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Including co-teaching in a teacher preparation program: a vital addition.


Co-teaching involves having a general and special education professional collaborate in the same classroom, working with a heterogeneous group of students. While this has become one of the more popular options for including students with disabilities into general education classes, few teacher preparation programs provide instruction in co-teaching. Far fewer actually model the technique for teacher trainees. Hence, it is not surprising that new teachers frequently feel ill-prepared to actually co-teach. This article describes a teacher preparation program in California that includes elementary, secondary, and special education students in a course co-taught by university and school-based instructors. The benefits and difficulties of co-teaching a university class are discussed and strategies for developing a successful co-teaching relationship are provided.

Co-teaching. By now, most educators have heard of it. Sometimes it's called collaborative or cooperative teaching, sometimes team teaching, sometimes teaming. No matter the name, as teachers obtain preliminary or clear credentials, or attend professional development seminars and conferences, the importance of co-teaching and collaboration between general and special educators continues to be emphasized. What exactly is co-teaching? Co-teaching, as defined by Cook and Friend (1995), is when "two or more professionals deliver substantive instruction to a diverse or blended group of students in a single physical space" (p.2). In fact, according to the National Center for Restructuring and Inclusion (1995), co-teaching is the most common service delivery model for teaching students with disabilities in the general education classroom. So, if co-teaching is so popular, what is the concern?

While co-teaching offers plenty of potential benefits for both students and faculty and is well documented in the literature (e.g., Friend & Cook, 2000; Hughes & Murawski, 2001; Walther-Thomas, 1997), the concern for most teachers lies in how co-teaching is implemented--or rather how it's not implemented (Murawski & Swanson, 2001). When two credentialed (or at least experienced) teachers are collaborating together in one classroom, great things can happen--few teachers will deny that. However, if those same teachers don't know how to work effectively together, or perhaps don't want to work together, that same situation can be disastrous for both students and teachers. The importance of demonstration as a technique for teaching a skill is well known and accepted amongst educators. For example, when introducing a new technique for teaching reading, most faculty describe the steps and rationale involved, model the technique and then, using guided practice procedures, have students practice the technique until competency is established. Why then do we expect our budding educators to learn about co-teaching without ever seeing it in practice?

Before any actual strategies for co-teaching can be utilized by teachers, it is critical to recognize that co-teaching (like many other special education initiatives) has been frequently presented to special education staff only (Murawski, in press). Teacher preparation courses at colleges and universities often "preach to the choir," expounding on the virtues of co-teaching to prospective special educators. However, it is important to note that general education teachers are less likely to have had this type of instruction and will therefore have a very different frame of reference than their special education colleagues. Thus, including both general and special educators in any efforts to teach and model co-teaching is imperative for real progress to be made.

Hudson and Glomb (1997) are among others (e.g., Cruz & Zaragoza, 1998; Dynak, Whitten, & Dynak, 1997; Hohenbrink, Johnston, & Westhoven, 1997) who have recognized that very few institutions of higher education (IHE's) actually implement co-teaching between faculty in their teacher preparation programs or even prepare their general and special educators to work collaboratively with one another. They note that "the discrepancies between teacher education and actual practice may result in special educators' and classroom teachers' coming to meetings that require collaboration with varied levels of expectation and preparation. These differences, in turn, can result in disparity, poor communication, and failure to attain child-related objectives" (Hudson & Glomb, 1997, p. 443). Noting this discrepancy, the DELTA intern program at California State University, Northridge (CSUN) decided to take the steps needed to create a class that would model techniques espoused by teacher education faculty and prepare their students for future collaborative endeavors.

