As special educators we are constantly finding ourselves in co-teaching relationships, whether it is with Instructional Aides in our own classroom or with general education teachers in their classrooms. Co-teaching is great for the students. It improves our teaching, pushes us to think beyond our own opinions, allows us to get two sets of eyes on a student's progress, gives us someone to bounce ideas off of, and helps manage behavior. The benefits of co-teaching go on and on. I love it and prefer co-teaching to working in isolation. That doesn't mean it isn't hard.
The problem is that no one tells us it is going to be hard. In about October you start to think you are doing something wrong because it IS hard and nobody warned you. Aren't you supposed to have that idyllic co-teaching relationship your professors told you about?
Have you heard people refer to someone as their “work wife” or “work husband”? That's what your co-teacher becomes: Your work spouse. You are sharing close quarters, making important on the fly decisions together, and facing the consequences of your partner's decisions (whether or not you agreed with them) together. Except that unlike in marriage you don't have a dating period first. You are expected to jump in Day One as though you are an old married couple. Co-teaching is really an arranged marriage.
I've been lucky to work with fabulous co-teachers over the years. I would not change any of my co-teaching experiences because I learned a lot from each experience. But I think in college/grad school and in professional development classes people tend to overlook just how hard co-teaching can be.
When you co-teach there are things you have to give up. You give up a certain amount of control. You may need to bend on your strong beliefs of how kids learn. You may have to be willing to enforce different behavior expectations than you would if you were alone. All of that is hard. I feel like I am constantly checking myself to monitor whether I am making decisions based on my emotional reaction to a situation (Did she really ignore my decision? She can't really think that will work!) and instead refocusing my thoughts on the situation from a more analytical angle. (She must have seen a different angle than I did. She has a reason behind her decision and she’ll explain to me later.)
Co-teaching falls apart when we start trying to prove to each other what great teachers we are. And that is a hard habit to give up, especially when you are a new teacher coming from an education training program where you basically were always trying to prove yourself to your professors. It’s a hard habit to shake. School culture is very different than college culture.
Building mutual trust isn't something that happens overnight. It takes time for two people to put away their baggage, lower their shields and come to a place where they can work together. This is often the piece that gets overlooked when we are being told how great co-teaching is.
What I have found to be the most helpful is to sit down together and come up with a mutual plan, in writing, of what behaviors we can and cannot accept as a team. To talk out the ins and outs of whether kids can get water without asking, how to deal with non-compliance, and even when to redirect behavior and what should be ignored. Those are the types of daily classroom issues that will drive you crazy if you are constantly trying to read one another's mind in the moment.
I've also found it helpful to find out what noise level we can both tolerate and how we want to communicate to each other in the room. As a classroom teacher it drove me crazy when my co-teacher wanted to touch base while the kids were in the room because I didn't want them to overhear discussions on behavior. Now as the person coming into the room I'm constantly finding myself trying to touch base with the teacher in the classroom. I need to take the time to ask them how they want to communicate. Some teachers prefer in the moment, others prefer email.
Another trick I found that worked well was to develop a co-teaching sign language. Saying “Hey, Ms. L, we’re going to ignore that behavior right now” isn’t actually ignoring the behavior- it’s letting the kid know your plan. Instead my co-teachers and I will often work out a silent visual cue (sometimes the sign language “I” for ignore, or “I’ve got this”) so that the other adult in the room knows that the other has already made the decision to ignore the behavior. It helps keep everyone on the same page in the moment.
I would love to hear other tips on how you build your co-teaching relationships and what you put in place to make them work. What works for you and your partner? How do you communicate before the year even starts?