Collaboration Between General and
Special Education Teachers
Provided in partnership with: The Council for
Exceptional Children, From: The ERIC
Digests ERIC EC Digest #ED409317 1997,
by Suzanne Ripley
Historically, teachers have worked in isolation--one teacher
to a classroom. As children with disabilities entered the
public schools in the 1970s, they were taught in separate
classrooms with their own teachers. Over the past 25 years,
these students have slowly moved into the flow of the regular
classroom, thus the use of the term "mainstreaming." However,
students were mainstreamed for selected subjects or parts of
the day; they were not considered part of the typical class.
Now the philosophy is to include all students in the same
class, which has brought about teams of general education and
special education teachers working collaboratively or
cooperatively to combine their professional knowledge,
perspectives, and skills.
The biggest change for educators is in deciding to share the
role that has traditionally been individual: to share the
goals, decisions, classroom instruction, responsibility for
students, assessment of student learning, problem solving, and
classroom management. The teachers must begin to think of it
as "our" class. This Digest explores the facets of this new
collaboration between general and special education teachers.
WHAT IS COOPERATIVE TEACHING?
Cooperative teaching was described in the late 1980s as
"an educational approach in which general and special
educators work in co-active and coordinated fashion to jointly
teach heterogeneous groups of students in educationally
integrated settings....In cooperative teaching both general
and special educators are simultaneously present in the
general classroom, maintaining joint responsibilities for
specified education instruction that is to occur within that
setting" (Bauwens, Hourcade, & Friend, 1989, p. 36).
The distinctive feature of cooperative teaching, which differs
from earlier approaches, is that it is direct collaboration
with the general education and special education teachers
working together in the same classroom most of the day.
An effective team of teachers will work together as equal
partners in interactive relationships, with both involved in
all aspects of planning, teaching, and assessment. Areas for
this collaboration will include curricula and instruction,
assessment and evaluation, and classroom management and
behavior. As one team teacher says, "the key to making co-
teaching work is joint planning. You must both know all the
curriculum so that you can switch back and forth and support
each others efforts. If you don't know the curriculum you are
not a co-teacher, you are just an assistant" (Crutchfield, M.
"In developing and implementing cooperative teaching, school
professionals experience great changes in the way they go
about their daily work. To overcome the inevitable fears and
stresses associated with change, the educators involved must
feel that they are responsible for the change and that its
success or failure lies directly with them" (Bauwens &
Hourcade, 1995, p. 189).
WHAT ROLE DOES EACH TEACHER PLAY?
In a collaborative model the general education and special
education teachers each bring their skills, training, and
perspectives to the team. Resources are combined to strengthen
teaching and learning opportunities, methods, and
effectiveness. "The one point that clearly developed from this
relationship was that both of us had expertise in many areas,
and combining these skills made both teachers more effective
in meeting the needs of all students" (Dieker & Barnett, 1996,
Typically the primary responsibility of general education
teachers is to use their skills to instruct students in
curricula dictated by the school system. Typically the primary
responsibility of special education teachers is to provide
instruction by adapting and developing materials to match the
learning styles, strengths, and special needs of each of their
students. In special education situations, individual
learners' needs often dictate the curricula.
General educators bring content specialization, special
education teachers bring assessment and adaptation
specializations. Both bring training and experience in
teaching techniques and learning processes. Their
collaborative goal is that all students in their class are
provided with appropriate classroom and homework assignments
so that each is learning, is challenged, and is participating
in the classroom process.
PLANNING FOR EFFECTIVE COLLABORATION
Collaboration involves commitment by the teachers who will
be working together, by their school administrators, by the
school system, and by the community. It involves time,
support, resources, monitoring, and, above all, persistence.
However, the biggest issue is time--time for planning, time
for development, and time for evaluating. Planning should take
place at the district and the building levels, as well as at
the classroom level.
District planning helps ensure that all resources will be
available, including time, money, and professional assistance.
District-level planning will take into consideration the
effect change in one place will have on other settings.
Building-level planning will assist the teams in being sure
adequate support is in place to sustain new initiatives.
Principals play an extremely important leadership role in
facilitating collaborative efforts by instructional personnel.
Both district- and building-level planning should provide
staff development opportunities to encourage teachers and
administrators to participate in classes, workshops, seminars,
and/or professional conferences on cooperative teaching.
Motivation is an important ingredient for success, but
additional skills will be needed to realize the goals teachers
set for themselves and their classes.
