I believe strongly in the importance of having high-quality virtual education in order to meet the needs of a wide range of students. That includes, of course, summer school programming as well. At first, I had wanted to teach summer school this year, but it became clear in June that I did not have enough control over my schedule and my health to be able to commit to teaching the whole program, so I asked if I could volunteer instead. Since I’m certified grades 5-12, I assumed I would be sent to the middle school, but I ended up being sent to the elementary program and found that the teacher teaching it, first grade teacher Donald Cook, was someone I had worked with a few times earlier in the year – I had really enjoyed our collaboration.
When I reached out to DJ and told him that it looked like I might be volunteering in summer school, he immediately responded with huge enthusiasm. For me, that was the best way to set the tone for a work together. Prior to choosing to leave my last job to come teach at Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School (GCVS), I had mostly always taught as the General Education math teacher in the classroom. Even when I was teaching as the ELL teacher, I usually was the teacher in charge of the classroom. Transitioning to teaching as a Special Education teacher has definitely been a culture change.
When I had been the General Education teacher, especially in the last year, I had worked very hard in my language and my teaching moves to ensure that the students saw the two teachers as co-teachers, not as lead teacher and secondary teacher. For example, my co-teacher led parts of the class every day, as did I. I would work with my co-teacher prior to class to review the material that I thought she would be most successful with. I believe that students need a combination of work time with high-quality material, such as Eureka math, but I also saw that students needed opportunities to do smaller chunks of practice at times. Because my co-teacher did not express confidence in her math skills, I took the bulk of the Eureka work and focused her teaching on the skill work. I also provided answer keys with all the problems worked out, and noted which ones were the most important to do in the course of a class. Students would rotate through time with me on the more challenging work, time with my co-teacher on the more skill-based work, and time on their own in either of the two areas. I followed the same structure with my paraprofessional as well so that my students had the same experience regardless of what class they were in.
In the co-taught classes at GCVS, this is not how the classes were structured. In fact, I was told by one of the General Education teachers, “this is MY class.” In retrospect, while there was room for improvement (always!!) in my practice as a General Education teacher, I was very glad that my personal approach to the math classes I had led as the General Education teacher had been ones of striving for equity among the two teachers in the classroom. I never told my co-teachers that it was “MY” classroom! I did recognize that my math knowledge was at a different level and that led to a different comfort on the part of the other teachers, so I tried to work within comfort levels, but to do so in a way that was respectful and allowed both teachers to add value to the experience. Although I’ve been in some trainings for co-teaching, I don’t believe that a functional co-teaching relationship can be forced and my experiences this year have confirmed this for me.
I count myself so fortunate to have been able to co-teach for two weeks with DJ Cook this summer. Following on the heels of his enthusiasm for the idea that we would work together, he then asked if it was OK with me if he signed letters to the parents with both of our names. Of course! Thank you! As the summer progressed, I wasn’t able to make it to the first class each morning and I found the kindergarten was a bit too much for me, so I settled into a different routine with DJ. I always made it in for the 10:30 class and I got to know the rising fifth and six graders in the weeks that we were together. In addition, I spent some of my hours on the phone reaching out to parents to see why we had such a limited attendance in the first week and a half of summer school.
As I worked with DJ, I noticed that he always spoke of us as a team and always spoke of us as “we” or “us.” I appreciated the way we worked together, seamlessly going back and forth between problems. One day in particular, as DJ was teaching Order of Operations, I got on the microphone and modeled a difference in language, speaking of it as multiply or divide in the order in the problem from left to right (rather than simply multiply or divide). This is something that I know, as a middle school math teacher, causes problems; when students are taught that the Order of Operations says multiplication before division, they apply incorrectly. I did not point this out DJ directly, but modeled the correction and he immediately picked it up and implemented it for himself. That is what co-teaching should look like, and I give him all the credit for modeling the expectations from the start.