Co-Teaching: Two Peas in a Pod

By Angela Dalton and Susan Paton

 University of Alberta





In this article, two teachers, Angela and Susan, outline the benefits they have experienced in their first year of co-teaching together. They begin by defining co-teaching and provide a few examples of the benefits and issues found in research studies. Finally, they describe how their own experience has been positive for them, and they believe, also for their students. 


What is Co-teaching?


            We are co-teachers. In our practice, because it is the model of co-teaching we follow, we define co-teaching as two teachers working together with a double class of students in one classroom. In our model, both teachers plan, teach, support, and assess all students. But, we are not the only model of co-teaching being used.

In fact, a variety of terminology is used interchangeably for the term co-teaching. Some call it team teaching. Some think of co-teaching as two teachers swapping students, each in their own classrooms; for example, one teaches math while the other teaches language arts, then the two classes switch and the teachers repeat their lessons with the other class. Another common style of co-teaching involves a regular education teacher who teaches the students full-time, and a special education teacher who comes into the classroom for a specified amount of time each day. The latter of these examples is often cited in U.S. research (Austin, 2001; Bouck, 2007; Keefe & Moore, 1997; Walther-Thomas, 1997). Cook and Friend (2000) identified five kinds of co-teaching models, as well as the benefits and challenges of each. These models were: (1) one teach, one assist; (2) parallel teaching; (3) alternative teaching; (4) station teaching; and (5) team teaching.

            One teach/one assist is often the first and most common style of co-teaching because it is so closely matched to teaching in a regular classroom with adult support. One teacher leads the lesson while the other teacher moves around the room observing and assisting students as needed, thus allowing the flow of the lesson to continue. The mobile teacher is able to monitor student understanding and offer support when needed. If the one teach, one assist model is used it is important for teachers to reverse roles so students see the teachers as equals, not as one teacher and one assistant.

            Parallel teaching occurs when teachers plan the lesson together and the students divide into two heterogeneous groups. Teachers teach the same lesson at the same time, each to their smaller group. Parallel teaching allows teachers to work with smaller numbers of students at a time. However, one challenge in this mode can be the noise and activity levels in the room.

            When one teacher takes a small group of students, and the other teacher instructs the larger group, this co-teaching model is called alternative teaching. Small groups allow for pre-teaching or re-teaching targeted skills, enrichment, or assessment. Teachers need to be careful not to always groups students by ability. Ability grouping can label some students and studies show students learn more when they are in mixed ability groups (Tobin & McInnes, 2008).

            Station teaching occurs when smaller groups of students work together. Teachers each instruct a small group or rotate between the groups, which may also include an independent group of students. Station co-teaching allows for lower teacher-student ratios. Another benefit includes equal status for the teachers because both are actively teaching. Challenges include increased noise level, and teachers keeping to the scheduled time so all students finish at the same time.

            Team teaching, the last model as described by Cook and Friend (2000) is the most effective and highest level of co-teaching. This model usually develops as teachers become more familiar with one another. Team teaching may look like: both teachers instructing at the same time, building on what each one has said; one teacher leading, while the other demonstrates; or teachers role playing and offering different perspectives. “When teachers co-teach, they bring two sets of expertise and diverse pedagogical options to the classroom, thus promoting greater student outcomes and maximizing teacher strengths” (Patel & Kramer, 2013, p. 172). Successful team teaching requires a strong, trusting relationship between the two teachers. Where there is truly an equal partnership, this is the most effective level of co-teaching (Cook & Friend, 1995). Research indicates the necessity of having an equal partnership between the two co-teachers (Magiera & Zigmond, 2005; Mastropieri, Scruggs, Graetz, Norland, Gardizi & McDuffie, 2005; Scruggs, Mastropieri, & McDuffie, 2007).

Many experienced co-teachers identify professional learning as a benefit to team teaching (Bouck, 2007; Magiera, & Zigmond, 2005; Walther-Thomas, 1997). One drawback for team teaching is the increased amount of time needed for co-planning (Gately, 2005; Graziano & Navarrete, 2012; Howard & Potts, 2009; Kohler-Evans, 2006).


