Madeleine Clays has been a public school teacher in the U.S. for twenty years. She is passionate about education.
What is Co-Teaching?
Co-teaching is currently one of the most popular models of instruction in U.S. public education. Implemented across all grade levels, this approach is common in regular education classrooms that have special education students or English language learners. A regular classroom teacher instructs the class along with a special education or English language teacher. Rather than one educator in the room, there are two.
The theory is that students who are for the most part working at grade level but still require additional support can have their needs met in a regular classroom, alongside their mainstream peers. It’s supposed to be a way to integrate students rather than segregate them.
Why Is Co-Teaching Ineffective?
- Teachers want to run their own classroom.
- Students are confused when there are two educators in the same class.
- It’s a poor use of resources.
- Co-teachers don't have enough time to plan together.
- It leads to frustration and resentment among educators.
1. Most educators want to run their own show.
When teachers are hired, they normally don’t sign up for sharing their classroom with a colleague. It’s more—they don’t want to.
Teachers want to run their own show.
They will never verbalize this to their administrators or bring it up in staff meetings because they don’t want to be looked upon as not being a team player. After all, being an educator today is all about being a team player. We know that co-teaching is the “in thing” and we don't want to come across as non-compliant or difficult. So we play the game in hopes of a positive evaluation.
A Forced Partnership
Co-teaching is essentially a forced partnership.
People who go into business together generally share the same values and business philosophy. In fact, they will deliberately choose an associate who shares their views. They would never randomly choose someone without a strong understanding of how that person operates.
In co-teaching, you don’t get to choose your partner. The main intent is to pair a regular education teacher up with a specialty area teacher to meet all students' needs in one classroom at the same time. Like one big happy family, right?
Many co-teachers have different or opposing views in the following areas:
- teaching philosophies
- how they handle problem behavior in the classroom
- what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable student behavior
- whether or not to assign homework (and how much)
- how to communicate with and respond to parents
- how they treat students
Personality clashes can also pose a problem in co-teaching. Two educators with strong personalities can be as problematic as one staff member who is headstrong and another who is soft-spoken. In the first case, the teachers may engage in a power struggle. In the latter case, one of them is prone to follow the other's lead and function as her personal aide.
2. Two teachers in one classroom is confusing for students.
Who's the Boss?
Students are initially confused when there are two educators in the classroom because they don’t know which one is in charge They usually figure this out eventually, and the “other teacher” is then looked upon as an aide.
You can't really have two leaders, after all. By default, one of them will take second place.
Staff Discord Sets a Bad Example for Students
Unfortunately, when co-teachers disagree on how to handle student behavior or how to respond to an issue that comes up in class, they will sometimes bicker about it in front of the students. They will usually do it subtly and on a low scale, but it inevitably creates tension in the classroom.
The squabbling normally occurs between two strong-willed staff members or between an aggresive personality alongside a quieter one. Some educators become upset if things aren't done their way. In most cases, it's simply because they're used to making all the calls on their own.
Sometimes kids notice angry or uncomfortable looks co-teachers give each other. It’s kind of like mom and dad being on poor terms with one another. Kids pick up on these bad vibes and it creates a very unhealthy environment for them.
I co-taught with a colleague who would interrupt dialogue I would have with students on the opposite side of the classroom if she disagreed with something I said. It was as if she had bionic ears 24/7. Clearly this undermined my authority and caused me to hesitate to engage in future dialogue with students in the room.
3. Co-teaching is a poor use of resources.
Co-teaching is a poor use of human capital and taxpayer money. Utilizing two educators in one classroom rather than in two separate classrooms during the same period doesn't make sense for several reasons.
- It's more difficult to give students individualized attention when the overall class size is significantly larger than if it were divided into two classes, each with its own teacher.
- Students who need more support can concentrate much better in a smaller class where they have a quieter environment and fewer distractions.
- Since one of the co-teachers inevitably functions as an assistant, it's not cost effective to utilize two salaried teachers in the same room at the same time. It's better to give each salaried teacher her own class and to hire a teacher's aide as needed.
