8 Ways to Collaborate

Image credit: iStockPhoto.com

Teamwork improves outcomes for special-needs students

By Grace Huang

A teacher can positively change the course of his pupils’ lives through his hard work and dedication to inspiring greatness in his students. Bring two such teachers together in collaboration, however, and their passion for teaching can change the world. The Church has produced thousands of great teachers over the centuries. In the 16th century, a Carmelite nun inspired wide-reaching reforms within her order, teaching other nuns to return to traditional spirituality and prayer. Yet it was only because of her collaboration with a like-minded friar that she was able to reach both men and women religious and form the Discalced Carmelite order. Even in today’s busy world, the partnership of St. Teresa of Ávila and St. John of the Cross is a shining example of what a collaborative relationship can accomplish.

Teachers work with dozens of professionals every day. These relationships require teamwork, communication, and a common goal. It may be easiest to work with grade-level teams — everyone shares the same content, the same curriculum, the same kids, and the same tests. Working with special-education teachers, however, may be much more difficult.

In the past, special-education teachers often worked only with their own students in separate classrooms, but more and more often, special-education and general-education teachers are expected to collaborate and plan together. And this time, teachers may not be using the same curriculum or administering the same tests because of specific student needs. Still, collaboration is possible. A productive working relationship can be developed by keeping these eight points in mind.

  1. General- and special-education teachers share a common goal. All teachers want to create the best possible educational outcomes for their students. But if the special-education teacher is talking IEP deadlines and the general-education teacher is talking standardized tests, it can feel like there are two different languages being spoken in the classroom. Good communication skills and a willingness to understand each other can overcome these obstacles. When general- and special-education teachers share a concern for the well-being of all students, educators can focus on what they can do to achieve success.
  2. Take the time to reach out. As in any relationship, collaborating does take work. If special and general educators focus on their separate responsibilities, resentment toward collaboration as an additional demand on limited time and resources can take root and damage the relationship before it even begins. Take the initiative, introduce yourself, and offer your help and resources. In our digital age, it is incredibly important to meet in person. Email and texting are a modern convenience, and we need to do everything we can to show that we are not basing a relationship on convenience alone!
  3. Share information and resources. As a teacher in a self-contained special-education classroom in the largest middle school in the state, I have very few opportunities to plan and teach together with general-education teachers on a daily basis. However, six of my seven students are included in at least one general-education class, and four of those students are involved in two or more classes. The barriers are there, but I have been able to form collaborative relationships with general-education teachers because I share information about my students, provide suggestions on how to work with them in the classroom, and offer my help in any way I can. With this knowledge, the general-education teachers I collaborate with feel free to come to me with their concerns, offer their lesson plans to help me reinforce content in my classroom, and share district resources with me. Our students benefit when we pool our resources.
  4. Understand what general-education teachers bring to the table. General educators have extensive knowledge of grade-level content. Whether you teach Honors Calculus or kindergarten, you have your very own area of expertise, and you tend to be very, very good at what you do. General-education teachers likely know how to administer all the assessments and know all the standards backward and forward. And while not every teacher can explain L’Hopital’s Rule, not every teacher can sing a dozen different alphabet chants on demand either. Your craft is highly specialized.
  5. Understand what special-education teachers bring to the table. Special educators are experts in educational strategies, the jack-of-all-trades teachers. Catholic schools often have a much smaller student population than public schools and may contain more grade levels in a single building. A special educator in a Catholic school can be working with both the Honors Calculus teacher and the kindergarten teacher. The special-education teacher will help students access the content you are teaching. If your very intelligent student simply cannot retain information consistently, the special educator can help you create guided notes on L’Hopital’s Rule to increase the student’s success. If your little guy has an auditory processing disability and is not benefitting from your highly creative and kid-approved alphabet chants, the special-education teacher can suggest adding the sign for each letter of the alphabet to your favorite chant to help your student understand.
  6. Collaboration takes many different forms. The idealistic model of collaboration between general- and special-education teachers involves planning, teaching, and assessing together, in the same classroom, every day, all day long. Realistically, this may not happen. However you choose to collaborate, let your common goal of student success guide your decisions. Some common forms of collaboration are:
    Team teaching. The gold standard of collaboration: Both teachers combine their skills and resources to plan, teach, and assess together.
    Parallel and small-group teaching. This is the most common method of collaboration. Both educators teach the same content, but not to the same group of students. The special-education teacher is usually responsible for teaching the special-education students using modified materials.
    Supportive teaching. The general educator teaches the whole group, while the special-education teacher assists certain students. While this method is also quite common, in practice it can lead to the general-education teacher taking an authoritative role, delegating the special educator to the role of the classroom helper.
    Consultative collaboration. The special-education teacher provides support and strategies to the general-education teacher as needed without directly working with students. The special educator may also observe students and collect and analyze data.
  7. Special educator by day, IEP consultant by night. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a student with a disability is required to have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP is a legal document, and if it is not followed exactly, you or your school are breaking the law. Of course, no professional wants to break the law, but if you are legally required to make sure that given a decodable passage on the first-grade comprehension level and a comprehension worksheet with highlighted visual cues, Johnny will read the passage out loud at a fluency rate on the kindergarten level and write the answers to the comprehension questions with at least 80 percent accuracy over three biweekly probes, it can be well-nigh impossible not to somehow, somewhere break the law. The special-education teacher is trained to write, interpret, and implement the educational goals in the IEP and can explain what they mean for you and your student.
  8. Collaboration doesn’t have to involve slogging through a Dark Night of the Soul. When St. John of the Cross wrote about the purification of souls in our time on earth, he wasn’t referring to his experience collaborating with St. Teresa of Ávila. And yet, the two were very different — almost strikingly so. Teresa of Ávila was a charismatic extrovert in her fifties when she initiated her efforts to reform the Carmelite order. John of the Cross was serious, reserved, and half her age. The two must have seemed like the ultimate odd couple. But despite their differences, they shared a common goal, pooled their resources and influence, and relied upon each other’s skill sets to set in motion a huge collaborative effort, one that is still thriving to this day. In your relationship with a special- or general-education teacher, keep the example of the Doctors of the Church in mind.

(L-R): St. John of the Cross; St. Teresa of Ávila. Image credit: Public Domain

Go forth and do great things!

Grace Huang has taught general- and special-education students of all ages for several years. She is currently working as an autistic-support teacher in a middle school.

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