Co-teaching Stages

            Gately (2005) identified three developmental stages co-teachers may move through as they work together professionally. The first stage is the beginning stage. In this stage, teachers clarify their roles, expectations, and responsibilities. Communication is key in this early stage; and, without communication relationships can, and often do, break down. The second stage of co-teaching is the compromising stage. This second stage is characterized with teachers taking active roles instructing, give and take with decision-making, and more physical movement around the room. “Interpersonal communication becomes more effective, more open and more interactive. The use of humour is one indication the partnership has moved to this stage” (Gately, 2005, p. 39). In the final developmental stage of co-teaching, known as the collaborative stage, teachers have a better understanding of student needs, curriculum, and each other’s teaching styles. Teachers are confident and comfortable with each other, and are able to plan and collaborate to meet the needs of all students in the classroom.


Co-Teaching Research

            Welch (2000), a professor of education at the University of Utah, conducted a research study of two classrooms, where teachers participated in co-teaching experiments. The five variations of co-teaching described were: (1) one teach, one assist; (2) station teaching; (3) parallel teaching; (4) alternative teaching; and (5) team teaching. During Welch’s study, teachers kept logs detailing the amount of time teachers spent on planning, and on the type of team teaching utilized. Researchers collected quantitative data using pre-and post-test scores on specified reading skills with a goal of 20% improvement for all students (regular and special needs). Qualitative data was gathered in the form of monthly focus groups, as well as data from individual teacher journal entries.

Welch (2000) found planning time varied greatly between the two classes. The data indicated both classrooms utilized the ‘one teach, one assist’ model most frequently. The results indicated both regular and special education students made gains during the study and students met the goals in most areas, although gains for the special education students were limited. For teachers, the main negative comment was the amount of time need for planning. However, teachers experienced many positives. Teachers reported:

(1) It was easier to deal with interruptions or unexpected changes.

(2) Students seemed to adjust to having two teachers in the room and did not seem to distinguish between teacher roles.

(3) At risk students who do not qualify for extra support were able to receive additional support.

(4) Teachers enjoyed the time together and learned a lot from each other professionally.

(5) Teachers reported less discipline issues.

Graziano and Navarrete’s (2012) findings from research done at Nevada State College regarding their own experience with co-teaching a group of preservice teachers discussed both the challenges and benefits of co-teaching. Both they, as co-teachers, and the students preferred the parallel teaching and station teaching models because these provided more individualized instruction, which increased the amount of interaction and engagement between students and instructors. Graziano and Navarrete (2012) also felt co-teaching provided a way to address the diverse learning needs in the class and increase student achievement. These co-teachers felt the benefits of co-teaching far outweighed its challenges.

In a third study, Kohler (2006) surveyed co-teachers in fifteen school districts in Washington, United States. Kohler (2006) found the majority of teachers surveyed (97%) said they would co-teach again if given the opportunity. Teachers felt better able to meet the needs of students; teaching was more fun; and the partnership with another adult added value to their jobs. Of the teachers surveyed, 77% believed the co-teaching experience improved student learning; however, there is no quantitative data to support this belief.


Co-teaching: What is Needed to Ensure Success

Cushman (2013), Graziano & Navarrete (2012), Howard & Potts (2009) and Welch (2000) all list characteristics of effective co-teachers. Primarily, teachers must communicate regularly and openly. There must be respect, trust, and shared responsibility between co-teachers. It is important to be flexible and supportive with decisions. Welch (2000) reiterates these qualities as well as the need to be consistent with classroom rules and expectations.

Other researchers identify supports needed for co-teaching success. Cook and Friend (1995), Gately (2005), and Austin (2001) found administrative support essential to success. Administrators can support co-teachers by providing resources, professional development opportunities, and planning time. Research repeatedly emphasized the importance of co-planning (Gately, 2005; Graziano & Navarrete, 2012; Howard & Potts, 2009; Kohler-Evans, 2006). Teachers need to be prepared to spend extra time together before the startof the school year planning their units, clarifying roles, and responsibilities. Planning throughout the year must include outcomes, assessment, and adaptations for students with special needs, teaching strategies, and details about clerical and other related tasks. Howard and Potts (2009) believe teachers need to review their plans regularly and openly and discuss the need for any changes. Welch (2000) also identified that administrative support is needed to make sure co-planning time is available as well as provide opportunities for teacher training. Teacher training can consist of everything from professional development around communication and methods of co-teaching, to pre-service teacher programs.


