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.