6 Useful Tips from a Co-teaching Chameleon


Two Teachers in the Room blogger Elizabeth Stein welcomes guest contributor Michele Simonetty this week.  Michele, a middle grades special educator for 21 years, has co-taught since 2004.

by Michele Simonetty

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a chameleon as “a type of lizard that can change the color of its skin to look like the colors that are around it” and “a person who often changes his or her beliefs or behavior in order to please others or to succeed.” For the past five years, I have identified myself as a “co-teaching chameleon.”

My public school career as a special educator began in 1997. I was hired to teach self-contained and modified classes on the middle level. I was the master of my classroom, single-handedly creating and planning for students with disabilities, occasionally with a teaching assistant.

Prior to the implementation of Common Core State Standards, my primary goal was to help students meet IEP goals and to help them achieve as close to grade level expectation as possible, without the pressure of today’s high stakes testing demands. Times have changed!

Michele Simonetty

Around 2004, an 8th grade colleague and I approached administration and requested to co-teach one section of social studies. This then-new idea was welcomed by our school administrators, and the guidance department worked with us to create a balanced class of students with disabilities and average/above-average learners.

Our experiment was so well received that our school faculty had the opportunity to be trained by the one and only Marilyn Friend.

For those unfamiliar with her, Friend is an educator and professor whose specialty is co-teaching, collaboration and inclusive practices. Soon, many classes at my school, in many grade levels, were “co-taught!”

Fast forward 10 years. My original co-teaching endeavor, with a willing and like-minded general education teacher, has become a full court press of co-teaching. I have been placed with 10 different general education teachers, in two middle school grade levels and three content areas AND in two different elementary grade levels.

Each of these years has brought me a new co-teaching partner with their own set of beliefs, strengths, passions and expectations. Hence, my identification as a “teaching chameleon!”

Six pieces of advice for co-teachers

With each partnership I have learned new tricks of the trade and have modified some of my own truths in order to make each year a successful one. If you find yourself moving from one co-teaching situation to the next or being placed in a co-teaching situation for the first time, here are my six pieces of advice for other co-teaching chameleons:

  1. Begin every year as a “new” teacher. This is really good advice for any teacher, but particularly good for new co-teachers. You must have your mind open to new and exciting experiences, ones you haven’t considered in your teaching past. If you’re lucky, some of the new experiences will become part of your teaching repertoire in future classrooms.
  2. Give to get. It is my opinion that a new co-teaching pair might have to change or adapt some of their original expectations to get to a place of parity. This might be the expectation that you’ll have unlimited lead teacher time or that you’ll function more as an assistant. You must let the situation unfold and accept how the partnership will work. Be willing to give a little, for what you get might make you better!

When moved from the middle level to the elementary level, I needed to “give up” my idea of a typical day. I relied heavily on the expertise of my co-teacher to teach me what a day in the life of an elementary teacher was like. I altered my original mindset and let a new way of doing things set in.

  1. Take risks. You might be in a situation where you are teaching a grade level you’ve never taught or a subject you are not familiar with. Take risks! Be honest with your co-teacher and take every opportunity to learn the content. Sometimes that learning happens as you go along. That’s OK! Just be honest from the beginning and be willing to learn new things.

I am not a certified social studies teacher, but it did not stop me from becoming passionate about the subject in order to co-teach it. My passion for the topic pushed me to learn the content with the guidance and support of my co-teacher. The same held true when I began co-teaching English Language Arts and Science. My colleagues recognized the professional risk I was taking by not knowing the content in depth, and they guided me through learning the subject matter.

We were willing to make the co-teaching partnership work because we felt strongly that it was what was best for our students at the time.

  1. Speak up. Special educators understand how our students learn. Sometimes, it conflicts with the way typical students learn. If a general teacher has a set way of doing things, and you feel this way does not help get the best out of some students in the class, speak up for those kids.

Respectfully suggest alternative ways that the same goal can be achieved. Embrace the idea of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and create multiple methods of teaching and learning for all stakeholders. Building honest and meaningful conversations into your teaching partnership will make the situation most successful.

  1. Be proactive. Make every effort to anticipate issues before they arise. Co-teaching can be a delicate balancing act and sometimes it is a challenge for teachers with different teaching styles. Students pick up on this the minute things go awry!

Have conversations and use the co-teaching surveys, such as those in Co-Teach!: A Handbook for Creating and Sustaining Effective Classroom Partnerships in Inclusive Schools by Marilyn Friend, to discuss how you will implement your co-teaching practice.

  1. Be firm about what you stand for. Perhaps being a veteran teacher boosts my level of confidence, but I feel co-teachers must stand firm with some beliefs. These ideals are the core of my teaching philosophy, and I refuse to lose them as I change from one teaching situation to the next: ALLstudents can learn, ALLstudents are “ours” (not general education or special education) and ALL students deserve a classroom environment based upon respect and community.

A quotation attributed to Dan Wilkins states, “A community that excludes even one of its members is no community at all.” Both teachers must work hard to create this kind of classroom environment or the co-teaching situation will not be successful.

Looking Ahead

So, as I await my teaching assignment for next school year, which could potentially be with a new co-teaching partner, I do not allow the stresses of past moves to come with me.

Teaching in Tandem: Effective Co-teaching in the Inclusive Classroom, by Gloria Lodato Wilson and Joan Blednick, suggests that “co-teachers who develop a good relationship should spend several years together. Co-teaching is a process, and veteran co-teachers often can attain a higher level of effectiveness than new co-teacher pairs.”

While there may often be some truth in that observation, after 10 co-teaching changes, I have come to the conclusion that I can make any situation work. I can make it work because I can change. I am a co-teaching chameleon.

Michele Simonetty (@Simo845) has been a special educator for 21 years. She has taught students with a variety of abilities in settings ranging from a private school for students with multiple disabilities to general education classrooms in the public school system. She gets to share her knowledge and experience at Marist College teaching “The Exceptional Child” and “Instructional Strategies for Middle Level Education.”

Michele currently co-teaching 4th and 5th grade, but middle school remains her first love. She lives in Poughquag, NY, with her husband and two children, ages 11 and 15. When she’s not teaching about the middle level, she’s living it at home!