Co-Teaching: Moving Beyond One Teaching, One Assisting

By Tina Spencer, M.S.

February/March 2012

Co-teaching is a model of delivering special education services in general education classes to students with disabilities.  Within this model, two or more profeppssionals are expected to deliver instruction together to a diverse group of students in the same classroom.  As increasing numbers of special educators and general educators co-teach, teachers are looking for the best approaches to teaching content to all students. 

Friend and Cook (2007) found the following co-teaching approaches to be used most often in schools:

  • One teaching, one observing,
  • Station teaching,
  • Parallel teaching,
  • Alternative teaching,
  • Teaming,
  • One teaching, one assisting.  

 According to Friend and Cook (2007), one teaching, one observing, “sometimes becomes the sole or primary co-teaching approach in many classrooms, particularly when planning time is scarce” (p. 128).  Wendy Murawski, an associate professor at California State University, is often requested by school districts to provide professional development in the areas of inclusive education, collaboration, and co-teaching.  Murawski (2009) discussed possible reasons for special educators taking on a less active, more supportive role of assisting general educators in co-taught classes, noting that both general and special educators contend that they received “no training, no time for planning, no shared knowledge of content or students, and no true understanding of the goal or rationale for this professional marriage” (p. 21).

As a result, in many instances, general educators continue their role of leading all the instruction while special educators complain that they are treated as assistants in the classroom (Murawski, 2009).

The Challenge

Friend (2008) identified the one teaching, one assisting approach to co-teaching as the teaching variation with “the greatest potential to be over-used and abused” (p. 79).  Even though no single approach is thought to be the best, co-teaching partners must move beyond one teaching, one assisting in order to create the powerful instructional partnership that is needed to effectively support students with disabilities and others at risk for academic failure.

One Solution

A commitment from administrators to build common planning time into master schedules, as well as a commitment from teaching partners to honor and use that time in a structured planning process, may be strong first steps in moving beyond the one teaching, one assisting approach.

The article The Planning Meeting Process:  An Excerpt From the Considerations Packet, Co-Planning for Student Success  provides the steps of such a planning process, suggestions for finding common planning time, and guidelines for implementing all six co-teaching approaches.  This is in keeping with Friend and Cook’s (2007) recommendation that to keep “…co-teaching relations and instructional arrangements fresh and effective, teachers should consider trying several of the approaches, regularly changing their co-teaching methods …” (p.120). 

One Example

Ms. Myers, the special education teacher, is partnering with Ms. Bennett, the general education teacher.  Their principal, Ms. Walker, has agreed to give both teachers a common planning time.  She has provided them with copies of the Co-Teaching and Co-Planning for Student Success T/TAC W&M Considerations Packets and has asked them to use suggestions from these packets to plan and teach lessons in their co-taught class.

Ms. Myers spends the first two weeks supporting Ms. Bennett in the one teaching, one assisting form of co-teaching while becoming familiar with the students and Ms. Bennett’s teaching style.  During this time, she helps refocus students as Ms. Bennett teaches the content.  After two weeks of assisting students and making classroom observations, Ms. Myers has a good sense of how Ms. Bennett delivers the content and what strategies students use to learn that content. While planning together, Ms. Myers and Ms. Bennett discuss all the accommodations needed by the students with individualized education programs (IEPs) and 504 plans. The two teachers also talk about the other variations of co-teaching they have reviewed in the packets and how best to use them when planning lessons. 

Specifically, together, the two teachers problem-solve how best to move beyond one teaching, one assisting.  They have decided that Ms. Myers will take the lead with several of the opening and closing activities while Ms. Bennett will continue to teach all new content.  Both teachers will share the lead when helping students with practice assignments.  Also, several types of assessments have been created throughout the unit by Ms. Myers and Ms. Bennett.  They will share the responsibility for using these assessments to check for understanding of the content.

Ms. Myers is ready to take a more active role with classroom instruction.  Her co-teacher is looking forward to having a partner who equally shares the teaching responsibilities.  They discuss station teaching as a way for students to practice content in small groups, as the groups rotate among the various stations featuring different practice activities. 

To utilize another form of co-teaching, Ms. Bennett will frontload vocabulary words by working with a small group of struggling students, while Ms. Myers introduces the warm-up activity to the majority of the class.  This approach of alternative teaching will give Ms. Myers a chance to lead the majority of the class, while Ms. Bennett works with the smaller group of students.  Both educators are excited about moving beyond one teaching, one assisting as they share the roles and responsibilities for jointly planning and delivering the content.

Moving Beyond One Teaching, One Assisting

As educators, we must ensure that students with disabilities have access to the general education curriculum.  Co-teaching is one service delivery option that gives students with disabilities that access.  To maximize the impact of this service option, both teachers must take an active role in providing instruction and commit to teaching students using a variety of teaching approaches. The following tips are provided to assist co-teaching partners in moving beyond one teaching, one assisting.

  • Stay focused during common planning time by using an agenda and a lesson plan template.  Write everything down!
  • Become knowledgeable about the six co-teaching approaches and commit to using them appropriately. Follow Friend’s (2008) guidelines for using various co-teaching approaches when planning content units:
    1. One teaching, one observing: Occasional
    2. Station teaching: Frequent
    3. Parallel teaching: Frequent
    4. Alternative teaching: Occasional
    5. Team teaching:  Occasional
    6. One teaching, one assisting: Seldom
  • Utilize free educational resources designed to engage all students in co-taught classrooms.
  1.  Enhanced Scope and Sequence PLUS Lesson Plans
  2. Universal Design for Learning
  3. Training and Technical Assistance Center Resources

At the end of the unit, reflect on your planning and teaching practices.  Discuss how the content was taught to students.  As a team, were you able to move beyond one teaching, one assisting?  As a way to ensure delivering content in a variety of ways, commit to using three or more co-teaching variations for future units. 


Friend, M. (2008). Co-teach! A handbook for creating and sustaining effective classroom partnerships in inclusive schools. Greensboro, NC: Marilyn Friend, Inc.

Friend, M., & Cook, L. (2007). Interactions: Collaboration skills for school professionals (5th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Murawski, W. (2009). Collaborative teaching in secondary schools: Making the co-teaching marriage work! Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.