Confessions of a Bad Co-Teacher

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by Elaine Mulligan
Project Director
National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY)

Elaine Dancing

Me, several hair colors ago, dancing badly with my nephew at a wedding.

I am a teacher. No, I’m not currently working in classrooms. I’m a teacher in the same way that I’m a pink-nosed Irish woman, or a Virgo – it’s inherent in my character. More specifically, I’m a special education teacher. My attention is always drawn to the person in any room who seems excluded or in need of help; I can’t have a favorite sports team because I always root for the underdog to win.

Oh, I tried . . .

In my many years of classroom teaching, I’ve tried co-teaching many times. My first attempt was when I was working at a charter school on a reservation. I was supporting a few different general education classes, one of which was taught by a young, enthusiastic woman named Shannon. Shannon believed that all of her students needed to learn together and to learn the same content (she was a renegade for those times). She insisted that we plan, teach, and remediate together. Neither of us had any training in co-teaching, but it worked pretty well.

The second time I tried co-teaching was in a self-contained class for K-2 kids with severe language disorders and learning disabilities. Co-teaching in self-contained? Well, just a tiny bit. We had a “partner” class of general education third graders. Their teacher, Kevin, would meet with me after school or catch me after a staff meeting, but we had no time during the day to plan together and our efforts were less than successful. Mostly, I’d plan something and he would come and support the lesson, enriching it for his students, who were older than mine and more academically advanced.

My third attempt at co-teaching was even less successful. I was an “inclusion” teacher at a high school, supporting about 10 different teachers in 4 different subjects. None of us had shared planning time; we didn’t even attend the same staff meetings! I mostly hovered around the backs of classrooms, helping whichever kids seemed to be struggling. Occasionally, I would be asked to “cover” the class when the regular teacher was called out to a meeting – those were the only times I ever got to the front of the classroom. I did manage to collaborate a little with some of the teachers I supported, chatting in the hallways between classes or during lunch duty, brainstorming strategies for supporting specific students. I actually sabotaged my own co-teaching possibilities by spending my prep period every day tutoring Algebra in the Learning Lab, leaving me no time to co-plan with anyone.

And THEN I learned!

Fortunately, my Masters program included a course in Inclusive Education. In that class I learned about Universal Designs for Learning, Differentiated Instruction, and Co-Teaching. What a revelation! The co-planning, individualization, and sharing of instruction that Shannon and I had done instinctively so many years before turned out to be the main requirements for effective co-teaching! Well, that and administrative support . . . and training.

I never got to try out my new knowledge in the classroom, because I left teaching to work for a technical assistance project supporting principals of inclusive schools. But I learned even more there! In addition to all that I learned from the amazing principals we worked with, I helped to facilitate semi-annual professional learning academies. One winter, the principals and I spent an entire day learning the nuts and bolts of co-teaching from Lisa Dieker. A whole day and bookful of resources from Lisa Dieker! It was like taking Sonnets 101 from William Shakespeare. Great stuff.

Working with the inclusive principals also gave me opportunities to see good co-teaching in action. I watched district administrators in Madison designing school schedules to facilitate co-teaching in inclusive classrooms. I saw teachers in Orlando facilitating their own professional development by completing the planning activities from co-teaching workbooks for their shared students. In Memphis, I observed two young middle school teachers conducting a poetry lesson that was so collaborative, they looked like dance partners.

But what can I do?

I’d love to be able to co-teach again, and to do it right. But that’s not going to happen any time soon. It’s kind of like watching Dancing with the Stars and wanting to cha-cha. There’s a lot of work involved, and I can’t quit my day job to take on the challenge.

What I can do is share good resources with educators and families. It’s what we do here at NICHCY, and we have two new co-teaching resources for you:

  • Our Research Summary of Scruggs, Mastropieri & McDuffie’s 2007 Co-Teaching in Inclusive Classrooms: A Metasynthesis of Qualitative Research ( The summary includes the research questions, design, findings, and conclusion – including Requirements for Successful Co-Teaching! (Where was THIS 15 years ago?)
  • Our Co-Teaching Resources page (, including different approaches to co-teaching, short-and-sweet reads on co-teaching, checklists, professional development modules, blogs, and more.

I’d like to publicly apologize for my awkward and ineffective attempts to co-teach in those long-ago-and-far-away classrooms. Don’t be like I was – read the research, work with colleagues and administrators to put the important elements in place, and keep up to date on effective co-teaching strategies. I’ll be here on the couch, applauding your masterful cha-cha – and your students will be learning more.


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