I commenced my teaching career unconventionally, as a teacher-librarian. ‘Literature and library skills’, that was about the extent of the briefing for the job.
A few years later, I faced my very first class of Year 1 students. Who in their right mind would leave me in charge of their education for an entire year? This comment reflected the degree of induction and support young teacher had back then (late 1980s). It was tough, as I felt I was muddling through.
The K-2 section of that school was accommodated in two most unsuited former residences. Little had been done to convert them into workable teaching spaces. My first classroom was known affectionately as ‘the goldfish bowl’, probably once a small reception room on the ground floor of the old house. The doors were glass, so I left them open anyway and we regularly spilled out beyond the doorway, I guess we’d call it a ‘break-out’ space today, back then it was just the area at the foot of the stairs that made it difficult for others to get through.
The following year, I moved to the other building to teach Kindergarten. Over time, the teachers in the K-2 section had formed a close bond of collegiality and friendship. These connections led to each of us working closely with our grade partners. The Kindergarten classes shared a large common area, probably the living room, that separated the two classes, most likely bedrooms. The other Kindergarten teacher, Sue, and I naturally developed as a co-teaching-team over time. We shared lessons and utilised each other’s interests and strengths. We knew the students across the two classes, as if they were our own. Back then, we didn’t read anything about what makes great co-teachers, we just grew into our professional relationship. Sue had come from a special education background, sharing space and practice with other teachers was normalised. I learn so much from her.
In looking at research and best practice into co-teaching, much of the literature comes from the special education sector. Often cited is the work of Marilyn Friend (1993), she writes:
“Co-teaching in special education is an instructional delivery approach in which a classroom teacher and a special education teacher share responsibility for planning, delivering and evaluating instruction for a group of students”. Friend recognises that co-teaching is gaining popularity among general education teachers, suggesting the rationale as:
- To provide students with a more individualised and diversified learning experience.
- To enable teachers to complement each other’s expertise while providing a mutual professional support system.
These two points match our evolved co-teaching experience precisely.
Launching into co-teaching today, is something that requires strategic consideration. The design and provision of shared learning spaces is increasingly common, however, I suspect the commensurate work in preparing teachers for this, is less so.
There is no magic bullet to reaching team-nirvana. Main and Bryer reference the 1960s model by Tuckman – Stages of Team Development: forming, storming, norming and performing. They suggest that “these stages may not be sequential, may overlap, and may fluctuate back and forth. Stages may be omitted completely” (p.201). Teams can get stuck in the politeness of the forming stage, or shift into the storming stage and, without the development of requisite interpersonal skills, an unworkable culture may develop.
A perusal of literature (Friend, 1993; Main and Bryer, 2005; Murawski and Bernhardt, 2015; Stivers, 2008 ) suggests common threads to support longevity and health in co-teaching teams:
- Block time for planning
- Understanding and implementing models of co-teaching
- Attending to the environment – the layout, furniture and resources
- Gaining shared understanding and expectations from co-teaching team members
- Proactively dealing with interpersonal ‘issues’
- Participating in PD as a team
Finally, Stivers (2008) notes:
“Remember: It is not a marriage… your co-teacher may not be someone with whom you would choose to have a close personal relationship, but you can still build an effective professional relationship” (p.124).
I was fortunate to experience the organic development of a co-teacher relationship within an adaptive, if not unconventional, learning environment. As with any human endeavour, attention to the quality of the relationships between/amongst team members is critical to enhance the learning experience for students and for teachers to be professionally engaged.
Friend, M (1993) Co-teaching: An overview of the past, a glimpse at the present, and considerations for the future, Preventing School Failure, Vol.37, Issue 4
Main, K. & Bryer, F. (2005), What does a “good” teaching team look like in a middle school classroom? Conference proceedings: Griffith University
Murawski, W. and Bernhardt, P (2015), An administrator’s guide to co-teaching, Educational Leadership, Vol. 73, No. 4.
Stivers, J (2008), Strengthen your co-teaching relationship, Intervention in School and Clinic, Vol. 44, No. 2