Two Cooks in the Kitchen
These days, you might be sharing your classroom with another teacher. Can you work effectively together—without spoiling everything?
It's a Wednesday morning and history teacher Tracey Wilson listens carefully as her 10th-graders debate the merits of affirmative action. "Nothing should be handed to you! You should work for what you get," a back-row boy says proudly. "The only reason they didn't get into college was because they were Black!" argues another, a Black girl who crosses her arms firmly.
"Isn't there a law that colleges have to have a certain percentile?" a blond student interrupts. "No," Wilson answers simply. And then, from the front row, another hand: "Is Jessica talking about quotas?"
Ah, good question Mrs. Stefanowicz.
There are two teachers in this class at Conard High School in West Hartford, Connecticut. The first, Wilson, is a history teacher of 31 years who designed the course, U.S. History through the African American Experience, to help close the achievement gap in history between White and Black students at her school. The other, Susan Stefanowicz, is a reading teacher who couldn't possibly say no when Wilson approached her at a new teacher orientation and said, "Hey, I think I need you!"
Question: What's one teacher plus one teacher?
Answer: A lot of help.
The "combination plate"—one teacher, typically a grade-level or subject-area specialist, put together with another teacher, usually an English Language Learner (ELL), special-education, or other remediation specialist—is on the menu in more and more schools these days. Called co-teaching, the practice can be beneficial for both teachers and students, if it's cooked up right.
Co-teaching was dreamed up decades ago by school systems that wanted to reduce class sizes. But, as government grants for smaller class sizes dried up, that particular strategy has disappeared, notes Alice Henley, assistant director for development at the State Education Resource Center in Connecticut. Now, it's used most often as an inclusive practice to serve students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) in regular classrooms.
"We know it's not the solution for everything. There are some kids, because of their needs, it's not appropriate for them. But that population gets smaller and smaller all the time," Henley says. These days, the district that isn't doing co-teaching is the exception.
Whose room is this?
Second-grade partners Lisa Parisi and Christine Southard represent the cutting-edge of inclusive co-teaching. Watch them in action, in their Long Island, New York, classroom, and there are no seams. Is Parisi the "special educator?" Or is it Southard? Parents have been told, but students don't have a clue.
They share a single email address—as well as all planning periods. They eat lunch together. They've added each other to their Verizon calling plans. It's not even called "Mrs. Parisi's room"—yep, she's the regular ed teacher. Last year, the kids chose a new, more inclusive name: "The South Paris Collaborative."
Theirs is a very successful relationship, evidenced by the improving reading scores of all students in the room—not just students with IEPs. At the beginning of last year, seven or eight students were performing below grade level. By the end, just one remained—and the rest were doing far above expectations on every measure.
A winning combination: Connecticut educators Tracey Wilson (left) and Susan Stefanowicz are improving student learning - and their own - through their co-teaching.
Photo: Mike Lydick
"There isn't any child who doesn't benefit from smaller group instruction—and we have the ability to do that easily," Parisi says. "We also have the ability to do different things at the same time. We use a lot of technology here…like VoiceThread [which allows them to record and publish student voices in Web-based projects]. So Christine can be doing that over here, and I can be doing something else over there."
Like the West Hartford duo, Parisi and Southard aren't formally trained co-teachers, which can be helpful, although they have studied co-teaching guru Marilyn Friend's work at the University of North Carolina. (Check out www.
marilynfriend.com for more info.) Still, they can point to several reasons for their success—and they're the same ones that Wilson and Stefanowicz cite.
First of all, nobody was forced into this.
Second, not one of the partners thinks that she's really in charge with a handy sous-chef by her side. "This is our classroom. There are two full-size teacher's desks. Not one full-size desk and a student desk by its side," Parisi points out. And in Connecticut, Wilson says, "I have to appreciate that Sue knows what she's doing—and she has to appreciate that I know what I'm doing."
And, they all share equal responsibility for every student in the room.
"There are a lot of co-teachers and regular teachers who believe, 'these are my kids and those are your kids,' and that's the way it is. But that's not co-teaching," Southard says.
Teacher as learner
Back in West Hartford, after more than three decades in the classroom and a recent award as the state history teacher of the year, Wilson still has a rookie's eagerness to try new things—like having a reading teacher by her side. She knew from the start that it would benefit her students. At the very least, they'd have some help getting through their college-level textbook. What she didn't know, she says, is how much she would learn, too.
"I used to write all over the board. I'd cover the board, and I'd expect my students to copy it," Wilson recalls. Now, with Stefanowicz's help, she's become more reflective in her teaching. How exactly should she expect kids to turn information into knowledge? These days, her classroom board often poses a single question, and students learn to listen for the appropriate answers and write them down themselves.
"She's not just teaching the kids, she's teaching me," Wilson marvels.
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What happens when it tastes horrible?
Not every co-teaching arrangement is fabulous. Sometimes somebody eats all the cake—and leaves nothing but crumbs. Sometimes it's like burnt toast. And you just wish you could start fresh.
Last year, teacher-blogger "Ms. Cornelius" (at http://%20shrewdnessofapes.blogspot.com/) wrote about her new partner. "Apparently 'co-teacher' means 'I will show up whenever I feel like it, and when I am there, I will…play on my electronic devices…I guess I should be grateful that this person has not thus far brought in a litter of puppies, which, 'pon my honor, is what one other co-teacher once did to one of my colleagues after being absent for half the week."
Even teachers who love co-teaching, like the ones featured above, have had their share of doozies. The teacher who thinks she knows your subject. Or the one who not-so-secretly believes she's really the boss.
Many teachers will quietly wait out the year. (June is coming, right?) But Alice Henley, a co-teaching trainer, recommends asking for help. "The way we approach it is, 'This is a professional relationship.'" As such, there are professional solutions—like real training—that your department head, administrator, or building rep should be able to help you get. (And a 45-minute sales pitch on how great co-teaching is going to be is not real training.)
"I've seen teams that I didn't think could work it out manage to pull it together successfully, and I think it speaks to their professionalism—and their commitment to children," Henley says