Some Thoughts on Co-Teaching

Co-teaching has become a default model for delivering special education. It comes in many forms, but the unifying characteristic is having the special education teacher in the general education classroom to ensure the facilitation of special education programming. It makes sense in many situations. It doesn’t in others. How schools implement it varies tremendously. So does how well it works.

How did we get to co-teaching? An inclusive approach to special education is no longer a theoretical notion. It’s how schools deliver special education to most students with IEPs. By law, these students must have access to the general education curriculum alongside their peers who don’t have disabilities. Increasingly, schools are pushing to make inclusion an afterthought, with classrooms being designed from the start to accommodate a range of needs.

To make this happen, general education teachers need help. Here is where special education teachers enter the fold. For many years, special education teachers were supporting cast members, taking needy students aside to work with them in resource rooms or other settings. Special education teachers would collaborate with general education teachers to make adjustments to assignments and tests that would improve access for special education students. Today, special education teachers continue in this collaborative role, but the trend is for them to allocate most of their time in general education classroom with the general education teacher, ideally incorporating some form of co-teaching.

Many smart people have figured out ways to make co-teaching work. Like almost anything else in education, the most effective mode might depend on the array of needs in a class. Possibilities range from having the teachers share the responsibility of working with all students to having the special education teacher work with students needing extra support in a small group. The half dozen or so variants of co-teaching together form a playbook for how to create and maintain an inclusive learning environment. With the playbook already written, one would think schools could run effective programming.

Perhaps the greatest hindrances to making co-teaching work are the rushed or absent preparation teachers too often have for the endeavor along with the lack of common planning time needed. In some schools, teachers have a professional development or two and are left to figure out how to do this on their own. Special education teachers might be told to push in to a general education class with little direction regarding what this pushing in should entail. Meanwhile, co-teachers frequently lack common preparation periods. Sometimes arranging for this isn’t possible. Communication becomes hampered. Functional co-teaching isn’t likely to materialize.

Compounding such problems, more students tend to need support than there are special education teachers available to provide it. If these students are dispersed among several concurrent classes, the special education teachers likely won’t get to work with them but for a few intervals during the day. Teachers need to be flexible, but they can’t be in more than one place at a time. If the students with disabilities are grouped, schools can be accused of tracking them, even if this would facilitate efficient co-teaching. Scheduling headaches trip up good intentions.

A typical scenario follows. The special education teacher is assigned, doesn’t know what to do, and ends up being an expensive assistant. He or she will circulate in the classroom and help wherever possible. This can be of benefit to students, but it might not be the best use of this professional’s skills. It tends to undermine the special education teacher’s standing in the eyes of students as students see him or her as a helper and not as the authority in the room.

Continuing, the special education teacher and general education teacher might not get along famously. They might differ in their views regarding management and in how to best support the needy learners in the classroom. In some highly toxic relationships, the general education might feel the special education teacher is almost an intruder rather than a teammate, while the special education teacher might feel more of an allegiance to the students than to his or her colleague.

Beyond such a scenario, other programmatic pitfalls lurk. These depend on how adamant a school is about having students with IEPs in the general education classroom for the maximum amount of time. One of the longstanding difficulties with inclusion is making certain students who need more concentrated support aren’t being lost. Some students might need pull out service. Administrators might be reticent to arrange for this because they feel pressure per IDEA indicators to keep up the percentage of time special education students are in general education.

When a school is inflexible about this, students can get shortchanged and can be left floundering with minimal support in classes that aren’t appropriate for their needs. As special education teachers are assigned as co-teachers, they might not be available to those floundering students.

Co-teaching doesn’t have to be a jumbled affair. Schools must consider it a tool that might be of benefit when including students, rather than a mandate that must be followed. It also need not be an organizational and collegial mess. Much of the time, it is productive and beneficial. It does require preparation. It does demand organizational forethought. Co-teaching can be a twist in the conceptual paradigm many teachers have about their selected vocation. The autonomy that some might have sought simply might not be there. It can be in the best interest of students for whom inclusion is appropriate, though. The point of all this is the benefit of students. If co-teaching is working, a school should continue using it. If it isn’t, everyone needs to take a close look at why.

Some Thoughts on Co-Teaching

One is the Costliest Number

One of the most expensive and invasive services a school can offer to a student with an IEP is a one-to-one assistant or personal care assistant. What could put more of a strain on a school’s resources than assigning one member of the staff to one student? Occasionally, a student will exhibit needs intense enough to justify such a costly service. Determining necessity and feasibility makes for a complicated and often controversial set of decisions.

