Co-Teaching – a new twist on High School SpEd

I’ve been in education long enough to see many arrangements and philosophies about how best to serve our Special Education students.  I’ve seen CWC, pull outs, Co-Teach, Resource, and a variety of other systems without names.  I need to admit that I am no SpEd expert. 

This is a summary of a new plan to include the Co-Teaching concept in a progressive high school.  It all starts with “where you are”.  In most buildings and districts, the system (any system) has been undergoing tweaks for quite some time.  Every once in a while a “good idea” comes along that requires a slight re-think of existing systems.  This can be a huge problem for established schools.  Our existing systems are built in, part of the landscape, the gravity that we all take for granted.  In this situation, our 9th grade center schedule included teaming which started the ball rolling, when we started thinking about how we could serve IEPs in a team structure. 

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For middle school people, this isn’t rocket science – we team all the time in middle schools.  But in high school, this runs against the grain.  High schools are departmentalized (like colleges) and crossing over into other disciplines is not a “usual” relationship for the culture or system.  If you’re interested in the overall 9th grade center concept, check out my previous blog post.  In our current high school system, we assign SpEd students to several different case managers (about 20 kids per teacher), then each of them bear the burden to communicate with each other as they deliver services from a department standpoint (teaching up to 50 kids per course).  Worse than that, our schedule caused SpEd students and services to drift to just one of our teams.  This went against the idea of inclusion and LRE.  All of this makes sense in a high school, but this disconnect and lack of a single service person exacerbated the “falling through the cracks” potential for our freshmen.  This was a worthwhile change to make – not just for the SpEd student, but for the inclusion of our SpEd students and teachers in the team concept. 

Our team concept included three content area teachers (ELA, SCI, GEOG), serving 1/3 of all of our freshmen students.  We ignored math as a core course, because it was already stratified based on 8th grade prerequisites and we wanted to avoid becoming a middle school (steps backward for transition).  So, how do we integrate SpEd students into three different teams with less of a burden of communication without having to hire multiple SpEd teachers or cross team for teacher convenience?  We wanted the SpEd teacher to case manage 1/3 of the freshmen and to work exclusively with the same third of the students through the three teamed courses.  This breaks a few rules in the high school system and requires a model for describing all the ways the SpEd teacher can integrate into multiple subjects. 

Co-Teaching offered some solutions.  In a Co-Teaching model, the ultimate goal is for the two teachers (content and SpEd) to join forces and work in harmony delivering instruction and managing the class on an equal basis, both are lead teachers, and all students are their collective responsibility.  Looking at the work of Marilyn Friend, it was clear that this was a long term process and required trust and a relationship between the two teamed teachers.  At the same time, the Co-Teaching model offers some flexibility and the ability to specialize based on the needs of the students, teacher, and lesson.  So, the Co-Teaching model offers a continuum of services from a typical CWC base up to the ideal truly teamed model.  Also, our high school culture emphasizes content expertise and all of our SpEd teachers are “attached” to their content just like their regular education counterparts.  Co-Teaching at the secondary level takes a different angle than the more generalizable content for teachers at the elementary level.  The content at high school starts to get so specialized that a “general SpEd teacher” can’t be expected to have “equal status” with the regular education expert, in terms of depth of knowledge in three different contents.  So, the Co-Teaching angle at high school is more about using strategies and bridging the gap for individuals according to their specific disability, allowing the general education teacher to provide the content area expertise.  This is a big change for our teachers – both from a SpEd perspective and that of their Co-Teaching partners. 

Our solution has a solid foundation of improving relationships and services for SpEd students and blending into the team concept.  The single SpEd teacher would serve half of their students in the morning block and the other half in the afternoon block.  This allows for 6 mini teams (3 morning teams and 3 afternoon teams).  Not only that, but the SpEd teacher is serving students through three different content areas as a learning specialist – not a content specialist.  From the student/parent perspective a SpEd student would have a single case manager, who monitors the IEP, attends three core classes with the student, and serves the IEP at varying levels of instructional involvement (described by the Co-Teaching model).  This is a great thing for developing relationships and really getting to know the SpEd students.  It puts parents and students at ease in that they have a single contact point and “handler” of the IEP.  Plus, the student is a fully involved member of the team and the classroom has a heterogeneous skill set of which to teach. 

The biggest challenge our school faced was the shift from the SpEd teacher as a content expert to that of a learning specialist.  The plan is to focus on strategies and a tool box of modifications related specifically to the individual student and their disability.  Strategies can be integrated into ANY course from the Co-Teaching model.  The SpEd teacher can always present classroom activities related to vocabulary acquisition (foldables, non-linguistics, Kagan activities), reading comprehension strategies (more Kagan, not taking and summarizing), and writing standards (learned and coordinated with the team ELA instructor).  So, although they are out of their expertise content-wise, they can comfortably lead the entire class or a smaller group using the best techniques and strategies.  The real power of this arrangement is in the familiarty with the smaller group of students.  Modifications, changes in assignments/assessments, and activating different learning styles can be truly individualized as the relationship is built between teacher and student.  One final benefit is the SpEd teachers ownership and involvement in grading work and even entering grades.  The gradebook is no longer the “property” of the lead teacher.  The SpEd teacher can be directly involved in making assignment adjustments, using modified standards for work/tests, and adjusting the quantity and depth of all of the in-class assignments. 

Overall, we think this new approach to teaching will be a strength for our program and the benefits to each individual student will be unmatched in our previous system.the best part about it is that both our general education teachers and their SpEd counterparts understand the benefits and are authentically interested in working toward this idealistic arrangement! 

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