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Co-Teaching: A Powerful Tool for Collaboration

By Holly Bowen Reardon
Co-Teaching: A Powerful Tool for Collaboration

“A learning-focused school accepts the responsibility to do everything possible to support children’s learning. Nothing is left to chance.”
—, 2019
If learning is the primary focus of schools, then everyone in schools must be a learner. This includes teachers, parents, administrators and support staff, as well as students. It sometimes happens in international schools, however, that teachers prefer to bring their experiences, personal perspectives, lessons, and curricula along with them—a practice that makes it hard for our diverse population of teachers to collaborate.
Often, our students also arrive with vastly different experiences both in and out of school, such that working as isolated teachers to address learning needs in a context of such diversity simply doesn’t work. At the International School of Eastern Seaboard (ISE), we wanted to shift this narrative and harness the gift of our diverse perspectives to learn from and with one another, because in learning-focused schools teachers take collective responsibility for student learning and wellbeing (Stuart et al. 2016).
In larger international schools, collaborative teams are often formed among groups of educators working at the same grade level. This allows for teachers to put their heads together in assessing content and approaches to teaching. In small international schools with only one classroom per grade level, however, teachers can feel extremely isolated and often long for others with whom they might collaborate.
In these situations, partnerships might emerge at the thematic level among single-subject teachers whose courses, unfortunately, overlap very little with what is happening in the homeroom. Take, for example, a Grade 5 teacher offering a unit on bird migration who finds a willing but limited collaborator in the visual arts teacher, who agrees to guide students in making birdhouses.
While recognizing that there are benefits to these approaches, we at ISE were looking for a more deliberate method that would allow our teachers to intimately know our students and to be able to plan for and impact their learning in a highly personalized way.
Schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy have been able to make a deliberate break from more traditional and isolated approaches by encouraging co-teaching pairs. Teacher researchers in Reggio have found that co-teaching produces tremendous advantages, both educationally and psychologically, for educators and children alike.
Co-teachers in Reggio feel a commitment to both their students and their colleagues to continually grow and develop professionally. As teachers make predictions and try things out, they work with co-teachers to analyze results and plan next steps for a particular child or group of children (Edwards et al. 2012). This act alone encourages a deep level of reflection and requires teachers to position themselves as learners within the organization.
At ISE, we believe that the work of teaching is too complex and too important to be done in isolation. When teachers don’t collaborate to plan and review student progress, then the success of a student can depend upon the efficacy of a single teacher (Stuart et al. 2016).
Co-teaching prevents a situation in which what and how to teach are determined by a single teacher. We know that the effects of both effective and ineffective teachers can be felt for years (Garmston & Wellman 2016). At worst, a bad teacher can damage a student’s confidence and self-esteem. On the other hand, students who are placed with highly effective teachers for three years in a row significantly outperform average students. We believe that we have a moral imperative to do better than to leave this to chance.
We also hold that regularly engaging colleagues in conversations with the aim of better understanding our students impacts student learning; it also impacts teacher growth and evolution. According to Timothy Stuart (2016), “the opportunity to learn from and with the teacher next door is huge. For teachers in international schools, the single biggest benefit of Professional Learning Communities is the unmatched professional growth that comes with becoming vulnerable enough with colleagues and being willing to challenge every teaching, assessment, and intervention method to better serve students.”
Longing for deep and meaningful professional collaboration, we in ISE’s elementary school decided to try a co-teaching approach in an effort to deprivatize our classrooms. Teaching teams formed pods of two grade levels (e.g., Grades 2 and 3). In this model, teachers in both grade levels would get to know students and would be able to support planning for groups as well as address individual student needs.
Students gather in pods for morning meetings and at other times throughout the day to work on building community or addressing community issues. During such times, all teachers and teaching assistants are present and involved with students. During literacy and math times, groups are formed across the two grade levels and teachers work with different groups on targeted goals. Sometimes these flexible groups are formed to address specific grade-level content. Other times, they may be based on interest (kids interested in the same topics for writing or reading, for example) or because we want to harness the expertise of students as they teach and learn from one another.
