What do general education teachers and special educators bring to the co-teaching equation?

Find out in this Q&A with the authors of How to Co-Teach: A Guide for General and Special Educators

About the authors

Dr. Elizabeth A. Potts

Elizabeth A. Potts, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and a program director for special education programs at the University of Virginia Northern Virginia Center. She earned her master's degree in education, with an emphasis in special education, from Longwood College in Virginia, and her doctoral degree with an emphasis on mild disabilities from the Univeristy of Virginia.

Dr. Lori A. Howard

Lori A. Howard, Ph.D., teaches special education courses related to collaboration and instruction, teaming, consultation, and individualized education program development in the special education program at the University of Virginia Northern Virginia Center.

Dr. Howard began her career in special education working with students who are deaf and have hearing impairments. She earned a master's degree in educational audiology from the University of Northern Colorado, and a doctoral degree from the University of Virginia in educational psychology.

Dr. Howard has also taught special education curriculum and methods courses at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.


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Q: What accounts for the increase in co-teaching?

A: Co-teaching is related to the increased inclusion of students with disabilities into the general education classroom. Anecdotally we know that it is becoming more common because more teachers are asking for assistance with co-teaching.

Q: What pairs generally make up the co-teaching duo?

A: The most common co-teacher pairing is a general educator and a special educator. However, two teachers with different content knowledge can co-teach together (for example, a social studies teacher and an English teacher), as can a teacher and any other licensed teaching professional (e.g., speech pathologist). An important consideration is that co-teaching should be done by 2 professionals.

Q: In your new book How to Co-Teach: A Guide for General and Special Educators, you identify 6 co-teaching models. What are those models and how do teachers decide which model is best for them?

A: Marilyn Friend and Lynne Cook (2010) identified the 6 models as:

  • One Teach, One Observe
  • One Teach, One Assist
  • Station Teaching
  • Parallel Teaching
  • Alternative Teaching
  • Team Teaching

Each co-teaching pair should choose the model of co-teaching that works best for them and for the specific lesson. As they become more comfortable teaching together, they may choose to use different models. Team teaching is becoming the most common form of co-teaching in many schools.

Q: What are the benefits of co-teaching for teachers? for students?

A: While we would love to be able to give you some hard numbers to describe the benefits of co-teaching, they don't yet exist. What we do know is that co-teaching gives teachers a colleague in the classroom, allowing two brains to work together to solve the complex puzzle that is teaching children, each bringing their own specific expertise to the classroom. Most general ed teachers bring to the classroom training related to curriculum and methods for teaching specific content. Special educators, by training, are focused on individual needs, goals, and gains. Combined, these perspectives can enhance learning for all students.

Another benefit of co-teaching is that it lowers the student-to-teacher ratio. Two teachers in the classroom mean more time for individual students and to help all of the students.

Q: What typically are the challenges of co-teaching for the general educator? for the special educator?

A: The general ed teacher must share their students and classroom. They have to make space for another adult in their classroom. Their classroom needs to become our classroom—that can be a difficult perspective shift.

The special ed teacher must learn how to teach the specific content for all of the students. They are often most comfortable teaching individual or small groups of students—now they must teach an entire class of students. This can also be a difficult perspective shift.

So, while each comes from a different perspective—they both must adapt to a new perspective of our classroom, our instruction, and our students.

Q: What advice do you have for veteran teachers who have been accustomed to teaching solo, to help them make a successful transition to co-teaching?

A: Be open to new ideas and willing to try new things. Co-teaching is an exciting time to share your classroom, your students, your successes, and your struggles with another person who is equally vested in the class. View your co-taught classroom as a truly shared space and shared experience and it will be positive!

Attitude matters! So, try to stay positive and welcoming. Become invested in moving from mine to ours.

Q: How critical is administrative support for effective co-teaching? In what ways can administrators support co-teaching?

A: Administrator support is vital for allowing and encouraging effective co-teaching practices; without support co-teachers will struggle to find time to work together and may be anxious about whether they should be trying new ideas. Administrators can demonstrate support by providing co-planning time, providing professional development (in-services and great resources like this book!), and engaging the teachers in conversations about their expectations for the co-taught classroom.

Ensure that co-teachers have shared planning time and opportunities to share their co-teaching experiences. Consider the reader's guide in this book as a way to encourage teachers in professional development and problem solving regarding co-teaching challenges.

Q: You identify 5 essential principles of effective co-teaching-what are they and can you briefly elaborate on each of them?

A: Our 5 principles of effective co-teaching are:

  • respect perspectives
  • practice communication
  • focus on classroom teaching
  • build student success, and
  • improve and reflect on relationships.

It is vital to respect the perspectives of your co-teaching partners so that you can have a healthy relationship and effectively work together for good classroom outcomes. Co-teaching is a complicated relationship that involves two people, people who have to communicate effectively, and you cannot communicate effectively without practicing your communication. If Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, sometimes general educators are from Neptune and special educators are from Pluto!

The first two are vital so that the co-teaching pair can focus on classroom teaching and build student success—you cannot have student success without effective classroom instruction, and doing the best for our students is why we teach. Finally, it is important to improve and reflect on relationships so that we can continually improve how we work with others and as a team.

Q: Co-teaching is often described as a "professional marriage," with the inevitable conflicts that can arise. What are some suggestions for managing team disagreements?

A: The same advice given in relationship or marriage counseling: communicate with respect, listen to the other person's perspective, and find solutions that work for both of you. While we aren't going to promote a "Date Night," it is important to find a little time to connect with your teaching partner such as a few minutes during lunch or time at a local coffee shop.

Q: In your book, you say that the question that guides decision making in schools should always be What is best for the students? What types of things can you measure to determine whether co-teaching has been best for the students?

A: The most objective way to measure what is best for students is to look at their academic achievement. Though you will not do a controlled study, administrators can compare student progress in classes with good co-teaching relationships and those in single taught classes, or compare the progress of students in a single teacher's class when he or she taught alone (in another class section or year) and when co-teaching.

It is important to look at subgroups, too. Just because co-teaching is designed with the student with disabilities in mind does not mean that we should forget about the needs of students without disabilities.

How to Co-Teach: A Guide for General and Special Educators

Be sure to see these other titles:

Collaborative Teaming: Teachers' Guides to Inclusive Practices, Second Edition

Collaborative Teaming: Teachers' Guides to Inclusive Practices, Second Edition

The Teacher's Pocket Guide for Effective Classroom Management

The Teacher's Pocket Guide for Effective Classroom Management

Learning How to Improve Vocabulary Instruction Through Teacher Study Groups

Learning How to Improve Vocabulary Instruction Through Teacher Study Groups

The Inclusion Facilitator's Guide

The Inclusion Facilitator's Guide

The Paraprofessional's Handbook for Effective Support in Inclusive Classrooms

The Paraprofessional's Handbook for Effective Support in Inclusive Classrooms

Schools that Make the Grade: What Successful Schools Do to Improve Student Achievement

Schools that Make the Grade: What Successful Schools Do to Improve Student Achievement