By: Amy Howie, Senior Associate and Meredith Keedy-Merk, Senior Associate
As the unpredictable spread of COVID-19 continues to force school districts across the country to adjust to virtual learning, special educators experience the unique challenge of providing services for students outside of the traditional brick and mortar classroom. For many special educators, this has pushed them into an uncharted ‘virtual’ territory requiring a new set of instructional methods and communication strategies.
With the start of the 2020-21 school year, district leaders nationwide are once again facing critical decisions to establish policies and procedures that support the health and safety of students and staff while also providing a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for all students. For most districts, the provision of FAPE will involve a virtual or hybrid instructional model at some point during the school year.
Special educators must consider how they will provide ongoing and aligned special education services to students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment as virtual and hybrid instructional models are planned and implemented by school districts. Collaboration with general education peers and co-teaching partners is a key component to providing effective services in the “new normal.”
Co-teaching can be complex for educators in the traditional school settings, as it requires relationship building, purposeful planning, monitoring student data and grades, classroom management and ongoing educator communication and problem-solving. The complexities of co-teaching in virtual and continuous learning structures can feel overwhelming for both the special educator and general educator, especially in the midst of an already stressful school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the situation may seem daunting (understandably so), educators are much better prepared than they might realize. Why? Because the same co-teaching best practices used in the traditional classroom can be applied by the co-teaching team during virtual instruction. Here are a few ways educators can apply essential co-teaching components to virtual and blended instruction.
Re-Establish Co-Teaching Roles
In many ways, the co-teaching team needs to be treated as a new relationship when shifting to virtual instruction. Even if the team has co-taught together for several years, the partnership needs essential structure and agreements during this time, and it is important to remember that co-teaching teams should be established based on roles, skills and perspectives. The educators’ strengths and responsibilities may be different in a virtual learning environment than in the tradition brick and mortar school. General and special educators should recognize what each individual brings to the virtual co-teaching team and discuss the following:
- What skills and expertise do I bring to our partnership during virtual and continuous learning?
- What knowledge do I have related to content, virtual instructional strategies, and technology?
- What information do I have about the students and their individual needs?
- In what area(s) could I grow or use additional support or training?
- What is my virtual communication style? What is the best way to share new instructional ideas, student information, and to connect as co-teaching partners?
Create a Co-Teaching Vision
During virtual co-teaching, it’s easy to get bogged down in the day to day details of what you are trying to accomplish. When a team vision is not established, it can lead to miscommunication between co-teachers and frustration when planning instruction. A co-teaching vision statement serves as a guide for making decisions that align with inclusive practices and helps the team stay focused on the long-term goals for every student.
Co-teaching teams should write virtual co-teaching vision statements that:
- Align to priority outcomes for students – no matter where or how the instruction is occurring.
- Are clear and concise: This is not the time for a long, flowery statement of beliefs.
- Are challenging, but achievable: While your vision statement should involve some stretching to reach it, it does no good to frame it as a goal that is impossible to achieve. You can always revise the vision statement as time goes on.
- Are future-oriented, but timebound: Your vision statement should be tied to a defined period of time; otherwise there is no sense of urgency or action to reach it.
- Are visible: Post your vision statement around your virtual teaching space, in your email signature, on a sticky note next to your computer. Make it part of your everyday surroundings – this is one of the best ways to SHARE your vision!
Consider using a Co-Teaching Vision Template to help prepare your co-teaching vision statement.
Develop a Schedule for Continuous Collaboration
Co-planning is essential for a successful co-teaching partnership. Developing a co-planning schedule for collaboration is not new to co-teaching teams, however, it needs to remain a priority when shifting to a virtual environment for instruction. Leaders and teachers need to make collaboration intentional and not leave it to chance. With all of the added pressures of teaching through a pandemic, the one thing that can be controlled is how you plan. Even though plans will need adjusted and may not be fully implement, the stability of having a plan is critical.
Establishing a well-defined planning schedule will keep co-teaching partners connected and focused on student learning. Consider using a rolling agenda with defined goals and agenda items. Be intentional about discussing individual student needs, instruction, assessment and logistics.
As co-teachers embark on a working relationship within a new virtual instruction space, it is important to communicate effectively. Having a common understanding of the day to day operations and the roles and responsibilities of each co-teaching partner will ensure a smooth transition to virtual co-teaching. Co-teaching partners collaborating for the first time will benefit from an upfront discussion of details around communication, planning, teaching arrangements, student evaluation, classroom management, record keeping, and parent communication. Even if co-teachers have established a solid partnership, these items will likely need to be adjusted for virtual instruction and should be revisited through this lens. Use the Co-Teaching Topics for Discussion document as a guide for discussion.
How PCG Can Help During an Unprecedented Time
COVID-19 is creating significant challenges for school districts across the country. PCG is always looking for ways to support districts and students.
Special Education Research, Action Planning, and Facilitation. Subject matter experts and consultants can research best practices, inventory resources, guide action planning, and facilitate the development of digital learning instructional continuity plans to help you address emergency situations that result in interrupted education for students with disabilities.
Online Special Education Paraprofessional Courses. Whether just getting started or a seasoned paraprofessional, these courses provide practical, universal tips and strategies that can be immediately implemented. Each three-hour course is self-paced and develops knowledge and skills to better understand role and responsibilities, improve communication and collaboration, and maintain high expectations by using the right tools to support students.
Virtual Instruction Toolkit. This toolkit contains a library of tools and resources to help educators establish Online and Distance Learning instructional models based on best practices
Virtual Staffing Solutions. Provides trained professionals to augment staffing needs and work directly to support your efforts to deliver continuity of instruction and services during this emergency period using your available digital learning solutions or by providing PCG’s EDPlan™ suite of tools.
About the Authors
Amy Howie is a Senior Associate at PCG and provides thought leadership and consulting services in the areas of special education and leadership to states and districts across the country. Amy serves as the advisor to Indiana’s Project SUCCESS, a resource center developed and managed by PCG in collaboration with the Indiana Department of Education to support higher academic achievement for students with disabilities. Amy also leads a variety of professional development engagements with district and state partners to build leadership capacity and improve student outcomes.
Prior to coming to PCG, Amy served as a building administrator for six years where she led efforts to improve instruction and increase achievement by developing and supporting special education programming; Response to Intervention initiatives; and Positive Behavioral Support programs. Amy was also a special education teacher for 10 years, including experience at elementary and secondary levels and covering a range of disability areas and instructional settings.
Meredith Keedy-Merk, a Senior Associate at PCG, is the Project Director for Project SUCCESS in Indiana and an experienced special education teacher and administrator. Prior to joining the Project SUCCESS team, Meredith was a special education teacher for seven years, including experience at elementary and secondary levels and covering a range of disability areas and instructional settings. During the 2014-2015 school year, Meredith was a dean of students and local special education director within a local district in Indiana. While a school administrator, Meredith led efforts to improve instruction and increase achievement by developing and supporting special education programming; Response to Intervention initiatives; and Positive Behavioral Support programs. Additional areas of expertise include school safety, crisis prevention and intervention and academic and behavioral interventions, specifically aimed at the primary level.