At the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, as campuses enjoyed a “normal” back-to-school, three middle schools in Caesar Rodney School District asked Stetson and Associates for assistance as they adjusted to a more inclusive system of support for struggling students. To begin this initiative, the three middle school principals adjusted their master schedules to more evenly distribute co-teaching partnerships, paraeducator support, students with disabilities, and other students who struggled for various reasons throughout the teaching staff. The year began with strong leadership insisting that, even though some students need different kinds of instruction and support, “all students are general education students” and “all of us own all students.”
While Stetson and Associates provided professional development on topics of differentiated instruction and approaches to collaborative teaching, district and campus administration addressed the adaptive challenges that required clarity and consistency of their vision for inclusive instruction. Also during this year, the district’s lead special education teacher worked alongside Stetson and Associates to begin coaching and leading collaborative partnerships to more effectively support all students. At the beginning of the spring semester, one collaborative partnership at each campus was identified and trained in a coaching model that would enable them to observe and coach colleagues in a manner that was never judgmental and always supportive. The “normal” year ended early, but not before these lead campus partnerships observed and coached colleagues, modeled strategies, built relationships to solve problems, and supported their administrators’ determination to become more inclusive campuses.
The 2020-21 school year began with virtual instruction for all students and a return to campus classrooms scheduled to begin in mid-October. So much has changed, but the need to support students with disabilities and others who struggle has not. Middle school principals and district administration worked with Stetson and Associates to identify quality standards for the virtual instruction that collaborative teachers would deliver. Those standards are:
- Co-teachers will use small groups (parallel or stations) for a part of the instructional period;
- Co-teachers will engage students in conversations about learning and/or social-emotional issues that impact learning; and
- Students will contribute to conversations about the learning with their peers.
The need for both collaborative partners to be fully engaged in instruction is even more critical in the virtual format. The use of Zoom breakout rooms to work with small groups of students has become a priority, and the use of these smaller groups to address individual support needs, build relationships, and target gaps in student mastery became the focus of professional development that was delivered virtually, of course.
The district’s lead special education teacher and Stetson and Associates agreed that this year’s PD not only needed to deliver content but had to model the three goals teachers were to address in their instruction. As co-teachers, the two presenters team taught a brief whole group segment that used tools that had been taught in the spring to include a pre-assessment, introduction of new vocabulary, and directions for breakout activities. Participants were then moved into two breakout rooms. Because each of the parallel groups offered different activities, the host and co-host switched rooms to teach the second parallel group. Toward the end of each 90-minute session, the whole group gathered again to briefly share their comments and listen to the two presenters reflect on what they liked about their lesson and what they would do differently in the next session. Evaluations confirmed the importance of modeling the quality standards of virtual instruction and of demonstrating several of the tools that had been taught during the spring’s jump to virtual classrooms.
The next step was to observe and coach collaborative partnerships as they worked to address these same quality standards as goals for their remote classrooms. The expertise of the district’s instructional technology staff, guided by the lead special education teacher, facilitated a plan whereby the Stetson Associate and district lead teacher conducted 20-minute observations followed by a 10-minute time for reflection and coaching of each partnership identified by the campus principal. Over 3 days, 24 virtual classrooms were observed along with times for coaching each partnership and a meeting with campus administration at the end of each day. Even though observers saw only 20-minute segments of the lessons, small groups were observed in 15 classrooms, significant teacher/student interactions in 14, and significant student to student conversations about the lesson in 9. Barriers that are being addressed are connectivity issues (especially at times of peek use), learning to use tools that encourage in-depth interactions and student responses, and students’ reluctance to respond in this new virtual format. Overall benefits are the number of students who appear to excel in this new format and have begun taking more responsibility for their learning and their IEP supports. In addition, any barriers that existed between collaborative partners have been overcome by a need to work together to accomplish the task of successful remote teaching.
As Caesar Rodney moves forward with their work to coach collaborative partnerships in both virtual and campus-based classrooms, the next step is to involve the lead co-teach partnerships from last year to continue observing and supporting their colleagues. It is exciting to watch the success of this district as they implement quality inclusive practices, supported by strong campus and district administration and the involvement in best coaching practices within a collegial model to the benefit of all.