Principal Julie Shultz-Bartlett was looking for new ways to better serve her students with special needs. “The status quo had to change, because we were not closing achievement gaps for kids,” she said.
In 2016, the special education classes at Bethel Middle School were completely separated from the general education classes. So a special education student who was on the football team wouldn’t see their teammates all day, even though they went to the same school.
“It was very isolating for them,” said Shultz-Bartlett.
So she wondered, what if two teachers, with complimentary skills, could team up to share a classroom and students? With double the teaching power, the ratio of special education students in the class could be higher than normal, as both teachers would share the responsibility of planning, instructing and assessing students.
Shultz-Bartlett said the teachers’ complimentary skills would be critical.
“For example, an eighth grade teacher may know the eighth grade content,” she said. “But in a co-taught classroom, they might have readers who are reading at a first grade level and struggling with first grade skills.”
All she needed now were some willing teachers who wanted to try something new.
There has never been a one-size fits all model of instruction for special education. Co-teaching is one option, and the data shows it is actually beneficial to all students in the class.
“The students that don’t have learning deficits grow at equal or higher amounts than they would in a more homogeneous group of students,” said Executive Director of Special Services Brian Lowney.
For the special education students, the benefits are even greater.
The Dynamic Duo
Dana Thomas and Ebony Morrison joined forces in the 2016 co-teaching experiment at Bethel Middle. Thomas was a 20-year teaching vet, and Morrison had 10-years of special education teaching experience.
The fact that they are still co-teaching today spoils the ending of this story, but it’s impossible to ignore how well they gelled as a team over the years. They even finish each other’s sentences when you talk with them.
“We had to get to know each other’s teaching styles,” started Morrison, “being in each other’s space, knowing when to chime in, not to talk over each other…”
“…and now we have a well-oiled machine,” said Thomas, finishing her thought.
“I believe that adults thrive when they’re working collaboratively,” said Shultz-Bartlett.
“One of the true joys of co-teaching is that you’re not alone anymore,” Thomas continued. “You have a partner to help handle the struggles every single day, as well as all the joys. You grow as a teacher so much. Together you’re supporting kids, together you’re experimenting with fun teaching techniques, so you’re not alone anymore.”
At the end of that first year, Shultz-Bartlett reported the data to her staff. All students in the co-taught classes were growing at a higher rate than they had in previous years. The district’s five-year strategic plan states the growth goal of, “at least one year for students at or above grade level, and at least 1.5 years for students below grade level.”
The new data showed that the school was moving in the right direction. Not only are Thomas and Morrison still co-teaching today, but all special education students at Bethel Middle are now in general education classes for core subjects. Some are co-taught, some are with a paraeducator, and students are thriving.
“I don’t think my child can do this.”
Shultz-Bartlett said there were definitely some bumps in the road during the transition to a co-teaching model, but she said the growth students are now seeing is well worth those struggles.
Some parents shy away from the co-teaching idea when they first hear about it. Shultz-Bartlett said they can have a “very real fear for their special needs child,” which she completely understands. But her response is always the same:
“Give me one semester.”
One semester in, and most parents can already see the growth in their students. One example Shultz-Bartlett pointed to was a girl with very real difficulties. After joining the co-taught class, “now she’s seeing student work that is at or above grade level. Her world is hugely open. She sees a full range of what she can accomplish.”
Morrison said the academic growth can be amazing.
“The students learn from each other,” she said. “If you have a student that is struggling with writing and you have a student that’s stronger in writing, working them together and talking through it and producing sentences makes a huge difference.”
“You can change your outlook for yourself depending on who you’re around,” said Shultz-Bartlett. “We would see our special education students, who maybe had some more immature behaviors, change on their own because they would see models in their new peers.”
One student Shultz-Bartlett saw grew right before her eyes in the co-teaching environment. “She was presenting in class, raising her hand and speaking, you could see her confidence completely blossom.”
That success also comes with a lot of work from the teachers. When one of Thomas and Morrison’s students went from level one to level three on their state test in one year, it was time to celebrate.
“We had our own little party, we were so excited,” said Thomas.
Social Emotional Wellness
Today at Bethel Middle nearly every student is on a general education roster. The goal is to help all kids in every class without any labels.
Morrison said the students don’t even know that each teacher has a different teaching specialty.
“They just see us as teachers in the classroom,” she said. “We are both teachers and we’re here to teach you. Anything you need help with? You can ask either one of us.”
Students do realize that some of their peers have more difficulty reading out loud, but Thomas and Morrison foster a community of compassion. They want all students to feel welcomed and comfortable in being themselves.
“We try to be like a family and encourage each other to be successful,” said Thomas.
One way they do that is by encouraging leadership through classroom jobs, including table leaders and timekeepers. Students apply for the jobs and the teachers also encourage students to apply where they see there is room for growth.
Co-teaching is an “inclusionary practice”
The Bethel School District is in the second and final year of a Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA) Inclusionary Practices grant that is impacting our six middle schools.
“It’s one of those happy coincidences when the thing that the state is funding aligns with our goals,” said Shawn Simpson, Director of Secondary Teaching and Learning. She said inclusionary practices have always been on the horizon, and the district’s focus on equity, along with this funding has brought it to the forefront.
The grant is helping to fund targeted professional development that explores and expands co-teaching at the middle school level. This has brought together our special education and Teaching and Learning teams to collaborate on targeted changes to special education student access in general education classrooms. One of those practices is co-teaching.
TOSAs (Teachers On Special Assignment) are now working with our middle school co-teaching teams, modeling best practices and providing resources.
“This is a year of learning and a year of calibrating, for us to try things on, see how they are working before we scale up on any level,” said Simpson.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot of things in education, but co-teaching at Bethel Middle continues to help students thrive. Now instead of sharing a classroom, Thomas and Morrison share a Zoom link.
Believe it or not, they say there are some things they’ll miss about Zoom when students return to in-person learning.
“On Zoom, I’m able able to go straight to a breakout room and work with one student,” said Morrison. “When we’re in class, I need to ask that student to stand up and meet me in the hallway, or whisper to them in class.”
“There’s a lot more confidentiality,” Thomas added.
They both agreed that the chat feature on Zoom allows students who aren’t vocal in class to still participate.
“In a regular class they don’t want to say anything or ask questions, because they’re scared,” said Morrison. “They don’t know what people are going to think about what they have to say. But in the chat…”
“…they have a lot more courage,” Thomas said, finishing her co-teacher’s thought once again.
Class of 2021
Thinking back to that first year of co-teaching, Shultz-Bartlett was thoughtful.
“When we started this we didn’t know if we’d be successful.”
Today, students from Thomas and Morrison’s first co-teaching classes are seniors. And to hear the dynamic duo tell it, some of them are quite the standout students. “We were part of that!” said Thomas.
“We believe that all students have the desire and the ability to be college and career successful and ready,” said Shultz-Bartlett. “If we say ‘all students,’ that includes all of our students who are struggling and are difficult to teach. So we also must believe that we have the ability to help them get there.”
Using the co-teaching model, Bethel Middle is on their way.