Strategies for Successful Co-Teaching

How do you solve low achievement, staffing shortages, and unprecedented increases in behavioral concerns? The answer to these questions is co-teaching, or at least that has been the solution given to educators. Co-teaching is an amazing delivery of service option and should be available for students; however, it needs to be thoughtfully planned and centered on the needs of students, not adult conveniences or necessities.
By Trish Geraghty

How do you solve low achievement, staffing shortages, and unprecedented increases in behavioral concerns? The answer to these questions is co-teaching, or at least that has been the solution given to educators. Co-teaching is an amazing delivery of service option and should be available for students; however, it needs to be thoughtfully planned and centered on the needs of students, not adult conveniences or necessities. 

But what really is co-teaching…“Co-teaching is a collaborative approach to instruction in which two teachers, typically a general education teacher and a special education teacher, work together to plan and then implement instruction for a class that includes students with disabilities. This can benefit not only the students with disabilities, but all students who are having difficulty with or are misunderstanding an assignment. Co-teaching is the most common method of delivering specially designed instruction to students with disabilities in the least-restrictive environment” (Friend, 2022). 

This definition paints an ideal picture of what co-teaching should be. There are six co-teaching models to choose from depending on a variety of factors. To learn more about the co-teaching models I highly suggest you read the article 6 Models of Co-Teaching by Amanda Morin written for Understood. Here are the shortened definitions of each model for your review: 

1. Team teaching: Both teachers are in the room at the same time but take turns teaching the whole class.

2. Parallel teaching: The team splits the class into two groups and each teacher teaches the same information at the same time.

3. Station teaching: The class is divided into three or more groups and the classroom has multiple learning centers.

4. Alternative teaching: One teacher instructs most of the class and the other teacher teaches an alternate or modified version of the lesson to a smaller group of students.

5. One teach, one assist: In the “one teach, one assist” model of co-teaching, one teacher teaches a full group lesson, while the other teacher roams and helps individual students.

6. One teach, one observe: In a “one teach, one observe” setting, one teacher serves as the primary instructor, while the other is simply observing students’ learning and collecting data” (Morin, 2021).

There are benefits and drawbacks to each model and Morin’s article goes into greater detail on this. The idea for this blog originated from a colleague that was talking with a friend who teaches high school science. She was having trouble connecting with her special education co-teacher and felt like the special education teacher was only working on personal projects rather than contributing to the classes. Sound familiar? It does to me, and I think the best place to start is to talk about non-examples of quality co-teaching. 

Common Pitfalls to Avoid

1. The Watcher

This is a bad version of one teach, one observe or one teach, one assist. I have been on both sides of this scenario, as a general education teacher and special education teacher. I taught 8th grade ELA one semester and was “assigned” a special education co-teacher. I was so hopeful that together we would do great things for kids. What I quickly realized is that my co-teaching buddy did not feel comfortable with the content and saw his role as observing student behaviors and intervening when needed. This was so disappointing and made for a very long and frustrating semester. 

On the flip side, I have been the dreaded “watcher.” As special education teachers, we sometimes feel the need to be invited to “teach” in our general education colleagues’ classes. I was partnered with a brilliant and veteran middle school teacher. She was organized, so organized she had the whole semester planned out in July. As admirable as that is, it leaves little room for co-planning for co-teaching. Anytime I would mention changing plans to accommodate student needs, she would remind me that I was a “helper” in her room. Ouch. 

Neither situation honors the expertise or experience both teachers bring to the classroom. This is the most common version of co-teaching that I have experienced and seen. 

2. The Flitter

Also known as the “pop in and out” special education teacher. You may see this person once a week as they pop in and ask, “all good?” while giving the thumbs-up sign. Ah no, not all good here, thanks for checking. But the “flitter” is already gone on to the next class. There are two reasons why this happens. First and foremost, lack of staff. Co-teaching should not be used to handle staffing shortages, however, in my discussions with administrators, the increase in co-teaching was born from necessity. You cannot be in multiple places at once, you just can’t. Trust me, I’ve tried. 

The second reason is a lack of clarity of what their role and responsibility is as a special education co-teacher. Sometimes special education co-teachers feel like a “watcher” and decide their time is better used elsewhere, meaning paperwork. It is no surprise that special education teachers are buried in paperwork. Any moment to get caught up on paperwork is truly a gift of time, unfortunately at the expense of kids. 

3. “My Kids Only” Teacher

Ugh, this one is the absolute worst! This goes back again to a lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities of co-teaching. I have even been told that due to how someone is funded they can or cannot support all children. Yes, there are funding issues and rules that must be maintained, but if funding prevents you from helping all students, we have a serious problem. 

Now that we all know what co-teaching should not be, let’s move on to what we can do instead.

