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When Two Teachers are Better than One

Alicia Thacker and Christie Howard, teaching partners at the New Horizons School in Brooklyn, divide and conquer to help all their students with a social studies project. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball)

It was a gorgeous March afternoon as Diane Castelucci sat down before her wriggly group of third graders to teach spatial geometry. The sunlight streaming through the windows of the Brooklyn New School was distraction enough, but just as Castelucci began her lesson, a group of parent observers wandered into the classroom. The children’s heads swiveled to the doorway and Castellucci and her teaching partner, Jenny Hardy, scrambled to re-focus the class’s energy. But Castelluci was already prepared for what would have been the afternoon’s greatest challenge for most teachers: 40 percent of the children gathered before her were classified as having “special needs” such as dyslexia, speech impediments and emotional or behavioral disorders.

Castelucci, a special education teacher, and Hardy, a veteran general education teacher, work together in what is called an Integrated Co-Teaching classroom, one of six in the Brooklyn New School. Principal Anna Allanbrook initiated the co-teaching program seven years ago and considers it a success. “I think all classrooms should have two teachers,” she said.

The number of co-taught classes in New York City has grown over the past five years. During the 2007-2008 school year, the Department of Education documented 2,351 kindergarten through eighth grade co-taught classes; this school year, there are almost 4,000. This teaching model allows students with special needs to share classes with general education students and requires teachers to coordinate their lessons.

Castelucci and Hardy had prepared many different tools to teach geometry. Castelucci wore a microphone so that her voice was loud and clear. Hardy sat down by two boys who needed extra help calming down. Castelucci then began to ask the students about squares, a topic Hardy had presented several days before. Some of the questions were abstract: “What is special about a square?” Some were more basic: “How many sides does a square have?” As the students stretched their hands towards the ceiling to answer, Castelucci pulled a wooden block out of a bag and invited a boy named Dexter to count the sides of the cube. Dexter ran his fingers across the edges of the block, his face crunched in concentration. His classmates gathered around him to help.

“Six,” said Dexter after a moment, and Castelucci nodded and wrote a bold, purple “6” on a chart. Throughout the lesson, Castelucci used drawings and physical objects to help the students discover the correct answers. “My goal is to make things as visual as possible,” she said afterwards. By the end, most of the students had eagerly answered at least one question, and it was hard to tell exactly which children had special needs and which children did not. Because the two teachers planned together, the students’ strengths and weaknesses were addressed even before the lesson started.

“The general-education teacher brings content; the special-education teacher brings strategies,” explained Hector Uribe of the Department of Education’s Division of Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners, which is responsible for training potential teaching teams for New York City public schools.

It takes a lot of preparation to make a  co-taught classroom work. Uribe stressed that students must be screened. He believes that only special needs students with the “potential” to perform at a higher level should be enrolled. At the Brooklyn New School, students with severe developmental, emotional or behavioral disabilities are taught in different classes. However, for many special needs students, a co-taught classroom represents a chance to be pushed in positive ways. In Castelucci and Hardy’s classroom, all students have the opportunity to think about the harder questions, even if they might not have the skills to answer them just yet.

Another important factor in creating the ideal co-taught classroom is the teachers’ relationship with each other. “The most important piece is that they can communicate,” said Uribe. “It usually works better when the teachers come together and say, ‘Let’s try this out.’”

At the New Horizons School, a middle school several blocks away from the Brooklyn New School in Carroll Gardens, building teacher relationships is key. All classes at the school are co-taught, and teachers are often assigned new partners at the end of the school year.

“It’s always a challenge in finding a balance in partnerships,” said Principal Deanna Sinito. “We compare it to a marriage. People don’t always click.” Good teacher chemistry makes a class run far more smoothly. English teachers Sarah Reedy and Lindsay Powell have taught together for two years, and say that they can communicate simply by exchanging a look across the classroom. During one morning lesson, Reedy acted as an extra set of eyes as Powell talked the class through a passage at the front of the room, quietly reprimanding a student whose head had fallen to his desk and checking up on a special needs student who was reading independently. For Reedy and Powell, it was a particularly challenging lesson, as they had to prepare their students for standardized testing.

“I couldn’t imagine doing it alone,” said Reedy afterwards.

Another obstacle for co-teaching is finding time for tasks like planning lessons or giving extra instruction. “One of the biggest challenges is finding teaching time for kids that need more when the rest of the class is ready to move on,” said Castelucci. Lessons at the Brooklyn New School are often interconnected, she explained, and “it’s hard to pull a piece out.”

Co-teaching is designed to benefit students with special needs, but both Castelucci and Uribe said that general-education students must get equal attention. “Ideally, the teachers will be able to identify those students who are able to do more and be able to plan the lesson so that they have space to grow and are not stuck,” said Uribe.

Sinito believes that each of her middle-school students receives more individual attention in a co-taught classroom, whether or not they have problems learning. However, it can be hard to convince outsiders that her school serves students of all levels. “We’ve always had to fight this reputation as a special-ed school,” she said.

Castelucci and Hardy must be creative to make sure no students are held back or left behind. The two teachers often instruct the students in different groups, and Castelucci spends time “pre-teaching” students with special needs. Before the class started a unit on rainforests, Castelucci assigned books about forest biomes to her special-needs reading group. This year, Castelucci and Hardy have been successful, and their class has progressed at the same pace as the Brooklyn New School’s other third-grade sections.

Research on the effectiveness of co-taught classrooms has been limited. A 2010 analysis in education journal Remedial and Special Education concluded that while some quantitative data suggests that the model is effective, much more research is needed to prove that co-teaching works well for special needs students.

When it does seem to work, however, administrators, parents, teachers and students love co-teaching. Brooklyn New School parent Tanya Bacchus raved about her son’s experience in a co-taught kindergarten, even though her son isn’t a special-needs student. “It was incredible for him as a student,” she said. “The support that the kids had was phenomenal.” Castelucci said that every year, several Brooklyn New School parents request that their non-special needs children be placed in co-taught classes.

Students seem to like it as well. “It’s good to have two teachers,” said Nikary, a fourth-grade student in a co-taught Brooklyn New School class. “You always have one that can help.”

Although co-taught classes are designed to help students with special needs, other children learn certain lessons in an integrated classroom.

“They are going to develop humanism and an understanding that on this planet, not everyone is perfect,” said Uribe. “And there are people with needs, and we all need to live together.”

Castelucci remembered a day this school year when she read her class a picture book about dyslexia. Partway through the book, she said, three children suddenly raised their hands, exclaiming, “I have that!” The students then explained their experience with dyslexia to their classmates. Castelucci believes that in a co-taught classroom, students feel comfortable telling their classmates about their struggles. “Every kid has a chance to be an expert at something,” she said.

One Response to “When Two Teachers are Better than One”

  1. Tom says:

    It’s stories like this and teachers like this that prove that every kid stands a chance.

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