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U.Va. Course on Co-Teaching Math Prepares Future Pre-K-12 Educators

More than 60 percent of students with disabilities spend 80 percent or more of their school day in general education classes, according to Sarah Powell, an assistant professor of special education at the University of Virginia.

To help these students, many schools – including some locally – use a model in which a special education teacher spends some or the entire school day co-teaching in general-education classrooms. This model is creating an increasing need for more training in how to share a classroom.

“We are seeing more of these co-teaching experiences happen among general and special educators,” said associate professor of education Stephanie van Hover, interim chair of curriculum, instruction and special education in U.Va.’s Curry School of Education. “We wanted to be sure that the students in the teacher preparation program at the Curry School were prepared for this kind of partnership when they graduated.”

At the Curry School, two faculty members in the teacher education program are modeling co-teaching for students in the teacher education program this fall. Mathematics education professor Robert Berry and special education professor Sarah Powell co-teach the “Mathematics in the Elementary School” course, combining their expertise to help students learn effective strategies for teaching mathematics to general and special education students.

Their example is helpful, students in the class said. Hannah Prebeck, a Curry special education student who is student-teaching at Liberty Elementary in Loudoun County, said, “I appreciated the way that Dr. Berry and Dr. Powell modeled effective co-teaching while still providing quality instruction. They worked well together and taught in a cohesive way that was able to show us, as students, how a partnership could work in the real world.”

Berry and Powell said they draw on their experiences as classroom teachers and their research to inform their teaching and to show their students the value of working with someone outside of their specific area of expertise.

“My experiences co-teaching with Sarah have contributed tremendously toward my professional growth in broadening the range of instructional options for effective teaching,” Berry said. “She and I serve as support mentors for one another. We plan and co-teach mathematics lessons, model effective mathematics teaching, serve one another as expert resources in our respective fields and co-assess our students’ mathematics and pedagogical learning.

“This is our second semester co-teaching, and we have established a rapport that allows us to make seamless instructional moves. Whether it is Sara or I taking the instructional lead for a lesson, the other is always circulating the class providing one-on-one or small-group support.”

“Coming from a special education background, I have learned so much about general education mathematics by co-teaching with Robert,” Powell said. “Rather than see special and general education as two distinct fields, we are able to show students the similarities and differences in teaching students with and without disabilities.”

Berry, who serves on the board of directors of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, is the lead developer of an observation instrument, Mathematics Scan, that measures effective mathematics teaching practices. He co-developed an estimation calculator, designed to improve the computation estimation skills of learners. Much of his research focuses on equity issues in mathematics education, with a specific focus on African-American learners.

Powell explores effective instructional strategies for elementary students who struggle with mathematics. She and her research team study students in local elementary schools to learn ways to improve mathematics instruction for those who find mathematics difficult and challenging, and have developed more efficient ways to improve the teaching of addition concepts and fluency.

While Berry and Powell’s co-teaching highlights an in-demand partnership between a general educator and special educator, the definition of co-teaching involves two equally qualified individuals who may or may not have the same area of expertise jointly delivering instruction to a group of students.

Van Hover, the department chair, noted that Curry is currently “revising our curriculum and programs and generating innovative and creative approaches to infuse and address the important issue of co-teaching and collaboration in special education across courses and field experiences. Possibilities include new courses, co-taught courses, video case studies, online modules and more.”

Co-teaching with a Student Teacher

Recently, two faculty members in Curry’s teacher education program created a website, “Co-teaching with a Student Teacher,” funded by a Virginia Department of Education’s Division of Teacher Education and Licensure Clinical Faculty/Mentor Teacher Grant. Professor Sandra Cohen and associate professor Ruth M. Ferree said the project’s goal was to develop a tool that would help Curry’s teacher education program shift the paradigm from a traditional student-teaching model to a modified co-teaching model, as the likelihood that they will come across co-teaching in their career is high and increasing.

When co-teaching is applied to working with a student teacher, it helps to develop a shared professional space that allows the pre-service teacher to practice teaching skills throughout the placement.

Curry is in the process of sharing this website with the local school divisions and classroom teachers that host Curry teacher-education students, and with the other universities and colleges in Virginia that have teacher-education programs. In the future, the website will be included in the training of all professional teachers that work with Curry students.

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