Overcoming Barriers To Coteaching

Seamus O’Connor

If you will not bend, your students will break.

Emily Sims, “Sharing Command of the Co-Teaching Ship: How to Play Nicely with Others”

My coteaching partner for the first three years of teaching has never let me forget that I called her insane in our first performance review together. I meant it as a compliment, though. I told our principal how grateful I was that Carol[1] was “insane enough” to grant me equal authority in planning and delivering lessons. We all laughed at the time, but we all also understood the kernel of truth inside the overstatement. The responsibility for leading a class is stressful and strenuous enough on one’s own. The only thing more terrifying is giving equal authority to someone else in the room who may totally oppose your methods.

As a high school special education teacher in a New York City public school, I have seen some of the best and the worst results that Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) can produce. I have partnered with several talented teachers of various levels of experience, including Carol, an English teacher with whom I have shared a room for all three years of my career. This ongoing partnership has given me a chance to examine the ways we approach the problems inherent in coteaching.

Every partnership has reminded me that it’s much easier for general and special educators paired in ICT classrooms to carve out separate (and usually unequal) roles than to actually collaborate. In addition to entailing the risk of relinquishing authority, good-faith coteaching involves opening up your every act in the classroom to observation and commentary by another professional, questioning your fundamental beliefs about teaching and schools, confronting sharp personality differences, and changing or scrapping potentially all of your usual classroom procedures.

It may come as a surprise, then, that many teachers, special and general educators alike, have positive perceptions of coteaching (Damore & Murray, 2009; Hang & Rabren, 2009; Austin, 2001). One reason is that highly effective coteaching produces incredible results. Special and general educators believe that students with disabilities perform better academically in cotaught classrooms (Hang & Rabren; Austin). In addition, Walther-Thomas (1997) reported that all students in integrated classrooms can show signs of improved social skills and academic performance. Reports (though not specific data) from my own district support these perceptions (Office of Special Education Initiatives, 2008).

Coteaching at its best also leads to professional growth for both teachers. A partner invested in your success can help you identify blind spots in your reflection on your practice. In addition, having someone in the classroom with a complementary skill set can relieve stress about your weaknesses as a teacher. With such opportunities for increased support and professional development, it’s no wonder that effective coteaching leads to higher motivation in both practitioners (Ripley, 1997). These benefits present a strong case for taking on the challenge of overcoming the significant barriers to building a successful teaching partnership.

Laying the Foundation: Schoolwide Structural Supports

Coteachers can hold positive views of coteaching while simultaneously feeling intense frustration with the practice. They often complain about administrative direction and oversight. Numerous studies on impediments to coteaching cite the lack of collaborative planning time, administrative support, preservice and in-service training, and resources (Austin, 2001; Damore & Murray, 2009). My school’s teaching staff is fortunate to have an administration committed to the success of ICT. Our principal has increased the number of teachers in the school’s special education division over the last three years and doubled the number of special needs students in integrated classrooms. This rapid increase in the presence of special education students was jarring to some teachers, especially veteran general educators who had rarely been called upon to support students with Individualized Education Plans. The increasing population of students entering cotaught rooms for the first time was also caught off guard, wondering why they had two teachers and who was “in charge.”

Our principal smoothed our transition by offering opportunities for inquiry and discussion as well as for professional development about better serving our integrated student body. He also instituted many ongoing administrative supports for coteaching. Teachers in our school learn in the late spring who their partners will be, allowing them to start their planning during the summer. Most importantly, coteachers are given a full 43-minute period every day to plan together. Designated common planning time is often cited as the most significant condition for effective coteaching, with at least an hour per day seen as needed for a successful partnership (Walther-Thomas, 1997). Additional planning time leads to truly collaboratively designed units and a common understanding of the goals and activities in each lesson plan. Our school also offers the rare privilege of paid overtime for planning with a coteacher.

