Yikes, You’ve Got a Co-Teacher; 5 Tips for Making It Work

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It was the first day of school, and I arrived early, eager to meet my students and catch up with colleagues I hadn’t had a chance to see during opening days. My plans were prepared, my room was set, and I was feeling relaxed and ready to ring in a brand new year.

There was only one problem: a pile of furniture I never requested was consuming the space at the front of my room. It hadn’t been there the day before, and I didn’t appreciate moving all of it out of the way in my skirt and heels on one of the warmest end of summer mornings on record.

This is how I learned I would be working with a co-teacher.

Moments after I shoved all of her stuff to back corner of my room, Kristen arrived to introduce herself. She was new to the district. Warm. Funny. I liked her–immediately.

So, I was lucky.

It’s hard to say how much our friendship influenced our ability to co-teach well, but it certainly did. I can also tell you that our shared teaching experiences and the memories we made together in the classroom deepened our friendship as well.

Early on, someone suggested to both of us that co-teaching worked much like marriage: our relationship would need deliberate care in order to work. Supported by a handful of administrators who understood this, we leveraged every opportunity we were given to learn and grow together. We maintained realistic expectations, too.

Co-teaching was one of the most rewarding experiences of my classroom career, and when I left to become a professional learning service provider, it became a subject that I was asked to speak to and coach often. Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to support a middle school team that is interested in maximizing their collaborative teaching efforts. These were the focal points of our conversation:

5 Tips for Working with a Co-Teacher 

1. Put your relationship first. It’s tempting to dive into curriculum planning or discussions about instructional approaches right away, but it’s best to begin by investing in your relationship. Work together to define a clear vision for your work together, be clear about your hopes and your needs, and establish times to check in and monitor the health of your working relationship over time. While much of our time was spent planning, Kris and I also met to reflect on our growth together, celebrate our successes, and resolve conflicts every few weeks. These conversations had nothing to do with lesson planning. These meetings were all about improving the way we worked together. 

2. Set goals, and then break them into very small, actionable steps. Rather than assuming that team teaching is the ultimate co-teaching approach and aiming to use it every day, explore other approaches and consider testing them one at a time in low-risk situations. Some lessons lend themselves to parallel teaching. Others invite one teacher to facilitate learning while the other drifts the room for a distinct purpose. Parallel teaching, station teaching, and alternative teaching offer different advantages as well. As you choose approaches, keep the needs and interests of the learner at the forefront of the conversation. Match approaches accordingly.

3. Use protocols. Protocols establish equity, enabling both of you to make powerful contributions to your learning and work. The National School Reform Faculty provides a variety of excellent protocols that help co-teachers plan, seek feedback, make meaning from student learning and work, and resolve dilemmas. As you begin setting goals and planning to nurture your co-teaching relationship over time, choose a few that you can commit to using. Do this now, before you find yourselves needing them.

4. Learn from one another. If it weren’t for Kristen’s expertise, I never would have learned how to design assessments that were sensitive to the needs of special education students. I never would have realized the full potential of differentiated instruction and flexible grouping either. Kristen taught me so much that I didn’t know about what it means to be a great teacher. I had to be willing to let go of my need to be the expert at the front of my room in order to appreciate this, though. I had to be willing to let go of my need to know and instead, position myself as a learner. This was often frightening. It was always worth it, though.

5. Commit to making it work. Several years into our work together, Kris and I began learning how to group and regroup learners to provide just-right interventions based on varied needs. This was intense, exciting, and exhausting work, and we experienced quite a bit of failure along the way. Back from a regional workshop where one participant ranted to the room about how differentiation would never work, Kristen marveled aloud about our experiences (which were similar to his) and the conclusions we were drawing (which were very different):

“I don’t understand how he can just assume it isn’t going to work,” she said. “We can’t just apply an approach, watch it fail, and decide that it won’t work. We have to play with it until we get it right. We make it work.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity I had to make things work with my co-teacher. Teaching can be such an isolating and lonely endeavor.

When it’s just you with a great big group of needy kids and way too much curricula to cover, studying the impact of your teaching is a very tall order. It’s easy to get burned out.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a friend in the room with you, your potential to serve kids well increases tenfold. And if that person isn’t your friend yet, I hope these tips bring you closer together. What would you add?

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.

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