Co-teaching: collaboration at the middle level.
Collaborative teaching, or co-teaching, is a teaching technique that may be used to provide services to students with special needs in the general education classroom. Co-teaching is a partnership that requires consistent communication and collaboration. The process of moving to a co-taught curriculum is described, followed by reflective reactions from both teachers. Although co-teaching takes additional time and effort, the benefits are great for students (those with and without special needs) as well as staff.
Co-teaching, also known as collaborative teaching or cooperative teaching, is best described as the time when two education professionals share responsibilities for instruction. While college educators (Arnold & Jackson, 1996) are beginning to enter into collaborative teaching partnerships, co-teaching is more frequently used in elementary, middle, and secondary programs, as schools work to provide academic support to students with special needs in the mainstream setting (Cook & Friend, 1995; Murawski &Dieker, 2004; Walther-Thomas, 1997). In co-teaching, two professionals, often a general and special educator, instruct a classroom of both general and special education students. Instructional models for co-teaching may vary, (Cook & Friend, 1995; Vaughn, Schumm, & Arguelles, 1997; Walsh & Jones, 2004) but all emphasize the importance of the collaborative partnership and the communication and flexibility required to adjust instructional delivery based upon knowledge of both students and curriculum.
Walther-Thomas (1997) describes vibrant co-teachers as ones who share the responsibility for instruction and student discipline as well as student support. Researchers also suggest that common planning time for the teaching team plays an important role in the success of a co-teaching experience for both students and teachers (Cook & Friend, 1995; Dieker, 2001; Keefe, Moore, & Duff, 2004; Murawski & Dieker, 2004; Vaughn, Schumm, & Arguelles, 1997). External supports that may lead to successful collaborative teaching relationships include administrative support and administrative involvement in special education (Cook & Friend, 1995; Walther-Thomas, 1997).
A few challenges to using a co-taught curriculum have been identified. However, many benefits for both students and faculty still exist. An unequal partnership within the teaching dyad may lead to co-teaching failure (Murawski &Dieker, 2004; Walsh & Jones, 2004). In addition, scheduling students for support in the co-teaching model may lead to an imbalance of students with special needs in a specific general education classroom (Walsh & Jones, 2004). Studies have shown that through the use of co-teaching for academic support, students with special needs may benefit from increased self-concept/self-esteem as well as increased general academic outcomes (Dieker, 2001; Walsh & Jones, 2004). Faculty in teaching partnerships also may benefit from the collaboration as they teach in a mutually supportive environment (Walther-Thomas, 1997).
The authors, a special educator and a general educator, shared a Language Arts classroom for sixth grade students in an inclusive (grades six through eight) middle school environment. This particular school had two special education programs. One program served students with mild to moderate disabilities and the other program served students with moderate to severe emotional disabilities. During the two previous years, the school had been gradually moving away from a Special education program that primarily provided consultation support to teachers and classrooms and pull-out support to students. It was hoped that by moving from a pull-out program for a few students to an inclusive model with collaboratively taught (co-taught) curriculum from a special and regular education teacher in Language Arts, that all students would benefit. In addition, this new model supported the principle that students should be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).
In this more inclusive model, students were for the first time receiving general classroom support from a special educator instead of a special education paraprofessional. In addition the new model offered increased support of school faculty, who now also received direct support from the special educator. With direction from the school principal, the area of Language Arts was chosen as the preliminary site focus for collaborative teaching. This choice was made for a variety of reasons, the first being that the area of reading and/or writing was one in which the majority of students received special education services and the second being that writing was the area of emphasis for school wide improvement.
Across the school, students were placed randomly in grade level academic teams. Students with specific needs that required co-taught Language Arts for individual Education Program (IEP) compliance were hand scheduled into collaboratively taught Language Arts sections. In a sixth grade classroom of twenty-six students, seven students qualified for special education support and had an active IEP. These students included two with learning disabilities, one with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, two with significant emotional disabilities, one with Asperger's Syndrome, and another with a speech and language disability. In addition, some students with other academic needs (at-risk, English language learner, previous special education referrals and/or other learning difficulties) were placed into the collaboratively taught class period by the school counselor. All other children (including students who were labeled gifted and talented) were randomly enrolled in the class section by a computerized scheduling program. Not all students with special needs were educated in the co-taught classroom, as only those students who required significant language support were included.