Co-Teaching Benefits

            Co-teachers name one of the main benefits of co-teaching as embedded professional development. Teachers gained experiences, which provided opportunities to reflect on their teaching practices and student learning. “Overall, we found that the professional development that is gained from the communication between co-teaching colleagues brings coherence to ideas and enriches one’s desire to expand his or her knowledge of pedagogy” (Graziano & Navarrete, 2012, p. 120).

            Several studies described co-teaching as fun (Cook & Friend, 1995; Cushman, 2013; Kohler-Evans, 2006; and Walther-Thomas, 1997). One teacher stated, “You can do this alone, but it’s a lot more fun and more rewarding if someone else is there with you…someone who cares about the students the same way you do. Someone who will appreciate it when they are absolutely wonderful – or absolutely awful!” (Walther-Thomas, 1997, p 401). Teachers valued the support of another adult in the room, especially being able to enjoy the humorous moments of teaching together. Co-teaching led to renewed enthusiasm and excitement for teachers. Some researchers believe increase teacher engagement leads to increased student engagement and therefore increased learning (Parsons & Taylor, 2011). Cushman (2013) adds, “Co-teachers agree that not only do they teach more effectively, but their students also learn more effectively” (p. 7).


Co-Teaching: What Does it Mean to Us?  

Nearing the end of our first year of our co-teaching experience, we can understand and appreciate the benefits of having two teachers in one classroom. We feel we are better able to meet the diverse needs of the students in our classroom, both academic and social/emotional. Having two teachers with different teaching styles enables us to adapt the product, process, or content of curriculum to address each student’s learning style thus improving student learning. One example we have utilized is the station-teaching model to implement the language arts program we are using. This program encourages small groups of students to work with one teacher on specific skills while the other children are doing other activities. For us this means that we can both be working with smaller groups, conferencing or just moving around helping the children not in the small group. Station teaching also allows one teacher to assess students one on one or in small groups. Another example of co-teaching in action utilizes the alternative teaching model, “One interesting variation on this co-teaching approach is to use it for addressing a student’s social skills. A student need is targeted, and a small group of positive peer models is selected to join that student. The lesson taught is essentially the same as the one the large group is receiving, but an emphasis is place on turn taking, talking appropriately with others, or any other needed skill” (Cook & Friend, 1995, p. 8-9).

The ability to work with small groups or one on one, without disruption, has given us a greater understanding of each student’s abilities and learning styles, enabling us to better meet those needs. In another example, we are frequently needed to help children with illnesses, injuries, or social disputes with peers. Having a second teacher in the room enables us to give our full attention to the child in need, while the other teacher can continue with the lesson.

We believe our pre-planning and becoming more knowledgeable through other researchers’ findings has better prepared us for our successful co-teaching experience. Having a common vocabulary has helped us effectively communicate with each other, anticipate potential problems, and openly work towards solutions. We know how important co-planning time is for a successful partnership. We believe having an understanding of other co-teaching models has helped us be purposeful in our planning. Using a variety of co-teaching models has enriched our teaching and helped us meet the diverse student needs in our classroom. A deeper understanding of co-teaching has also helped us communicate with parents and our colleagues.

Research (Austin, 2001; Bouck, 2007; Honingh & Hooge, 2013; Keefe & Moore, 1997; Mastropieri et al., 2005; Walther-Thomas, 1997; Welch, 2000) states, two challenges with co-teaching are the amount of collaborative planning time needed and the breakdown of communication between co-teachers, which often occurred when pre-planning or training was not in place ahead of time. We have been diligent with our co-planning time; we have tried to be flexible with our teaching styles; and we have endeavoured to openly communicate with each other.

We believe our co-teaching experience up to this point has given both of us a sense well-being. We encourage each other, listen to each other, laugh together, share the ups and the downs and have fun everyday. We are only just in our second year of our first co-teaching experience, and we love it. We hope to continue with this opportunity for many years to come.

Cushman (2013) states, “Partners must establish trust, develop and work on communication, share the chores, celebrate, work together creatively to overcome the inevitable challenges and problems, and anticipate conflict and handle it in a constructive way” (p. 4). We believe this quote is an excellent principle to follow.





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