Accountability for coteaching is firmly established as well at our school. The assistant principals for both special education and for the relevant content areas co-observe all of my ICT classes. Praise and criticism are commonly directed at how well both teachers deliver or clarify procedures and directions, at each teacher’s effectiveness in preparing and employing differentiated instruction, and at the shared efforts to maintain a productive classroom atmosphere. These initiatives and feedback opportunities have made teachers more comfortable with providing differentiated instruction and participating in coteaching. As a result, our students have begun to internalize the expectation that some of their peers will be served in different ways during the same lessons.

But of course, an excellent support structure for team teaching is no guarantee of successful partnerships. Ultimately, two professionals—perhaps partnered for the first time, perhaps coteaching for the first time, perhaps entirely opposed to the idea of coteaching—must cooperate and lead a class.

Equality

Unfortunately, as Sims (2008) plainly states, in coteaching situations “[T]he special education teacher is often viewed as subordinate to the general education teacher” (p. 61). In so many partnerships, the belief of general education teachers that they can or should do most of the work in planning lessons becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy (Austin, 2001). I realized the hard way that waiting for a general education teacher to offer me equal authority over the class is not an effective tactic. Because integrated classrooms are not the norm at most schools, there is generally a sense that the special education teacher is “moving into” the general education classroom, especially when coteachers are partnering for the first time (Sims).  When the collaboration is imbalanced, special educators have to be proactive in demonstrating their trust, faith, and capabilities in order to establish equal standing.

In my first year, I felt sometimes that my partners were not interested in giving my ideas as much weight as theirs during planning sessions. Too often I retreated, figuring that I wouldn’t be heard anyway. I started using common prep periods to work on my self-contained classes. I got into the habit of reviewing lesson plans on the morning of a class, or even in some cases on the way into it. Those classes suffered terribly, with increasing failure rates among both general and special education students.

I tried to reverse this course by expressing my commitment to my shared classes, starting by asking about the everyday practices used by my partners. I made a sincere effort to show without prejudgment that I wanted to know more about how the class was governed. For example, I asked Carol why she never gave grades below 50 out of 100 on major assessments, even when the work only met 20 percent of the standards. She explained that receiving crushing grades on assignments they’d submitted could make it mathematically impossible for students to raise their average enough to pass, thereby removing their incentive to work further. When I understood and agreed to the policy, it didn’t at all change the way our classroom ran, but it did establish me as an equal voice in the partnership. Carol’s willingness to open her method to discussion proved that she considered me an authority on her level.

In partnerships where I felt left out of the lesson-planning process, I found that my coteachers were generally open to letting me make plans on my own if I just asked. When I took on that role, I asked my partners to review my lesson plans with me to generate discussion about what vision we had for each day or unit. This showed my commitment both to the class and to the partnership, while also clearly establishing the expectation that lessons would be planned collaboratively.

Giving Trust to Gain Trust

The critical first step of proving competence may be up to the special educator, but thereafter both teachers must build on that trust by demonstrating more faith in each other without waiting for particular reasons to do so. Otherwise, at least one partner will be unable to take the risks and make the spontaneous decisions necessary to reach the goals of each lesson. With a coteacher in the room, having mutual good faith is the only way to avoid class-wrecking divergences or collisions.

In my first semester, my coteacher and I were unsure of how to help the seniors in our multicultural literature course grasp what “culture” meant. I proposed a visual metaphor: holding an empty bag and adding an orange at a time until the students could agree that it was definitely a “bag of oranges.” Then I would repeat the process, adding oranges for “music” and “holidays” until the students could agree it was a “culture.” At the time, this proposal sounded sensible only to me. But my coteacher let me try it in front of two classes of students and she prompted them when my explanations weren’t clear. The students picked up on her evident regard for the demonstration, and a few of them actually appeared to learn from that exercise. That particular coteacher had started the semester by admitting anxiety about teaching special education students, but she showed no lack of confidence in me or in our ability to do well for our classes.

