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Co-teaching gaining popularity in student-teacher training

The following story appeared in the April 4 edition of the Leader-Telegram and is reprinted here with permission.

By Elizabeth Dohms; photo credit Dan Reiland/ Leader-Telegram staff

Samantha Leffin paced in between the aisles of desks in Amy Dietrich's third-grade classroom at Flynn Elementary School in Eau Claire, calling on the students to pull out their math workbooks. 

The class moaned in unison.

"Since I've heard so much complaining, you're going to do it individually," she told the class. 

Leffin manages the 15 third-graders as effortlessly as a veteran teacher, though the 22-year-old can relate more to them as she finishes her last year as an education major at UW-Eau Claire. 

All education students are required by Wisconsin law to student-teach as part of their undergraduate curriculum, but the relationship between the cooperating teacher —a licensed professional —and a teacher candidate —an education student seeking licensure—is changing in some Chippewa Valley school districts as part of a new teaching model. 

Co-teaching is resurfacing as an effective tool for better student growth, and is being piloted in a few classrooms including some at Flynn and Sherman schools. The duality in the classroom extends beyond a teacher-student relationship into a partnership, in which together the teacher candidate and cooperating teacher devise curriculum, troubleshoot behavior interventions, and take turns managing and monitoring the classroom. 

"It's always a 'we,' " said Mary Beth Hipple, a UW-Eau Claire student and teacher candidate at Flynn. "We plan, we instruct and we reflect through everything. It doesn't matter who's instructing;there's always support from two teachers in our room together." 

Co-teaching vs. Student teaching 

Clarke Bearrick blends in with the third-grade classroom at Sherman Elementary School as she kneels and leans over an overhead projector, her soprano voice rising above the chatter as she demands the attention of the class. 

"I want to know what the hidden information is," she tells the class grouped in desks of four as she proceeds with a math lesson. 

"Samuel had 16 horseshoes. Today he put a new set of horseshoes on his horse, Betsy. How many horseshoes are left in the shed?" she asks her class. 

Most students immediately get to work, jotting down the math equation on their paper-thin whiteboards. One of the students in the back of the room postponed his task and instead teetered in his chair, balanced his foot on top of the shoe he slipped off and fiddled with his dry erase marker between his fingers.

Pat Spaulding was already in the back of her classroom and took a few steps toward the student before pointing for him to bring his chair down. She then kneeled next to him and guided him through the assignment. 

Also known as supplemental teaching, Spaulding and Bearrick were following the guidelines established by co-teaching researchers from St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, Teresa Heck and Nancy Bacharach. 

Traditional models of student teaching are methods that transition the teacher candidates toward isolation. Master teachers would educate the students on ways to manage a classroom and would eventually leave for long periods of time to give the student an opportunity to run the classroom alone.

But that soon became inefficient during the early 2000s with the advent of No Child Left Behind —the major federal education reform initiative under then-President George W. Bush that required standardized testing and grade-level proficiency for all students in math and reading. 

At that time at St. Cloud, Heck was hearing from teachers that they couldn't support the traditional model of teaching in the classroom and still abide by new regulations set forth by NCLB. 

Heck, who is now a professor and co-director of the Academy for Co-teaching &Collaboration at St. Cloud State, was cleared by the dean to explore other options teachers could use to still fulfill the requirements for student teachers.

She discovered co-teaching, and along with Bacharach —a graduate of both Eau Claire Memorial High School and UW-Eau Claire —wrote grants to study and test the method's effectiveness. Eventually they developed a "Train the Trainer" model that provides guidelines on how to use co-teaching in the classroom. 

"We worked with well over 250 institutions across the country," Heck said, including school districts, colleges and universities in 43 states. "It's professionally the most incredible experience I've ever had." 

Building a partnership 

Leffin still paces as students squirm in their seats, bounce their feet and lean their heads between elbows rested on their desks. Cooperating teacher Dietrich quietly sits at her desk, keeping notes of classroom activity.

"It frees me up to keep a better eye on what actual behaviors are," Dietrich said. "You miss a lot when you're up in the classroom." 

When one student misbehaves, Dietrich is the one to pull him aside and sit with him while class continues under Leffin. 

"The best way to describe (co-teaching) is students don't fall between the cracks," said Megan LeMay, a classmate of Leffin and Hipple at UW-Eau Claire and teacher candidate under Chad Frase, art teacher at Flynn. 

Plus, the teachers are able to focus on differentiated learning, Leffin said, noting that one teacher can spend more time with students who need help. The other can cater to the needs of more advanced students who would otherwise get bored. 

"I have noticed having two teachers in the room increases the students' productivity," Frase said. "(We) can team-teach lessons or work with small groups to help keep students engaged and focused." 

At Sherman, Bearrick recognized that it heightened authority when students saw the teacher and candidate working off each other.

"Co-teaching helps people feel more equal if they're not comfortable in their new skin," said Carol Gabler, university supervisor for UW-Eau Claire and UW-River Falls who critiques teacher candidates on their performances in the classroom.

Data Speak 

Sherman principal Mandy Van Vleet experienced co-teaching as a teacher herself and saw benefits in what two adults could do together in the classroom and the professional conversations they could have about instruction. 

"In education, we're trying to move away from teaching in isolation to working more together," she said. "It's still difficult to have time for collaboration. With two teachers in a classroom, that can be an ongoing thing." 

And that collaboration is benefiting students. 

According to data retrieved by St. Cloud State from a study funded by the U.S. Department of Education, students performed better in co-taught classrooms when compared with their non co-taught peers from 2004-2008, with performance percentages throughout the four years differing from 6 to 19 percent in reading proficiency.

The Minnesota math assessment found similar results. 

"The results are really phenomenal," said Deb Harding, UW-Eau Claire field placement coordinator and certification officer for the field experience licensing and certification office. "This is pretty interesting stuff;we're just starting to pilot it here to see (its effectiveness)."

But the co-teaching method still serves to color the candidates part of the classroom and transform them into their roles as teachers, which is why candidates are still encouraged to run the classrooms on their own for a portion of the time. 

"Co-teaching never says to do this 100 percent of the time," Heck said. "(Teacher candidates) need the opportunity to handle classrooms by themselves."

But their experience as heads of the classroom piggybacks off the knowledge and expertise they learn from the cooperating teacher. 

"I think there is magic in our schools when committed people are coming together," Gabler said. "This hands-on experience is something that is vital for students to succeed." 

Dohms can be reached at 715-833-9206, 800-236-7077 or

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire student teacher Clarke Bearrick, left, and Patricia Spaulding, a third-grade teacher at Sherman Elementary School, co-teach during a math lesson March 18.