Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Reflections on co-teaching; how we got started...

I am frequently asked how our district got started using co-teaching as a way to service students with varying special needs. Most initiatives are born from the experience and passion of a few people (think of Margaret Mead’s famous quote). I had worked with children with special needs as an early childhood special education teacher and as a kindergarten teacher with students fully included. I gained a big picture perspective my first year as a principal when I saw what happened to those children after kindergarten. They went to a primary cross-categorical classroom and then progressed to an intermediate cross-categorical classroom. Those classrooms typically had one special ed teacher with 2-3 assistants. The children worked in the multi-age classroom, rotating in groups between the teacher and assistant for reading, writing, and math. They typically were included in the general ed classroom for science and social studies and went to specials with the class they were included with.

As a first year principal, I observed and reflected on many aspects of the school. I asked a lot of questions and hoped for varied responses.  Every morning and after recess, I watched students line up in long lines to go into the school. Students in the shortest lines (the cross-cat classrooms) looked the most unsettled and were often angry. I talked frequently with Amy and Joan, their teachers. I learned that a lot of the anger came from a sense of not-belonging with their grade level peers. It was hard for them to fit in to a social studies class that had shared experiences for hours prior to the arrival of the students pushing in. As I observed their students’ learning in the cross cat classrooms, I saw students often working with an assistant hovering over them. They were rarely using the same curricular materials that students used in the gen ed classroom. When I asked why they didn’t use the Everyday Math program that we used, I was told that their students couldn’t handle the high level of thinking.

Looking for answers, Amy went to a workshop given by Paula Kluth, author of You’re Really Going to Love This Kid. Amy returned with the book and great enthusiasm for the notion that kids could be supported to be successful all day in the general ed classroom with two teachers (gen ed & sped) working collaboratively.

Amy, Joan, and I asked the general ed teachers for volunteers to co-teach together. We thought it was very important that a general ed teacher believe that all students could be successful and want to work towards that end with a sped teacher. We gathered willing primary teachers and began using the co-teaching model the following year. The following year, we added 4th and 5th grades so that every grade level had a co-teaching pair.

As other schools in our district saw our success at Hiawatha, they began to move towards the use of the same model. Paula Kluth was essential; she helped provide our foundational knowledge and visited with our classrooms many times to encourage and support our efforts.  In the most recent couple of years, we’ve learned to provide our own PD for new pairs and administrators. Many of our teachers across the district welcome visitors from across Illinois who want to see co-teaching in action.

I am so proud of the work that we began many years ago at Hiawatha and love the many photos I have that represent what it has come to mean to me. At the time we began, I never anticipated the profound impact that inclusion would have on our general ed students. This picture hangs in my office at home and symbolizes our success.   


  1. I love co-teaching! I am so thankful for Leslie pairing me with Julia Bray and then all the support we got from the PDs with Paula Kluth. I would never want to do anything but really is in the best interest of everyone...of course the kids and the teachers who build amazing relationships! Thank you for bringing this to D100, Marilyn!

  2. I didn't go to a Paula Kluth PD, but Nancy Simanek Recommended her to me so I started reading her blog, Maybe it's time for me to pick up one of her books! I am surprised at how many districts do not follow an inclusion model. I grew up in an inclusion district so I thought it was the norm! Your hard work is paying off in Berwyn and hopefully your spark will continue to catch-on elsewhere!

  3. Thanks for pairing me with Amy all those years ago!

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  5. Marilyn- it seems like yesterday when Marc said … “all I want is to be in a classroom like everybody else.” I’m thrilled to be part of this journey with you. Being a co-teacher with Leah has been one of the most rewarding and joyful experiences of my career. And I am so proud to work in a district where we see the beauty in diversity and we embrace the inclusion philosophy where every student, like Marc, has a true sense of belonging. Amy