Sarah Young ‘13 leads a kindergarten classroom at Wintergreen Primary School in Greenville.

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ECU co-teaching approach boosts student achievement

By Kathryn Kennedy  

Kaitlin Harrison Howard ’12 always knew she was going to be a teacher. She loves children, particularly their honesty, openness and excitement about learning.

One year ago, she stood at the front of her very own classroom for the first time, looking out over the faces of 11 first graders at Chicod School that were hers to mold. She’d been eager to leave college behind and finally start teaching. However, her feeling that first day was very different.

“Just survive,” Howard said she thought. “Get through the day. Get all the kids home safe and the right way.”

Being a first-year teacher can be daunting and stressful. But East Carolina University is preparing its College of Education graduates in new ways to meet that challenge. Among them is a new model for student teaching—the actual classroom experience that occupies the two final semesters of college for education majors.

The emerging Co-teaching Program puts more emphasis on teamwork between classroom teacher and student, and between student interns themselves. One particular model of co-teaching pioneered by ECU places two interns in a classroom instead of only one. Though that may seem like a greater burden on the classroom teacher, it’s proving instead to be a benefit.

“You plan together, you teach together, you assess together,” explained Dr. Vivian Covington, director of teacher education at ECU.

Pictured above working with students in Amy McGregor's kindergarten classroom at Wintergreen Primary School is Sarah Young, one of two ECU students assigned to that classroom for a spring semester internship as part of the co-teaching program in ECU’s College of Education.


Lisa Thomas ’13 goes over a lesson with a kindergarten student at Wintergreen Primary School this May.
What started with Howard and her partner intern, Katie Usher ’12, was expanded into a larger pilot in 2013, with 25 ECU students in 15 co-teaching-style classrooms across Pitt and Greene counties.

The effort springs from a need to produce better quality teachers for eastern North Carolina and the state—teachers who can boast high student success rates in their first year, not the second or third.

As the pressure to perform as first year teachers is increasing nationwide, East Carolina graduates must be up to the challenge.

Two students, one classroom

The model for co-teaching emerged from special education classrooms, where other learning and disability specialists join teachers to better target a range of student needs. So it is fitting that one of the first classrooms where ECU co-teaching interns were placed was a class for students on the autism spectrum at J.H. Rose High School in Greenville.

Sara Graves ’13 looked forward to putting what she’d learned in her special education classes into practice during her senior internship.

“This was our chance to experience what it feels like to call the shots,” she explained. And she didn’t mind that she’d be sharing that experience with Demetrice “D.J.” Baskerville ’13.

“I had heard good things about him,” she said of her partner co-teaching intern. “I was excited to be a part of it.”

With J.H. Rose teacher Dee Whitfield as their mentor, Graves and Baskerville took turns leading the morning lesson every day. They relied frequently on one of the seven co-teaching strategies called “station teaching,” where students are broken into groups to work on lessons. The teacher and interns then rotate through those groups, ensuring all students get equal time.

The three got along really well, Graves said, and she appreciated having “two other professionals” to lean on for ideas and advice. Graves will teach in her own classroom this fall for students with moderate intellectual disabilities at South Central High School in Greenville.

Howard shared a similar experience from her co-teaching internship at Chicod—the school that would hire her to teach first grade after graduation.

“You have somebody else to learn from and different ideas to pull from,” Howard said. “Everybody brings something different to the table. (Katie and I) hit a rhythm, went with it and helped each other.”

“You plan together, you teach together, you assess together.”

– Dr. Vivian Covington
ECU Director of Teacher Education

Greater expectations

The traditional model of student teaching has been in place for around 80 years, and is still in use for most seniors in ECU’s College of Education. Students spend their first senior semester observing a classroom teacher one day each week; they then have a chance to take over during second semester.

After an additional observation period, they develop lesson plans and lead teaching for one subject, then adding another, culminating in teaching solo for 15 school days. The semester winds down with still more observation time.

The student teaching experience is a crucial part of teacher preparation. It’s when future teachers at ECU and other universities take the best practices and concepts they’ve learned in methods classes on campus and implement them for the first time. They get a sense of what it takes to manage a classroom and keep young learners on track. They feel the challenges of implementing curriculum for students who learn slowly and those who race ahead.

