When I returned to classroom teaching after five years at home, there was a lot of newness for me. New building, new Common Core standards, new SMART boards. But perhaps the biggest “new” was the teaching model I’d be using: co-teaching. My high school, like buildings throughout my district and country, are using co-teaching as the means to support inclusion of students with IEPs in general education courses. This means that a certificated specialist (sometimes an ELL teacher, sometimes a Special Education teacher) is paired with a general education teacher; the two teachers work together to support the needs of all students in the classroom, ideally using a mixture of the six approaches outlined by Dr. Marilyn Friend, one of the leading advocates of the co-teaching movement.
Fortunately for me, I was paired with an incredible educator last year, Monique LeTourneau, and we continue our partnership together this year. There are many resources out there to explain what co-teaching is and advice on how to make it work for teachers and administrators. But for the purpose of this post, I’d like to give you some snapshots of what co-teaching is like, a glimpse into what the policy looks like in practice in one classroom in one school in one city. With two teachers.
It’s Wednesday night and I cram in a few last minutes of planning for the next week before my weekly planning meeting with Monique the following morning. I type in the plans for each day, referring back to our co-planned scope and sequence, making notes on what we need to discuss. Should we try station teaching with 5th period? Does she know of a more complex text we could offer students as an optional extension? How can we make sure 6th period can access the texts we’ve planned? Could we offer a “huddle” for students who want more support during our writing workshop?
With seven and a half hours of arena-style conferences ahead of us, I shove a table in next to Monique’s. I leave a note by the “Hs” that Ms. Hanawalt can be found by Ms. LeTourneau. A student comes in with his mother and we both lean in, active and equal partners in supporting this student. The student mentions he is struggling with his independent reading; Monique informs him that because he has an IEP, he has access to an audiobook service through the district. He seems relieved. We all stand to shake hands.
During third period, I stand at the door, fist-bumping students on their way in. Monique is inside, helping students get settled and started on their “Do Now.” I see one student walking slowly towards the door, tears in her eyes. I am scheduled to be the lead teacher for the opening activity, but I peek in, whisper a few words to Monique, and the student and I head out for a walk and talk. Monique takes over the teaching without hesitation.
We are reading a challenging James Baldwin essay. I give students two options for their learning for the day: if they want to read it out loud and dissect each paragraph, they will stay in my classroom; if they feel ready to dive into discussion, they will walk across the hall to Ms. LeTourneau’s room. Students make a choice and some pack up their stuff and walk to the other room. The learning continues.
I’m sitting with a student, listening to her concerns about balancing her academics with sports. She is concerned about her academic eligibility and wonders if her IEP allows her to have lower grades and still be eligible. I respond that I don’t think that it does, but that she should check with Ms. LeTourneau because she knows all about IEPs. The student looks at me with raised eyebrows: “She’s a Special Ed teacher? I didn’t even know.”
Co-teaching doesn’t feel so new to me anymore, but it definitely is not easy. As in any relationship, Monique and I must invest energy to make our partnership effective. And sometimes, even though two minds might be better than one, putting those minds together takes extra time and communication. But this collaborative and trusting relationship allows us to serve the needs of our collective classroom community more effectively, while also giving us the flexibility and space to respond to the needs of individual students.