Academic Exchange Quarterly
Winter 2003: Volume 7, Issue 4
To cite, use print source rather than this on-line versions.
Shared Insights from University Co-Teaching
Greg Conderman, Northern Illinois University
Bonnie McCarty, College of Charleston, SC
Greg Conderman, Ed. D is Associate Professor in the Department of Teaching
and Learning. His research interests include assessment, instructional methods
for mild disabilities, and teacher preparation. CondermanGreg@ambrose.sau.edu
Bonnie C. McCarty, Ph.D is Assistant Professor of Special Education and graduate
program coordinator, Foundations of Secondary and Special Education Department.
Her research interests include creative curricular approaches for teaching social
competence, service learning, and special educator retention.
Many educators across all levels of teaching and disciplines are exploring new ways
of collaborating and effectively delivering instruction to diverse groups of students.
In this article, we describe our experience with university co-teaching with special
attention to using learning centers in an upper-level education course.
* * *
Imagine having opportunities to reflect daily upon a shared teaching experience,
learn and immediately implement new and effective instructional and assessment
techniques, and gain greater insight into your discipline---all within an atmosphere
of shared mutual trust and respect. Such opportunities are probably rare in higher
education, yet these were some benefits of our recent encounter with university
co-teaching. Here we share perceptions of our university co-teaching experience
with special attention to the benefits for students and professors.
Co-teaching is an approach where two professionals deliver substantive instruction
to a group of students within a single physical space (Cook & Friend, 1995). Often,
co-teaching is a chosen vehicle to initiate or expand collaborative efforts among
and between colleagues. Our collaboration involved co-teaching a three-week summer
Inclusion Strategies course enrolling 30 secondary general education juniors and
seniors. Although we brought to this voluntary experience different life experiences,
teaching backgrounds, and university department affiliations (one from Special
Education and one from Foundations of Education), we shared a passion for preparing
successful general educators for their critical role in inclusion, a need for using
our creativity in this course, familiarity with the co-teaching literature, and
mutual professional respect. We believe these elements provided the structure for a
successful and rewarding experience that allowed us to experiment and grow within a
safe and supportive environment. We also maintain that our collaborative approach
provided unique instructional benefits for our students as well as powerful
professional benefits for ourselves.
Instructional Benefits for Students
Co-teaching can provide unique instructional benefits to students. We had different,
yet complementary educational backgrounds, teaching experiences, instructional and
assessment strengths, and areas of professional expertise. Ignoring this vast amount
of life experience would defeat a critical purpose of co-teaching---to enrich the
teaching-learning process for students and co-teachers. By pooling our resources,
materials, experiences, and strengths, the classroom experience was richer than if
the course had been taught independently, and students were exposed to different,
and sometimes divergent examples, anecdotes and stories, and ways of thinking about
inclusion as a result of this shared storehouse of experiences. Our approach to the
course reflected Bess’s (2000) premise that instructional roles are so diverse and
require such different mixes of tasks, talents, and temperaments that some parts
must be played by more than one person. Further, the co-teaching experience allowed
us to implement approaches we might not have considered if teaching the course alone.
One of these examples---which we expand upon here---is the use of learning centers,
or station teaching.
Learning Centers---Not Just for Kids Anymore
Learning centers or learning stations are tools where individuals or small groups
participate in teacher-directed or student-directed activities that promote active
exploration of learning objectives (Isbell, 1995). Learning centers help students
make choices, expand oral communication, enhance creative abilities, develop social
skills, understand others, develop responsibility, and learn persistence in task
completion. Although their use is typically associated with early childhood or
elementary settings, like Eifler (2000), we discovered learning centers to be a
viable instructional tool---and a justified alternative to lecturing---that engaged
college students with selected course outcomes.
According to Friend and Cook (2003), station teaching is one of the 6 types of
instructional approaches associated with co-teaching. Although station teaching
requires co-teachers to share responsibility for planning in order to divide content,
each professional can deliver instruction in a center consistent with his or her
teaching style. Further, students benefit from the small group approach.
We developed 5 learning stations that each accommodated 6 students. Every center
was developed around a critical course outcome that promoted student interaction
through an applied and authentic task. Students had already received some
instruction, read the necessary material or were provided with sufficient background
information associated with the centers. Our stations included:
• Station 1: Students examined questions on rating scales that are often used to
assess students with behavioral needs. This experience resulted in a
discussion regarding assessment, rating scale questions, the subjective vs.
objective nature of observing and assessing behavior, and the role of
professional ethical practices in the assessment process.
