Change is difficult. In addition to institutional barriers that may hinder any reform effort, innovation often works against prevailing wisdom. Co-teaching is no exception; the shift from traditional modes of working with teacher candidates (TCs) to methods that focus on preparing TCs to teach is the most significant barrier to overcome. Developing classroom teachers’ capacity for clinical supervision, the primary objective of co-teaching, is contrary to how teachers are accustomed to dealing with TCs. Even after they participated in co-teaching workshops, the teachers in our Co-Teaching Project (CTP) expressed difficulties implementing the co-teaching model. We regard these as “mind-shift” difficulties. They clustered around three questions: What is the purpose of co-teaching? Why utilize co-teaching strategies? What does working with a TC look like in the co-teaching model?

About Co-Teaching

Co-teaching has become a promising approach for enriching the student teaching experience in university-based teacher education programs (TEPs). Its roots lie in special education involving two or more licensed special education teachers who work together to address students’ needs. Co-teaching in TEPs involves a classroom teacher and a TC who work collaboratively in all phases of teaching—co-planning, co-teaching, and co-assessing—to deliver instruction in a classroom. The co-instructional strategies are one teach/one observe, one teach/one assist, station teaching, alternative teaching, parallel teaching, and team teaching. Many teacher-education scholars regard co-teaching as an attempt to address an ongoing problem where university-sponsored TEPs lack connection between what is taught on campus and the realities of the school-based teaching practicum.

Our Story

We sought to change significantly how field experiences in methods courses are conducted in our TEP. This focus resulted from frank conversations with the school principal and other district administrators at our professional development site (PDS). The superintendent and the PDS principal wanted the TCs to have more substantive experiences in the classroom before the student teaching practicum, which immediately follows the methods semester. Rather than create bulletin boards, grade papers, and run errands during their methods semester, they wanted TCs to participate in planning and teaching lessons. Moreover, the PDS principal stressed that she wanted every classroom to be a clinical classroom. In her words, “I want a laboratory school.”

Co-teaching is nearly a perfect response to the principal’s request. First, we sought funding and won a state department of education award for the 2018–19 school year. We set about developing clinical classroom teachers—using the co-teaching model—to train classroom teachers to teach instruction. We brought in two consultants, Megan Guise and Nancy Stauch of California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, CA, to facilitate the workshops. Then, we extended the methods practicum from three hours a week to a full day in the classroom each week so that each TC would be paired with a classroom teacher and continue that relationship into the student teaching semester.

For the 2019–20 school year, we received funding from our dean, college department chairs, and the district superintendent, which allowed us to provide a modest stipend for participating teachers and pay for substitutes when two co-teaching workshops were held. The TCs were able to spend eight consecutive Thursdays in classrooms with their classroom-based teacher educator.

Mind-Shift Difficulties

Reform initiatives require significant shifts in thinking, substantive professional learning, and sustained efforts, to name a few, according to consensus documents and research findings. So, shifting from traditional ways of thinking about TCs to a co-teaching mindset is difficult. To illustrate mind-shift difficulties, the following are characterizations of teachers’ and TCs’ comments derived from evaluations and reflections in 2019 and 2020:

“It’s not the same as student teaching, so I don’t know what to do with her on Thursdays.”

“My classroom teacher won’t let me do anything.”

“My TC has poor classroom management.”

“My classroom teacher lets me do whatever I want. On Thursdays, I do most of the teaching.”

Although there were varying levels of co-teaching success in the classrooms, such comments were indicative of how the co-teaching model ran counter to what some teachers were accustomed to, despite the fact we had anticipated many of these issues and planned accordingly. These comments exposed how the teachers defaulted to traditional practices in preparing teacher candidates for classrooms. Based on these comments, we decided to emphasize and elaborate on the following questions as we go forward: What is the purpose of co-teaching? Why have co-teaching strategies? What does working with a TC look like in the co-teaching model?

