An Introduction to Co-Teaching

To begin, it is important to acknowledge exactly what “co-teaching” is and to establish an understanding of the terminology that will inform the rest of the discussion.  The definition I prefer comes from Wendy Murawski and her book on co-teaching in elementary schools (2010). Her definition of co-teaching reads:

When two or more educators co-plan, co-instruct, and co-assess a group of students with diverse needs in the same general education classroom (p. 25)

Murawski has particular reasons for providing such a specific definition. Her definition, she notes, both differentiates co-teaching from other models of collaboration and inclusion, and outlines three essential aspects of the model. She highlights the “emphasis on co-planning, co-instructing, and co-assessing” (Murawski, 2010, p. 25). Such an emphasis is important, because for any teacher to be successful, he or she must constantly be planning for students, determining the most effective instructional methods and assessing students’ learning in order to repeat the cycle (Mastropieri et al., 2005; Murawski, 2010). Therefore, two teachers who are in the same room should each be practicing the same methods in order for both to be effective instructors (Mastropieri et al, 2005; Murawski, 2010). In addition, both teachers should embrace and respect the model, “both educators need to be engaged in all aspects of the teaching process and parity needs to be present” (Murawski, 2010, p. 26). In fact, research supports that those co-teaching relationships that are most successful involve two teachers who have volunteered for working in such an environment (Mastropieri et al., 2005; Scruggs, Mastropieri & McDuffie, 2007). Though not necessary for a successful relationship, “volunteerism” may indicate a willingness from members to commit whole-heartedly to the ideals of co-teaching and collaborative education. Logically, having two educators who are committed to the model makes sense in terms of creating a successful co-teaching environment. (How many times have you been asked to do something unwillingly? What was the result?) Though many models of co-teaching exist, at its core, co-teaching involves two individuals shaping, caring for and assisting in the development of students’ minds. When both teachers are committed to each step of the education process and have created a positive relationship with one another, then co-teaching has the potential to succeed. With such a definition and understanding of the term in mind, hopefully the “diluted version of co-teaching” where the model and the relationship both struggle, will disappear and the benefits of co-teaching can be revealed (Murawski, 2010, p. 26).

So, when, where and how did co-teaching become a part of the educational landscape? Friend and Reising (1993) outlined a history of co-teaching in the classrooms. The model goes back several decades to the 1960s, but during that time, it took a variety of forms that tended to be situation specific rather than homogenous across schools and districts (Friend & Reising, 1993). What’s more, according to the article,

 Team teaching has been regaining popularity among general education teachers… [in order] to provide students with a more individualized and diversified learning experience and …to enable teachers to complement each other’s expertise while providing a mutual professional support system (Friend and Reising, 1993, The Development of Co-Teaching, para. 4).

Still though, models of co-teaching in general education remain diverse. However, co-teaching has become increasingly prevalent in relation to serving the needs of special education students, particularly in light of educational legislation in the past 20 years (Friend and Reising, 1993; Murawski, 2010; Murawski & Spencer, 2011; Murawski & Swanson, 2001; Scruggs, Mastropieri & McDuffie, 2007).

Educational policy has had a large effect on the appearance of co-teaching. Particularly in the past several decades, laws, policies and amendments have been enacted that indirectly support the use of co-teaching in order to carry out the goals of said legislation.

Two acts in particular have been influential in the appearance of co-teaching in the education system: No Child Left Behind (NCLB) of 2001 and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) most recently reauthorized in 2004 (Murawski, 2010; Murawski and Spencer, 2011; Murawski & Swanson, 2001).

Both policies heralded change for individuals with disabilities and prompted more inclusive models for students who have learning disabilities. These policies altered more typical forms of “pull-out” education for students with disabilities by promoting education in the least restrictive environment (LRE). For many, the LRE was, and is, the general education classroom so that students with disabilities, if appropriate, can learn “with their peers without disabilities to the maximum extent possible” (Katsiyannis, Yell & Bradley, 2005). The concern with “pullout” models of special education include “lower expectations, uninspiring and restricted curricula…disjointedness from general education curricula and negative student attitudes resulting from school failure and stigmatizing segregation” (Andrews et al., 2000 as cited in Rea, MClaughlin & Thomas, 2002, p. 204; Meyen & Skrtic, 1995, as cited in Rea, McLaughlin & Thomas, 2002, p. 204; Wang, Reynolds & Walberg, 1988 as cited in Rea, McLaughlin &Thomas, 2002, p. 204). Thanks to legislation that promotes the least restrictive environment model, hopefully some of these barriers will be addressed. So, with the enactment of IDEA and later, NCLB, inclusion was stressed in hopes that all students would be have access to a fair and quality education in America.

So how is co-teaching implicated in these legislations? Since the enactment of these legislations, the number of students with disabilities educated in general education classrooms has increased (US Department of Education, 2002). Many have turned to co-teaching as an option for providing individualized and differentiated instruction within the general education classroom. Co-teaching involves two individuals present in the classroom, and often this pairing takes the form of one general education teacher and one special education teacher. Thus, each educator can bring their areas of expertise into the classroom in order to promote maximum learning for all individuals while attending to particular needs of individuals with disabilities (Murawski, 2010; Murawski & Spencer, 2011).

Though co-teaching has re-emerged out of a need to attend to students with disabilities in a general education classroom, co-teaching has much more to offer than this.   Consider the ideas outlined in Why Co-Teaching and think back to theories of education from undergraduate courses you may have taken if you studied education. Co-teaching has a lot to offer to all students and educators, not just those who might need extra attention or have different learning styles and preferences. Though most co-teaching research and resources exist based on the team of one general education teacher and one special education teacher, it is important to think of the model as a possibility that might exist between any two types of teachers or educators.


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