• Station 2: Students worked independently or in pairs to reconstruct a poorly
written classroom test. This center required students to apply recently
acquired skills in test construction (Conderman & Koroghlanian, 2002) and
• Station 3: Students compared and contrasted two high school United States history
textbooks with very different instructional approaches. Students reflected
upon their personal philosophy about teaching---and in particular teaching
students with disabilities. Students also learned how to apply the concept
of “considerate textbooks” (Armbruster & Anderson, 1988) to their future
• Station 4: One co-teacher modeled how to use concept diagrams, an effective way
to present information clearly to students in disciplines where vocabulary
and concepts may be confusing (Bulgren, Schumaker, & Deshler, 1988).
Students participated in this interactive activity using research-based
forms and procedures.
• Station 5: One co-teacher reviewed the significant elements of the capstone
inclusion project that required students to apply content enhancement
strategies (Lenz, Deshler, & Kissam, 2004) to their future classroom. This
station reviewed the elements and procedures of course and unit organization
and allowed students to share progress with and receive individual guidance
from the instructor and each other.
In each student directed center, we included clear written directions and all
necessary materials, including tables and chairs. Students needed to complete each
station within 15 minutes and circulate among all centers within the class period.
In addition to providing a forum for practicing important class content, we modeled
the teaching modalities they had studied and reflected with them our preparation
process. As part of their reflections, students discussed their experience from the
perspectives of both learner and teacher. We all learned that physical set up is
critical to the success of learning centers. Co-teachers must be able to visually
“touch base” with each other in order to keep the pace of instruction uniform.
Stations must be set up to allow for as few distractions or “previews” as possible.
Together, we refined an understanding of the extensive planning and preparation
involved if student success in constructing knowledge independently is to be
achieved. Our students not only recognized what they had learned from the experience
but the work involved in creating the experience.
Professional Benefits for the Co-teachers
In addition to the unique student instructional benefits that arise from co-teaching,
powerful opportunities for personal and professional growth and reflection are
available for co-teachers. We found three conditions to be especially important for
fostering our professional growth through co-teaching.
One condition necessary for professional growth through co-teaching is frequent (if
possible daily) time reserved for reflecting upon the day’s events and planning for
the following day. Before we made a commitment to co-teach, we discussed the
necessity for a common time for daily planning and reflection. Honoring this time
proved to be an invaluable jewel in our quest for growth, and we looked forward to
this time of sacred insight. As Palmer notes, “Recovering the sacred might be one
path towards recovering the inwardness without which education does not happen…we
could recover our sense of community with each other…this community is absolutely at
the heart of good teaching” (p. 6). We found that our reflection and planning were
more effective if they occurred immediately after teaching the class while events
were fresh. Sometimes we discussed class presentations or activities, other times we
shared perceptions of certain students, and we often wondered if we were presenting
too much information at once. Verbalizing these statements to each other became part
of our daily debriefing that allowed us to then plan for the next day.
The second necessary condition for fostering our own growth was confidence in the
safety of the co-teaching relationship. Even though we planned and reflected
together, co-teaching is still a vulnerable endeavor. Most college professors are
prepared for and comfortable teaching their own classes their own way without a
great deal of visibility from colleagues. Co-teaching exposes one’s strengths as
well as one’s weaknesses. This could be quite threatening unless a great deal of
trust exists between co-teachers. Until this trust develops, co-teachers might find
themselves stuck in the beginning co-teaching stage characterized by guarded,
careful communication where partners communicate superficially, begin to develop
boundaries, and attempt to establish a professional working relationship. Some
teachers in this stage find it difficult to move from a social relationship to a
professional relationship due to feelings of intrusion or invasion (Gately & Gately,
2001). One minor issue we needed to clarify during this stage was how to address
each other in front of students. We became comfortable referring to our partner as
“Dr. C” or “Dr. M”.
Only after the safety element was firmly established could we consider the third
condition helpful in our collaborative relationship, which was an environment that
promoted a spirit of parity. According to Friend & Cook (2003), parity means that
each person’s contribution to an interaction is equally valued, and each person has
equal decision-making power. Gately & Gately (2001) note that co-teachers may have
to progress though a compromising stage before parity develops. The compromising
stage is characterized by give and take communication with some compromising on both
parties. The compromises co-teachers discuss form a level of trust that leads to
parity. Some of our “give and take” decisions involved decisions such as how we
would introduce a topic, or how we would assess student mastery of the material,
but neither co-teacher was expected to “give up” elements they strongly believed
were critical for maintaining course integrity.