As part of a federal grant, the DELTA program combined elementary and secondary teacher trainees with special education teacher trainees in an "Introduction to Teaching" course as their first course in an intern credentialing program. In addition to this integration, it was decided that two instructors would co-teach the course. I teach the course at CSUN on co-teaching and collaboration, and do the bulk of my research in the area of co-teaching at the K-12 levels; thus, I immediately volunteered to be one of the instructors, hoping to be able to "practice what I preach." An effort was made to select a school-based instructor with strong ties to the community and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) school district, in which all teacher trainees worked as emergency credentialed teachers. Barbara (a pseudonym) was an excellent selection. Barbara is a former secondary principal of a large high school, with extensive background in teaching reading. Barbara had taught other courses on a part-time basis with the university. As the university representive, I am an assistant professor in the department of special education, with an emphasis on mild-moderate disabilities. At the K-12 level, I have taught in both general and special education classes. Currently, I do the majority of my teaching, research and consultation on ways to successfully include students with mild/moderate disabilities (learning disabilities, emotional disturbance, mild mental retardation) into general education classes through the use of modifications, strategy instruction, and co-teaching between educators. Clearly, the prospect of teaching and modeling these skills to brand-new teacher trainees in both general and special education was exciting for me!

Throughout the course, Barbara and I met on a weekly basis for approximately two hours, using the time to discuss student progress, plan for future classes, and divide up responsibilities. We tried to include a variety of instructional techniques in the class, modeling different ways to structure assignments, grade papers, do groupwork, and teach new skills. We took turns teaching different parts of the course, with each of us being the "primary" instructor at some part during each three hour class session. At times, we would implement the "one teach, one support" strategy (Cook & Friend, 1995), wherein one of us would be in front of the class, while the other circulated, passed out papers, answered individual questions, or checked individual work. At other times, we would "team teach" a lesson, with both of us feeling free to supplement and clarify what the other said, making sure we provided examples for elementary, secondary, and special education students. A nearby empty classroom also allowed us to occasionally break the class into groups, which we varied on a regular basis. Sometimes grouping was random, sometimes it was done by area, sometimes by the students' preference. As we taught our content in a manner meant to educate all students using a variety of techniques, grouping strategies, and learning modalities, our goal was to model for our students how they could then do the same with their students.

Our situation was relatively unique and yet, it shouldn't be. If we as educators believe that students will benefit by being included into heterogeneous classes and by being instructed by two professional educators who can collaborate to meet individual needs, why aren't we in turn implementing these techniques? Why aren't we modeling for our teacher trainees? Students frequently share with us the impact our collaboration has had on them; in fact, one student said "I learned more about co-teaching by watching you two do it than I did from anything I could read out of a book or in articles. Now I'm truly excited to try it!"

Was co-teaching easy? No. Anytime two or more individuals get together to work on something, there are bound to be differences. When teaching a course by myself, I am able to make last minute decisions, to plan late at night, to make changes without consulting anyone; these are things that are compromised when co-teaching. Barbara and I have different personalities and teaching styles and there were times when I wanted to teach something differently or spend more or less time on a particular topic. On the other hand, however, in working with Barbara, I found that I too learned a lot! Barbara had a wealth of information and experiences regarding the school district and its policies that led to specific examples to which the students could relate. She had taught this class previously to secondary education teachers and I was able to watch her and see how those teachers receive their training. From that, I was able to add information related to working with students who have special needs in those situations. I was able to take Barbara's lesson plans and suggest changes, additions, and modifications so that the elementary and special education interns would also benefit from instruction. I added research and citations from the literature to back up strategies we taught our students and, together, Barbara and I determined which content was crucial and which could be slated as "get to it if we have time." We shared grading, planning, and creating demonstration lessons, all of which easily made up for the excess time spent planning. In fact, it only took two brief sessions together at the end of the course for us to jointly grade the entire class's portfolios and final exam essays--a task that would have taken me a week if I were to attempt it alone!

Co-teaching is a viable option for any educator working with heterogeneous groups of students. Most IHE faculty would certainly agree that teacher preparation programs include very diverse groups of students. If we are truly dedicated to the idea of inclusion for students with disabilities at the K-12 level, it is imperative that we, as teacher trainers, implement and model co-teaching for our teacher trainees. The first step is to identify an appropriate class and an interested partner in the area of general education instruction. After that, however, it is more important to provide students with a positive model of co-teaching--and that takes work! Below are some strategies that co-teachers can employ to help ensure a successful relationship.

