Communicating and collaborating in co taught classrooms

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Communicating and Collaborating in Co-Taught Classrooms

Greg Conderman Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez

Paula Hartman

A Feature Article Published in

TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus

Volume 5, Issue 5, May 2009

Copyright ? 2009 by the author. This work is licensed to the public under the Creative Commons Attribution License

Communicating and Collaborating in Co-Taught Classrooms

Greg Conderman Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez

Paula Hartman

Abstract Co-teaching is gaining popularity as an instructional delivery service for supporting students in diverse classrooms. In spite of recent research indicating its effectiveness, co-teaching does not always realize its potential; often due to interpersonal or communication issues occurring between co-teachers. This article describes ways co-teachers can understand and respond effectively to their co-teacher's interpersonal style in order to maximize the professional satisfaction and success of co-teaching.


collaboration, co-teaching, communication skills

SUGGESTED CITATION: Conderman, G., Johnston-Rodriguez, S., & Hartman, P. (2009). Communicating and collaborating in co-taught classrooms. TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus, 5(5) Article 3. Retrieved [date] from

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8th grade math teacher Mr. Gillespie

and special educator Ms. Marcos have been

co-teaching in a diverse classroom for half a

semester. After eight weeks of co-teaching,

however, each member of this team is unsatis-

fied with their professional roles, and both

teachers wonder if they should continue this

partnership. Mr. Gillespie senses that Ms.

Marcos does not like being part of the math

class because she is very quiet. In reality, Ms.

Marcos often feels put on the spot by Mr.

Gillespie's spontaneous comments and ques-

tions, for which she is unprepared. Like hun-

dreds of co-teaching teams across the coun-

try, Mr. Gillespie and Ms. Marcos may have

neglected an important aspect of co-teaching,

which is understanding the communication or

collaboration style of their partner. Is it too

late for this team, or can they nurture this

fledging partnership?

One approach for meeting the unique

challenges in diverse classrooms is co-

teaching. Friend and Cook (2007) described

co-teaching as a service delivery model for

providing special education or related serv-

ices to students with special needs in the gen-

eral education classroom. Generally, co-

teaching consists of a general educator paired

with a special educator or other licensed pro-

fessional in a diverse inclusive classroom.

Villa, Thousand, & Nevin (2008) noted that

co-teaching assumes that teachers agree on a

goal, share a common belief system, demon-

strate parity, share leadership roles while

completing tasks, and practice a cooperative

process. These principles provide the founda-

tion for creating a collaborative professional

relationship and delivering effective instruc-

tion. In fact, co-teaching is often referred to

as a marriage due to the close professional

relationship that often develops between part-

ners (Scruggs, Mastropieri, & McDuffie,

2007). But how do two teachers, who may

have different communication skills, personalities, and ways of dealing with conflict successfully navigate the complex process of coteaching? This article describes how coteachers can honor their partner's communication-collaboration style to create a successful co-teaching relationship.

Addressing the communication needs of teachers is essential for co-teaching success. Clearly, co-teachers need to know what their partner is thinking, feeling, doing, and bringing into the school environment in order to provide effective instruction for all students. Because collaboration is a necessity for both general and special educators, one of the most significant changes and challenges for most educators today is maintaining effective interpersonal skills with peers (Hourcade & Bauwens, 2003). School administrators and general educators expect to engage in effective, on-going communication with special educators (Cramer, 2006). However, many special education teacher preparation programs do not emphasize application of communication and collaboration skills even though beginning special education teachers often find collaboration one of the most challenging aspects of their positions (Conderman, Morin, & Stephens, 2005; Conderman & Stephens, 2000). Consequently, teachers often express a need for additional training in collaborative consultation skills and effective communication skills (Rice & Zigmond, 2000; Walther-Thomas, 1997).