4. Teachers don't have enough time to plan together.
Colleagues who co-teach often don’t have common plan time or they don’t have enough of it to discuss their class lessons each week. Let's not forget that most educators are teaching 4-5 classes each day, and their co-taught class is only one of them! They need time to plan for their other classes as well as for their co-taught one.
Issues co-teachers need to discuss each week:
- Who will teach which lesson?
- What will the lessons look like?
- How will we differentiate instruction for English learners or special education students?
- How will we manage behavior issues that have come up?
- How will we address academic concerns we have about certain students?
For quality co-teaching five days per week, which is the normal schedule for each co-taught class, educators would need to meet for a quality amount of time weekly. But this doesn't fit into most of their schedules.
The truth is, co-teachers often discuss the day's lesson at the very beginning of class, or they'll talk at the end of class about the next day's lesson. This is known as "winging it." It's unprofessional, but it's often the best we can do under the circumstances.
One educator told me she and her partner would exchange emails over the weekends to plan their lessons because they didn’t have common planning time during the week. However, most professionals are unable to co-plan on their weekends because of family commitments and other obligations. Most importantly, teachers should not be expected to co-plan on their personal time.
5. Co-teaching creates resentment among educators.
Based on the reasons already discussed, co-teaching creates a great amount of unnecessary stress for educators. It also leads to resentful feelings between them.
Reasons for resentful attitudes between co-teachers:
- One educator generally does most of the instruction while the other functions as a helper.
- The classroom teacher has her own desk in the room while her partner usually doesn't.
- It's not uncommon for the classroom teacher to excuse herself to use the restroom or to run an errand and to be gone for 20-30 minutes, leaving the specialty area teacher to run the class on her own.
- Since co-teachers don't usually choose each other as partners, they often end up working with personalities they aren't compatible with.
- Students normally have more respect for the classroom teacher than they do for the specialty area educator in the room.
- Co-teachers with less aggressive personalities are more prone to being bullied by partners with stronger personalities.
- Educators feel humiliated when they are bullied by their partner in front of students.
I assure you that behind closed doors, most educators don't want to co-teach. As mentioned earlier, they won't acknowledge this publicly because they know it’s not politically correct. So they'll play the game and do what they're expected to. But they don't like it.
Alternatives to Co-Teaching
There are effective ways to meet the needs of all students in public education without using the co-teaching model.
- Recruit regular classroom teachers who are already certified in special education and/or English as a second language. This allows one educator to utilize strategies that meet the needs of more students in her classroom. In fact, research shows that strategies that are effective for special needs students and English language learners also work well for regular education students.
- Hire teacher assistants to provide support in classrooms with a high number of special needs students or English language learners. This is more cost effective than placing two salaried teachers in the same room during the same class period, especially when one of them often ends up functioning as an aide anyway.
- Reduce class sizes. Rather than 30 students in a co-taught class, divide that class into two classes of 15 students, each taught by a separate educator. This allows students to receive more individual attention and support in a quieter and less distracting environment.
Suggestions for Co-Teaching
- Provide training. Many educators who are placed in a co-teaching situation have not co-taught before and are unclear on the expectations. It is completely uncharted waters for them.
- Try to match teachers with compatible personalities. Don't pair up two iron-willed educators, or an aggressive one with a gentle one. Allow staff members to have a say in who they prefer to partner up with.
- Ensure that co-educators have sufficient common planning time. Build this into their schedules at the very beginning of the school year. If you want a quality co-taught class, you need to provide teachers with quality weekly plan time.
Co-teaching is an ineffective attempt to meet the needs of students in the classroom. Placing two colleagues in the same room to teach the same class is superfluous and leads to unnecessary confusion and stress for educators and students alike.
I have little doubt that the increase in co-teaching in our public schools is directly linked to the hike in teacher resignation rates in our country. There are more effective ways to successfully instruct our students. A significant way administrators can support their teachers is by listening to them and respecting their needs as educators.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Madeleine Clays
Madeleine Clays (author) on July 12, 2019:
Thanks for stopping by, RTalloni. I agree that parental involvement is so important. Many parents have no idea about some of the things that are going on in their own children's schools.
RTalloni on July 12, 2019:
An important read here. You offer a balanced look at the issues with good suggestions for solutions. Parents need to take action with teachers to demand changes in our education system.