Teacher Collaboration Between General and Special Education: Hopes and Fears for the Future
Collaboration is often defined as a sharing of responsibilities and resources in working to achieve mutual goals. This shared sense of accountability is an important part of many workplaces, and can be used as a tool to drive decision-making in K-12 education.
Though teacher collaboration is a necessity in providing an appropriate education to students with special needs, a recent study by Intervention in School and Clinic reminds us that collaboration between general education teachers and special education teachers can be challenging — and is a topic on the minds of future educators.
This survey of general and special education pre-service teacher candidates identified three recurring themes around their hopes and fears on the topic of collaboration across their respective specialties: time management, communication and content knowledge.
Lack of time is a known challenge in K-12 education, with almost 40% of special educators spending 20% or more of their time on paperwork. "Having time for productive conversations" was considered important among study participants in both general and special education. Participants in both areas also noted concerns about lack of time for collaboration.
Research shows that teacher candidates are right to be thoughtful about ways to prioritize collaboration time with their peers. A study of 1,210 teacher leaders showed that 68% of teachers turned to other teachers for support, over educational leadership or their larger networks.
Source of data: Berry, B., Daughtrey, A., & Wieder, A. (2009). Collaboration: Closing the effective teaching gap. Retrieved from Centre for Teaching Quality website: teachingquality.org/content/collaboration-closing-effective-teaching-gap
The theme mentioned most by candidates was communication. This theme included issues related to relationship and conflict management. Pre-service candidates noted wanting to keep the lines of communication open. Candidates also spoke to the importance of understanding each other, being open to different perspectives, and having peers with varied experience.
In addition to the barrier of time when it comes to effective communication, research shows that there may be a language barrier between general and special education teachers, especially around the terms inclusion, remediation and differentiated instruction. Finding ways to clarify communication and workflow around a common system may be beneficial.
The third recurring theme was a concern about gaps in knowledge negatively affecting collaboration between teachers. Since general education and special education are two different and distinct areas of specialty, it's understandable that gaps in content knowledge may occur; for example, a general education teacher most likely won't have the same level of knowledge about individualized education plans (IEPs) as a special education teacher, and a special educator will likely not have the same level of understanding of subject matter pedagogy as a general education teacher.
Research suggests that special educators sometimes take on the role of helper instead of co-teacher, partly due to a lack of content knowledge.
Food for Thought
Efficient collaboration between general and special education is a pillar of providing meaningful support to children with disabilities — because this goal requires teachers from both areas to work as a decisive and informed team. Are there steps you can take to support teacher collaboration in your district or school?
Read the full Intervention in School and Clinic study here.
 Robinson, L., & Buly, M. R. (2007). Breaking the language barrier: Promoting collaboration between general and special educators. Teacher Education Quarterly, 34(3), 83–94.
 Friend, M., Cook, L., Hurley-Chamberlain, D., & Shamberger, C. (2010) Co-Teaching: An illustration of the complexity of collaboration in special education. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 20:1, 9-27, DOI: 10.1080/10474410903535380