But Covington said it’s gotten harder in recent years to convince classroom teachers to take on an intern.

With increased emphasis on testing and evaluations based on student performance, teachers may hesitate “giving up classrooms for 15 days in the spring to a novice,” Covington said.

“We always feel like we’re burdening our public school partners and we don’t want that,” agreed Liz Fogarty, associate professor and interim assistant chair of elementary and middle grades education. “We need them.”

Co-teaching could improve that dynamic.

Gwen Smith is Greene County Schools’ liaison to ECU and says her teachers are “just beginning to understand what a wonderful model (co-teaching) could be.”

ECU sends student teachers to 36 school systems across the state, but all co-teaching interns are placed in Greene and Pitt counties. Smith said Greene County will double the number of co-teaching interns training in its classrooms in 2014.

“Over the past years (fear of relinquishing the classroom) has been the biggest (deterrent),” Smith said. “They tell me ‘I can’t take an intern this year.’ But anytime you’ve got more than on teacher in the classroom, the students are certain to benefit.

“We want to get our best teachers for these interns—our master teachers. This 2-1 model works better.”

Pictured above, Demetrice “D.J.” Baskerville ’13 works with a student in Deirdre Whitfield’s class for students with autism at J.H.Rose High School in Greenville.

Smith also said the co-teaching interns are better qualified for the days they do lead the classroom. That’s because they’re planning with the classroom teacher and empowered to teach from day one—though in smaller doses or with smaller groups of students. This contrasts with the traditional model of merely observing for weeks before a student takes his or her turn at the helm.

“That intern is up, she’s moving, she’s teaching,” Smith said. “She’s not just sitting there.”

Principal Dawn Singleton, who retired in June, heard the same thing from her teachers at Wintergreen Primary who volunteered to take co-teaching interns. With multiple adults in a classroom, teachers are able to target lessons for students needing additional help or those who are academically gifted, she said.

“It will help children all the way around to have another adult in the classroom.”


Sara Graves ’13 coaches a student in Deirdre Whitfield’s class for students with autism at J.H. Rose High School. Graves completed her senior year student teaching experience under the co-teaching model and will teach this fall at South Central High School in Winterville.
An evolving model

Critics could argue that these co-teaching students aren’t being trained in a “real world” situation, Covington admitted. They’re getting more teaching and planning time and more support than they will when they leave college and enter a classroom full time. Howard had those concerns herself when she entered her first year of teaching.

“It was definitely nerve wracking,” Howard said, “to go from three to four people to being by myself. You get used to interacting with adults. Then, it’s just you and your children.”

The interns are, however, getting the same number of observations by College of Education faculty as they would if they were student teaching alone. And administrators are increasing the number of required solo teaching days this spring from five to 10 for co-teaching students. That’s still fewer than the traditionally required 15 days.

“We understand it’s different but it wouldn’t necessarily be less experience,” Covington said. “We’re just watching and seeing.”
Howard terms it “an adjustment” to teach without additional personnel in the classroom, but expects all first-year teachers make similar adjustments in one area or another. It’s part of the learning curve.

“I wouldn’t trade my experience co-teaching for anything,” she added.

With each successful year, College of Education faculty will keep honing and expanding the Co-Teaching Program. Administrators plan to introduce co-teaching in as many as 88 classrooms in 2014. And students will intern in not only elementary and special education classrooms this year, but also in English, history, foreign language, math and middle grades classrooms. Covington said they must determine whether co-teaching advantages apply to older students and varied subjects.

The College of Education is gathering lots of data as part of the effort—interviewing graduates, tracking student success rates, training and gathering feedback from the classroom teachers. The faculty believes the potential benefits of co-teaching could outweigh any initial stumbling blocks.

“We really do have evidence that it’s going to make a difference for our student teachers,” said Judy Smith, professor of elementary and middle grades education.

“If it’s at least as good as the old model…then we feel like it’s a win,” Covington said. “People will embrace student teachers again, and (teachers will) not have to give up their classrooms.”


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