On any given school day, Janine and Marianne work out of three or more different classrooms each, in two different buildings. They are considered “push-in” support for various subjects, including but not limited to mathematics, science, and English literature. Over the course of the day they each work with students ages 11 through 18, and then after school they host exclusive, invitation-only “homework clubs” for students with special needs.
Janine and Marianne are highly qualified special educators with decades of experience. Yet, they are often treated as aides rather than co-teachers and valued professionals by subject teachers.
I know, because I used to be one of them.
Those days, I’m proud to say, are over. Here are my tips for establishing equality among co-teachers:
1. Desk Identity
As any teacher can tell you, a huge portion of students are visual learners. My eighth graders–nearly 50% of whom have learning disabilities that interfere with their language and literacy skills–are perceptive interpreters of images. They’ve had a lot of experience analyzing Instagram. That’s part of the reason I’ve made such an effort to personalize my desk area:
I’m not the only one with a big desk, though.
The very first thing I did upon being told I’d have co-teachers was to request a second teachers’ desk from our school’s Hausmeisters.
Special educators should not be expected to sit in a student’s desk. It is demeaning and sends an immediate cue to students that this teacher isn’t a real teacher. Just ask for another adult-sized desk. If your school doesn’t have the means (or is too cheap) to supply one, check Craigslist and yard sales for something secondhand. Do this before the beginning of the school year, if possible.
2. Pronouns: We are us.
This takes some practice, but lately I’ve made a concerted effort to instruct students to “ask us” and tell them that “we want” them to do things.
As a subject teacher who also works as a solo artist, my habit is to use singular personal pronouns. I currently teach sixth grade English literature and social studies classes, as well as ninth grade English language acquisition class on my own, and have taught grades 6-10 English literature without a co-teacher in previous years.
I noticed an immediate shift in classroom dynamics, and the degree of ownership my co-teachers have taken since I began to refer to “us” instead of “me” is dramatic. I was so worried about losing control, about not knowing about every little thing happening in my class that I wasn’t letting my co-teachers do their job. I demanded that students talk to me if they needed clarification. I told students that I expected them to complete assignments. I grew exhausted fielding questions and conferring one-on-one with students.
Indeed, I was acting as though I were the only teacher in the room. That doesn’t make for a very good partnership!
It takes some effort, but switching to the plural–we, us, our instead of I, me, and my–makes a huge difference.
3. Ask for feedback
Most special educators are more experienced and educated than subject teachers. They started out as subject teachers, but later added a degree or qualification in special education and exceptionalities.
Both of my co-teachers, Janine and Marianne, have children older than I am. They’re veteran teachers and have seen it all. I have an abundance of confidence in my content and pedagogical knowledge, and I regularly reflect on my practice, but it would be arrogant (and delusional) to assume I always know what’s best.
Lately I’ve consulted my co-teachers much more, and have started asking for feedback after lessons. They have given it graciously, pointing out where students continue to struggle and suggesting ways to address those things without criticizing my teaching. I can tell they value my asking, and I definitely value their advice.
Do you have any other tips for establishing co-teacher equality? Comment below!