Parents routinely request this level of support. Sometimes they demand rather than request. The parent input section of evaluations and IEPs often includes statements about how students need one-to-one help to be successful. Well, almost every student would benefit from having a specifically assigned adult for support throughout the school day. Most students don’t need this, though. Schools don’t have an obligation to provide the best possible education, just one that is appropriate. Nonetheless, convincing a parent his or her child might not absolutely need one-to-one support can be difficult.

Of course, some students do need it. In particular, students with emotional disturbances, behavior disorders, or other conditions that affect behavior are likely candidates. When behaviors interfere with learning and safety to a degree that progress isn’t possible, teams might have to consider one-to-one support as an option. Such an intense level of service could be what helps a student remain focused and engaged in the general education environment. It can be the service that ensures a free appropriate public education.

Another way of looking at it is the school community at large might need the support. This might resonate with any school employee who has experienced what can happen on a day the one-to-one for a student with behavior issues is absent. Depending on the student, the school day can become a wash, with several staff members consumed in an effort to contain a volatile student. Instructional time and even safety for other students can be compromised. Schools might struggle similarly with students prone to such behavior until teams agree a one-to-one is needed. They might struggle while waiting for a one-to-one to be assigned, too. The point of the service is to support the student, but the result might be a quieter, more functional school day for everyone else.

The rational mind might wonder what the hell students who are so disruptive are doing in schools. Why should schools have to commit such resources to students who can’t be assisted otherwise, students who can’t function in any sort of typical school environment without such a pricey service? The simple answer is the law demands they are taught with their peers to the greatest extent possible. If a one-to-one is necessary for this, the school needs to provide it. The more esoteric answer is these students are entitled to an education despite the conditions that cause their behaviors. Excluding them because of behaviors caused by an underlying condition would be discrimination. One might ask, “What about everyone else’s rights?” Whether or not this is a satisfactory answer, the one-to-one is there to help ensure everyone else can have his or her right to an education unimpeded by the behavior of one disruptive student. This one-to-one is part of a system of supports used to balance the needs (read: behavior issues) of students with disabilities and the students around them.

That system of supports frequently involves outside agencies. The IEP team might determine the need for a one-to-one. The school usually has the responsibility of providing it. However, an agency might end up providing it instead. An interagency team could decide a wraparound service needs to be in place that includes school hours. If the IEP team signs off on it, the agency likely will provide a therapeutic support staff worker or similar service provider. This will be on the agency’s dollar, which is supported through the family’s insurance. Should the recommendation indeed make its way into the IEP as a statement of need, the school has an obligation to supply a substitute in the absence of the person appointed by the agency. Providing this can be tricky, but the school has to do it.

Appointing a one-to-one comes with a host of potential pitfalls. To start, when schools use their staff members for these positions, someone tends to get pulled from some other post where that someone had been needed. The staff members who are used as one-to-ones might not have the most sophisticated training to support their new positions and instead might be poorly prepared for such a role. Many school-appointed one-to-ones are marvelous additions to teams and do a tremendous service for schools, students, and families. To be frank, however, many of the individuals who end up in these roles aren’t well suited in terms of temperament, reliability, and overall professionalism. The positions don’t pay well and the work can be highly challenging, leading to a shallow pool of capable candidates. When schools outsource the service, as many are beginning to do, every person coming through the door is a wildcard.

Therapeutic support staff workers usually have more training and higher salaries than school-appointed one-to-ones. They can bring a greater degree of clinical fidelity and efficacy to their work. The agencies they serve tend to require more of them than schools require of one-to-ones. The supportive program they offer should align with what the school is offering, but most of the time it is more specific and exacting. Again, many of these workers are effective professionals who help students steer straight. Some are liabilities per their incompetency. Crucially, they’re not school employees. This often creates discord regarding professional expectations.

Even with effective staff in place, one-to-one support can become a crutch for students. It generally can’t be replicated for adults in work or school settings. It reduces the possibility of fostering accountability for behaviors. The later into schooling it goes, the more reliant students are likely to be on it. Rarely does it help change a set of behaviors. Efforts to do that might be built in to programming, but the point is to mitigate the effects of behaviors on learning, or even to lessen the impact of behaviors on everyone’s safety. The service might do these things, but isn’t likely to completely extinguish behaviors or address the internal conditions that could be causing them.

One-to-one support is suitable and possibly necessary for students with the most disruptive and difficult to manage behaviors. These students are the least likely to be able to participate functionally in productive adult lives. The service typically doesn’t increase the likelihood of post-secondary success. It’s a bandage at best that keeps disruptions from bleeding all over the school day. Following a fundamental relationship in special education, it’s another example of the students with the least potential getting the most expensive support. Each person can decide whether or not this relationship is justifiable. Keep this mind, though: “justifiable” gets into conceptual territory, while “necessary” deals with the practical here-and-now. Ask a school to remove all the one-to-ones in the building for a week and see what everyone has to say about the need for the service Friday afternoon. Like it or not, it’s here.