I have thought back to that incident many times when a teaching partner has pitched an idea that sounds unrealistic to me. It helps me remember that while some lesson plans really are crazy, the people I work with aren’t. Experimentation is a crucial part of learning as a teacher. The risks teachers take every time they try to connect with their students are much less daunting when another teacher is able to support the attempt, scary though it may be.

Differing Philosophies and Worldviews

It becomes much easier to trust a partner when you know where they derive their motivations and teaching philosophies from. All five teachers I’ve partnered with were firmly committed to teaching in low-income communities, but each had his or her own perspective. The degree to which our philosophies aligned, however, did not determine the success of each partnership. My partnership with Carol, for instance, is the greatest pleasure of my career—and her approach to teaching could hardly be further from my own. Our classes work so well because Carol and I offer each other respect, encouragement, openness, and honesty.

Carol, a lifelong New Yorker and product of both Catholic and public schools, brings an informed empathy to her teaching. By the time they reach high school, many of New York’s students believe that school has little connection to their outside life, so Carol’s mission is to convince them that their ideas and opinions will always be valued in her classroom. Her academic standards are high and she works to convince our students that they should expect to reach them. Carol is caring and personable, but most of all relentless in her efforts to increase our students’ confidence and engagement.

My own philosophy of teaching draws from my education in the affluent suburbs of Fairfax, Virginia. My peers there and I assumed that success in high school and college was a natural and indispensable aspect of preparation for employment. I was lucky to grow up in a great school district where I never had to question the value of what I would get from my efforts in the classroom. However, because I believe in schools as the best institutions for enabling upward social mobility, I was unprepared to cope with the jaded attitudes of some of my students. I did not expect to have to “sell” my students on the idea of school, because I didn’t understand that many of them had been enrolled in failing schools for years.

Carol and I actually shared most of the same hopes and expectations for our students, but initially our basic beliefs about the way students and schools should work manifested themselves in unproductive ways. For the first few months, Carol was all carrot and I was all stick. Seeing each other as committed to an unsuccessful strategy, we each pushed even harder to have our own ideas about motivation and rewards dominate our classes.

Finding Common Ground

Our differences meant that we had to work hard to find common ground, which we were able do through intense communication in preparation for the spring semester of our first year together. We discussed our goals, our strengths and weaknesses, and our vision of the ideal classroom, but we also talked about the smaller things—for example, when students could take the bathroom pass, and whether we would accept late homework beyond a week after the due date. These basic decisions saved us from potentially disastrous conflicts and questions of authority down the line (Sims, 2008).

Because we wanted the students to see us as equal authorities, Carol and I agreed to share the talking during each lesson. In the beginning, this meant that we each carried a copy of the lesson plan with us, marked with the initials “C” or “S” to indicate who would lead each activity. This also provided a convenient way to extend our mutual respect: If one of us was dead set on trying a given activity, that person could mark it as her or his own talking-turn and take responsibility for it.

With regard to classroom procedures, to prevent confusion Carol allowed me the final authority over bathroom pass usage. We openly deferred to each other on students’ attempts to submit late homework and stood by the other’s opinion, so the students could see us actively compromising.

Accepting and Reflecting on Differences

Of course, we did not always agree on judgment calls made during class. For instance, Carol was more likely to repeatedly tell students to put their phones away, whereas I would try to enforce a no-strikes, hand-over-the-phone-or-see-the-deans policy. My way led to many more class interruptions and showdowns, but I was sure that it was the only way to uphold the school’s ban on phone use in class.

In such instances, Carol and I used every available minute after or between classes to mutually reflect on the issue. I was embarrassed sometimes when she told me to back down, but she always explained her reasoning, and it was clear every time that she had the students’ academic progress in mind. With Carol’s help, I learned to read the mood of our students more subtly, and to pick my battles more effectively.

It was this pattern of mutual reflection on our differences that helped us learn how to maximize each other’s strengths. Because we honestly explained our concerns and motivations after any disagreement, we both felt comfortable taking risks in the classroom with a fellow teacher to back us up. It didn’t take long to realize that if I let Carol gently remind students to put their phones away as long as they were still working, the students were more likely to surrender their phones to me if I caught them clearly slacking.

