Across the country, educators are mourning the loss of an unfinished year and wondering what student learning will look like in the fall. And yes, while it seems clear that there will be varying levels of COVID-slide to contend with, there are steps we can take to put kids on the right track.
The current disruption has trained a bright light on the persistent impediments to student achievement and true educational equity that long predate the pandemic. Our imperative to better address the needs of all students is rendered even more urgent by the uncertainty about when schools will reopen.
The good news is we can—and should—start right now, and design a classroom experience that is built, from the very beginning, with all students in mind. Students with learning and thinking differences have always been among those most marginalized and underserved in our schools. Essentially, this is because teachers feel ill equipped to meet their learning needs, which are often not embedded or accounted for specifically in curricula or lesson planning. We believe the needs of these students should be considered fundamental to the educational mission of schools and well within the realm of possible.
Designing a classroom experience for all students includes developing lesson plans for virtual learning to materials that can be accessed by all learners to the collaboration structures that co-teachers use to plan and instruct. It also includes ensuring that educators have the supports and resources they need to maximize their capacities. When you support teachers to design and instruct with these students in mind and to develop a partnership that utilizes the full potential of the teaching team, they can create truly inclusive classrooms in which all students thrive.
In other professions that are similarly high skill and require deliberate collaboration among team members, it is well understood that guidance and support are critical. Professional sports teams never take the court or field in a competitive game without a coach, extensive preparation and a comprehensive set of plays they plan to run. Dance ensembles spend hours working carefully with a choreographer to practice every step and every movement, individually and collectively. Theater groups rely on predetermined roles, stage directions and a director. The list goes on. In these instances, at the same time that we admire individual skills on display, we also celebrate the careful coordination of the team that enables and amplifies those individual skills.
The same is true for co-teachers. When they have the time and coaching and the strong relationship they need to define their team—the roles each will play, how they will coordinate their instructional practices, the specific skills and knowledge each will contribute in the classroom and in planning—teachers are empowered to maximize their professional expertise to accelerate learning for all students.
My organization partners with schools and teachers to support them to establish the relationships, routines and goals for collaboration that make effective co-teaching possible. In practice, this work helps teachers to:
- Establish systems for collaboration and planning alignment.
- Develop and use processes for using data to plan for differentiation.
- Design each lesson to meet the learning needs of all students.
- Apply effective models of co-teaching in a virtual environment.
Daily, this looks like co-teachers collectively reviewing learning data—student by student—to determine learning needs and utilize instructional approaches and classroom groupings to meet those needs. On any given day it might also involve co-teachers reflecting on the efficacy of their collaborative practices and identifying areas that they can improve, individually and as a team.
Or it might also look like co-teachers collaborating with their coach and school administrators to identify opportunities to share and routinize effective practices throughout the school. Importantly, none of these efforts are “extra.” They are part and parcel of what the co-teachers and schools we work with understand effective instruction to be, in and out of the classroom, and they take place during time specifically designated for this kind of deep collaborative work.
Deliberately prioritizing effective co-teaching may seem like a narrow way forward to increase educational equity. But, it neatly represents a paradigmatic shift that needs to take place—both now, in the midst of the pandemic, and when schools reopen—if we expect to live up to the equity ideals we’ve claimed to believe in as an educational community.
Until we put all students at the center of our educational strategies and empower teachers and administrators to implement universally inclusive policies and practices, we will be restricted to making progress only for some, not all. Effective co-teaching—the way that it maximizes the individual and collaborative capacities of expert educators for the benefit of every student—can pave a broad path of possibilities in our efforts to increase access to academic and social-emotional support that meets the learning needs of every student.