As there were many students with IEPs who needed additional support from special education for a variety of other academic issues, the Department of Special Education also offered an Academic Support Laboratory (ASL) during the exploratory/elective time. ASL was a teacher directed academic study hall where students with special needs received remedial support, completed tests or other general classroom assignments, and/or worked towards their own IEP goals and objectives. This class was taught by a special educator with paraprofessional assistance. If possible, other pull-out supports including school based counseling, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and group work were scheduled to occur during the ASL time period.
The Teaching Partnership
To make the collaborative teaching team a true partnership, the general and special educator must work together on all aspects of the classroom experience. Because of this, the teaching team shared responsibility for all student and/or parent forums. On the first day of class, both teachers introduced themselves as teachers for that particular class period. At the first parent event, Back to School Night, both teachers were present and introduced. Parents were told about the team's belief that all students benefit from having two experienced teachers in the general education classroom. This team approach was carried throughout the year.
From an administrative perspective, it was very important that the teaching team have some type of shared planning time. This time not only allowed for the planning of curriculum, curricular modifications, grading and other classroom discussions, it also allowed for shared parent and/or student meetings. Whenever a student or parent meeting
was scheduled for any student (special or General Education) enrolled in the co-taught classroom both teachers attended. Therefore, this teaching partnership was active not only during scheduled class periods but in all aspects of classroom management and responsibility.
The Classroom Experience
In all the previous collaborative teaching partnerships these authors have experienced, specific roles and responsibilities remained somewhat flexible and individualized for each teaching dyad. In all partnerships however, the special educator was specifically charged with ensuring that the student needs on each IEP were being met, and the general educator held the specific task of ensuring that curriculum goals and academic standards were being met. Nonetheless, the delivery of curriculum and the success of each student in the co-taught classroom were shared concerns.
In this particular partnership, the general educator did take the primary responsibility for the overall lesson plans, as he was already planning curriculum for other Language Arts sections. However, the teaching pair each reviewed lessons to make sure that all students had opportunity to learn and opportunity for success. Lesson outcome, length, and delivery were often modified to best serve the students. The co-teaching partners served in multiple roles including lead and support, parallel teaching, alternative teaching, and team teaching. The teaching dyad also shared grading and discipline as well as all other traditional classroom responsibilities.
Reflection: The Special Educator's Perspective
It was important that I made a concerted effort to be at both the opening and closing of each class. As it was a collaboratively taught class, students needed to see both teachers, each day, as responsible partners in all aspects of instruction. Students appeared to view the team as a unit and during the course of the year all students related to each of us interchangeably, in order to meet their needs.
From a personal perspective, I found co-teaching to be very beneficial for many reasons. First, it allowed me to actually see students from my special education caseload performing in the general classroom. Previously, when using consultation services and a pull-out model, other teachers' observations, reflections, and interactions had to be relied upon for reports and meetings. Second, it was the district philosophy to pull out only the neediest students for an alternative Language Arts class. Therefore, there were many students with academic concerns and IEP goals in the area of reading and writing who were not receiving direct services from special education. Through a co-taught curriculum, additional students were able to receive direct support. This included all students who needed assistance, including those who did not have a severe enough disability to warrant time away from general education. Third, it was very beneficial to have first hand knowledge of the curriculum. As the Department of Special Education continued to write standards based goals for all students, this knowledge was valuable for writing the most appropriate standards based IEP goals and objectives.
Fourth, students with special needs were able to have peer models for good reading and writing. Opponents of the co-taught curriculum raised the concern that enrollment in general education classes might lead to negative comparisons and perceptions for our struggling students. However, students seemed to write more and more often in the general education environment than they had when taught in a pull-out setting. Fifth, it was very beneficial to be out in the general education classrooms. When students were referred to student study teams, I often had met the student or had worked with him/her directly in the co-taught class. Therefore, pre-referral interventions were often ongoing.
Overall, it was a great benefit for all students to see and know the special education staff. Special educators now worked in classrooms throughout the building, and students willingly accepted help from all teachers, as no longer did just a few students know the special education teacher. Some opponents were concerned that parents of general education students might complain that their student was being taught in a "special education class" instead of a "co-taught class". However, during the three years I was involved in co-teaching, no parent concerns were brought to my attention.
