After high school, I worked in a factory to put myself through college. The assembly line I worked on had production quotas that dictated how many “pieces” we were required to produce per hour. One of the first things I learned on that assembly line was to look busy. Being a young college student, my energy level was high and I would often finish the piecework quickly. After I was done I would socialize with my friends who were also working with me to pay their way through college. The seasoned workers on the line quickly informed us that finishing the job and then chatting together afterward looked bad. They explained that when the foreman came by it was really important to look busy. If we did not look busy, we would be assigned a higher production quota. And while we young people could meet our quota quickly, those who had been working the line for decades were not able to keep up the same pace. Not only that, if we looked like we were goofing around and had time to waste, that was a concern to management.

That lesson holds true in every job I’ve ever held. A couple years ago, I was sitting next to a principal who had just received the edict from his superintendent that he had to let go of three teachers. He was upset with this news and struggling with decisions regarding his staff. He asked me if I had been in the classroom to observe a certain co-teaching pair. I had been in that class and validated that with him. He then asked if I saw the special education teacher sitting in the back of the room on the isle focusing on one or two students. He asked if I had seen a teacher do anything other than sitting there while the general education teacher delivered the lesson. I could not deny that I had observed exactly what he had described. He then asked me a question that, from my teacher viewpoint, I had never considered, “How can I justify keeping that teacher when I can replace her with a paraprofessional who could do the same job?” He explained that every single time he walked by that classroom, the special-education teacher was sitting in the same spot, working with those same few students. This teacher had resisted all coaching to change her practice and be more involved in using her professional skills to co-teach. If he had to choose which teachers to let go, why not choose that one?

Unfortunately, this reality exists in more than one district. I have heard this story repeated multiple times since the first occasion. In a time of budget crunches, school principals are asked to make difficult decisions regarding their staff. With this in mind, it becomes even more imperative that special education teachers in co-taught classrooms truly co-teach.

We do understand that there are times when a general education teacher is direct teaching. When one teacher is direct teaching, what can the other teacher do besides position control, redirect students, quietly answer questions or, at worst, hold up the wall?

In this data-driven age of education, a valuable co-teaching strategy is to collect data while the other teacher is direct teaching. Now, this is not only the role of the special education teacher. Data collection can and should be, accomplished by both teachers, depending on who is teaching at the time. A wonderful extension of this data collection experience is for the general education teacher to collect data, while the special education teacher is leading the class.

While one teacher is direct teaching, the other teacher can be in the background with a clipboard, a pen, and a chart that allows them to take note of student behavior. For example, the data collector might look at how students are responding to the lesson:

  • Are they engaged or sleeping or off task? Looking out the window or texting?
  • Which students have come to class prepared?
  • Which students are struggling to take down notes and may need additional support after class?
  • Are specific students attentive, asking questions, looking confused but not asking questions, or sleeping?

Note these things on the chart.

After the lesson, the data collector – who might be the general education or special education teacher – shares the results with their co-teacher. With this objective data (please be sure it’s objective. It’s not appropriate to write on the data collection form that your colleague is boring the students to death, so they are fast asleep), co-teachers have the information necessary to enhance their next lesson plan to address the issues that might come to light through data collection. This data may also be used in IEP meetings, a 504 meeting, an RTI planning meeting, or for any other purposes where student data may be advantageous.

Now, when an administrator, or a school board member, or a parent walks through the room and one teacher is teaching while the other is standing in the background with a clipboard and pen, both teachers have a solid response to the question, “What are you doing?” The responses very simple; “We are collecting data. In this classroom, we plan data-driven instruction.”

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