It was time for high school teachers to take center stage as they shared the Co-Teaching Model during the joint School Improvement Advisory Committee (SIAC) and Spencer School Board meeting and Lighthouse Session. The board and SIAC were joined by Harry Heiligenthal, with the Iowa Association of School Boards, who has been working with the district for many years. During Lighthouse sessions, the board and SIAC are exposed to best practices being implemented at Spencer Community Schools and creates better inclusion and understanding as the board works to positively impact the district.
SHS teachers Rochelle Achenbach, English, and Tracy Johnson, Special Education, kicked off the discussion by sharing an overview of what co-teaching looks like at the high school and that the best-practice is currently being implemented in English I, English II, Algebra I, Geometry and Biology. In each co-taught classroom, there are both general and special education students, and a regular content and special education teacher. At times teacher associates are present to provide additional behavioral and instructional support. Co-teaching benefits students and teachers, socially, academically and collaboratively.
Now in their 5th year of co-teaching English II, Achenbach and Johnson discussed their first-hand experience, and said they wish that every class was co-taught. After highlighting the different models they implement at different times in the classroom, including Team Teaching, Alternative Teaching, One Teach, One Support and Parallel Teaching, the teachers drilled down to the benefits. With two teachers in the classroom, more relationships are built between the students and teachers, which enhances the culture and climate. “We continuously remind the students that in our room, we are a family,” said Johnson. “This gives the students ownership over how they support and encourage one another, lifting each other up and learning at the same time.”
Achenbach explained, “It is mandated that special education students be in the least restrictive environment, and co-taught sections allow for that by giving students access to grade-level curriculum.” Academically, students garner the benefit of more flexibility and support from two teachers which makes it easier to meet diverse needs and learning styles, and inclusion of special education students into the general education classroom allows them to see appropriate academic skills modeled by peers, with a sense of being “at the same level”.
There are professional benefits as well. “A lot of my best practices as a teacher have been developed through our collaboration, and I know I use them in other sections. There are times where the supports, strategies and scaffolding that we come up with are incorporated into the curriculum at large,” said Achenbach. Additional benefits include shared responsibilities of curriculum development and instructional methods with content and special education teachers, building a better understanding of one another as educators, and shared workload and colleague support, to name a few.
When asking the students how they felt about co-teaching, they responded by saying students can get help faster with two teachers and two different minds. They also highlighted that students can split up into different rooms or smaller groups to get additional help, and co-teaching gives an extra opinion and offers more flexibility when needing help outside of class.
The second part of the presentation by the high school teachers shifted to Physical Science and the English Learner (EL) classroom, where teachers, Jackie Christensen, K-12 English as a Second Language (ESL), and Will Dible, Science, spoke about the many benefits they have experienced through their short time of co-teaching.
Christensen shared that she came up with the idea of co-teaching with Dible after he reached out for support to better meet the needs of the nine, high school EL students in his classes. They both agreed co-teaching would be most effective so that Christensen would know what is being taught, therefore able to provide better support. Christensen shared briefly about how working as an ESL teacher has evolved and noted that the biggest benefit of co-teaching from her perspective is inclusion and participation for all students.
Dible added that co-teaching is allowing teachers to learn by working together and through professional development. “What you learn from a co-teacher can trickle to every class,” said Dible. “A large portion of mainstream students end up using some of the strategies that have been learned and implemented from co-teaching.” Everything that has been modified and utilized has been incorporated into other sections.
After a brief time of going around the room to hear takeaways from the presentation, Superintendent Terry Hemann, said, “To me a lot of people don’t get to see what you do, why you do it or how you do it, so this is a great opportunity for others to learn about these things.”
High School Principal, Elli Wiemers, added, “Here are two great examples of people taking the initiative to do this and do it the right way. They are doing what it takes to give students the best opportunities to succeed.”
Achenbach will serve as the Co-Teaching Strategist for next year, taking her best practices to others throughout the district. As Achenbach’s first full-time teaching position, and first exposure to co-teaching, she credited Johnson for being instrumental in making her the teacher she has become. “That collaboration and time together has enhanced me beyond what I could have asked for. I wouldn’t give up co-teaching. It is important to me as a learner myself. If we could do it every hour of the day and for all students, we would.”