What to do Instead

I have often heard of co-teaching being compared to marriage. I see the connection… you have to work at a marriage, it can be hard, you spend a lot of time with that person, etc. Co-teaching is not like marriage in my opinion. You and your co-teaching buddy have a job to do and have to work together to improve student outcomes. 

Co-teaching should start with a clear goal and objective with outcomes to be met. When I work with teachers and leaders and ask them to visualize the ideal co-teaching experience for students they often say, “it should be an equal teaching opportunity where students cannot tell who is the general education teacher and who the special education teacher is.” This might seem like a lofty goal, but it is attainable. Follow these tips to support the implementation of co-teaching. 

1. Establish clear roles, responsibilities, and expectations.

Brene Brown says it best, “clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” We cannot expect people to know what to do, especially something as complicated as co-teaching. Make sure everyone understands their role and responsibilities. These expectations should be reviewed monthly during team meetings to ensure consistency. 

a. Special Education Teacher

The special education teacher’s role in co-teaching is to have knowledge about the students with disabilities and the accommodations and modifications (if needed) that the students need and provide specially designed instruction. The delivery of the specially designed instruction varies depending on the co-teaching model chosen. 

b. General Education Teacher

The general education teacher’s role is to be the content expert and the one responsible for teaching the standards to all students. Similarly to the special education teacher, the responsibilities vary depending on the co-teaching model. 

c. Building Administrator

Building administrators play an essential role to ensure co-teaching is successful on their campus. Their role is to promote equitable learning environments for all students and provide the vision and mission for creating the culture. To do this, an administrator must ensure collaboration time is set aside and uninterrupted to promote effective planning. After sharing the vision for co-teaching it is time to “inspect what you expect.” Frequent observations and feedback sessions allow building leaders and co-teachers to review the implementation of co-teaching and make adjustments as necessary. 

d. District Administrator 

The district administrator’s role changes depending on who initiated the goal to co-teach. Many times the idea of co-teaching originates from the special education director. If that is the case, this administrator has the responsibility to research and choose a co-teaching model or provide an offering. Once the co-teaching model(s) have been adopted the next step is to provide intense professional development that offers continuous learning opportunities beyond the initial training. Ensure staffing allocations support collaboration and time needed to meet for planning. Like the building leader, it is important for the district administrator to observe, provide feedback, and be part of the problem-solving and planning team. Co-teaching does not happen in isolation and it takes everyone doing their part to be successful. 

2. Co-planning

In my opinion, co-planning is the foundation of any successful co-teaching partnership. When co-planning is done well, students require less support during class. See resources below for lesson planning examples from Marilyn Friend. Make sure to infuse Universal Design for Learning strategies in your lesson plans to ensure the needs of all students are being met. 

3. Resources

Co-teaching can feel overwhelming to start and honestly maintain. You do not need to do it alone or recreate the wheel. Here are some resources for teachers and leaders: 

High Leverage Practices for Collaboration https://highleveragepractices.org/sites/default/files/2020-10/Collaborationfinal.pdf

Council for Exceptional Children Co-Teacher https://exceptionalchildren.org/topics/co-teaching

Standards from Council for Exceptional Children for Leaders https://exceptionalchildren.org/sites/default/files/2020-07/Advanced%20Specialty%20Set%20%20Special%20Education%20Administration%20Specialist.pdf 

Book source for leaders


Marilyn Friend’s website with lesson plan examples https://coteach.com/lesson-plans/ 

There are many co-teaching models that can be successful when implemented with fidelity. I have personally seen success with the one general education teacher and one special education teacher model where both teachers teach whole group and small group for all students in class. I’ve also seen the power of co-planning coupled with a learning lab structure to support students outside of class. 

Implementation of co-teaching must be treated like any change initiative; thoughtfully planned for, including the implementation dip when everything seems impossible. Change requires a clear vision with a relentless focus on improvement. Stay with it and watch teacher efficacy increase and student outcomes improve.


Friend, M. (2022, January 6). Co-teaching. Council for Exceptional Children. Retrieved January 30, 2022, from https://exceptionalchildren.org/topics/co-teaching 

Morin, A. (2021, April 9). 6 models of co-teaching. Understood. Retrieved January 30, 2022, from https://www.understood.org/articles/en/6-models-of-co-teaching

Trish Geraghty
Trish Geraghty, an accomplished educational leader with 20+ years of experience, excels in curriculum development, instructional design, and professional development. Her proven track record includes successful support for schools, districts, educators, and students. Committed to ensuring universal access to high-quality learning, Trish is a visionary advocate for inclusive education. Her innovative approach to curriculum development reflects a keen understanding of evolving standards. Trish's transformative influence extends beyond traditional boundaries, actively contributing to the broader advancement of education. A catalyst for positive change, she inspires excellence in others, shaping the future of education through unwavering commitment and visionary leadership.

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