A Two Parent Household
Back in August 2012, I started my teaching internship under the mentorship of Dr. Elena Garcia, an English teacher with a background in theatre. It seemed like a perfect fit; I had done my BA in theatre and felt lucky to have been matched with a teacher with similar interests. I had no idea how fortunate I really was until the school year began.
In addition to Dr. Garcia’s guidance, I was given the opportunity to learn from Marcie Rosen, another English teacher who was also a qualified special educator. The two veteran teachers complemented one another perfectly, and even more impressively, they actually got along (even outside of work!). Everyday, the three of us had lunch together, sometimes collaborating on work, but usually just chatting. Grading was always divided fairly. While the two teachers had large desks with framed photos and plants at opposite ends of the classroom, I was given a small table. It was clear that the two of them shared responsibility and leadership of the classes, and that I was, as Marcie once joked, their “indentured servant.”
I observed in awe how they proceeded through each lesson, never having to ask or remind one another of what to do, each knowing her role. They supported one another without interfering. They took turns speaking in academic language and clarifying that language for students who needed it. They continued to fine-tune their lessons.
When I interviewed for my current job, I stressed my interest in special needs education and co-teaching. At the end of my second year, my wish came true: our school was going to begin implementing co-taught classes, and I was going to co-teach three of my classes with special educators.
Be Careful What You Wish For
I was a little less lucky than I’d been during my teacher training. For one thing, instead of five classes, I was on the schedule to teach six classes. Also, I had six different preps: 6th grade English, 6th grade social studies, 7th grade English, 7th grade social studies, 8th grade English, and 9th grade English language acquisition. Finally, I was going to be expected to attend collaboration meetings with the other teachers of those subjects during my planning periods, in addition to department meetings for English and social studies.
When was my designated time to collaborate with my co-teachers? In a given week, I was expected to teach twenty unique lessons, as well as attend four meetings during my planning periods. This left me only six lessons in which I could prepare for six different subjects, grade assessments, and meet with my two special education co-teachers. Even if I did all of my grading and lesson prep after school, and dedicated two periods per subject to co-planning with my special education partners, they couldn’t guarantee that they’d be available. See, these special educators also co-teach math and science. Where Marcie only co-taught English classes (and had been an English teacher herself for many years), our special educators work in all subject areas.
I had hoped for jazz, the syncopation and improvised solos working because the musicians knew not only their craft, but one another so well. In reality, we were more like a kindergarten class singing happy birthday, half of the kids not sure whose birthday they were celebrating, but hoping there would be cake.
My co-teachers took a backseat, and I let them. I was used to being in charge, and it seemed easier to just let them be additional adults in the room who could monitor behavior and clarify things for students who struggled with the basics. I took on all of the responsibility for planning, instruction, and assessment. I bore that burden and resented all the work I had to take home on the weekends. I revelled in martyrdom.
It took months to see that I was the one responsible for shutting my co-teachers out. I was treating these education professionals as aides because it was easier than real collaboration. When a special educator co-teaches multiple subjects, she is typically expected to move from classroom to classroom throughout the school day. She may or may not be an expert on all of the subjects she co-teaches, but she is an expert on learning disabilities and exceptionalities, and a great pedagogical resource. I tried to imagine what it would be like to constantly move around to other people’s classrooms, and realized it is the subject teacher’s responsibility to enable the special educator in a co-taught class.
It was then that I came up with my Five Features of Effective Co-Teaching.
Are you a subject or special educator who co-teaches? What are the benefits and difficulties? Comment below!