I wait patiently at the door as I watch the five first graders on my caseload get up from their desks and get ready to come to my resource room. Ms. McIntosh, their teacher, pulls me aside and asks to start the referral process on David. “He just can’t grasp the concepts, no matter how much practice he has. I’m sure he has a disability and will qualify for special education,” she tells me. I glance at David, where he is sitting quietly and waiting for Ms. McIntosh to resume her task. He looks just like all the other students until I notice there are no words, nothing whatsoever, on his paper. I quickly tell Ms. McIntosh that I will show her how to get a referral from Infinite Campus then and take the little group back to my room to work on phonics and blending sounds for the second week in a row.
You see, I know my group of identified students need repetitive practice and “drill,” almost every day until they master even the smallest skill. But David? Well, he hasn’t even been evaluated yet so I know he is not “my problem.” In the seven years that I’ve taught special education, I have tried how to reach students like David with significant need to no avail. The other special education teachers don’t want me to rustle any feathers that may affect their job, the principal wants to keep harmony and “do things like we always do,” and the special education director tells me it is against the law to service students that are not identified. After the results are in, I look in shock to see that David will not receive the help he because his evaluation says he has no delay or disability.
Despite these dictums, I look closer at David’s work on assignments in the classroom. He genuinely cares about learning and tries to the best of his ability. His educational needs are similar, even identical, to the needs of the first grade students on my caseload. However, he is unable to receive the foundational skills reteaching that he needs due to the scores on the evaluation that puts him within a “normal” range. In our small school, David is the third student in two years that falls “between the cracks.” David, and all the other students that are referred but do not qualify for services, are not within a “normal” range. The fact that he was referred in the first place is an indicator that regular classroom instruction is not enough. There needs to be a way to bridge this gap. We cannot just let David’s education fail him when. I am right there, teaching students with his exact needs every day.
“I have to do something,” I told Ms. McIntosh as I gave her the news of David’s situation. I told her how much I believed Response to Intervention (RTI) is the answer to all our problems. I looked at RTI as this wonderful system that was surely the key to reaching all the needs of each student. We worked up a plan for me to spend some time in the mornings to help David and others like him in Ms. McIntosh’s class. I came in before breakfast with a bag of phonics tools and this smug attitude that I was going to save David and everyone else. How wrong I was! The students that finished the morning assignments first were not the students that needed extra help. Ms. McIntosh and I met again and decided I should come right after their library time, when she taught science or social studies to work with Tier 2 students. That didn’t work either! The students were more interested in the science experiments or the social studies lesson than working on basic math or reading skills. My grand plans of coming into her classroom before school or during my planning and reteaching with these students were just not working.
I couldn’t give up on David and the six other students in that class with similar needs. I also couldn’t give up on my own students in that class either. Yet, there just weren’t enough hours in a school day to continue to pull my students in to resource and hope to reach out to David. There must be more to the RTI process than just placing students into tiers based on quickly assessed need. It is more than one teacher and her skills to guide every student in every tier.
As I came to these realizations, I also came to the conclusion that I would essentially have to give up my job as resource teacher and step into the role of co-teacher. Co-teaching with Ms. McIntosh will allow me to continue to teach the students on my caseload as well as David and the other students in the class that needed extensive foundational skills reteaching. I shared my feelings with Ms. McIntosh and she immediately agreed to totally change her schedule to accommodate a co-teaching situation.
Thus I began a new chapter in my teaching career and a completely satisfying approach to reaching every student in need, not just those identified with IEPs. Ms. McIntosh and I were able to utilize many co-teaching approaches through separate reading groups, stations, and whole group activities. This year, all students met their growth goals and it was inspiring to see the progress in David and the other students in similar situations. Co-teaching gives me great satisfaction in knowing that I am able to utilize my expertise in helping all students below grade level.
The most meaningful insight I’ve gained from utilizing co-teaching to its fullest capacity is how seamlessly this approach integrates into special education. The co-teaching model allows me to continue to teach foundational skills, a craft all special education teachers are distinctively experienced in, to students with – and without - an IEP in the classroom setting. The opportunity to reach all students below grade level is an additional benefit that has addressed a need I’ve felt for a very long time.