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Ask Gemma: Co-Teaching Advice


Co-teaching can be a challenge for even the most experienced educators.  Sharing your classroom or coming into another teacher’s classroom (sometimes for the first time in decades) can feel a bit like meeting your first roommate freshman year at college.  Sometimes, these relationships form quickly and easily, creating wonderful co-teaching teams that seem made for each other.  On the other hand, as this week’s letters show, sharing teaching responsibilities with another teacher can be difficult.

Dear Gemma,

As a special education teacher in my district, I had taught in a resource room for almost 12 years.  I taught middle-school English, pre-algebra, and reading strategies to classes of between 8-15 learning support students.

But recently, my district decided to move to a completely co-taught curriculum.  I’m now “co-teaching” with 10-20-plus year veterans who have never had to work with another teacher.  One of the teachers has been amazing, but the others seem happiest if I am either sitting in the back of the room quietly taking notes (so I can re-teach it to “my” students later), or moving -- again, quietly -- around the room to work with the identified students. They don’t seem to realize that I’ve been a teacher for as long as they have, that I have a master’s degree, or that I’m certified to teach their subject too!  I don’t need to be front-and-center in the classroom, but how do I let my co-teacher know that I’m not just an overpaid teacher’s aide? 

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- I’m a Teacher Too, Austin

Dear I’m a Teacher Too,

One of the biggest frustrations of co-teaching is definitely when one teacher feels that they are being pushed to the sidelines.  Nothing can make you feel smaller than going from the person in charge of planning and implementing the lessons to the person in charge of passing out the worksheets or taking notes for the absent student.

Sadly, this is all too common in co-teaching classrooms.  Often, the reason doesn’t have as much to do with one teacher not wanting to “share the reins” as much as it does with lack of time to co-plan. It is difficult enough to try to fit everything teachers need to accomplish into one planning period a day without adding in time to sit down with a fellow educator and discuss how to best implement lessons in a cooperative way.

Because of this, teachers end up falling into lead teacher/support teacher roles than can leave the “supporter” feeling underused -- and underappreciated.

With that in mind, I have one suggestion and one point to ponder.  My suggestion is to let your co-teacher know you’d like to meet with them during an upcoming planning period.  At that planning period, let them know how you feel.  Make sure you express that you know it isn’t their fault, that you haven’t had enough time to work this out as a team, but that after teaching in your own classroom for years, you just are not comfortable spending the rest of your teaching career sitting in the back of their room taking notes.

Ask to set up time to figure out how co-teaching will look in your (that’s his/her AND yours) classroom.  When confronted directly and politely, most teachers will understand what you are saying and work with you.

If there doesn’t seem to be any time to work out the details, consider going to your building administrator and asking for him/her to bring in half-day substitute teachers for the two of you.  Most principals will try to accommodate educators who are trying to make their co-teaching classrooms more effective.

My point to ponder is this: Remember that (no matter what your administration or co-teacher may think) there is no set model for what an effective co-teaching classroom looks like.  Some teachers are able to share teaching responsibilities together each day fluidly, others trade off days – one teacher taking the lead one day, the other the next, some find it effective to have one teacher be the lead teacher for one unit, while the other plays the support role, and then switch for the next unit.

And still others find that the lead teacher/support teacher role works best for them all the time.  Whatever works best for your students and for you is what will be most effective in your classroom, but don’t allow your co-teacher to put you into a role you aren’t comfortable with or dictate how the classroom will be run.  You’ll be miserable and the students will miss out on your years of experience and ability!

Dear Gemma,

I teach one class in a co-teaching setting each day.  While I would be fine with sharing duties and responsibilities with another competent educator, my co-teacher seems to be more than happy to sit in the back of my room and listen to what I am teaching.  Occasionally, he’ll chime in with an anecdote or bit of information that is somewhat relevant to what I’m teaching, but more often than not he just sits on a desk in the back and listens.  He’s even fallen asleep during a movie!  I’ve gotten to the point where I get annoyed when he even tries to participate because it just feels like it throws off the lesson. How can I either work with him to improve our co-teaching relationship or let him know that I’d rather he not “help” in the lesson?

 -Annoyed Educator, Newburyport

Dear Annoyed Educator,

While there is no “magic ratio” of time each co-teacher needs to spend leading the lesson in order to make co-teaching work, I agree that having a co-teacher that doesn’t appear to want to do any of the teaching is frustrating.  The temptation to relegate that person to note-taker or paper-passer is high, but it looks like it is going to be up to you to initiate any attempts to make your current situation workable.  In an ideal co-teaching relationship, what would you like your co-teacher to do?  Do you want to work in a model where the main teaching responsibilities are shared equally?  Would you prefer to remain the lead teacher while your co-teacher takes a more active support role?  Is it possible that you have taken the lead without asking your co-teacher’s input, thereby sending the message that you really don’t want him to be involved? 

These are all things to consider before approaching your co-teacher to discuss how to improve the co-teaching in your room.  If you’d like to share teaching responsibilities, a good place to start is by letting your co-teacher know that you don’t want to hog the “spotlight,” and asking him to take lead on the next unit (or unit after that if he needs more time to prepare).

Make it clear that you’ll help with planning and materials, but relinquish the reins and see what he does.  He may surprise you by leaping at the opportunity.  If he balks at being lead teacher for even a short period of time, then be ready to come back with a list of things that he could be doing and that you’d like him to start being responsible for in the room.

A nice way to phrase this is by saying some version of, “I know you can’t be happy just sitting in the back of the room every day.  You’re a teacher too!”  Even if he has gotten comfortable just relaxing in your classroom for one period a day, he’s not likely to admit it.

Make sure you have a list of things you’d like him to do, however.  For example, he could be in charge of the review lessons/games for your tests and quizzes, maintaining the class website, the summarization lessons/closing activities, etc.

If you are nervous, start small, but remember, many teachers would love to have an additional adult to assist them in their classrooms, so don’t let your frustration over his past behavior stop you from utilizing what could be an amazing resource.

Sadly, I wouldn’t be 100% honest if I didn’t state that sometimes you will encounter an educator who really doesn’t want to take responsibility and is enjoying doing nothing in your classroom.  If that’s the case, you may want to consider documenting the steps you’ve taken to improving the situation and then quietly visiting your department head or building administrator to address the problem.

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