Strategies for Co-teaching

* Talk about your pet peeves early in the relationship

* Include signals that both instructors are equal partners by having both instructors' names on the board in the beginning of school and using "we" instead of "I". Do not allow students to feel that one instructor is responsible for general education students and one is responsible for special education students.

* Determine a regularly scheduled time each week for planning and reflection. If that cannot be a common planning time during office hours, consider regular lunch dates. Email is also a wonderful option for ongoing communication.

* Be open about your own strengths and weaknesses related to teaching, grading, organizational practices, planning, etc. Try to maximize each person's strengths by breaking up work by personal preferences.

* Talk to the students about this relationship and discuss the fact that, even if the instructors may have different opinions about something, students are never allowed to play "mother against father." Support one another in front of students--and then feel free to discuss the issues when you are in a private office until you come to a reasonable understanding, or until you agree to disagree.

* Use different instructional activities to model how teachers can avoid getting stuck in the same old-same old routine. Regroup students frequently, emphasizing the importance of having different students in different groups each time so that no one is stigmatized as being with a "special ed" group. By trying new things with your class, you will be modeling how teachers can do the same with their students.

* Encourage students to read Cook and Friend (1995) and Bauwens, Hourcade, and Friend (1989) for more strategies on how to regroup students into different models that can work with co-teaching. A helpful text on Collaboration (to include Co-teaching) is by Friend and Cook (2000).

* Every week, openly discuss what is going well and what is frustrating. If one instructor is taking over too frequently, it is important to address it early on. The more open the communication, the better the relationship and the more smoothly classes will run.

* Feel free to bring in other speakers. If students see that you are willing to accept others' opinions and expertise, as well as willing to collaborate with multiple people, they too will begin to consider doing the same with their classes.

* Above all, be open to learning from one another. Provide one another positive reinforcement, on-going encouragement, and continued support. Teacher preparation faculty know that teaching adults can frequently be a daunting task; co-teaching allows you to have a partner with whom to discuss potential difficulties, take advantage of opportunities, and above all, celebrate successes.


Bauwens, J., Hourcade, J. J., & Friend, M. (1989). Cooperative teaching: A model for general and special education integration. Remedial and Special Education, 10, 17-22.

Cook, L., & Friend, M. (1995). Co-teaching: Guidelines for creating effective practices. Teaching Exceptional Children, 28, 1-16.

Cruz, B. C., & Zaragoza, N. (1998). Team teaching in teacher education: Intra-college partnerships. Teacher Education Quarterly, 25(2), 53-62.

Dynak, J., Whitten, E., & Dynak, D. (1997). Refining the general education student teaching experience through the use of special education collaborative teaching models. Action in Teacher Education, 19(1), 64-74.

Friend, M., & Cook, L. (2000). Interactions: Collaboration Skills for School Professionals(3rd Ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman.

Hohenbrink, J., Johnston, M., & Westhoven, L. (1997). Collaborative teaching of a social studies methods course: Intimidation and change. Journal of Teacher Education, 48(4), 293-301.

Hudson, P., & Glomb, N. (1997). If it takes two to tango, then why not teach both partners to dance? Collaboration instruction for all educators. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30(4), 442-448.

Hughes, C.E. & Murawski, W.W. (2001). Lessons from another field: Applying coteaching strategies to gifted education. Gifted Child Quarterly, 45(3), 195-204.

Murawski, W. W. (in press). Demystifying co-teaching. CARS+ Newsletter.

Murawski, W.W., & Swanson, H.L. (2001). A meta-analysis of coteaching research: Where are the data? Remedial and Special Education, 22(5), 258-267.

National Center for Restructuring and Inclusion (1995). National study on inclusion: Overview and summary report. New York: Author.

Walther-Thomas, C. S. (1997). Coteaching experiences: The benefits and problems that teachers and principals report over time. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30(4), 395-407.

Dr. Murawski is an Assistant Professor at CSUN in Special Education. Her research and consultation efforts lie in the areas of co-teaching, staff development, & learning disabilities.
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Author:Murawski, Wendy W.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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