Getting to the Heart of Co-Teaching

From 2013-2015, I co-taught 4 integrated co-teaching (ICT) classes with four different co-teachers. Though I remained consistent with my expectations and communication within every relationship, each experience was vastly different. Relationships ranged from having multiple “brain-match” moments and being able to change or plan lessons within minutes to difficult, plodding conversations in which neither one of us really understood the other.

In my experiences with co-teaching, I have again and again tried to nail down what makes the magic happen in a co-teaching relationship.


After some conversations and reflections, I realized that good co-teaching is centered around trust that the other teacher will lead the students in the right educational direction, even if she does it in different way. To that end, I believe that knowing why a co-teacher is making the decision they are making can help establish communication norms and help co-teachers understand the prior knowledge and experience their partner is working from.

How, then, do we build trust? There are a variety of “co-teaching tools” such as interviews, check-ins, and co-planning protocols to help co-teachers build a common language. However, knowing the different models of co-teaching, or what time your co-teacher likes to plan does not guarantee that you trust or know about the basis of their educational decisions.

In the following inquiry, you will read about my process in discovering how we, as teachers, recognize and address differences that create obstacles within co-teaching.

Philosophical Differences

How Do We Currently Address Philosophical Differences in Co-Teaching?

Curious if my feelings were shared, I asked teachers at my school to submit experiences in which they felt that a conflict with their co-teacher was based on a different philosophy of teaching, rather than a planning error. Almost every co-teaching pair had one story or more. When I asked the teachers to include a resolution to the situation in their anecdote, all teachers said that they felt they could not really address the problem since the conflict was based on a difference of philosophy which they did not think they could solve.

Philosophical Conflicts: Teacher Anecdotes

Scenario One:
A co-teacher asks her ICT partner to grade a class assignment while she grades the same assignment for her other three classes. When the papers are returned, she finds that the teacher graded based on whether or not they understood the main concept rather than completion of the assignment. All of the co-teacher’s other classes are graded based on completion of the assignment, leading to inconsistent grades across the class. The co-teachers settle on one way of grading for the rest of the year.

Scenario Two:
A student with a difficult home life comes in late to class repeatedly because he must walk his sister to her school, which starts later. One co-teacher thinks he should not be allowed to make up quizzes given in the first 10 minutes of class because he must learn responsibility, while the other co-teacher thinks that an exception should be made due to his situation. In order to appear united, one co-teacher backs down and allows the other to handle the situation.

Scenario Three:
A co-teacher plans lessons that encourage discussion among the students before they write their ideas down. He believes this encourages flexible thinking and allows students to organize their thoughts. His co-teacher believes that this approach will lead to sharing answers. Instead, she thinks that students work best when they write first and then share out what they have already written; therefore, she minimizes the part of the lesson that includes student discussion before a writing task. Neither of them have spoken about why they believe in their respective philosophy.

Scenario Four:
One co-teacher believes that test-corrections allow students to learn from their mistakes and achieve mastery, while the other thinks that they enable students and cause them to study less. Currently, students with IEPs are allowed to do test-corrections while the other students cannot.


Inspiration for Inquiry: 36 Questions

I spent the better part of a year ruminating on how to address and solve problems that arose from philosophical differences and teaching styles in the classroom. In truth, these type of problems seemed untouchable. Much like in a debate on politics or religion, both parties would sigh and say something along the lines of, “Well, I’m not going to change their beliefs, so what can I do?”

In order to address this issue, I began making my own philosophical beliefs very clear while communicating with my co-teachers. I started to say things like, “I am going to turn this question into a group discussion because I believe that the students need to articulate their ideas in order to form them more thoroughly.”

To my surprise, instead of thinking I was insane, my co-teachers began reciprocating that type of language in the classroom. Once the language changed, I noticed that co-teaching also became easier. We became more comfortable with allowing the other to “run with it” and, in some cases, began incorporating one another’s core practices into our other lessons.

By articulating our own philosophical beliefs in a non-threatening way, my co-teacher and I were creating a classroom culture that allowed both of us to be “ourselves” while also working as a team.

I decided to focus my Teachers College Inclusive Classroom Project inquiry on whether I could recreate this classroom culture in a more structured way.

I was inspired by a New York Times article called, “The 36 Questions that Lead to Love.” The article detailed a study conducted by psychologists, Arthur and Elaine Aaron, that explores “ whether intimacy…can be accelerated by having [strangers] ask each other a specific series of personal questions.” According to Elaine Aron, one of the developers of the study, “the basis of the 36 questions is that back-and-forth self-disclosure… is consistently linked with coming to like the other person you do this with.”

The article led me to wonder whether the same experiment could be recreated among co-teachers. That is: could I create a series of questions that would tap into the experiences and philosophies that shape us as educators? If so, would communicating these experiences to a co-teacher benefit the working relationship?


Setting up a Conversation Between Co-Teachers

I developed 14 questions to be “asked” with a co-teacher at a time when you are both able to focus on the task at hand. This can be a common prep period, a meeting outside of school, or professional development time dedicated to communication in co-teaching relationships.

