August 4, 2016


So my entire career, starting with my observation hours in college, I've been teaching students with learning disabilities. I usually have some on level classes too, but I started my observation hours in a school for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. Then my first teaching job included some pre-algebra classes in high school with a "push in" co-teacher (she would come to the class occasionally but not every day). At my current school I've had at least one co-teacher every year, sometimes a few simultaneously and this year a few sequentially (I don't wish that on anyone). So I have lots of thoughts on co-teaching, and was overwhelmed when Pam asked for blanket advice. Luckily she was kind enough to ask some more specific questions and now I can respond to them!

What if my colleague doesn’t like me? 

You might not like each other! That's okay! First, it takes time to build a relationship. Second, this person you work with doesn't have to be your best friend. However, you do have to work together for (hopefully) a whole school year, so you need to be good colleagues. I'm a very focused worker so I tend to skip the pleasantries and jump right to the tasks at hand. I've tried pay attention and see if my co-teacher prefers to chat first, chat while working or not chat at all and compromise a bit. I know this sounds like basic adulting but I'm still learning to "play well with others." However, if you and your co-teacher aren't getting along it's important to sort that out ASAP. I had to call in a supervisor one year because the situation in our room became hostile. The supervisor helped clarify roles and mediate conversations so we could refocus our attention on the students rather than worrying about being judged by the other adult in the room.

How can I help them feel it's “our space”?

Literally giving them a space is a great way to start. I have a corner where I put my bag and a chair where I hang my jacket. Make sure they feel comfortable claiming such spaces. Since my co-teacher was in my room for multiple periods we asked the custodians if there were any spare desks around. That way she had her own place for passes and pencils and all the supplies that it's nice to have for your own. If you can't get another desk then explain how your desk is organized and make it clear what is available for kids, what is available for both teachers and (if need be) what is just yours.

What if I disagree with something they want to do?  What can I say that will not come across as stubborn and bossy?

I have two conflicting pieces of advice: try things even if you don't want to and explain why you do it your way. Yes, your way has worked pretty well, but we all know we can improve. If you want your co-teacher to trust you to try things your way then you need to try some things their way. It won't ruin your class to try some alternate approaches on occasion. If it works, awesome! If not, you can have another conversation and adjust or return to the previous structure. However, if you really like the way you do something, explain why. I love working with someone new because it gets me to analyze decisions I made in my classroom years ago. What were my reasons for choosing this strategy? Is it still working? If so, explain that! If your co-teacher knows what your goal is it's much easier for them to support you in reaching it. Just like with students, understanding is better than following a random set of rules.

I am a “be less helpful” – asking / probing a lot rather than showing/telling students what/how to do and what to think.  Will this work with special education learners?  Or will I need to adjust to more direct instruction?

Yes!! Students with disabilities can figure things out too! Please don't give up on them and just show them the rule. They might need more time, simpler examples to start, more support or some extra encouragement. But many students with disabilities struggle with retention so teaching each new type of problem as a different set of rules is disastrous, the more repetition and connection these students can see the better. A few basic strategies to tackle any problem (make a table! It works to graph every function!) is ideal. However, this might be challenging for both your students and your co-teacher. Just like you need to train yourself to be less helpful and your students to use their resources, you absolutely have to explain this philosophy and the reasoning behind it to your co-teacher. Otherwise you become the mean teacher and the co-teacher becomes the answer provider. If you have a co-teacher who isn't confident in their math (or one who is!) it can be a great opportunity for the co-teacher to model student skills. The first year my favorite co-teacher worked with me she sat in a student desk and took notes every class. This created a great resource for absent students and a model of what students should be doing. It also helped my co-teacher to learn the material. Then she would work with students, referring to her notes or their notes as they needed them, and calling me over if they got stuck. Being humble about not knowing is huge and hard and creates a great classroom culture.

I try to be proactive with student behavior, but I do have certain expectations.  How do others handle discipline?

It's great to be able to tag team! Sometimes we would find students who like one of us better, instead of taking it personally I'm thankful that I don't have to figure out how to approach a student who has decided they don't like me. I don't ignore kids but you'll certainly find that some will gravitate toward one of you more than the other. How awesome that they have the choice! I'm fine with me sending a student into the hall and my co-teacher being the one to have a conversation with them and allow them to return. If you want that, or don't, you need to let your co-teacher know. Usually those conversations happen after the fact, "Feel free to go talk to kids I've sent to the hall, I noticed you were free first today and I would have been happy if you had."

Is it my responsibility to provide the foundation tasks and then we collaborate to come up with modifications together?

If you have time to plan together this is ideal. If they've taught the course before they may be able to offer options for tasks. Often you don't have time to plan together and so you have to consider modifications and your co-teacher will contribute other ones on the fly.

Do I keep grades for non-special education students and they score / grade / feedback for students with disabilities?

No. It's really important that students with disabilities don't stand out in an inclusion classroom. When you're working with students both teachers should work with all of the students regardless of their designation. I really like to see everyone's work on any assignment I decide to grade. One of my co-teachers was frustrated that I never let her grade anything, but if I assign something I want to see what they did! I did eventually let her grade some assignments and then looked over them myself as well. The best scenario is if you have time to grade together. When my co-teacher and I shared a prep block we would split the stack (randomly) and each grade. When we came across something interesting or that we weren't sure about, we'd talk about it. That way I still saw each paper go by, heard all of the noteworthy aspects of the ones I didn't grade and graded the rest.

It helped elevate my co-teacher's status in the classroom when she did some of the grading as well. Often students see me as the teacher and my co-teacher as the helper. Since I've worked with teachers who aren't math content specialists I deliver the instruction and lead the discussions for new material. Finding ways for your co-teacher to gain status if they aren't comfortable teaching new math (by grading, leading the warm-up, doing a mini-lesson with small groups...) is important.

Is there a go-to resource anyone can share on things we should discuss?  Even the chart in the article linked above, is that a good starting spot for discussion?  This I feel is key to setting the tone for the year – both of us sharing our expectations, strengths/weakness, things we are nervous about and even excited about too.

That chart does seem like a good starting point. Mostly things get addressed as they come up but it's great to start conversations early. Especially about classroom routines, my co-teacher takes attendance while I check homework and it just makes life so much easier! Also, share with your co-teacher how to do the things you usually do (like turning on the smart board) and class will run seamlessly even when you have to be out!

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