Two Teachers, One Classroom
By Robert Schroeder
As the push for inclusion gathers strength, general education teachers are encountering a challenge they may not have trained for: special education students are increasingly becoming a part of the everyday classroom environment.
The challenges of inclusion are twofold: implementing inclusion in curriculum, and building that curriculum with a special education co-teacher. For teachers trained as independent classroom managers, the latter obstacle can be the toughest.
National Louis University's Xiuwen Wu, Ph.D., associate professor in the National College of Education special education department, is investigating how general and special education teacher candidates can be prepared for close collaboration in inclusive classrooms. Her article, "Promoting interface and knowledge sharing: a joint project for general and special education preservice teachers," was presented at the American Educational Research Association conference in Vancouver in April.
"A lot of candidates say, 'I didn't realize collaboration is not I do my part and my partner does his or her part,'" Wu said. "It actually involves a lot of back and forth discussion, takes a lot of time, and it's a reality check for them.
"Teachers have to put a lot of time to seriously consider each other's opinions."
Math methods teacher candidates in both general and special education at NLU collaborated on a revision of unit plans to incorporate universal design for learning. Special education candidates introduced knowledge of assistive learning technologies to increase access to course materials. Both groups worked together to create plans not solely reliant on print materials, locating visuals and primary source materials from the Library of Congress. The creation of alternative printed materials is a key component to working with English language learners and students with certain learning disabilities.
Wu said co-teaching is already a prominent feature in elementary schools throughout Chicagoland and continues to be a growing trend. At the secondary level, content-area teachers face more difficulty collaborating with pedagogy experts in special education.
Wu's research indicated planning is the critical cog for successful collaboration and inclusion. General education and special education teachers both have to take the time to get to know each other and to ensure they are on good terms. The relationship is not just cordiality or friendship but an intimate knowledge of each teacher's expertise and content areas to avoid. Some forms of co-teaching call for one teacher to take a lead role or for both teachers to team-teach. Wu's research spells out a true co-teaching model of shared but integrated responsibility.
"Teachers have to know how to communicate with students, how to set up classroom organizations, how to create a very conducive environment for diverse learners, let alone how to teach," Wu said.
The implementation of universal design for learning is a must, Wu argues. She calls the strategy a student-centered approach that guides teachers to plan a curriculum proactively. General and special education co-teachers are ultimately charged with creating one goal but multiple pathways to success. That path includes multiple knowledge points that need to be geared back to the central goal.
Co-teaching is not exempt from the pains of budget cuts. Some schools have reduced the number of co-taught classrooms, while some schools have gone further and eliminated special education teachers. Whatever the physical and human resources, Wu said administrators are charged with supporting teachers by providing ample time for collaboration and finding different ways to assess students and evaluate outcomes.