Friday, May 5, 2017

The beauty that is co-teaching

After a wonderful first week back, I was reflecting on the place that co-teaching has had in how our learning environment has succeeded this year.

I co-teach with an experienced teacher who has taught in other countries, as well as years in Aotearoa.  She knows that even from a young age, learners are assessment capable and her high expectations means that her learners thrive academically. Her valuing of relationships means her learners are happy, safe, open to being challenged. She does not avoid challenging conversations with colleagues, either, helping us to reflect on our beliefs and practices. She believes learning contexts should be relevant to our lives and useful right now, that dispositions and key competencies should underpin all learning. She is a learner, currently doing the Mindlab post-grad diploma, and her learning there is benefiting us both in many ways (and I don't have to the assignments!) I think co-teaching with someone who has the same moral purpose and beliefs about teaching, learning, students and life has been the main reason this year is going so well.

We are two year 4/5/6 classes in two, old-style single cell classrooms with an open concertina door in the middle. We have little fancy furniture (second hand ottoman, crates with cushions on top, a couple pf squabs). We don't have one desk per child, we have one place to sit, so we have lots of space. We have table groups that sit 4, 6, 8 or 9. Or there's the floor, cushions, crates. We have a quiet zone that looks like a lounge room, and an art/construction area where all those resources are. There are no withdrawal spaces, and we separate spaces when necessary with a couple pf low screens. We are a 1:1 device classroom.

One of the main benefits of sharing a teaching space has been being able to lessen the range of learning levels in key areas (namely maths, reading, writing). If I was solo, I would be teaching level one to level four in all these areas (like many NZ classrooms, and as I have done before).

For example, in reading. My co-teacher has expertise and interest in running a junior literacy programme, and I have more experience and passion for the higher levels. Therefore we split our learners according to their next learning steps within closer levels. There are times we group using reading levels to hone certain skills, and other times we will have mixed reading levels to develop concepts and ideas, as well as reading skills. We plan our overview together so our learners are getting the big ideas we want them to (based on what they have identified as important- our whole learning programme is based on developing our theme) and then we use our expertise to plan and implement learning that will best suit our learners. I love knowing my readers still 'learning to read' are getting great reading experiences, and it saves time not planning for a huge range of diverse reading needs. We have a lot of conversations about how our learners are doing, do they need to change teachers, what are we noticing that we may need to include in our teaching planning. We will write the report comments for those we teach, and during conferences we ensure we knew where our learners were at to talk with whānau and students.

It is similar with writing. We will start together to unpack some writing skills we are focusing on (eg using a range of language features) then move into two groups where we can then best target writing planning, modelling etc to the needs of our learners. Again, we plan big ideas together, discuss observations, identify children who need to move around. I worry less about losing students to what we are trying to learn, and spend less time talking to the class, and more time talking to individuals.

Initially in maths, we tried working all 49 students together in mixed ability group using rich problem solving tasks. At this stage, we feel it didn't benefit many of the students as much as we had hoped so have again split into more closely related groups and can really target what our learners need. We can already see  a positive impact on this with many of my learners showing an enthusiasm for maths and willingness to tackle some more challenging problems. We still have rich tasks at the heart of our maths programme working in mixed ability groups, but how we help learners develop these skills is different. Mine still need a lot more number knowledge learning, and I have enjoyed challenging myself to ensure I am using a wide range of materials to help them get it.

We are doing Sports Start P.E P L & D this year, and it's awesome. In term one, we went out in our classes which was weird in itself as there were times I wasn't sure who was 'officially' in my class! This term we are grouping more in the year levels they are working at (which is how Sports Start progresses skills) and again, we can target our learners strengths and next steps. We have syndicate sports in cross syndicate teams, so we have opportunities to mix up classes and abilities and learn a different set of skills.

During art, we work as one class. My co-teacher and I take turns planning the unit so that is not only a wonderful time saver and opportunity to move into a support role rather than lead teaching role, but it also brings a whole new range of exciting art learning for me as well!

There are other times we work as a whole class, like if we are doing some unpacking of 'topic' themes, teacher reading, going to assembly. We talk about ourselves as one class, having 49 learners and two teachers. When I talk to parents, whether they are "officially' one of  mine or not, I always say I am one of .... teachers. We send emails signed off from both of us. The students talk about their two teachers. Parents have seemed open to talking to either of us for the majority of the time. If there is a child who is needing extra support from outside agencies, we generally both attend meetings. Some children gravitate towards one of us more than the other, and it's great learners have a choice about who to talk to. For those learners who need more support to manage themselves, sharing the load is a relief. Neither teacher is the superior, there is no hierarchy.

So in a time where we are focussed on helping students develop more personal learning pathways, co-teaching has really helped reduce the load and increase the impact of teaching and learning. Having a co-teacher that is facing the same direction as you is vital. Time to talk is vital.

And you can come home on a Friday night and know that it was a great week.


  1. Great to read this narrative about the productive collaboration of two master teachers who are risk takers for the betterment of the learners. True adaptive experts I would think.

    1. Hope you taking some credit there! So much support over the years has helped us grow, that's for sure!

  2. Thanks for sharing what's happening in your collaborative hub, Kelly. I've been meaning to blog but... It's very clear how you're both playing to your strengths and adapting to meet the needs of your learners. We (Amy and I) have also found that some things have worked as we expected and others we've had to try then adapt because they didn't. But most importantly, how wonderful it is to have that someone who has fresh ideas, and is there to share the load. Ma whero ma pango ka oti ai te mahi!

    1. We've certainly done a lot of tweaking but at all stages, have been so grateful for having each other!

  3. A good read. We have been co teaching since the start of the year...a 3rd year teacher and a teacher of 27 years and we're loving it. Agree that it can increase purposeful learning and reduce teacher planning. For us in our co teaching situation we have found many positives, one being that we don't always share the same idea / philosophy but the value in discussing things to come to an agreement is invaluable...challenges us both to think about things from different perspectives. Personally I don't think you need to have the same philosophy ...but it's key to be open to change, different ideas and just give things a go. We had many days in the first few weeks where things really didn't work...and it's great to sit down and discuss why and to 're set' for the next day with someone else. The thing I love most about it is sharing the load....we have some tough students who challenge you emotionally, academically, do their parents ! ....but now they are 'ours' not just mine or my co makes me feel 'lighter' and therefore I'm able to give more to my teaching. So it's a 'yay' from me for co teaching !

    1. You're so right about being open to change and discussion being so important. That's where the learning can happen for us, teachers. I'll dwell on your 'different philosophy' idea. I guess the most important thing is coming together to an agreed place that doesn't leave you having to compromise your beliefs, but instead grows them.