For our social studies and science units, we created a rotating schedule. This means that we designated one set of units (what might traditionally have been Grade 2 units) as Year A and the other set of units (what might traditionally have been Grade 3 units) as Year B, rotating this schedule every year. This allows us to work together on planning the units and allows for greater flexibility in elaborating learning engagements and assessment strategies.
We also have a learning support and EAL teacher who co-plans and co-teaches with each pod. This model allows all teachers to genuinely understand the academic and social-emotional needs of each student, additionally helping us to avoid making superficial recommendations solely related to content. Rather, because each teacher knows every student deeply, we can make specific plans to enhance learning for everyone.
When planning for our co-teaching model, we anticipated that this approach would allow us to:
• Personalize learning, with plans and flexibility for students who perform at different levels throughout a grade
• Offer multiple mentors for all learners (big and small)
• Minimize the risk of designing a not-so-perfect teacher/student match
• Continue to grow and develop our craft by learning from one another
Throughout the year we have been amazed by the impact that our co-teaching has had in our classrooms. We have been able to:
• Personalize learning. With more adults in the room we were able to offer more support and individualized options for inquiry.
“They are getting double value. My co-teacher and I have very different backgrounds and styles of delivery, so I feel we are able to cover more together.”
— Reuben Bathgate, co-teacher
• Evolve as teachers, harnessing our strengths and supporting the areas in which we each wanted to grow.
• Adjust groups in the moment, based on student need, teacher need, interest, and emotional support. For example, when we got a new student from China who spoke no English, one of the teachers had just moved from China and was instantly able to connect with that student, easing his transition and supporting him as he joined the classroom community.
“Co-teaching allows teachers to make adjustments to learning during the lesson, not just after the fact.” — Christina Szyman, co-teacher
There were some very unexpected but deeply meaningful results as well.
As the group began meeting and students saw teachers explicitly learning how to navigate and work closely together, they too learned these skills and the group developed into a profoundly caring community.
Students gained perspective about their own strengths and expertise while also discovering their areas for growth. This happened organically and naturally, just like it does in a family, just from working together and supporting one another.
“While working with students and discovering their expertise we were able to use this in different ways in the classroom as well.” — Christina Szyman
Students also developed a respect for others with different learning needs and began to explore ideas about equality vs. equity.
“Within this model, all students have the chance to shine as leaders and experts. They can all learn from each other and they also can all be teachers of each other. This grows their confidence and helps promote a growth mindset in the classroom”
— Nada Werner, student support
All learners, big and small, grew as collaborators, intentionally honing their craft with every meeting or interaction.
“I learn so much from my teaching partner. I learn from the way she asks questions and talks to the students. I learn from the activities she plans and the way she delivers content.”
— Reuben Bathgate
On the practical side, it was extremely helpful for continuity when teachers are sick, or move on to another school.
We have held each other accountable. Both as teachers and as students, as we work together every day, we bring our best to the table, not wanting to offer less than that to our partners.
“Your co-teachers are your cheerlearders. They bring out the best in you and support areas where you need it.” — Nada Werner
Moving from a more isolated to a co-teaching model wasn’t an easy task. But we didn’t really think it would be! Teachers who are used to working in isolation are sometimes resistant to opening their doors and sharing their practice. Even though it was scary, we believed in the possibilities, so as a team we decided to trust the process, share our vulnerabilities, and give co-teaching a try.
Continued support for the development of the skills and techniques of collaboration will be imperative as we move forward. Parents initially didn’t understand this model and simply thought students were functioning in a combined classroom. Parent education will continue to be a focus of over the next few years.
The collaborative focus this year was on homeroom teaching, however we are also considering the role that our single-subject teachers (for example visual arts, physical education) might play in this model in the future.
Over the year, it has become clear to us that the model is more effective as a support for both student and teacher learning than traditional approaches. The question for us now is, why wouldn’t one choose to work this way?
Holly Bowen Reardon is elementary and middle school Principal at the International School Eastern Seaboard in Thailand.

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