How to Make Coteaching Work
If you think coteaching is easy, you 1) have never cotaught, or 2) are seriously the most chill person in the world. For most of us, coteaching-- where two different teachers try to share the same space and work together to deliver content to students-- can be complex. There are a million and one ways for coteaching to go wrong-- and it is pretty likely that if you are coteaching with multiple teachers you are going to have some good partnerships, some that are meh, and some that make you fantasize about summer vacation (or happy hour) on every day of school. My goal here is to look at some of what the research says about how to make these partnerships work.
Research to Practice: Making Coteaching Work
Here is the advice in short based on my own research: It takes work. Lots of work. Think like a marriage that has hit the stage of needing “talks” amount of work. And like a marriage, it works better if you respect each other, agree on the big things, and are willing to actually be in the same room and talk.
There you go. Done. That was the whole post. Not. Here is the wordy version.
- What do we mean by co-teaching?
- Co-teaching is one of those terms that means different things to different people, so here is how I am using it: Co-teaching is an instructional model where a general education and special education teacher partner to deliver instruction in the general education setting (Cook et al., 2017; Friend et al., 2010).
- Does co-teaching work?
- Sometimes, sort of, not always. In classrooms with strong, collaborative co-teaching partnerships, the teachers’ instruction is often more differentiated, and teachers bring their different expertise and techniques into their shared instruction (Oh et al., 2017; Pratt, 2014; Rytivaara et al., 2019). More often though, researchers find that co-taught classrooms generally look similar to single teacher classrooms and that co-teaching often has small effects on student outcomes (Cook et al., 2017; King-Sears et al., 2021; Murawski & Swanson, 2001).
- What does co-teaching look like in classrooms where students with special needs thrive?
- The special education teacher is an instructor, not just an aide with shared responsibilities and shared instructional roles (Bottge et al., 2018; Burks-Keeley & Brown, 2014; Cook et al., 2017). AKA these tend to be classrooms with team teaching.
- 1. Meaningfully support co-teaching through shared planning time (Cook et al., 2017; Shamberger et al., 2014).
- 2. Pair teachers together who have similar philosophies and approaches to teaching (Fluijt et al., 2016; Pratt, 2014; Sebastian, 2022). AKA don’t pair a teacher who hates noise in her class with one who loves noise or one who wants to expel all students who are annoying and one who wants to give them a million chances.
- 3. Keep potentially strong partners together over time because coteaching partnerships are one of those things that just gets better with time (Fluijt et al., 2016; Pratt, 2014; Sebastian, 2022).
- 4. Pair teachers who want to coteach and are interested in collaboration (Rytivaara et al., 2019; Shamberger et al., 2014)
- 5. Pair teachers who have at least some knowledge of the content (Shamberger et al., 2014)
- Positively reinforce your coteacher’s successes (Brinkmann & Twiford, 2012; Pratt, 2014).
- Communicate frequently about students, about lessons, and about your lives (Brinkmann & Twiford, 2012; Pratt, 2014; Sebastian, 2022).
- Engage in open and direct communication about differences and challenges in your partnership (Hackett et al., 2020; Oh et al., 2017; Rytivaara et al., 2019; Sebastian, 2022)
- Find your own balance of what works. Maybe that is splitting the planning down the middle and the teaching. Maybe it isn’t. Figure out what works for the two of you because your partnership is unique and what works for others might not work for you (Rytivaara et al., 2018; Sebastian, 2022).
- Be willing to share power. It isn’t the you show if you are a coteacher (Fluijt et al., 2016; Oh et al., 2017; Pesonen et al., 2021; Pratt, 2014). Keep the focus on student success, not the two of you (Shamberger et al., 2014)
- Know that it takes time and WORK to create and maintain a strong partnership (Sebastian, 2022)
In one of my studies, I observed and spoke with a strong, successful pair of co-teachers in 11th grade US History and English. Both had been in failed partnerships before. Coach Wilson (pseudonym) had been asked to be a co-teacher in a high school math class, where he did not know the content at all and felt useless. Dr. Sumner (pseudonym) had had a partnership with someone who had a totally different philosophy about teaching and it had bombed. The two of them, however, had a strong partnership. It was supported by their administration who had kept them together for three years, gave them shared planning time, and had been thoughtful in pairing them.
Both of the teachers had, according to them, “the same attitude and mentality” when it came to teaching, and the “same vision.” They both felt “strongly about… trying to make a difference for kids who may have been left out in the past.” The teachers also shared a love for history and an understanding of social inequities which motivated their teaching. Even more importantly, according to them, they were not “ego guy[s]” and instead were focused on “the kids.”
