Five questions that can help create a foundation for the hard and important work of teaching together.
With each new school year, we wonder with excitement and anticipation: what will this cohort of students be like? What can I teach them? What can they teach me?
And, if you’re a teacher who works predominantly in co-taught classrooms, as I did, the very same questions arise with every new co-teacher: what will they be like? What can I teach them? What can they teach me?
Indeed, co-teaching provides wonderful opportunities for new professional relationships and new professional growth. Over the years, my co- teachers became my de facto mentors, my co-researchers, and also, at my luckiest, my friends. But, at the beginning of each co-teaching relationship, it is always a little overwhelming, with so much to learn about each other and decide together.
There may be some pressure to figure it all out before your students walk through the door, but that’s probably not realistic (especially if you have multiple co-teachers), and often the most valuable discoveries and decisions are made on the job, anyway — through the actual work of planning and caring for students together.
That is not to say that efforts to get to know each other at the beginning of the year are not important. On the contrary, it is always clear to me when walking into a classroom as a coach if a co-teaching team has had the time to invest in their professional relationship.
Given the importance of this work and also the abundance of tasks the beginning of a new school year brings, it can be helpful to consider what insight will be most valuable right away.
Here are five questions that can jumpstart your partnership and spark discussion around core values, collaboration, content, communication, and care with your co-teacher.
What are some of your core values and non-negotiables as a teacher?
This question is often lurking beneath the surface of many co-teacher conversations: how to structure group work, how to designate point values on a rubric, or how to support a student exhibiting challenging behaviors.
Sometimes, making the implicit more explicit at the beginning — naming the key beliefs, values, and theories that inform your practices — helps deepen the partnership and move collaboration forward. Furthermore, there is no denying that co-teaching often requires compromise, as you must integrate two separate visions of the classroom.
Having a brief conversation about core values and non-negotiables will help team members understand where there may be more or less flexibility. If, for example, I know that offering students choice is very important to my co-teacher, I know that preserving the place of book clubs in the curriculum is likely important to them. This will not only support you in respecting your colleague and their teaching identity, but will save time and energy on back-and-forth negotiations.
How would you describe the ideal co-teaching situation?
Just as there is an infinite number of teaching styles — arguably, no two are exactly the same — there are an infinite number of co-teaching styles. While some of the workings of the arrangement might be determined by external factors — schedules, content expertise (see question #3), or school leaders’ visions and expectations — it can still be important to understand your co-teacher's preferences around co-facilitation and collaboration. Ideally, would both teachers contribute to every lesson? Is there a co-teaching model that feels most comfortable? It might also be illuminating to ask about past co-teaching experience: what felt like it worked really well in the collaboration, and what felt like it did not serve the partnership or the students.
What’s your level of comfort and passion with this particular grade level / course / content area?
Not every teacher will be equally well-versed, nor equally passionate, about all the curriculum or content of a given course or grade level, and this can be valuable to understand about your co-teacher. For example, at the high school level, one member of the team might have taught Algebra I for a decade, thus bringing a wealth of knowledge, experience, and resources to the classroom. Or, it may be that it’s one teacher’s first time setting foot in a US History classroom since her own school days, but she’s really looking forward to engaging students in the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement. At the elementary school level, a teacher might feel like a rockstar teaching multiplication, but lessons on writing keep them up at night. This information can naturally inform how planning and facilitation responsibilities are delegated, or who will take the lead where.
How do you prefer to communicate between class times?
Ideally, co-teachers will have time set aside to reflect and plan together on a daily or weekly basis, but the need to communicate about particular plans or grading or students will likely spill over. Given the seemingly endless number of channels for that communication, it’s important to understand what works best for each member of the team.
Is it okay to text a question in real time, while grading essays in the evening, or should I put that in an email? Do you prefer lesson plans be sent over the school email, or should we use Google Drive? How should I let you know if I will be out sick? This is important information to glean so that you can respect your co-teacher’s boundaries and also ensure no important communication is missed.
What’s your beverage or treat of choice?
This question is obviously a little more lighthearted than the previous ones, but important nonetheless! In a profession with so many intellectual, physical, and emotional demands, it can be really meaningful to invest in the well-being of our closest colleagues — to gift a little pick-me-up after a tough day, or to celebrate submitting your grades for the marking period. Knowing your co-teacher’s favorite baked food or how they take their coffee allows you to offer that kind of care when the opportunity arises.
Of course, these questions are intended as inspiration; if the exact phrasing doesn’t speak to you, consider other ways to engage with themes of core values, collaboration, content, communication, and care. One option – especially if you are drawn to exploring things visually – is to create and share with each other a co-teaching body biography, as my colleague Laura Rigolosi and I have invited teacher teams to do in our workshops.
Ultimately, the goal is to get to know each other enough so that the gradual establishment of roles, responsibilities and routines — ones that honor individual teaching identities and preferences — over the course of the first few weeks is possible. Such meaningful conversations will create the foundation for hard and important work of teaching (and learning) together.