Ideally, the two (or more, in the case of paraprofessionals, speech and physical therapists, and other adults working in the classroom) professionals would go over the Active Listening Protocol together and ensure they they both understand the process. Then, they would begin to ask one another questions, in order and alternating responses.

If time is a factor (for example, if the activity is being done during a prep or professional development), they should also agree on a time limit for each question. For example, if the teachers have 1 hour, I suggest breaking up the questions among two sessions and taking more time with each question (about two minutes for a response and two minutes for the follow up).

I know it sometimes seems unrealistic to expect teachers to be able to sit together without grading or planning a lesson but, in the service of understanding one another in the classroom, this part is integral. Taking the time to develop a relationship with one another outside of the classroom and getting to know each other as human beings often solves many co-teaching “dilemmas” before they occur.


Active Listening Protocol

Adapted from Dr. Marie Alcock – Download the Protocol here.

  1. Ask question of your co-teacher.
  2. Maintain eye contact while they speak but do not say anything.
  3. The most important part here is not to pass judgement, even by reassuring or reaffirming them. Stay away from “uh huh” or “that must have been difficult” or “oh, I have always wondered about that!”. Try your best not to speak or make any sound at all while your partner speaks.
  4. If there is time, allow them to speak about the topic for two full minutes.
  5. When they finish, wait ten seconds and then rephrase what they said using the sentence starter, “What I heard you say is…”
  6. Wait for confirmation or explanation.
  7. Ask one follow up question.
  8. Switch.

In the comic above, both teachers are facing each other as they have the conversation. By asking the question and listening during the response (instead of just waiting to talk), the teacher to the left learned the following things about her co-teacher.

    • He values attendance and presence.
    • He values skills that he believes connect to “real life.”
    • Work time” in class is integral to his philosophy.

future discussions about co-planning and co-teaching.

When they switch, the other teacher will learn as much about his co-teacher as she learned about him. Knowing one another’s philosophical basis will help in future discussions about co-planning and co-teaching.


The Questions

In order to recreate the experiment, I solicited possible questions from my school community, including teachers, guidance counselors and assistant principals, by asking them to anonymously answer the following question:

If you could come up with a question or questions that would lead to a greater understanding between co-teachers, what would it be?

The following 14 questions were the ones myself and my colleagues felt went most directly to the heart of getting to know someone as a teacher:

14 Questions to Get to Know why Your Co-Teacher Does What S/He Does
  1. What is your first realization of wanting to become a teacher?
  2. Describe a moment where you felt like a great teacher.
  3. Talk about a moment in your own education that influenced your own teaching.
  4. If you could teach any class to any grade, what would it be?
  5. Would you rather have to teach a class with no textbooks or with a set curriculum?
  6. How do you best deal with confrontation?
  7. What is worse: a student who does all homework but does not participate in the class or a student who participates in class but does no homework?
  8. What do you think grades represent?
  9. What was your own education like? What would you replicate or avoid in your instruction based on your experiences?
  10. You are faced with a task about which you do not feel confident. Would you rather work on the task on your own or in a group, knowing that either way you might fall short of your desired result?
  11. What was the moment you felt like you were most likely to quit teaching?
  12. Logical or Illogical- what is one thing that really bugs you in the classroom? Why do you think it bugs you so much?
  13. Talk about a favorite student.
  14. Take 2 minutes to describe what perfect co-teaching looks like to you. Think about elements such as planning, delivering lessons and grading.

Get the downloadable version here.


During Co-Teaching: “Check-ins”

To continue the conversation and relationship building, both teachers should try their best to make sure that every lesson has a check-in between two teachers. This can happen either while students are working independently or during a transition period in the lesson. The check-in should be quick and does not have to result in changes in the lesson.

If one teacher wants to add/change something in the lesson, the change should be brief and not take more than one minute to implement so as not to lose flow.


Post Co-Teaching: Solving Problems

After developing a relationship and understanding one another on a more human level, my co-teacher and I decided we needed a good way to plan in the short amount of time allotted to us. We decided that it would suit both of our styles to focus on solving problems we both noticed within the classroom with specific interventions. Using the following protocol, we developed many interventions for the whole class, as well as interventions for specific groups of students.

Engage in a big picture reflection
How is the week going? What did we cover this week? What might we have to re-teach? Who seems to be “getting it”? Who is struggling? This is when we talk about seating arrangements, homework completion, grading, and other pertinent “big picture” items.

Focus on a class issue
Is there one problem that we can identify in the entire class? How does this problem present itself in struggling students? Can we identify “leaders” who have a better command of this skill/concept?

Brainstorm interventions 
This is where it gets fun. How could this skill/concept be broken down into smaller parts?

Discuss implementation
Is this a one-time intervention or a continuous one? Will it be put into place with all students, or only some? Keep in mind that some students will use the strategy and then internalize it after a few weeks, while others will need more time and more feedback. It is okay to drop the strategy for some students and keep it in place for others. This is scaffolding! Identify when we expect all students to have internalized this strategy.

Delegate tasks
Who does what? Who will write the lesson? Who will make the copies? Who will teach which part? By when will these things be completed?