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Co-observe the Co-taught Classroom: The Power of Co-teaching

Imagine two co-teaching classrooms. In one classroom, students are divided into groups of three, huddling around tables. One teacher leans in, guiding a group through algebraic equations using a teacher-model. Meanwhile, the other teacher circulates, answering questions and offering support to students who are independently working on equations and who have questions. All students are actively engaged and participating in the lesson.

In a classroom across the hall, rows of students sit passively, fixated on their computers as slides dominate the front screen. One teacher stands at the podium, delivering information in a lecture format. The other teacher walks around the room, primarily addressing student behavior – granting bathroom breaks, reminding students to raise their hands and ensuring they stay on task.    

The Disconnect and the Path Forward

These contrasting classroom scenes highlight the unfortunate reality: inclusion can sometimes fall short of its intended goal. Content teachers, lacking a deep understanding of the role of the Special Education teacher, might struggle to relinquish some control and share the classroom space with another teacher. Conversely, SpEd teachers, focused on interventional support and differentiation, might not fully know how to integrate their strategies with the overall lesson flow. They may be unsure how to mesh themselves within an inclusion classroom with 20 + students, given that they are most comfortable with being in a closed-door resource room.

The result? 

A gap in expectations and messaging for teachers, which in turn, exacerbates the content area and Special Education divide.

No matter how long a school or district has embarked upon inclusion programming, I always find that it falls on the shoulders of the Special Education department, scheduling Common Planning Time or providing teacher support. Special Education departments are often expected to provide extensive inclusion professional development to special education teachers, while content-area teachers receive the co-teaching basics. 

Ahhh, the divide yet again.

To build collective responsibility, one of the first systematic changes I recommend to a school-community is to move toward joint observations (formal or informal) by content area and Special Education supervisors and leaders.  

By observing co-taught classrooms together, SpEd and content area leaders gain a holistic view of the co-taught learning landscape. Together, they witness:

  • The Synergy of Co-Teaching: How both teachers work in tandem, seamlessly integrating their expertise to deliver engaging instruction.

  • Supporting Students in Action: How both teachers support student needs, ensuring all students can access and participate meaningfully in the lesson.

  • Targeted Interventions: How both teachers collect data on students to immediately close the learning gap through targeted support, such as a small-group.

the co-taught classroom

Joint Observations Are a Free Investment

Implementing joint observations in your school might require some initial planning, but the long-term benefits for teachers, students and the entire school community are undeniable.

Unified Vision of Inclusion: Observing together reinforces the message that inclusion is a school-wide initiative, not just a SpEd responsibility. This fosters a sense of collective ownership over student success in an inclusive setting.

  • Consistent Feedback: Joint observations ensure that both SpEd and content teachers receive consistent feedback on their co-teaching practices during individual debriefs. This avoids confusion arising from separate visits and reinforces a unified approach to improvement. It also ensures consistent messaging and language regarding inclusion expectations. 

  • Collaborative Problem-Solving: While debriefing sessions with content area and SpEd teachers may be separate, supervisors can brainstorm solutions together ahead of each debrief, with a focus on the instructional challenges observed and solutions that consider insights from both SpEd and content expertise.

  • Building Trust and Transparency: Co-observations open a crucial communication channel. When supervisors discuss their observations with teachers together, it fosters trust and reinforces the idea that supervisors are there to support, not solely evaluate.

  • Improved Co-Teaching Practices: By observing effective co-teaching strategies firsthand, supervisors can provide targeted professional development opportunities for both SpEd and content teachers as a unified front. This continuous learning cycle helps them refine their co-teaching skills for a more positive impact on student learning.

Implementing Joint Observations in Your School

Districts have seen positive results in launching joint observations by offering them as an optional add-on during informal or formal walkthroughs. They simply ask teachers if they'd be interested in participating in a joint observation with their supervisor and their counterpart's supervisor. 

And for optimal impact, consider these steps to strategically co-observing:

Establish Purpose and Goals: Before the observation, supervisors/leaders should collaboratively define the focus with one another. Will they observe a specific co-teaching strategy, differentiation techniques, or how the teachers address student needs? This discussion will be dependent on the formality of the observation. The Inclusion indicators I use with clients can help get you started. Supervisors use the indicators to engage in actionable next steps during teacher-debriefs and to build language around best co-teaching practices.

  • Pre-Observation Meeting: Both supervisors should meet with the co-teachers beforehand to discuss the purpose and collaboratively develop a focus area. This allows both teachers to feel prepared and invested in the process. I highly recommend this pre-observation meeting happen collectively if possible. Of course, this will be dependent on the wishes of both teachers.

  • Observe and Take Notes: During the observation, both supervisors take notes from their respective perspectives.

  • Joint Supervisor Debriefing: Immediately after the observation, supervisors convene and discuss observations. Share strengths, highlight areas for growth, and brainstorm solutions collaboratively. (I’ve seen supervisors do this in the hallway while walking back to their office.)

  • Actionable Feedback: Develop a plan with clear steps, responsibilities, and support mechanisms for improvement. This plan, while specific to each teacher, will not be too separate or removed from what was observed and discussed in the joint debrief. If both teachers consent to a joint post-observation meeting, even better.

  • Follow-up Support: Schedule a follow-up meeting to discuss progress, answer questions, and offer continued support. In the past, districts I’ve worked with have asked teams if they would like the follow-up support to happen together with both supervisors present.

co-taught classroom

Building a Culture of Collaboration

By integrating joint observations into their routine, schools can foster a robust collaborative culture. This breaks down departmental silos and ensures consistent messaging reaches both SpEd and content teachers. 

Do joint-observations spark your curiosity and you want to chat more about it? Hit reply and ask me any questions you may have.

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