Their shared vision, beliefs, and low ego styles laid the foundation for their partnership, but it still took work. In co-teaching, according to Dr. Sumner, “there’s more investment needed into the relationship” between the co-teachers; “You have to think about your relationship with these other people and not just your relationship with the students.” He acknowledged the work of maintaining the relationships, but also saw the value, saying it was “like the saying… if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go with a group of people.” To make it work, the teachers checked in constantly. They touched based before school, during breaks between classes, during downtime in instruction, and, based on their conversations, over text messages. They touched base about students, about lessons, and about life. If one of them was unsure about something the other had done with a student, Coach Wilson described them as willing to reach out and hear each other’s “perspective.” He felt this helped them stay “on the same page” and let them “be ourselves, but also be linked together.” Coach Wilson acknowledged that this took “some time,” but saw the investment as worth it. They began each year by laying the “groundwork” and “getting on the same page [about] kids.” They also talked about the bigger issues, according to Dr. Sumner, such as “classroom management, our perspectives are on why we’re teachers, why we’re here.” Even for these two well suited co-teachers, it took effort to make the partnership work.
While some co-teachers share planning, these teachers did not. Dr. Sumner did all of the class planning as Coach Wilson focused on special education case management and coaching outside of their classes. They did, however, share instruction. Dr. Sumner tended to do more of the instruction in the first period class and Coach Wilson tended to step in more with the afternoon class, when he felt more comfortable with the English content. They traded off frequently, however, during lessons with both working with small groups and both delivering whole group instruction. They found a way to make coteaching work for them– they did not follow the cookie cutter cut out of someone else’s coteaching model and instead found a balance of responsibilities that worked for them.
Even with all of this work and awareness, sometimes there were challenges. One day, Dr. Sumner was tired and stressed from the testing he was overseeing. He started class as the boss, pushing Coach Wilson into more of a support role. Part way through class, he paused, and intentionally stepped back. He asked Coach Wilson to take over part of the lesson. For Coach, that stepping back and self-awareness was part of the proof that Dr. Sumner was focused “on the kids” “even when he seems overworked and tired and stressed.” The point is that even these two fabulously matched coteachers who put in the work every day to make their partnership work still sometimes had wobbles.
The takeaway from these two master teachers is that coteaching takes a lot of work and relationship building and is not always smooth– but if you put in the time and stay focused on the students, you might be able to help students “achiev[e] their sense of greatness in whatever avenue they choose.”
- Bottge, B. A., Cohen, A. S., & Choi, H. J. (2018). Comparisons of mathematics intervention effects in resource and inclusive classrooms. Exceptional Children, 84(2), 197-212.
- Brinkmann, J. & Twiford, T. (2012). Voices from the field: Skill sets needed for effective collaboration and co-teaching. International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, 7(3), 1-14.
- Burks-Keeley, R.G., Brown, M.R. (2014). Student and teacher perceptions of the five co-teaching models: A pilot study. Journal of American Academy of Special Education Professionals. Fall, 149-185
- Cook, S. C., Mcduffie-Landrum, K. A., Oshita, L., & Cook, B. G. (2017). Co-teaching for students with disabilities: A critical and updated analysis of the empirical literature. In Handbook of special education (pp. 233-248). Routledge.
- Fluijt, D., Bakker, C., & Struyf, E. (2016). Team-reflection: The missing link in co-teaching teams. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 31(2), 187–201. doi:10.1080/08856257.2015.1125690
- Friend, M., Cook, L., Hurley-Chamberlain, D., & Shamberger, C. (2010). Co-teaching: An illustration of the complexity of collaboration in special education. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 20(1), 9-27.
- King-Sears, M. E., Stefanidis, A., Berkeley, S., & Strogilos, V. (2021). Does co-teaching improve academic achievement for students with disabilities? A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review, 34, 100405.
- Murawski, W. & Swanson, H. L. (2001). A meta-analysis of co-teaching research. Remedial and Special Education, 22(5), 258-267.
- Oh, K., Murawski, W., & Nussli, N. (2017). An international immersion into co-teaching: A wake-up call for teacher candidates in general and special education. The Journal of Special Education Apprenticeship, 6(1), 2.
- Pesonen, H. V., Rytivaara, A., Palmu, I., & Wallin, A. (2021). Teachers’ stories on sense of belonging in co-teaching relationship. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 65(3), 425-436.
- Pratt, S. (2014). Achieving symbiosis: Working through challenges found in co-teaching to achieve effective co-teaching relationships. Teaching and Teacher Education, 41(1), 1-12.
- Rytivaara, A., Pulkkinen, J., & de Bruin, C. L. (2019). Committing, engaging and negotiating: Teachers’ stories about creating shared spaces for co-teaching. Teaching and Teacher Education, 83, 225–235. doi:10.1016/j.tate.2019.04.013
- Sebastian, R. (2023). “If You Want to Go Far”: A Case Study of Culturally Sustaining Co-teaching. The Urban Review, 55(1), 27-49.
- Shamberger, C., Williamson-Henriques, K., Moffee, N., Brownlee-Williams, Y. (2014). Special educators speak out on co-teaching knowledge and skills. Journal of Research Initiatives, 1(2), 1-9.