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

7 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Co-Teaching

  1. Lisa says:

    I am not able to read your article on teaching music history in reverse chronological order, I receive an error message. I have found myself thrown into a high school music history class unexpectedly. Thought I enjoy music history I normally teach AP Music Theory. I would be greatly appreciative of any help you can give in this area. The class starts at 7:35 am which makes it even more exciting.


    1. Hello Lisa. Here is the link: I hope it works this time. We all too often find ourselves “thrown” into teaching situations we didn’t anticipate. I hope you’re making the most of the situation. Have a look at the article. If it doesn’t open or it just doesn’t provide enough insight, let me know. Perhaps we can dialogue about some solutions.


  2. Co-teaching, as you said, has many different definitions and is realized in a range of ways. Co-teaching needs to be carefully planned in order to serve students well. I appreciate how you pointed out that with large caseloads it is difficult for special education teachers to spend time in each of their students’ classes. For co-teaching to do be done consistently in all classrooms, caseload sizes must be smaller (which means hiring more special education teachers). Well-trained special education teachers are in high demand and difficult to find, at least where I write from in northern California. This is coupled with declining state investments in public education. All of this could make a person (particularly one who is deeply committed to serving students with disabilities) quite depressed. With the state of our schools as they are, we must carefully plan our time to provide crucial support at select times for select subjects. However, we must advocate for larger changes to be made in our schools – including flexible, student-centered approaches, increased collaboration time, and increased funding for special education services! If states and districts want to implement co-teaching, they should reach a common, yet somewhat flexible definition of what it looks like AND provide the resources to support it!


    1. Thank you for the detailed and thoughtful comment. Two barriers to effective co-teaching in PA are the lack of training teachers receive and the lack of shared planning time they have. Many co-teaching relationships end up with the special education teacher essentially acting as an assistant, which is poor use of resources. Overall, schools tend to lack enough special education teachers to provide co-teaching arrangements throughout the day across classes. In defense of the schools, providing this could be prohibitively expensive. I’ve seen examples of co-teaching working fabulously, so it is possible. The logistics and hurried implementation continue to strain it. I know of schools that have tried it only to later abandon it due to staff shortages. Still, I remain impressed by the craftiness of those teachers who find ways to make it work despite the obstacles.


  3. Co-teaching is an impressive and interesting concept in many cases. I have taught in four schools in two school districts with wide variances in implementation. These are schools in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. At my first school, co-teaching worked somewhat successfully at most levels. We had two certified special education teachers and they each had an assistant. However, it is unrealistic to think that the co-teacher will spend a majority of their time with one student in one classroom. This particular elementary school had well over 1,000 students. The two special education assistants were highly qualified and both were completing teacher education coursework. Even with the help of the assistants, some students who needed far more individual attention were left to function without the needed specialized support…for the remainder of the day. Therefore, they were usually succeeding in one subject and struggling in the remaining subjects. Even the most experienced teachers (who obviously carried a deep interest in the success of the children) ended most days with a sense of frustration. Yes…it is important for the special education teacher to spend quality time in individual classrooms. It is also important for many students to leave the confines of the classroom in order to receive one-on-one instruction. When I taught a dyslexic student for one hour a day for an entire year in my second district, it was ideal to work with the child in a very quiet, smaller space. He could concentrate far more effectively away from the classroom. At that time, I was a literacy coach. Actually, my job description called for me to work with the teachers on the concepts of the approved reading program. In reality, the needs were so great for the children that I had to expand my role. I was not a special education teacher, but I did have coursework in that area and attended many staff developments. I had previously received my M.Ed in Educational Leadership with a specialization in reading. Perhaps, one answer would be to bring staff members (those with specialist job titles) into the mix of the special education program…encouraging them to receive needed special education certification. Working as a team as well as having collaborative meetings can facilitate “out of the box” solutions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I appreciate thorough comments such as this. They serve to continue the discussion. Co-teaching models need to include an option for students to receive support outside the general education classroom the way that student with dyslexia did. I expect that general education teachers and specialist teachers currently coming through certification programs will receive much more training in differentiating instruction and meeting the needs of students with disabilities than you or I received. Professional development in the field helps, but I think new cohorts of teachers are going to have such notions embedded in the educational DNA.

      Liked by 1 person

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