Diary of a co-teacher, chapter 1: 5 keys to a successful co-teaching partnership

I’m sorry, but when did it suddenly get to be Thanksgiving week? Somehow, the start of this school year seemed to take the long route. I typically think of October as when routines and expectations have been established and I sit back and watch my classroom run itself. This year, however, October came and it felt like I was still at the beginning of September.

The start of this particular school year has been the most challenging yet. Harder than last year times a bazillion. Non-educators are often surprised to hear this, however, many of my teacher friends across the country are sharing this sentiment. Why has it been so hard? I could go on and on about the new curriculums we are trying to implement and the hours they take to digest, the gaps in learning we are trying to close, and the management of teaching in a still ongoing pandemic.

Luckily, not everything about this third school year during COVID-19 has been difficult to face. This year marks the beginning of a journey I have been working toward for four years. The murky start of the school year made it hard to appreciate this new chapter in my career, but now I am able to truly appreciate what is happening. Let me start at the beginning…

The day I committed to really shaking things up

Four years ago, I wrote a proposal to start a multiage classroom with one of my colleagues. As we all know, things do not happen in schools without a committee. So the proposal prompted the formation of a committee, which began researching and doing site visits to nearby multiage and co-taught classrooms. Fast forward to now and my teacher bestie Liz Mutcheson and I are sharing a space with a movable, magnetic whiteboard wall between our rooms. (The year actually started with no wall and mid-construction, but that is not the point of this story.)

Sharing a classroom space is like a marriage, and our marriage is grounded in the same philosophy.

Team MutchyFunk, as we call ourselves, is a co-taught classroom of third-graders. We both have 19 students of varying needs and abilities. We teach whole-group lessons in our own spaces and use the wall to open up for small-group work, projects, and activities, and to give each other the occasional bathroom break.

This year, we are molding what our co-teaching looks like and learning from our successes and missteps. I am hoping to document our entire journey here in Teach. Learn. Grow. I am certain we do not have it all figured out yet, but there are moments of magic in our shared space. Magical moments do not happen without intentional steps toward them, though. Here is some of what we’ve learned so far, lessons we credit with getting Team MutchyFunk successfully up and running.

1. A shared philosophy is key

My co-teacher and I share the same philosophy of education. It helps that we each happen to have a master’s in literacy instruction and that our children are in the same second-grade class at our school. But what connected us four years ago, when we first met, was our shared beliefs about teaching and learning.

Liz and I both believe firmly in forming deep relationships with our students. We both believe the words we use have an impact on our students, and we are thoughtful about how we speak to children. We both believe a classroom should be a fun space where independence and collaboration are fostered and cultivated.

Sharing a classroom space is like a marriage, and our marriage is grounded in the same philosophy.

2. We must trust in dividing and conquering

A shared philosophy means we have a great deal of trust in each other. This has been extremely helpful in allowing us to find ways to work collaboratively while also seeking out ways to streamline.

We have divided weekly tasks so we are maximizing each of our strengths, for example. I write the morning messages for the week and Liz writes the weekly emails to families. We always brainstorm units together, but then one of us will organize the unit and put the materials together.

The trusting relationship has allowed one of us to come in and say, “Hey, I figured out what we can do,” while the other says, “Great! Tell me!”

3. We’re stronger when we share in each other’s joy

Many teachers have that one system, that one book, that one activity that they absolutely love and do not ever want to give up. In a co-taught relationship, both people are going to have all those “ones.”

Whenever you try something new, it is important to constantly evaluate what is working and what needs tweaking.

To make sure nobody loses those must-do parts of their classroom, Liz and I have been flexible with each other to incorporate each other’s “ones” into the shared space. What we’ve found by adopting each other’s ideas is that we are filled with the same feeling you get when someone loves a gift you just handed them. Joy also fills our classroom when we finally land on a system that works well, like when our math groups gelled and we saw how students were having individual needs met. I remember how at the end of the math block one day we looked at each other and had a moment of joyous squeals.

4. Small groups are invaluable

One of the greatest benefits of our co-taught space is the ability to combine our students into small groups for math and language arts in a way that makes sure we are meeting their specific needs.

After completing fall assessments, including MAP® Growth™ testing, we looked at all our data and created groups for math and reading. We used the data and our pacing guides to determine what we would do in each of those different groups, and we decided who would work with which groups.

We are consistently evaluating students and restructuring our groups to ensure we are meeting kids’ needs based on their most recent data. Our shared knowledge of our students, the curriculum, our strengths as teachers, and the needs of our students have all made for some really magical moments in the small groups. Best of all, we’re able to provide students with the necessary skills needed to access grade-level content and participate in whole-group instruction.

5. Reflection is required to grow

Liz and I are both extremely reflective, so you can imagine the hours we have spent thinking about structures, trying them out, and then rethinking and retrying them (and then calling each other on the way home to share an idea that suddenly came to us). This is part of why November is the new October. Whenever you try something new, it is important to constantly evaluate what is working and what needs tweaking. The growth comes from not settling for just OK but, rather, pushing until things come together in a way that feels purposeful and right.

Our co-teaching story is just beginning

I know Team MutchyFunk has so much more to learn, and I am excited to see how our partnership evolves over the years. The possibilities are endless. One thing is certain: we are working our tails off this year to support our students, and doing it together has been both rewarding and fun. Even if November feels like October, and December will be here before I know it, I am going to enjoy this Team MutchyFunk journey all the way to June—and beyond.

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