Planning also is a factor in selecting the students who will
be part of the collaborative process. It is important to keep
natural proportions of typical students, students identified
as being at risk, and students who have been found to have
disabilities. Achieving a balanced classroom is easier at the
elementary and middle school levels than at the secondary
level, where a certain amount of grouping takes place with
A major consideration is in arranging planning times for
co-teachers. Co- planning must take place at least once a
week, according to studies. "Planning sessions were viewed as
priorities by both teachers; they refused to let other
competing responsibilities interfere with their planning
sessions" (Walther-Thomas, Bryant, & Land, 1996, p. 260). The
planning must be ongoing to allow teachers to review progress
on a regular basis, make adjustments, evaluate students, and
develop strategies to address problems either in discipline or
Walther-Thomas and her colleagues (1996) found that five
planning themes were identified by co-teachers who considered
themselves to be effective co- planners:
*confidence in partner's skills;
*design of learning environments for both the educators and
students that require active involvement;
*creation of learning and teaching environments in which each
person's contributions are valued;
*development of effective routines to facilitate in-depth
*increased productivity, creativity, and collaboration over
time. Participants in collaborative programs agreed that the
time required for planning does not decrease during the year,
but the quality of instruction continues to improve.
TEACHER EDUCATION AND PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Collaboration should also be part of teacher preparation
programs. This begins with the understanding that all teachers
will be working with both typical and special needs students.
Every teacher needs to study teaching techniques, subject
area(s), disability, individualization, accommodation, and
skills for collaboration in the classroom.
Time away from the classroom for consultation, professional
conferences, and additional training is vital to the success
of any program. Teachers, related service providers, and
administrators will benefit from research findings on
collaborative teaching, inclusion, and related subjects.
Research findings on schools where collaborative teaching
has been practiced indicate student benefits for both special
education students and their typical peers. Walther-Thomas and
others conducted a study of inclusion and teaming in 1996 to
assess collaboration between general education and special
education staff. Improvements were attributed to more teacher
time and attention, reduced pupil-teacher ratios generally,
and more opportunities for individual assistance.
Students with disabilities developed better self images,
became less critical and more motivated, and recognized their
own academic and social strengths. Their social skills
improved and positive peer relationships developed.
Low-achieving students showed academic and social skills
improvements. All students gained a greater understanding of
differences and acceptance of others. All developed a stronger
sense of self, a new appreciation of their own skills and
accomplishments, and all learned to value themselves and
others as unique individuals.
Staff reported professional growth, personal support, and
enhanced teaching motivation. Collaboration brought
complementary professional skills to planning, preparation,
and delivery of classroom instruction.
The concepts of individualized instruction, multiple learning
styles, team teaching, weekly evaluation, and detailed
planning are all of direct benefit to students. The purpose of
the collaboration is to combine expertise and meet the needs
of all learners.
It is important that teachers receive preparation and
classroom support. It is also important that planning time
continues to be available throughout the school year. "Most
important, all students win by being challenged by
collaborating teachers who believe that they are responsible
for all children in the classroom" (Angle, 1996, p.10).
References identified with an EJ or ED number have been
abstracted and are in the ERIC database. Journal articles (EJ)
should be available at most research libraries; most documents
(ED) are available in microfiche collections at more than 900
locations. Documents can also be ordered through the ERIC
Document Reproduction Service (800-443-ERIC).
Angle, B. (1996). Five steps to collaborative teaching and
enrichment remediation. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 29(1),
8-10. EJ 529 434
Bauwens, J., & Hourcade, J. J. (1995). Cooperative teaching:
Rebuilding the schoolhouse for all students. Austin, TX:
Pro-Ed. ED 383 130
Bauwens, J., Hourcade, J. J., & Friend, M. (1989). Cooperative
teaching: A model for general and special education
integration. Remedial and Special Education, 10(2), 17-22. EJ
Crutchfield, M. (in press). Who's teaching our children?
NICHCY News Digest.
Dieker, L. A., & Barnett, C. A. (1996). Effective co-teaching.
TEACHING Exceptional Children, 29(1), 5-7. EJ 529 433 Friend,
M. & Cook, L. (1996). Interactions. White Plains, NY: Longman.
Walther-Thomas, C. S., Bryant, M., & Land, S. (1996). Planning
for effective co-teaching: The key to successful inclusion.
Remedial and Special Education, 17(4), 255-264. EJ 527 660
This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of
Education Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of
Education, under contract number RR93002015. The opinions
expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the
positions or policies of OERI or the Department.