Ruhi Khan is a Clinical Assistant Professor at Arizona State University and an iTeachAZ Site Coordinator for the Deer Valley Unified School District. She also spent 16 years in the classroom where she taught elementary and early childhood education. For two of those years, she was a master teacher at a TAP school where she supported teams of teachers by providing specific evidence, feedback, and suggestions during coaching and observation cycles. In 2010, Ruhi was recognized as Deer Valley Unified District’s teacher of the year and represented the United States as a delegate for the Chinese Bridge Program in 2011. In her current role, Ruhi works with teacher candidates to prepare them for their careers in elementary and special education. In this piece, we ask her to share with us her expertise with co-teaching in inclusive teaching environments.
Thriving Schools: Ruhi, you have a unique lens into the development of teachers because you get to see them make the transition from degree to classroom. Focusing on the area of special education, what is the biggest challenge teachers face as they begin their careers?
Ruhi: Based on the feedback I receive from teachers and administrators, I’d say the big one is understanding the proper function of an IEP. This document shouldn’t be something we do just to meet a deadline or requirement. And our focus shouldn’t be on simply dotting our i's and crossing our t’s. It’s a living, breathing document that should help all stakeholders understand how to best support a child. Having received this feedback, I work closely with the special education departments of our district partners to offer monthly programming around this topic.
Thriving Schools: Where do you think the difficulty with writing effective IEPs comes from? And what can be done about it?
Ruhi: I don’t think we do a good enough job taking teacher candidates through the entire IEP process – what’s all involved in an IEP, how to hold an IEP meeting, what progress monitoring looks like, etc. I think we give them just bits and pieces of it. For instance, if they’re in a student-teaching placement and an IEP is being written up, they might get to see some data collection and attend an IEP meeting. But they rarely get to see the entire process, from start to finish. So to my last point, we try to address this shortcoming by directing our professional development time into this area. We’ll take teachers through mock IEPs in an attempt to help them understand the whole of the process. To summarize, I don’t see my teachers having a problem with pedagogy, differentiation, or meeting kids’ needs, but rather doing these things while adhering to a well-written IEP.
Thriving Schools: Let’s move on to co-teaching practices. What guidelines can you give us to foster a strong co-teaching collaboration?
Ruhi: I’ll give you three! The first one is to simply understand the importance of the word collaboration. The best co-teaching partnerships involve a high level of collaboration and significant time spent co-planning. The second guideline I’d provide is around selecting the best co-teaching practice for a given day’s instruction. There’s many to choose from and different days require different strategies. Sometimes it is best to use a 1 teach / 1 observe model. But let me emphasize there has to be a reason why you’re observing! For instance, you might be collecting data for an IEP, observing the redirections required for certain students, or watching how long a student can sit before they start to fidget. So again, my second guideline is being very intentional and purposeful about the co-teaching practice you’re using. And the final guideline is around making a mindset shift so that teachers start using the phrase “our students” rather than “my students.” This means that the special education teacher is there to support the success of all students in a classroom.
Thriving Schools: Can you tell us about the importance of the third item you mentioned? Were there any experiences you had in the classroom that shaped your thinking on this?
Ruhi: The reason I put that there is because I worked with a special education teacher in the past who routinely employed the “my students” philosophy. When she was asked questions by students not on her caseload, she would tell them, “Go and ask Ms. Khan.” And to me, that’s a fundamental disservice to children. Sometimes the students who are struggling the most may not be special education students – they just happen to be having a hard time with the day’s content. So this means if you pull a small-group for intervention, the group should be a mix of students who all need the support. And again, having a mindset of “our students” helps you ensure the students who need the help are getting it.
Thriving Schools: Ruhi, do you have a good document or resource that you could share that quickly explains the different co-teaching models that you mentioned?
Ruhi: Absolutely! This is a great document for educators who work with co-teachers and would like something to reference:
Thriving Schools: There seems to be so much confusion around the responsibilities in a co-teaching relationship. Why does this happen and how can we improve it?
Ruhi: I think one of the reasons this happens is because there’s still very little co-planning time that involves special education teachers. And employing the right co-teaching practice isn’t something that can be done on the fly – it has to be thought out and done very purposefully. There are ways, however, that we can tell this partnership is going well. For example, I’ve had the opportunity to watch two of my former teachers in action while they’re co-teaching their freshman biology class. And when you walk into that classroom, you have no idea who the special education or general education teacher is. They’ve done a great job at getting away from the dichotomy between “special education” and “content” expert.
Thriving Schools: And how do you do this?
Ruhi: This means that if you’re a special education teacher in a co-teaching model, you need to know the content. And on the flip side, if you’re the general education teacher your responsibility is to really understand the accommodations your students need and what their IEP goals are. Just because you happen to be a content or special education expert, doesn’t mean there’s a wall between you and doing what’s best for all kids.
Thriving Schools: What advice or recommendations do you have for special education teachers who need to improve their content knowledge in a short period of time?
Ruhi: I know this sounds cliché, but it really comes down to being a life-long learner. You can’t assume you don’t have more to learn and that you can just sit through professional development sessions. I do this for myself by taking the perspective that I can learn from everyone! Every teacher has something to offer and adopting this mindset will help you learn something new every day or every week.
Thriving Schools: Last question on co-teaching models. . . I think out of the 3 guidelines you provided us, getting the collaboration piece right is the hardest. Is there any other advice you can provide around creating strong collaborative relationships between teachers?
Ruhi: A lot of the work that we use comes from the Academy of Co-Teaching and Collaboration at St. Cloud University. We use a lot of their resources and they have some really good guidelines around this. The co-teaching document I provided above can also serve as a checklist in this respect to build that sense of collaboration. A lot of these are common sense. But it’s a really good refresher because a teacher might look at it and say, “I know this is a good practice, but I totally haven’t been doing this.”