By Anne M. Beninghof
Coteaching (or collaborative teaching) is defined as a coordinated instructional practice in which two or more educators simultaneously work with a heterogeneous group of students in a general education classroom. A key word in this definition is coordinated. Coteaching partners spend time planning together, smoothly share instructional responsibilities, and collaboratively reflect on their practices. Effective coteaching can be compared to synchronized swimming: teammates must carefully coordinate, not only to win, but to avoid drowning!
Coteaching can look many different ways to the casual observer. Within one period, we may see both teachers take a lead in lecturing, giving directions, monitoring student behavior, or taking responsibility for a small group. We may see one teacher quietly collecting observational data while the other facilitates whole-group instruction, or one teacher problem solving with an individual student while the other continues the lesson. No matter what it looks like, effective coteaching always requires the active engagement of both educators for the entire period.
I have the opportunity to visit many schools around the country that wish to implement effective coteaching. As I observe in classrooms that are labeled “cotaught,” I see a wide range of implementation. In many cases I observe two educators fully engaged during the lesson, contributing their unique expertise to meet the needs of the students. But just as often I see one educator, usually the specialist, greatly underutilized. Evidence of this may include:
- Hearing the specialist’s voice rarely or not at all
- Seeing the specialist leaning against a wall for a significant portion of time, waiting for the general education teacher to finish lecturing
- Watching the specialist wander the aisles, offering minimal cues or supports to individual students who may be struggling
- Failing to note anything that could be called “specially designed instruction”
- Observing little or no interaction between teachers
While debriefing my observations with teachers and administrators, I frequently learn that the coteaching partners have no common planning time. For coteaching to be most effective, partners must have time to coordinate their instructional efforts. Administrators must make common planning a priority when designing the schedules. Teachers must also create time-efficient ways to enhance their coteaching.
For example, a short brainstorming session with coteachers yielded 30 different tasks that Teacher A could be doing while Teacher B is lecturing, including:
- Writing color-coded notes on the board or laptop
- Echoing key words from Teacher B
- Pulling up an online site (thesaurus, encyclopedia, media) to support instruction
- Providing kinesthetic tools, manipulatives, aids, and props
- Counting down, giving time clues, or managing a visual timer
- Prompting engagement with directions such as: “Stand up if you …, Turn and talk about …, Stomp your feet if …”
- Going on-the-spot to websites to show visual images
Another reason teachers cite for underutilizing the specialist is that they are in their first year of coteaching together and will “step it up” after they become more comfortable with each other. Students cannot afford for teachers to spend a year or more getting used to each other. For the sake of our students, we must “step it up” right away. This often means that the specialist must advocate more strongly for a significant role in the classroom. This may also mean that the general education teacher must welcome and, even more, expect the specialist to share ideas and expertise.
When both parties are willing and committed to effective coteaching, these conversations can be dynamic springboards for excellent instruction. When one party is less willing, these conversations can be difficult and uncomfortable. For the sake of our students, teachers need to have these conversations, no matter how uncomfortable. Luckily, resources are abundant! Checklists, discussion guides, and problem-solving processes can help partners clarify their roles and responsibilities so that both sets of skills and expertise are fully utilized. These tools and additional ideas can be found at www.ideasforeducators.com.
Anne M. Beninghof, M.S., an internationally recognized consultant and trainer, has more than 30 years of experience working with students and teachers in a variety of public and private settings. She has been a special education teacher and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Hartford and the University of Colorado. She has published several books and videos, and has provided staff development in 49 states. Beninghof recently returned to the classroom, where she works part time with teachers and students who are struggling with the learning process. Follow her blog at www.ideasforeducators.com, or visit her on Facebook or Twitter.