Like many schools, Sparks High School wanted to implement collaborative, co-taught classes with the goal of providing a supportive learning environment for all students to achieve. Each of our collaborative classes in language arts, social studies, math, and science was designed to include a content-area teacher and an intervention specialist or English Learner teacher who would work in tandem to lead course instruction and student learning.
But when we first started collaborative teaching, many of our students were not experiencing the academic success we had anticipated. Both credit attainment rates and student test scores were not improving. As a new administrator, I wrestled with how to approach these issues. What could our school do to support our collaborative classrooms and co-teachers so that all students can experience academic growth and success?
Discovering the Root of the Problem
I began to analyze the expectations we had for co-teachers, and I uncovered inconsistencies that made me question if we truly had co-taught classrooms. Were we using staff resources ineffectively? Were we supporting students with best practices? I observed co-teachers routinely leaving the classroom to make copies, meeting with parents, handling discipline, meeting with other students on their caseloads, and engaging in various other tasks. They were often not focused on the students in the classroom and seemed rather inaccessible. Students did not always know who the co-teachers were. One student even told me that one of the teachers was a classroom aid.
In addition, I learned that when there were vacant substitute jobs, we routinely pulled co-teachers to cover these classes. Finally, co-teachers did not participate in the same professional learning community meetings as each other, did not look at data, and did not help create curriculum. Basically, special education and English Learner co-teachers were not expected to maintain the same role as regular education teachers; they were guests.
Changing the Culture
After discovering the issues and inefficiencies in our collaborative teaching initiative, which was backed up by the student data, we began to make changes across all co-taught programs. Here are the improvements we made:
- Co-teachers are protected from being pulled from the classroom. We find other ways to cover classes and other tasks have to wait until class is over.
- The classroom is a shared class where the co-teacher is not a guest. In most cases, both teachers have desks, computers and phones in the classroom.
- All special education and English Learner teachers attend PLC meetings with their regular education counterparts. Teams look at data together, plan curriculum, and design student supports.
- In most cases, co-teachers share a prep period with regular education teachers.
- Co-teachers are scheduled in a subject area where they are either highly qualified or, at least, very comfortable with the subject matter.
- All new co-taught teams attend basic and advanced trainings together at the beginning of every year.
Change Wasn’t Easy…
When we began to make changes, we did not initially get everything right. Some pairings were not as strong as we had anticipated and the master schedule became more cumbersome. We had to make space in classrooms for more desks and computers, and covering classes for missing substitute teachers was always a task.
…But Now We Are Seeing Good Results
However, once we found a good rhythm with co-teaching expectations and procedures, we quickly saw student growth in credit attainment and in test scores. Now, students report feeling more successful in their classes, and they confidently make stronger, more trusting connections with both teachers in the classroom. Interestingly, teachers also report stronger relationships with their co-teachers and confirm that their own professional growth is impacted. They learn from each other every day.
As we continue to monitor our school data, we find that in co-taught classes our students are not only outperforming students who came before them, but they are also scoring at or above the district average in nearly all areas. For example, in the area of credit attainment last year, data reveals that freshmen designated as FRL, IEP and EL scored above district average in Biology, English 1, and Algebra 1.
We are proud of our collaborative classes and will continue to improve the program so that all of our students can grow and experience academic success. Our hope and expectation is that a visitor can enter any co-taught classroom and will not be able to distinguish between the regular education teacher and the special education or English Learner teacher.
How well does your co-teaching program support student growth? What can you do to grow your co-teaching program?
To learn more about what our students say about their collaborative classroom experiences, click here.
Click here to see what our co-teachers say about collaborative instruction.
CJ Waddell is an assistant principal at Sparks High School in Sparks, NV. She has been an educator in the Washoe County School District for the past 20 years. CJ is the 2018 Nevada Assistant Principal of the Year.