Co-Teaching at KIS: It’s About More Than Just Two Teachers!
A few years ago, KIS student support teachers proposed co-teaching classes, a natural next step. Already, student support teachers worked with individual students and small groups to provide universal, targeted, and intensive support – running math and literacy labs or joining classes to better support students with learning support plans. These approaches continue to benefit students. But as classroom and student support teachers explored best practices, the idea of co-teaching came up.
What does it take to establish co-teaching as a norm? At KIS, teachers have varied co-teaching experiences. Jackie Meunier is a grade two teacher with twenty years of experience, including as a co-teacher. Jessica Bowden is an elementary student support teacher whose first co-teaching experience was last year, as a grade one classroom teacher co-teaching with ESOL teacher Molly Wellner. This year Jessica partners with grades one and two teachers while Molly works with grades three, four, and five teachers to support English language learners.
"Jessica looks at things through a different lens, with an ESOL perspective,” Jackie says, “I rely on her insight to strengthen the lesson.” Jessica catches small changes she and Jackie can make to create a more accessible learning experience for all students. And while Jessica contributes to each classroom she joins, she also feels fortunate to work alongside several master teachers, learning from their different strengths.
At the high school level, student support teachers join multiple classes to support English language learners and students with learning support plans. High school subjects are specialized, making it a challenge for student support teachers to teach the content – for example, a student support teacher might not have a background in calculus or history. However, student support teachers can focus on scaffolding specific language and academic skills that support students’ learning. For high school English teacher Micah Crochet and learning support teacher Frances Giron, this works. They find time to discuss how to differentiate for students, catching up at lunch, between classes, or through email.
One way Frances and Micah support their students is by coordinating skills Frances frontloads or reinforces in her student support class. Micah occasionally joins the group too. “It’s important to recognize of-the-moment needs,” Micah says, “And meet those needs.” He and Frances want to cultivate students’ independence, giving them transferable strategies and skills and building their learning confidence.
Frances values helping any classroom teacher figure out how to support a student. “I want teachers to know we are here to help,” Frances says of the student support team. “We have a lot of good teachers at KIS. Sometimes a teacher knows what to do to help a student but hasn’t fully processed the options.” Frances and other student support teachers can serve as resources for teachers navigating how to best support individual students.
Middle school co-teachers Will Arnold and Karen Johnson think of their partnership as a kind of mentorship too. Like most first-time co-teachers, Karen was initially nervous. “The dynamic between teachers needs to sync,” she says, “You have to release some of the classroom control to share your space and kids.” This is Karen and Will’s first year co-teaching two sections of middle school language arts. Will brought previous co-teaching experience to KIS and both he and Karen recognize the value of establishing expectations.
Time and communication are essential to successful co-teaching relationships. “There is an element of luck,” Will says, “But that isn’t enough.” There is a sign near Karen’s desk that lists a few values: compassion, patience, community, praise, empathy. When Karen and Will started planning the school year, they began with shared values. Then they set collaborative norms.
Co-teaching relieves the ego and the echo-chamber: planning with another teacher can shift your perspective and elevate your practice. Like Jackie and Jessica, Will and Karen learn from each other. But they also appreciate that their middle school students learn more than language arts content and skills. Through in-the-moment problem solving, Will and Karen model communication and collaboration for their students. Near the end of their first year teaching together, Karen and Will reflect that co-teaching centers the classroom on student needs. “This is a place where students feel good,” Will says. At the start of the year, he and Karen invested in community building. They plan to start strong next school year too.
Jessica and Jackie also look ahead. This year they both attended co-teaching professional development and have notes about how to begin the 2021-2022 school year. Co-teaching continues to evolve at KIS and Jackie hopes that as more of her colleagues understand the flexibility and strength of a co-teaching classroom, more KIS teachers will find ways to practice the approach. Jessica believes that professional development and co-teaching conversations at all grade levels will help teachers feel more confident to co-teach.
Teaching and learning coach Tomás Wallenberg recognizes that successful co-teaching requires time for colleagues to plan and collaborate, and he wonders how KIS can equip teachers to co-teach and better support co-teaching partnerships. So many good ideas begin in small ways. As more teachers observe their colleagues’ co-taught classrooms, the professional and educational appeal will prompt some to ask how they can collaborate too. KIS student support teachers welcome this growth.