By DAVID GREEN
Morenci social studies teacher Jesse Bach presents a concept to his world history class via the overhead projector and calls on some students for response.
Another teacher, Deb Hojnacki, is also in the room and she has something to add to the lesson, she offers another way to look at the topic.
Two teachers to a classroom?
This is known as co-teaching and it’s a concept that’s growing rapidly in many districts across the nation.
Morenci teachers see benefits from the practice, but they also see some challenges—challenges that will increase over the next couple of years.
In Michigan, the concept has developed in response to changes in the Michigan Merit Curriculum. Hojnacki, a special education teacher, didn’t come alone into Bach’s history class. Her special needs students accompanied her.
“In the past, students came out of the regular classroom and took classes in the resource room,” she said. “Now, the Michigan Merit Curriculum requires they take classes in the regular room or it might jeopardize their diploma.”
The state goal, she said, is to have 80 percent of special needs students in the regular classroom 80 percent of the time.
Although it’s a complete turn-around from special education practices over recent decades, Hojnacki is adjusting and she often reminds herself of her role.
“It’s a service that I’m providing, not a place,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be in a special room.”
Bach is pleased to have her in the classroom.
“I really like it because it gives me another person in the room,” he said. “It cuts the student/teacher ratio in half. It’s a benefit to all students, not just those with special needs.
“We bounce ideas off each other. We develop new ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.”
Sometimes it’s obvious to Hojnacki that the kids just aren’t comprehending a lesson and she might be able to present the concept in a different way, via a different teaching style. She’s had some students thank her for that extra help.
Hojnacki said she had some concerns about how the regular class students would respond to her—a special ed teacher—but it’s gone well.
She might provide some extra help, but the classroom hierarchy remains clear.
“Jesse Bach is the social studies expert,” she said. “I’m the one who studied how people learn.”
It’s the same thing when she spends some time each week in Kerry Nieman’s science class. Hojnacki knows she’s not a science specialist and she’s spending extra time in her evenings brushing up on material she hasn’t visited in several years.
In a big science class with 31 students, Nieman can take half the class for a lab session while Hojnacki takes the others and reviews material for a test.
The two teachers tried out some co-teaching last year and have learned how to make it more efficient and beneficial.
“I have strengths and my co-teacher has other strengths. Together we are able to express both in the classroom and all our students benefit,” Nieman said.
There are always challenges to reach all students’ needs, she said, but that’s nothing new. That’s what teachers face every day.
Meeting the challenge
The high school’s other special education teacher, Caryn Shaner, is ready for the challenge.
“Deb and I approach co-teaching like we approach just about everything else: we do what we have to do to be successful,” Shaner said. “One must adjust, adapt, re-adjust, and re-adapt. We constantly work at improving things. Besides, we really don’t have a choice.”
She’s not complaining about the lack of choice because of the changes she sees from the Michigan Merit Curriculum (MMC). Personal accountability and responsibility are growing among students.
“There is much more effort expended by students on a daily basis–it’s as if working harder is becoming more and more the norm,” Shaner said.
Data shows that students will score higher on standardized tests if they’re part of the regular room, Hojnacki said.
From Shaner’s experience in co-teaching, most students are able to understand the bulk of the concepts.
“What seems to hold a lot of them back, however, is a lack of the basics and a lack of ability to persevere,” she said.
First-year teacher Brandi Boswell is very appreciative of Shaner’s help when she visits her room.
“I love it,” she said. “It’s definitely benefitting all the kids. I truly believe that all the kids can learn.”
At the middle school, Andi Rorick left her resource room last trimester to help in Dan Hoffman’s science class. She describes that a as a positive co-teaching experience, and her current work in a Lisa Runion’s English class is also going well.
She believes co-teaching will work well in most subjects, although she’s concerned about mathematics where she sees a large gap between the skill levels of some students.
She also has some concerns about the future.
Next year’s scheduling could place Rorick in two classes at the same time, so she’ll be able to spend less time—and offer less help—in each one.
That apprehension is also shared by the high school staff.
Last year’s co-teaching effort involved only freshmen with special needs. This year it’s freshmen and sophomores. Two years down the road all four levels will be involved.
“This is where the problem is going to come,” Hojnacki said.
In the future, her role might focus more and more on study skills and less on teaching core academic classwork.
Adjust and adapt, Shaner says. Rule No. 1 in special education: One must be flexible.
The next couple of years might be tricky, she said, but each year the MMC is in place should make the process a little easier.
“Students will come to the high school more prepared to be good students: paying attention, taking notes, making homework completion a priority,” she said. “The MMC is not just being taught in the high school, it’s district-wide and there must be a commitment from all grades, K-12, if students are to succeed.”
In addition, she said that if parents are informed and prepared for the challenges of the MMC early on, there’s a much better chance of their students experiencing success and earning a diploma.
Fifty years ago, there was no such place as a special education room. That approach developed later, and now it seems to be disappearing. Rorick wonders if eventually the pendulum will swing back the other way—as it often does in education.
“I don’t believe it will,” Shaner said. “There are too many good things coming from this. I do think co-teaching is here to stay.”