In fact, many co-teachers are very emphatic about the importance of effective communication skills in their co-teaching roles. Co-teachers frequently report personal compatibility as the most critical variable for co-teaching success and attribute weak teacher collaboration skills as the reason for its failure (Scruggs, Mastropieri, & McDuffie, 2007). Teachers whose perspectives differ



most significantly are the least likely to col- What are some actions that one of us can do

laborate effectively, and mismatches between while the other is leading an activity or giving

teachers create discord and independent a lecture? (b) What nonverbal sign can we use

thinking rather than shared problem solving to indicate that we need a quick break? (c) Do

(Dettmer, Thurston, Knackendoffel, & Dyck, any students need re-teaching, pre-teaching,

2009). Similarly, any collaborative relation- or enrichment? and (d) What can we do to

ship can be doomed if one partner dominates create an environment that is accepting of all

or leads in a direction that the other partner is students? Finally, some "after" co-teaching

not expecting (Murawski & Dieker, 2004). questions include: (a) Have we collected data

Clearly, the collaborative na-

to assess student performance

ture of schools today requires that all teachers have effective adult-to-adult interaction skills.

Where Do We Start? Co-teachers may need

In addition to assessing one's instructional, management, and assessment skills, coteachers should also

discuss their preferred

and the effectiveness of coteaching? (b) Is what we are doing good for both of us? (c) How do you prefer feedback, especially when one of us is not pleased? and (d) Would you do it all over again?

direction in the beginning of

communication and

Co-teachers should also note

their professional relationship

collaboration style.

each person's responsibility

to guide their initial efforts.

and areas of expertise (Con-

Admittedly, co-teaching is a

derman & Bresnahan, 2007).

developmental process that involves open To guide these initial discussions, co-teachers

communication and interaction, mutual admi- can assess their skills and strengths through

ration, and compromise (Gately & Gately, various inventories (i.e., Conderman, Bresna-

2001). In short, co-teaching requires a com- han, & Pedersen, 2008; Fattig & Taylor,

mitment to the evolution of the collaborative 2008); Murawski & Dieker, 2004; Villa,

process (Dieker & Barnett, 1996). With an Thousand, & Nevin, 2008); that outline each

administrator or mentor as a guide or as a person's expertise and associated responsibili-

team, co-teachers can begin by discussing ties or take meeting notes as reminders of

their beliefs about teaching, learning, class- each partner's unique skills. Completing an

room management, noise, and pet peeves inventory provides an initial communication

(Friend & Cook, 2007). Murawski and Dieker and planning tool. Further, putting thoughts in

(2008) offered strategic questions for co- writing helps teams articulate their views and

teachers to discuss before, during, and after provides a product that teachers can fre-

co-teaching. Some "before" questions in- quently revisit and revise. Finally, this step

clude: (a) Are you willing to try something avoids inaccurate assumptions about the

new? (b) How many students in our co-taught knowledge and skills of the partner. There-

classroom have disabilities, are gifted, or are fore, co-teachers must be honest and vulner-

otherwise exceptional? (c) Can we sit down able in this step.

and share our responses on our inventory as-

sessment? and (d) How can we divide respon-

Communication / Collaboration Styles

sibilities, so that we will both benefit? Some

Honoring the instructional expertise of

"during" co-teaching questions include: (a) the co-teaching partner is important yet insuf-



ficient for co-teaching success. In addition to assessing one's instructional, management, and assessment skills, co-teachers should also discuss their preferred communication and collaboration style. Some individuals frequently speak in word pictures, others focus on details; some are quiet by nature and typically avoid conflict, while others prefer a direct communication style. Understanding and respecting each other's preferred mode and method of communication fosters mutual respect, reduces the likelihood of being misunderstood, and maximizes collaboration. Further, as teachers address their own preferences, they become more capable and willing to relate, understand, and build on the work of their colleague (Dettmer et al. 2009).

Admittedly, effective communication is essential for co-teachers (Halvorson & Neary, 2009); the challenge is to communicate not in your preferred manner, but in the manner preferred by your co-teacher. In other words, rather than the Golden Rule (Do onto others as you would have them do onto you), co-teachers should use the Platinum Rule (Treat others the way they want to be treated) (Alessandra, 2007). Several available assessments provide valuable insight about one's personality or collaborative style, such as Gregorc's profiling learning style (Gregorc & Ward, 1977), Kolb's cognitive style concepts (Kolb, 1976), the 4MAT system (McCarthy, 1990), the Dunn and Dunn learning style assessment (Dunn & Dunn, 1978), and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Myers, 1962). We have chosen to focus on three other assessments because of their easy access, recent publication dates, strong research-base, and their emphasis on providing helpful suggestions for working with others who have different styles or preferences.

