Teaching Is Emotional Work
“At its core, teaching is emotional work”
-David Rose, CAST Founder
This quote by David Rose, one of the founders of CAST and Universal Design for Learning (UDL), offers two meanings. The first reminds us that teaching, by default, taps our emotions. Interactions with students, other educators, and with yourself all add up to a deeply emotional experience. But Dr. Rose is getting to something a bit more under the surface here. He’s reminding us that everything we do is emotional. That is how the brain works. There is not a decision we make or an interaction we have that doesn’t stir up our affective networks. It is false to believe that you can have a non-emotional conversation or make a non-emotional choice.
With that deeper level of understanding, it’s pretty easy to understand how emotions impact co-teaching. Decisions we have typically made on our own are now collaborative. A space that we designed on our own is now co-designed. Lessons that we led, revised on the spot, and assessed on our own are now done with another adult in the room. What structures can be put into place or even work toward to make a co-teaching environment emotionally healthier and more productive?
Two researchers out of Norway looked at this very question. More specifically, they focused their attention on well-functioning collaboration practices. This refreshing and hope-filled methodology made me an instant fan! Jortveit and Kovač (2021) solicited special education and general education pairs that were successfully co-teaching to identify underlying cooperative processes that could possibly be transferred to other contexts (think, other co-taught classrooms). These educators were selected according to an assessment by Norway’s agency (Educational Psychological Service) that oversees the assessment of children with disabilities and is knowledgeable about the quality of collaboration among teachers.
Four pairs of educators from Years 1, 7, 11 and 13 (years 11 and 13 are high school) were interviewed. Each pair was interviewed together and were asked questions related to five general areas: “(1) the nature of the collaboration; 2) knowledge sharing; (3) discussions about educational values; (4) examples of collaboration; (5) strategies leading to consensus; and (6) division of roles during collaboration” (p. 6). From an analysis of those conversations came these two significant findings.
First, where there is common ground related to pedagogical principles, there is quality collaboration. This means that the teachers consistently and persistently reflected on their shared principles and essential educational beliefs. Three popular themes across these successful pairs were “equity, active participation in social and academic activities and absence of stigmatizing behavior” (p. 7).
Second, the teachers believed that mutual recognition, a shared enthusiasm, as well as emotional flexibility in terms of teaching were key to a quality collaboration. I find it wonderfully enticing that “emotional flexibility” was identified as a key component because of how it aligns with UDL. These teachers also saw collaboration as a resource, which is fascinating. They didn’t just see collaboration as a verb – as something you do. They saw collaboration as a noun – a thing from which you benefit. That is an extremely powerful point of view.
How can these findings help us in co-teaching settings where teachers are implementing UDL? First, UDL provides a set of pedagogical principles in that it is grounded in variability, accessibility, flexibility, goal-driven lessons and learning environments, choice, and rigor (Nelson, 2019). Co-teachers can reflect on these principles together to investigate how they are brought to life in their lessons and learning environments. UDL provides a frame from those conversations!
Next, there are continuing conversations about the UDL framework and equity (see www.cast.org to become part of that conversation), but it many in the UDL community agree that the framework is at least a starting point for developing those equitable lessons and learning environments for students with disabilities as well as our Black, Indigenous, and learners of color. The beautiful thing is that UDL partners incredibly well with other frameworks that assert equity and culturally responsive teaching. In this way, UDL definitely helps educators design inclusive social and academic activities and it promotes minimizing and diminishing stigmatizing behavior.
Finally, if we apply UDL to the environment we create for ourselves as educators, we will definitely have an environment that supports mutual recognition, shared enthusiasm, and emotional flexibility when it comes to collaboration. Just the guideline of Self-Regulation gets us started!
Teaching is emotional work and co-teaching can feel like an amped up version of that, but amped up doesn’t have to mean a negative. It can mean a positive. When co-teachers are able to have open conversations and find alignment around accessible pedagogy that attends to the systematic variability in their classrooms, they can put the operations of UDL in place and support their learners on the journey toward becoming expert learners.
Fluijt, D., Bakker, C., & Struyf, E. (2016). Team-reflection: The missing link in Co-Teaching teams. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 31(2), 187–201.
Jortveit, M., & Kovač, V. B. (2021). Co-teaching that works: special and general educators’ perspectives on collaboration. Teaching Education, 1-15.
Nelson, L.L. (2019). A tree for all: Your coloring book of UDL principals and practice. CAST Publishing: Wakefield, MA.