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Jonathan Fickies It’s a rainy, dreary morning, but you’d never know it from the high spirits inside the 1st-grade classroom at CS 300, just south of the Bronx Zoo. Smiles, compliments and high-fives are in abundance. When a student offers an idea in a group discussion, everyone applauds. And when it’s time to line up, children’s small feet practically go skipping into the hall.
For the two teachers and three paraprofessionals who share the small classroom, the good mood is intentional. Jennifer Nybro and Keriann Martin have worked long and hard to perfect the art of co-teaching with joyful results. Each has been at CS 300 for more than a decade and they have been an Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) team for three years.
“When the door closes, we’re in our happy land,” says Martin, the special education teacher in the classroom.
“Our class is our little family,” says Nybro, the general education teacher.
What makes their partnership successful? Both agree they were a good fit before they set foot in the classroom.
“The key to a successful ICT partnership is teachers who complement each other well, want to work together and have the same philosophy in teaching and work ethic,” says Martin, who has worked in five ICT partnerships.
“I married my teacher wife,” Nybro quipped.
Although they have similar teaching styles, Martin and Nybro play to each other’s strengths when it comes to lesson planning. Using the same basic format, Martin takes the lead on planning lessons for reading and word work; Nybro focuses on math and writing. Creative crafts are Martin’s domain; keeping the pair focused on long-term goals is Nybro’s.
They also maintain a strong mutual trust and a healthy respect for each other’s time and space.
“Neither of us thinks the other person’s time is more valuable,” says Nybro. “What we’ve learned is it’s never 50/50; it’s a moving scale. Somebody might be pulling the weight more some days. When she’s down, I pick her up, and vice versa.”
In the classroom, they use all of the co-teaching models popularized by co-teaching researcher and scholar Marilyn Friend. “But they vary from year to year, group to group, and unit to unit,” says Nybro. “It depends on the nature of the subject and what we’re teaching that day.”
During spelling and word work, for example, Martin teaches a large group on the carpet while Nybro takes the “alternative teaching” approach to a small group of students who need a lot of extra support. Minutes later, the whole class gathers together on the carpet to hear Martin read a nonfiction book about ladybugs while Nybro provides individual support to students in the back of the group using the “one teach, one assist” model. In the afternoon, they often use “station teaching” during math.
“We’re communicating constantly throughout the day,” says Martin. “We’re making all decisions as a team.”
At times — during guided reading, for example — they group students by ability. At others, they pair higher functioning students with struggling students. After the ladybug read-aloud, for instance, Martin asks certain students to stand up and choose partners from among those still seated on the carpet. That way, students get to make a choice about who to work with — and Martin and Nybro know they’ve set up partners who can support each other.
“In our classroom, everyone gets face time with a teacher, buddy time with a friend, and independent time to work,” says Nybro.
Their ongoing communication and flexibility are crucial, even if it means sometimes having difficult, honest conversations.
“Keriann will definitely tell me no to some of my ideas because she respects me enough to tell me,” just like she can say, “‘That was a great shot, but it didn’t go the way we planned,’” says Nybro. “She’s not just going to follow me blindly.”
It’s clear how much work must go on behind the scenes to achieve seamless teamwork in the classroom.
“They are so organized,” says Courtney Reid, a social studies teacher who frequently pushes into Martin and Nybro’s classroom. “They’re so in sync, they know what the other is thinking. You can tell how much they’ve collaborated.”
In the beginning of the year, that collaboration takes shape in six weeks of practicing routines and building community in their small classroom. It’s an approach that pays off throughout the year.
“These are the happiest years of teaching I’ve had,” says Martin. “It’s a joy and a pleasure to be in this classroom.”
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