The Platinum Rule (Alessandra, 2007) is based on the premise of first understanding

your partner and then providing what they need. Alessandra notes four main styles, which are directors, socializers, relaters, and thinkers. Each has their own needs, strengths, and weaknesses. Directors, for example, are driven by the need to control and achieve, and they appreciate others who respect their time and provide bottom-line information. In coteaching, directors respond best to partners who are efficient and competent. If you disagree with a director, argue with facts, not feelings. Socializers are idea-people who are enthusiastic and thrive on personal recognition. In co-teaching, show an interest in them and allow time for socialization during planning meetings. Relaters are excellent listeners and good planners who appreciate being talked to in terms of feelings, not facts. They avoid risks, so in co-teaching, make changes slowly and carefully, show sincere interest, earn their trust, and be non-threatening. Finally, thinkers tend to be slow and deliberate decision-makers who prefer facts and data. With thinkers, be thorough, well-prepared, detailed-oriented, business-like, and patient. Additional information about these styles as well as ways to relate to them and a free online informal assessment are noted on Alessandra's (2007) website.

Other researchers (e.g., Miscisin, 2007; Trent & Cox, 2006) have developed similar research-based assessment tools which can be taken on line for a nominal fee. Trent and Cox (2006) noted four main collaboration styles using an animal analogy. Each "animal" has a different way of solving problems and accepting challenges, trusting others and the information they provide, reacting to change and pace, and following established rules and procedures: (a) Lions use a more aggressive approach to problem solving, and they are determined, goal-driven, bold, self-reliant, and good decision makers;



(b) Otters are trusting and optimistic, and they like variety, are creative, fun-loving, risk takers, and they avoid details; (c) Golden Retrievers like a predictable work environment, and they tend to be good listeners, thoughtful, patient, nurturing, and they dislike change and conflict; and (d) Beavers like to follow established rules, and they are predictable, orderly, factual, detailed, and analytical. The on-line assessment provides strengths and limitations of each collaborative style as well as ways to work most effectively with these styles. Once again, the key to collaborating with others who have styles different than

your own is to recognize their style and adjust your style accordingly to provide what they need.

Miscisin (2001) differentiated among the four following styles using a color analogy: (a) Oranges are individuals who are energetic, playful, desire change and are master negotiators; (b) Blues are individuals who are caretakers, optimistic, passionate, and enthusiastic; (c) Greens are individuals who are problem solvers, analytical, perfectionists, and logical; and (d) Golds are prepared, detailed oriented, conscientious, and have a strong sense of duty.

Table 1: Summary of Collaboration Styles

Alessandra (2007)

Trent and Cox (2006)

Miscisin (2001)

Directors need to control and achieve, so respect the agenda, maintain a business approach, and when possible allow them to make the decision.

Socializers like admiration and acknowledgment, so compliment them, do things together, and vary the routine.

Lions are demanding, driving, competitive, and responsible, so be prepared and organized.

Otters are inspiring, enthusiastic, optimistic, and trusting, so ask feeling questions and avoid too many details.

Oranges value freedom, so be dynamic, clear, open-minded, and spontaneous.

Blues value relationship, so provide individual attention, and be caring, sincere, pleasant, and approachable.

Relaters are risk-aversive, so discuss changes early, establish security through friendship and cooperation, and establish a personal and relaxed environment.

Golden Retrievers are passive, predictable, consistent, and steady, so allow them to focus on one project at a time, ask "how" questions, and do not force them to respond quickly.

Greens value competency, so understand their necessity to

question your knowledge and facts and be precise, analytical, and ready for questions. Also, honor their need for privacy.

Thinkers are systematic and detail oriented, so provide details, be exact, be very clear on each teacher's roles, and over plan lessons.

Beavers are cautious, neat, exacting, and dependent, so be organized, accurate, and realistic.

Golds value responsibility, so count on them, show how much you value their efforts, and be accurate, consistent, organized, and reverent of traditions.

In summary, knowing your style, and that of your co-teacher, is an important first step in respecting and honoring each other and minimizing unnecessary conflict. Clearly, each style responds and reacts differently and

needs different supports to feel validated and understood. Table 1 summarizes information about these various styles from these three inventories.



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