The professional benefits resulting from the co-teaching experience can be grouped
according to the dimensions of teaching competency outlined by Miller and Miller
(1997). These authors discuss three skills needed for college teaching success:
(1) knowledge of the subject matter; (2) knowledge of instructional planning,
delivery and evaluation; and (3) personal characteristics and behaviors.
The co-teaching experience provided an opportunity for our professional growth in
Knowledge of Subject Matter
Each of us brought a different base of expertise and experience to the teaching
platform. One instructor’s research focused on characteristics and learning
strategies for students with mild disabilities. The second instructor’s life’s
work focused on creative instructional procedures for students with severe emotional
and behavioral disorders and autism. The co-teaching relationship allowed us to
learn from each other and provided students opportunities to learn from “experts”.
Being released from the responsibility of being “expert” in all things allowed us
each to pose true questions as learner within the context of the instructional day.
We each completed our summer teaching experience with a strengthened knowledge base
and an enriched understanding of areas of disability we had not had the recent
opportunity to research intensely.
Knowledge of Instructional Planning, Delivery and Evaluation
Each of us brought a strong commitment to providing quality learning experiences to
university students as well as a belief that modeling evidence-based approaches is
critical to instructing future educators. These two cornerstones provided a basis
for sharing activities and materials we had personally found successful in separate
teaching experiences. For example, one instructor was skilled at test writing while
the other was less than passionate about the task. The co-teaching experience
allowed the novice test-writer to learn to construct meaningful objective test items
from a skilled mentor. This new skill was transportable to future instructional
Conversely, one instructor was comfortable in establishing an open-ended learning
scenario and was skilled in posing higher-order questions to guide student
exploration. The second instructor, less comfortable with an unscripted format,
viewed and learned a model of a constructivist approach to teaching and has
incorporated similar ideas into other teaching situations.
The co-teaching experience allowed us to share the workload. We took turns with
the routine tasks of preparing outlines and materials for class. We shared mutually
in acquiring videos, grading assignments and tests, and responding to student
questions and concerns. When we had a new idea for an instructional activity, we
were able to “play it out” to a safe and trusted audience and work out the glitches
before “playing it to the house”. Teaching was fun!
Knowledge of Personal Characteristics and Teaching Behaviors
Some of the most intense challenges in teaching emerge when one is faced with
students who present personality characteristics that “rub us the wrong way” or
students who have significant life challenges that impact their course performance.
In these times of struggle or crisis, the college instructor comes face to face with
personal biases and beliefs. One of the most enriching and satisfying aspects of
the co-teaching experience was sharing these responsibilities. When critical issues
emerged related to student attendance or performance, we consulted about strategies
for unified action. Although sometimes difficult to hear, we grew professionally by
becoming aware of our “hot spots” in relation to student behavior and performance.
The daily debriefings provided a “checkpoint” that consistently moderated student
interactions. We had a means for checking our perceptions and exploring our
prejudices. It was comforting having a partner in making possible life altering
decisions about student’s lives.
In closing, we encourage the use of co-teaching and learning stations as viable
instructional tools in higher education. Students learn much from faculty modeling
the techniques and procedures presented in lecture and clarified in class discussion.
As one model of co-teaching, centers provide students and faculty a dynamic means
for intensive, interactive hands-on practice and exploration with critical course
content. Finally, co-teaching provides a forum for reflection on common, shared
experience from different perspectives, allowing students to demonstrate their
knowledge and explore and demonstrate associated dispositions.
The decision to co-teach was, perhaps, at first a pragmatic one, made to assist our
departments in covering a needed section of a required core course and to afford us
the opportunity to gain teaching ideas from one another. However, the experience
quickly became much more. The daily debriefing that began with discussions of
routine events quickly transformed into discussions of the heart of the university
teaching experience. The opportunity to experience the daily realities of teaching
a group of demanding students with diverse needs within the context of a mutually
respectful and trusting professional relationship energized our zeal for teaching.
As Palmer (1999) emphasizes, “Community emerges when we are willing to share the
real concerns of our lives. But in our society, you are reluctant to bring your
concerns to me because you fear I am going to try to “fix” you—and I am reluctant
to receive your concerns because I fear I am going to have to “fix’ you. We have
no middle ground between invading one another and ignoring one another, and thus
we have no community. But by practicing ground rules that release us from our
mutual fears, by teaching us how to live our questions with one another rather than
answer them, the gift of community emerges among us--a gift of transformation
“( p. 11). We each were in some way transformed by our co-teaching experiences.
We reaped the professional rewards of increased knowledge, new instructional ideas
and skills, and personal insights that this profound sense of community can have
on the life of teaching. But most importantly, our students, and hopefully their
students, benefited as well.
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