We’re in This Together

Finding co-teaching combinations that work

By Mary Mitchell

The crowded primary classroom hums along as teachers Crystal Ramirez and Baldemar Rodriguez orchestrate the children through reading, math, social studies, and science.

The crowded primary classroom hums along as teachers Crystal Ramirez and Baldemar Rodriguez orchestrate the children through reading, math, social studies, and science.

The day is a typical one at the busy elementary school. Students file in at 7:30 a.m. to eat breakfast and complete their bell-ringer before the day officially begins.

When Rodriguez strikes the three-note bell with his mallet, the children know it is time to be quiet or listen for announcements. This bell also helps with discipline and has become a familiar sound to the class.

Ramirez and Rodriguez, third-grade teachers at Talman Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois, have a difficult mission: guiding 37 students, including some challenging ones, through their daily lessons as cohesively as possible in one classroom.

The duo seems to have mastered the art. Ramirez picks up effortlessly where Rodriguez leaves off. When one speaks, the other nods in agreement. For two years, Ramirez and Rodriguez have team-taught third grade at the growing elementary school. Earlier Ramirez team-taught first grade for three years. Rodriguez is the English Language Program teacher and team-taught with others previously.

In those years, they’ve learned a lot about working as a team. Though there are many ways of team teaching, Ramirez and Rodriguez appear to have settled into a combination of models.

“Mr. Rodriguez teaches reading. I support him,” Ramirez says. “He lets me have input on the ideas. I help monitor other groups. During math, I take the lead, and he helps with math group.”

In addition, the special-education teacher joins the class during the math block to instruct. Often the students work in groups.

The two homeroom teachers have divided other subjects between them: Ramirez teaches science, and Rodriguez teaches social studies. In essence, “We support each other,” Ramirez notes.

They quickly rattle off the pros and cons of team teaching:

“I like the help. While one is teaching, the other teacher can monitor and assist,” Ramirez illuminates.

The two also share the workload, including lesson plans. “I like how we split the work,” Ramirez says. “Before, I had to plan all subjects.”

Previously as a first-grade bilingual teacher, she did double planning and teaching. “I had to teach Spanish vocabulary and then teach English vocabulary.”

When done correctly, team teaching can have a profound effect on teachers, students, and parents.

“Students have a better chance to work in small groups. We can differentiate instruction and we can focus on the weaknesses of students. There is more individual instruction,” Rodriguez comments.

Another benefit, Ramirez believes, is that the students perform better. Parents enjoy the arrangement so much that they asked the instructors to loop (or move with) students to the next grade level. For now, though, they will stick with third grade.

“I think [students] perform better because more eyes are on them. They know that two teachers are watching them,” she claims.

With larger classes, it benefits the children to have two teachers.

“We have more contact opportunities. We are giving the kids more of a chance to grasp a concept. We can review with the kids in smaller groups,” Ramirez states.

Rodriguez is thankful for the shared responsibilities of planning, grading papers, and sharing ideas. He likes the idea of having a “thought partner.”

“We can bounce ideas off each other,” he states.

He also believes team teaching can help prevent burnout because teachers share the burden of teaching responsibilities and discipline.

Other benefits include more class cohesiveness and more student enthusiasm.

“If two teachers have the same ideas and methodology, they can achieve that cohesiveness. Ramirez and I have very similar ideas. We can reflect on our practices. We don’t wing it,” Rodriguez explains.

When does it turn sour? Sometimes teachers have conflicting styles or personalities. “If one teacher wants to take over, there can be conflict,” Ramirez said.

Rodriguez echoes that thought. “If one person is stronger or more dominant, then it won’t work well. They will be clashing heads. If one person is not pulling their weight, then it will not work.”

He adds that the classroom setting may also be an obstacle, especially with limited space.
Ramirez also sees a problem with having several teachers in the classroom. It often confuses the students, and they don’t know which instructor to listen to.

Although Ramirez enjoys teaching with Rodriguez, she would consider another option: having her own classroom with fewer students. “I could take more ownership,” she explains.

In retrospect, Ramirez concludes that, in general, collaborative teaching has been a plus for her.

“I’m fortunate to have had two (team-teaching) experiences where there were good dynamics with the teachers. The students benefit and the teachers benefit,” she states.

Dr. Marilyn Friend, Professor Emerita of Education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, states that people often use the terms co-teaching and collaborative teaching synonymously. Co-teaching, however, involves pairing one general-education and one special-education teacher. Team teaching, she clarifies, usually consists of two general-education teachers in the same setting.

This is the only way special-education students have meaningful access to the general education program “in the least restrictive environment,” Friend states. The present federal goal is to have 80 percent of students with IEPs spend 80 percent or more of their school day in a general-education setting.

“States must report yearly how much time these students are spending in a general-education setting, and in many locales co-teaching is the means to simultaneously reach the goal and ensure the students receive the special-education services to which they are entitled,” she said.

“Co-teaching works in many cases when done well,” Friend asserts. Schools must choose models that work for them. However, she believes that students ideally should be in heterogeneous groups and taught by both general-education and special-education teachers. Station teaching can work well because the groups are “better socially integrated.” However, there are “dozens and dozens of variations,” she said.

Dr. Friend and coauthor Lynne Cook describe six co-teaching models in their book, Interactions: Collaboration Skills for School Professionals. Friend states, “These models evolved over time.”

One teach, one observe. Co-teachers decide in advance what types of specific observational information to gather during instruction and agree on a system for gathering the data. Afterward the teachers analyze the information together and take turns teaching and gathering data, rather than assuming that the special educator is the only person who should observe.

Station teaching. Teachers divide content and students. Each teacher then teaches the content to one group and subsequently repeats the instruction for the other group. If appropriate, a third “station” could give students an opportunity to work independently.

Parallel teaching. Teachers both teach the same information, but they do so to a divided class group. Parallel teaching also may be used to vary learning experiences — for example, by providing manipulatives to one group but not the other, or by having the groups read about the same topic but at different levels of difficulty.

Alternative teaching. At times several students need specialized attention. In alternative teaching, one teacher takes responsibility for the large group while the other works with a smaller group. These smaller groups could be used for remediation, pre-teaching, to help students who have been absent catch up on key instruction, assessment, and so on.

Teaming. In teaming, both teachers share delivery of the same instruction to a whole student group. Some teachers refer to this as having “one brain in two bodies.” Others call it “tag-team teaching.”

One teach, one assist. In a final approach to co-teaching, one person keeps primary responsibility for teaching, while the other professional circulates through the room providing unobtrusive assistance to students as needed. This should be the least often employed co-teaching approach.

Talman Elementary School Principal Jacqueline Medina said her teachers use a variety of co-teaching models. For instance, “One leads, one assists, or teachers go back and forth,” offering an equal amount of instruction.

She believes the benefits are greater when true co-teaching occurs and “when both teachers work as true collaborators.” Otherwise the students might assume that one teacher is an assistant.

“When there is the right combination, there can be a reciprocal learning opportunity, and they can learn from each other,” she explains.

As an administrator, Medina can observe all angles of the issue.

Co-teaching does not work “when the teachers don’t believe it can work or when the school environment doesn’t make that commitment.”

The practice can make a big impact when it is “part of the school culture, when there is a large investment and commitment to having teacher collaboration,” she adds.

School administration and educators can find more information at Dr. Friend’s website, CoTeach.com.

Image credit: George Martell/Bayard Inc, 2017. All rights reserved.

Mary Mitchell is a special-education aide, freelance writer, editor, and secular Franciscan. She and her husband live in Chicago and have three grown children.

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