It turned out that our students (perhaps remembering my “bad cop” past) responded more quickly to my calls for attention, even if it was only for me to hand off direction of the next activity to Carol. Every discussion Carol and I had came down to two questions: Whose way is best for the students? And if our approaches are equally effective, which of us is more enthusiastic about his or her idea? We then let the more motivated coteacher run with that plan, and reflected on it again later.

During a vocabulary unit, I wanted our students to build comprehension through analogies, the method I had used to learn new terms when I was in high school. Carol wanted our students to make multicolored flash cards with images to represent each word’s meaning. I let her take the lead, and found out that discussions between students over how to draw the meaning of words like “vast” or “indisputable” lead to deep understanding of the terms. I didn’t believe in the power of analogies any less, but I had learned a new kind of study skill to pass along.

Even with a partner’s support, the fear of blundering is constant for new teachers. For me, that meant that nothing was more comforting than frequent and honest appraisals of everything I was doing. Who better to provide that than the teacher who had seen my every move, heard my every word, and depended on them for her own success? Carol and I perfected the two-minute recalibration of a lesson between periods by getting right to the point: “Will you lead those questions next time? I confused the students.” “Don’t use that metaphor—they don’t know what a capella groups are.” We also used our paid planning time to delve into what had and hadn’t worked, and helped each other by engaging in self-reflection. This type of systematic analysis not only makes each teacher more effective but also makes coteachers more capable of collaboration (Ploessl, Rock, Schoenfeld, & Blanks, 2010).

Carol and I run an annual unit on the Harlem Renaissance that I wanted to improve this year by adding a more differentiated final assessment. I devised a project with five options for artistic expression of the ideas and themes studied in our unit.

My idea, though, only went as far as presenting our students with those options at the start of the unit and asking for work products at the end. Carol proposed that we spend a full day practicing each of the five options, presenting the class with a model of our own making on each day.

Carol is a talented poet and painter, and I could have let her handle all the modeling. But when I went through the process of actually writing a poem that exemplified my expectations, I recognized that there were several skills that I would have to practice with the students that hadn’t occurred to me before. Carol experienced the same revelation in her preparation, and our lesson plans included much better support for our students as a result.

That experience spoke to the heart of what I think coteaching is about. Teaching with a partner can often feel simply like give-and-take at the beginning: “OK, we’ll try your flashcard idea today, but you’d better not object to the way I write the test.” My partnerships have started to excel when we have recognized that coteaching is not a zero-sum game. Both teachers can learn more, improve their practice, and see more success in their students during every lesson if they practice mental flexibility—finding a way to get behind an idea that they may not understand or trust initially.

More Than Preservice Preparation

The interpersonal skills required for successful collaboration develop as coteachers become more comfortable with each other personally and professionally. An opportunity also exists in education degree programs to prepare all teachers for coteaching, but it is often missed. Some of the skills required for successfully navigating teaching partnerships, such as conflict resolution strategies and templates for cooperative reflection, could be productively addressed in preservice coursework (Ploessl, Rock, Schoenfeld, & Blanks, 2010; Austin, 2001). Given the continued growth of inclusion programs nationwide, there is an urgent need for teachers who can enter the field prepared to share a classroom.

But highly effective coteaching is dependent on more than preservice preparation. It starts with a clear administrative commitment to inclusion through providing planning time and forums for discussion on best practices, and continues with requiring accountability of all coteachers. From there it depends on the willingness of teachers to share authority and responsibility and to reflect on how their own philosophy and practices support student learning in concert with their partner’s.

Carol and I appreciate each other’s reflections so much that often our light discussions of lesson planning turn into deep analyses of how we can better reach our students or improve our school’s culture. Carol once remarked that those discussions did not always produce the answers we sought, but were “good for our brains.” That kind of professional growth is what makes coteaching worth overcoming all the barriers to it.

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