-taught class to give those teachers the opportunity to plan together. The special educator on the receiving team reciprocates, creating a planning opportunity for the first team.
In a perfect world (where is that “easy” button when we need it?), co-teaching teams would have at least weekly planning, and if that has been arranged for you, congratulations. However, if a special educator co-teaches with several teachers, that probably is not a realistic option. Periodic planning using the ideas above and others (e.g., occasional use of substitute teachers; principals and other administrators covering classes; related arts scheduled so teachers can meet), supplemented with those quick planning-on-the-fly conversations can still be effective. What does not work over time is when the primary planning option co-teachers use is one person saying as the class begins, “What are we doing today?”
If you are a new teacher who is co-teaching, I hope that you have a wonderful principal who has avoided many of the problems already described by creating classes with a mix of students, setting up a reasonable schedule for you, and ensuring that you and your co-teacher(s) have participated in professional development on co-teaching. If not, my advice is for you to lower your expectations in terms of what you can accomplish. With out a principal or another administrator facilitating the development, implementation, and evaluation of co-teaching programs, there is a good chance that they’ll be only as effective as the hard work of the teachers makes them. There also is a strong chance that the program won’t last for very long—the caring professionals trying to implement co-teaching eventually get so frustrated that they cannot continue. In Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis, a book about the best inventions of the 20th century written 10 years ago, the point is made that collaboration is successful only when a strong leader fosters its development, protects participants from distractions, and facilitates problem solving. That is exactly what is needed for co-teaching.
This posting is supposed to be brief, but it already has grown beyond what I intended and we’ve just started on some of the co-teaching constraints. If you have others you’d like to add, I hope you’ll do so, and next week I’ll add comments about difficult or awkward interactions—which certainly can happen in co-teaching!