Classrooms have begun a transformation long overdue. Yet many students and schools still find themselves failing. The greatest factor in many instances is the one so often overlooked by education professionals: Inclusion. Inclusion is the practice of placing all students, regardless of ability level or intelligence within one classroom. The theory supporting this practice is grounded in the belief that children will learn from one another and benefit both academically and socially from a diverse learning environment. Those students who are ‘included’ in the general education classes are students who have traditionally been marginalized and secluded because of various disabilities which were used to classify them as learning disabled or special education students. Because of laws protecting students with disabilities, schools have begun instituting the practice of inclusion and designing classrooms capable of meeting the needs of these students. Or have they?
Inclusion requires that teachers, parents, and administrators work side by side to create a learning environment conducive to the particular needs of learning disabled children. If this partnership worked perfectly, each student would receive exactly what they needed within their classroom from two teachers. The relationship between the two teachers within the inclusive classroom is labeled co-teaching. In theory, co-teaching requires a regular or general education teacher to work synchronistically with a special education teacher in order to identify the academic, emotional, and physical needs of the learning disabled students within the classroom. In practice, this relationship, if designed to work effectively, requires hours of preparation and planning . The problem, like many problems, is not inherent in the theory or design of co-teaching, but in the methods which are used by schools and teachers to build the relationship between the general education and special education teachers.
Problem relationships between co-teaching classroom teachers arise from a basic lack of communication and uniformity. Teachers who have opposing teaching philosophies often find they are placed in a classroom together and have little common ground to start from. Often, many co-teaching relationships begin and end without a word spoken about the basic theories that each teacher bases his or her own teaching methods upon. When co-teaching relationships are poorly formed, all students within the inclusive classroom will suffer. Because the co-teaching relationship is the glue that binds the inclusive classroom, it is paramount that administrators and educators actively work to partner teachers with common philosophies and teaching strategies.
Once considerable time has been spent creating common co-teaching teams, administrators should take time to ensure that each team is implementing three essential strategies for success.
1. PPT or Personal Planning Time: Because the co-teaching team is the most important element within the inclusive class, each team should be provided with adequate PPT. In many middle school environments this time is labeled team time or team planning; however, PPT is something separate. The co-teaching team needs at least one half hour each day. During this time, the teachers should be planning instruction, designing modifications, reviewing behavior plans, and ensuring that each student’s IEP is being properly followed.
2. IIS or Integrating Instructional Strategies: This facet of co-teaching requires all educators within the inclusive classroom share ideas about effective teaching strategies. The special education teacher on the team must inform the classroom teacher of specific, tangible methods the students would benefit from. A list of these strategies should be compiled and notes and reflections regarding each student’s response to the strategies should be maintained.
3. Balance of power: Discussing power is never an easy conversation, but for the sake of cohesive instruction, this conversation must be had. Students will falter and become overwhelmed when there is an obvious power struggle in a classroom. Many times visible tension exists between co-teachers because a pattern of power and responsibility sharing has not been formerly adopted. In order to combat power conflicts, co-teaching teams need to establish an initial agenda for class time. The agenda should include a chart of tasks designed to maximize the effectiveness of each teacher’s skill set.
While no plan is fool proof, it is common knowledge that planning improves performance. Instituting inclusive classrooms in a school without properly creating and maintaining co-teaching partnerships is dangerous. Allowing co-teachers the time and space to build a productive, working relationship is an essential function of successful inclusive classrooms.