One is the Costliest Number

The Danger of True Believers

A breed of exceptional professionals stands out in schools. They announce their presence. Those around them witness them working for a greater good with a zeal that can be inspiring or troubling, depending on perspective. Educators of this breed can’t be convinced that they’re doing anything but the most important work anyone could be doing. They’re also convinced they’re the only ones doing this work right. These educators are True Believers.

Who are True Believers? These are teachers and administrators who genuinely buy generic educational rhetoric. They live by motivational posters and inspirational quotes. They believe wholeheartedly that schools are the most important change agent in any young person’s life. They believe every student can perform at grade level and can do this well. They refuse to believe any student can’t do this. Their conviction defines them.

True Believers readily subscribe to the latest in educational panaceas. They insist that macro-level policies will improve outcomes for all students, if followed with fidelity. They find a policy or a program or a methodology and dive into it, convinced this will be the answer to some issue of underperformance. They love throwing technology at any deficit while maintaining how the “old-fashioned” way of doing anything retains its merit. All along, they know they know better than anyone else does.

Often, True Believers find their work in schools to be more than a job. They invest the whole of their being into what they do. They never really stop working, filling their evenings and weekends with school business. This is admirable in many respects, except that True Believers tend to not let anyone around them forget how dedicated they are. The True Believer frequently comes off as condescending and even self-righteous. They have a mission. Anyone who isn’t on board is in the way.

Teachers might start as True Believers. Those fresh recruits with glowing eyes hit the field ready to serve students and to be that change agent. The realities of the field smash many of these new teachers back into the surf like a salty, frigid wave. Others make it past the breakers and end up thriving in the chop. The survivors remain for their reasons, chiefly their belief in a mission. Importantly, many stick around long enough to become administrators.

Actually, a disproportionate number of administrators are True Believers. The True Believer tends to be ambitious, so aspiring to administration makes sense. Administration can appear to be the most efficient avenue for implementing change. A True Believer isn’t likely to see administration at the building level as being akin to middle management. Instead, a True Believer will see it as a genuine leadership opportunity. When thwarted by the practical frustrations of managing schools, True Believers sometimes make their way to district level administrative positions.

The trouble with True Believers really begins when they wield power. Prior to that, they’re merely insufferable. When they have the opportunity to take the rhetoric to which they subscribe and subject everyone else to it, they can unwittingly do some damage. They become inflexible and insistent. They adopt a “no excuses” model and attach this to everything. They see success as the end goal of education and they define success by narrow, quantifiable measures. The worst is that they see their brand of “no excuses” or “zero tolerance” or whatever as the recipe for fixing all issues. They expect to fix these issues within the span of a school year, even though no one else has figured out how to fix them in 60 or 70 years. Plus, they’re fully prepared to blame teachers when everything falls apart. Their version of leadership ends up being divisive and leads to low morale.

The lofty expectations of True Believers undermine their goals. They want all students to achieve at high levels. However, they use the least helpful means of targeting students who struggle to do this. The students they attack most often are students with IEPs. Like it or not, these tend to be the lowest performing and worst behaved students. True Believers have a nasty panache for suspending these students and pressing for their failure. Administrators sometimes fear taking any action against students with IEPs, but True Believers frequently show contempt and disregard for the protections these students receive. They want to extend “no excuses” policies in the face of federal law, thinking of themselves as truth-seekers in the process. In doing so, they reveal how silly the concept of “no excuses” really is.

No one can talk with True Believers about the possibility of anything being beyond the control of a school. Suggesting something is outside the scope of what a school can handle is seen as an attack on their faith. Because of this, they end up supporting legislative mandates that heap unrealistic responsibilities on school staff. This makes True Believers unwitting enemies of other school employees. They also set themselves up for bitterness. When their schools continue to underperform, they become incensed, ready to blame the faithless around them for the failures of students. Worse than this is when they misinterpret anomalies in data as evidence of their coveted policies finally working. It reinforces their beliefs even when the slightest examination would prove their policies didn’t in fact affect the results. Again, they can’t be convinced otherwise.

True Believers are more than vain and annoying. They’re indeed dangerous. They’re least harmful in the classroom, but even at this level they can be exhausting as colleagues. As building administrators, they force their unrealistic visions and end up marginalizing the students who most need their support. When they get the opportunity to be policy makers, their insistence and commitment to canned rhetoric lead to their investment in ideas that undermine what teachers are trying to do. Even if their policies have little effect, they still can inflict their will as ratings officers. Think about working under someone who will never believe he or she could be wrong about anything. Dealing with the True Believer in power can end up being the most tiring part of working in a school.

The Danger of True Believers