Co-Teaching in the Classroom: What Teachers Need to Know

Teachers working towards their master’s degrees in special education might be interested in learning about co-teaching and how it benefits today’s diverse classroom. Co-teaching is when two or more educators share a classroom and provide instruction to a group of students. A co-teaching classroom might pair a general education teacher with a special education teacher if the classroom includes students with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, or a combination of both.

History of Co-Teaching

Co-teaching is what it implies: two or more instructors sharing a classroom experience to provide an enriched teaching and learning environment for a diverse student population. This approach to teaching is the product of several significant events in U.S. history.

  1. In the late 1960s and 1970s, several states enacted laws that protected children with disabilities, particularly their educational rights. Before these laws went into effect, it was common to find children with physical disabilities but no learning disabilities to be placed in classrooms designed for children with learning disabilities.
  2. In 1973, the U.S. Congress enacted Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which was designed to protect citizens with disabilities from being refused services and assistance from any agency that receives money from the U.S. Department of Education. It applied to public schools, colleges and universities, and other state and local educational institutions.
  3. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act extended protection beyond organizations that receive federal funding. The 1990 ADA prohibited discrimination against any individual with a physical or mental disability, as long as he or she qualified for a program, service, or job.
  4. Most recently, the No Child Left Behind Act of the 2000s included language intended to ensure all children can receive a high quality education.

The book “A Guide to Co-Teaching” identifies four types of co-teaching classrooms:

  • Supportive: One teacher leads teaching while the other circulates among students to provide support. For example, the lead teacher might direct a science lesson, while the support teacher circulates among students to help those who might be struggling with details.
  • Parallel: Two or more teachers work in separate groups at the same time. For example, one teacher might lead half the classroom in mathematics while the other half studies language arts, and then they rotate groups.
  • Complementary: One teacher enhances instruction by other co-teachers. An example might be while one teacher gives instruction, the other writes notes on the board.
  • Team: Two or more teachers share planning, teaching, assessing, and responsibilities for all learning that happens in their classrooms.

The authors emphasize that one method is not better than another, and co-teachers should choose the method that is in the best interest of their students.

In a slight variation of the answer to “what is co-teaching,” Friend and Cook1 discuss the concept of “team teaching” and how it differs from co-teaching. They list three key differentiators:

  1. Co-teaching significantly improves the student-teacher ratio
  2. Co-teaching blends two very different teachers
  3. Team teaching often refers to the planning process and not the delivery process of education

Benefits of Co-teaching

Co-teaching provides many benefits to students, especially those with special needs and/or learning disabilities. Co-teaching:

  • Improves student-teacher ratio so children can learn in smaller groups, which makes it easier for teachers to get to know students and tend to their individual needs.
  • Enhances classrooms that have children with varying abilities allowing students with special needs receive specialized instruction.
  • Teaches tolerance between general education students and learning-disabled students.
  • Enables schools to employ special education teachers who rotate among several classrooms.
  • Allows students to get to know adults who have different personalities.
  • Encourages teachers to collaborate on plans and classroom instruction, which tends to result in better plans and lessons.
  • Builds a sense of community.

Down Sides of Co-Teaching

The most obvious disadvantages of co-teaching is being paired up with another teacher whose philosophies, styles, and methods differ from your own. Other challenges that teachers report include:

  • Power struggle between teachers for leadership in the classroom
  • Grouping students by ability levels rather than mixed-abilities might make one group feel a stigma attached
  • Classroom distractions, especially in parallel co-teaching environments
  • Planning takes more time and support from school administration

Learn About Teaching From Saint Joseph’s University Online

Teachers can learn more about alternative methods for teaching and learning among students with special needs when they enroll in the Master’s in Special Education Program at Saint Joseph’s University online. Core courses include curriculum design, classroom best practices, and evidence-based concepts that affect children with learning disabilities and the teachers who help them learn.


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