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Co-Teaching: Tips for Enhancing Practice

by Sue Land, M.Ed., Lee Anne Sulzberger, M.Ed.

Co-teaching as a service delivery option for students with disabilities is not a new phenomenon.  Bauwens, Hourcade, and Friend (1989) used the term cooperative teaching 20 years ago to describe the practice of a general education and a special education teacher jointly delivering instruction in the general education setting. More recently, Friend and Cook (2007) refined the definition of co-teaching as a partnership between two or more professionals who share instructional responsibility for a diverse group of students in a shared classroom space. Today, co-teaching is becoming a more common service delivery model as schools seek to support students with disabilities in general education settings (Friend & Cook, 2007).

Co-teaching partners may use the following questions to reflect upon the status of their co-teaching relationship. “Yes” answers to the questions indicate that the foundation for a productive co-teaching partnership has been established. “No” answers would suggest that foundational work remains and co-teachers would benefit from further exploration of the questions.

  • Have we discussed each other's teaching style and preferences?

  • Are we aware of the strengths each of us brings to the co-teaching partnership?

  • Do we have and act upon a clearly articulated understanding of how we will work together?

  • Do we meet regularly to co-plan our lessons?

  • Is our co-planning time focused on meeting the needs of all learners in our room?

  • Does each teacher have a meaningful role during co-taught lessons?

  • Do we provide and accept suggestions that will enhance our co-teaching relationship and improve student learning?

Once the basics are in place, experienced co-teaching partners can more closely examine their planning and teaching practices to improve and strengthen overall instruction.

Planning for Joint Instruction

Friend and Cook (2007) note that co-teaching partners should "plan and use unique and high-involvement instructional strategies to engage all students in ways that are not possible when only one teacher is present" (p. 116). How can co-teachers ensure that they are delivering powerful instruction? After observing and interviewing co-teachers in three high schools, Simmons and Magiera (2007) determined that "quality co-teaching is predicated on common co-planning time, which leads to more consistent and thoughtful implementation of co-teaching" (Recommendations for Future Co-Teaching Practices section, ¶ 6).

Co-teachers also benefit from formalizing and structuring their planning process. A structured process provides teachers the opportunity to plan content, integrate IEP goals into lessons, differentiate instruction and assessment, and determine appropriate accommodations. It also allows teachers to select appropriate co-teaching variations or approaches, form deliberate student groups, and assign teaching responsibilities. Detailed information regarding this planning process may be downloaded in the new Considerations Packet, Co-Planning for Student Success.

Another area of growth for experienced co-teachers to pursue is examining the delivery of "specially designed instruction" for students with disabilities. This requires addressing the unique needs of each child based on the child's disability and ensuring access to the general curriculum so that he or she can meet the educational standards (IDEA 2004 §300.26(b)(3)). One way to address "specially designed instruction" is to differentiate instruction. To aid in differentiating instruction and assessment during the planning process, co-teachers discuss the "big picture" issues or critical concepts related to the content before turning to content delivery. For example, before beginning a unit of study on the Civil War, teachers determine that students will need to understand the concept of "civil war." Hawbaker, Balong, Buckwalter, and Runyun (2001) recommend analyzing the content for potential difficulties by "thinking about what was difficult for students in previous years, analyzing the abstractness and complexity of the concepts, and thinking about the specific learning difficulties of students with special needs" (p. 25). It is here that planning partners determine how they will deliver the content to ensure accessibility (e.g., multimedia presentation, dramatization, reading of historical literature, showing DVD of current events) and design differentiated practice activities and assessments to meet the specific needs of the students.

Delivering Joint Instruction

Experienced teaching partners should expand their use of co-teaching approaches beyond one teach-one assist to meet the needs of their students and to achieve instructional objectives (Santos & Wolfe, 2007). For example, co-teachers may choose station teaching because they want small groups of students to rotate through a variety of stations to complete a writing activity. Teachers first group students based on the results of a writing skills assessment. Then one teacher works with a group of students at the prewriting station. The other teacher instructs students on conducting research on a topic. The last group works independently on reports at the computer station.  Kloo and Zigmond (2008) suggest that co-teachers also consider approaches that provide numerous opportunities for students to respond and for teachers to give frequent corrective feedback (parallel and alternative teaching). A complete description of co-teaching variations or approaches is provided in the Considerations Packet, Co-Teaching.

Tips for Professional Growth

Co-teaching partners are encouraged to consider ways to enhance their practice and share their experiences with colleagues. The following are ways in which co-teachers can continue to refine their partnership:

  • Special education teacher can take content course work

  • General education teacher can take a special education strategies course

  • Open classroom to visitors

  • Serve as mentors to new co-teaching pairs (Lock, 2008)

Co-teaching partners can also use One Teach/One Observe to provide each other with specific feedback and coaching.

Further information on planning for professional development is provided in the Considerations Packet, Designing Effective Professional Development.

Continuous reflection upon and refinement of co-teaching practices will increase the likelihood that co-teaching is an effective way to deliver services to students with disabilities. The following websites provide additional information on co-teaching:  The Access Center and Council for Exceptional Children.


Bauwens, J., Hourcade, J. J., & Friend, M. (1989). Cooperative teaching: A model for general and special education integration. Remedial and Special Education, 10(2), 17-22.

Friend, M., & Cook, L. (2007). Interactions: Collaboration skills for school professionals (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.Hawbaker, B., Balong, M., Buckwalter, S., & Runyun, S. (2001). Building a strong base of support for all students through co-planning. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 33(4), 24-30.

Kloo, A., & Zigmond, N. (2008). Co-teaching revisited: Redrawing the blueprint. Preventing School Failure, 52(2), 12-20.

Lock, R. (2008). 20 Ways to strengthen your co-teaching relationship. Intervention in School and Clinic, 44(2), 121-125.

Santos, K., & Wolfe, J. C. (2007). Teachers teach together. Virginia Educational Leadership, 5(1), 39-50.

Simmons, R. J., & Magiera, K. (2007). Evaluation of co-teaching in three high schools within one school district: How do you know when you are TRULY co-teaching? TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus, 3(3) Article 4. Retrieved December 4, 2008, from

Date: February/March 2009 Link Lines