Emphasizing and Elaborating

What is the purpose of co-teaching? Co-teaching is intended to provide TCs an opportunity to learn how to teach in a classroom led by a teacher with clinical supervision skills. What we did not do was emphasize how the co-teaching model is fundamentally different from traditional models that, in the best cases, “gradually release” TCs into full-time teaching with little structure or, in the worst cases, expect TCs to “sink or swim.”

In traditional models, little attention is given to developing classroom teachers’ clinical supervision skills. In the co-teaching model, clinical skills are embedded in and through the co-instructional strat­egies. Reflection on the teachers’ own student-teaching experience was an integral part of the workshops, but the teachers will require more time to contrast their experiences with the co-teaching model, focusing on the classroom teacher’s responsibilities in developing their TC’s ability to teach. We will use video, written vignettes, and role-playing to encourage further substantive discussion about how learning to teach differs in the co-teaching model.

Why utilize co-teaching strategies? The beauty of co-instructional strategies is that they are best viewed as a developmental trajectory for learning to teach. There are six strategies that we promote in our workshops alongside a recommended order of implementation. One teach/one observe is a strategy that we encourage our teachers to begin with. The classroom teacher guides the lesson, first giving instructions to the TC. The classroom teacher may ask the TC to observe how she transitions to small groups or to pay attention to the questions she asks the students. The important point is to make sure the TC observes with a purpose in mind.

One teach/one observe is usually followed by one teach/one assist: The classroom teacher instructs while the TC assists students unobtrusively. Station teaching, also known as small-group teaching, is when the classroom teacher and the TC each teach students as they rotate through small groups. Parallel teaching, in which the teacher and TC teach the same lesson simultaneously, is useful when learning is better facilitated with the class divided into two groups. Alternative teaching is when the teacher takes responsibility for the whole group while the TC works with a smaller group that needs specialized instruction. Team teaching is when the classroom teacher and the TC deliver instruction at the same time. It is often called “tag-team teaching” and is considered the most complex since its success is directly related to the quality of the working relationship.

Learning to teach is best facilitated when the teacher uses the strategies intentionally, focusing the TC on some aspect of instruction and then following up afterward. Because the TC is placed with the teacher during the methods semester and student teaching semester, we expect significant role reversal during student teaching. The relationship should evolve into a true co-teaching one, where the classroom teacher may follow the TC’s lead during instruction.

What does working with a TC look like in the coaching model? We thought we were doing a good job of preparing the teachers to work with methods students, but comments we received were mixed. In previous workshops, we discussed what teachers could do on the first Thursday, second Thursday, third Thursday, and so on. We decided to instead embed more of the teacher/co-teacher activities into the workshops, emphasizing the teaching triad. Planning, teaching, and assessing becomes co-planning, co-teaching, and co-assessing in the co-teaching model. We will make more time for the teachers and their TCs to co-plan a lesson and share the co-teaching strategies that will be used. Each workshop will focus on an aspect of the co-teaching triad to illustrate what teachers and their TCs should be doing.

Amplifying Mind Shifts

Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). We want to utilize PLCs to amplify teachers’ mind shifts from traditional modes of teacher learning. We will enlist the help of the second author, who serves as a liaison between the university TEP and school district, to embed co-teaching problems of practice into the teachers’ PLCs. If used effectively, PLCs will promote ongoing professional learning and institutionalize co-teaching practices at school sites.

Summer Institutes. Finally, one-week summer institutes will allow us to intensify teachers’ learning before the academic year. In subsequent workshops during the academic year, the TCs will join the teachers. The teachers will be paired with rising methods students in the fall. The TCs will remain with the teacher during the spring semester, which is the methods semester, where they will work alongside teachers who are adept clinical supervisors.

Final Thoughts

Teacher and student feedback allowed us to identify mind-shift difficulties that have shown us a path forward. We know better what to emphasize. These emphases, along with PLCs and summer institutes, should promote the mind shifts necessary for the teachers to develop clinical supervision skills for teaching our TCs to teach. As we continue to improve our TEP, co-teaching serves as an important vehicle for cultivating teacher and TC instructional competency.

Michele D. Crockett and Cindy Benge work in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, NM. Lillie Garcia is a second grade teacher at James Elementary School in Portales.