Reflection: The General Educator's Perspective
Some general educators may be reluctant to have another teacher in their classroom, perhaps because of a fear of relinquishing control. Yet, the classroom should not be about who has control, but instead about how student needs will be met. In a co-teaching relationship, the two teachers need to have equal power and to trust each other's decisions regarding any aspect of the student's classroom experience. Both the special and general education staff must be willing to discuss expectations and be open to change, feedback, and flexibility through the co-teaching relationship.
Shared planning for some teachers may be considered an imposition. I found it very beneficial to share my class plans with another trained educator who would make suggestions about what could or should be done for particular students or on a particular day. Through this collaboration for example, an assignment completed with gifted and talented students earlier in the day could still be completed with a group of mixed level learners in the co-taught classroom. Co-teaching made it possible to improve the effectiveness of instruction and activities for all of my students.
The moral support in the classroom is what truly makes the co-teaching experience invaluable. An additional benefit, because roles were switched easily, was that either of us had a chance to observe or assist students. Third and perhaps most important, co-teaching allowed more time for students who needed additional support. In fact the problem was not the presence of another teacher in the classroom, but instead the few times when the co-teacher was unexpectedly pulled from class or late in arrival.
Change is never without hurdles, and there certainly were a few obstacles that had to be overcome prior to moving to a co-taught program. Staff members from the special education department visited schools across the state, interviewing teachers and examining model programs. While this research and reflection took time, it allowed for appropriate planning and collaboration before the change actually occurred.
The master schedule for the building was designed to accommodate specific sections of co-taught Language Arts. Those classes had to be scheduled so that multiple grade levels could be served by only two special education teachers. The schedule also had to be designed to accommodate some common planning time so that each pair of teaching partners could complete teaching and grading as well as curriculum planning. This took administrative support and consistent communication between grade levels, general and special education, as well as direct consultation with members of the counseling department who scheduled all students.
The staff made a commitment to reduce interruptions in the general classroom. This meant being diligent in attempting to schedule support services (Psychology, Speech and Language, Occupational Therapy, and Physical Therapy) so that students could stay in the general classroom and receive itinerant support at other times of the day. One difficulty was that the shared planning time was not always preserved. In addition, there were times when the special educator was pulled from class to deal with a student, parent, or administrative emergency. Although those times were few, they were somewhat disruptive.
General education teachers were not used to sharing the classroom. Even the most experienced staff members commented that it was unnerving to consider sharing the class each day and that co-teaching was something that, at first, felt unnatural. It is indeed a tribute to the success felt by students and staff that each teacher (over a three year time period) who had initially been assigned to teach in the co-taught curriculum, volunteered to again serve as the co-taught classroom in the upcoming year.
Overall, a greater number of students were able to receive support and more students were educated in the LRE than had been in previous years. Student outcome data to validate the co-taught class is still forthcoming; however, it is exciting to note that current state testing results indicated that all students (even those with special needs) co-taught by this teaching dyad scored at or above the partially proficient level (above unsatisfactory, the lowest level) on state assessments of reading and writing. This is a reflection of the benefits of a collaborative effort and the use of a co-teaching model in the Language Arts classroom at the middle level.
Arnold, J. & Jackson, I. (1996). The keys to successful co-teaching. Thought and action, 12 (2), 91-98.
Cook, L. & Friend, M. (1995). Co-teaching: Guidelines for creating effective practices. Focus on exceptional children, 28(3), 1-16.
Dieker, L. A. (2001). What are the characteristics of "effective" middle and high school co-taught teams for students with disabilities? Preventing school failure, 46, 14-23.
Keefe, E. B., Moore, V., & Duff, F. (2004). The four "knows" of collaborative teaching. Teaching exceptional children, 36 (5), 36-42.
Murawski, W. W. & Dieker, L. A. (2004). Tips and strategies for co-teaching at the secondary level. Teaching exceptional children, 5, 52-58.
Vaughn, S., Schumm, J. S., 8,: Arguelles, M. E. (1997). The abcdes of co-teaching. Teaching Exceptional Children, 30, 4-10.
Walther-Thomas, C. (1997). Co-teaching experiences: The benefits and problems that teachers and principals report over time. Journal of learning disabilities, 30, 395-407.
Walsh J.W. & Jones, B. (2004). New models of cooperative teaching. Teaching exceptional children, 36 (5), 14-20.
Stang, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education at California State University, Fullerton. Capp teaches at Florence Crittenton High School in Fullerton, California.