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By Kyle Robinson and Dr. Nancy L. Hutchinson

Image of high school teachers in a meeting

Introduction: Why Focus on Secondary School?

The school cultures of elementary and secondary school are very different, as any teacher who has taught in both settings can attest to. Numerous studies have alluded to the fractured (alternatively “balkanized” or “siloed”) nature of secondary schools; the division of subjects into departments creates a natural separation of teachers (Brady, 2008; Firestone & Louis, 1999; Hargreaves & Macmillan, 1995). Many have argued that this has detrimental effects as it can create “marginalization of some students and some teachers, restrictions on professional learning, and crippling inflexibility in the face of social and educational change” (Hargreaves & Macmillan, 1995, p. 165).

A study about differences in working conditions between elementary and secondary schools (also known as high schools in Canada), funded by the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO), found that this department structure in high schools led to “significant opportunities for collegial [inter-departmental] collaboration” but “there were more opportunities for school-wide collaboration in elementary [schools]” (Leithwood, 2008, p. 13).

Administrative roles were also flagged as being substantially different, with a “near unanimous view [held by teachers] that elementary school principals were much more visible, gave them more feedback on their instruction, were more hands on and were more supportive” than principals in secondary settings (Leithwood, 2008, p. 16). The different role of administration in secondary schools can be particularly challenging for inclusive education, given that studies have shown the principal plays a pivotal role in inclusive education (Riehl, 2000).

Hargreaves and Macmillian (1995) noted that the culture of secondary schools “contribute[s] to the development of status hierarchies among students … special needs students are frequently regarded as ‘anomalies’ and are often considered to be at the bottom of the [hierarchy]” (as cited in Brady, 2008, p. 15). Research has suggested that the structure of high schools leads teachers to “prefer to isolate these [special needs] students from others,” as well as preferring to “avoid them wherever possible” (as cited in Brady, 2008).

These characteristics of high schools suggest that collaboration both between departments and across roles in secondary schools is likely to be more difficult, and to occur less frequently than in elementary schools. Considering the power of collaboration for student success, this may be a problem for students with exceptionalities.  One product of collaboration, co-teaching, is often described as the most effective method of inclusive education (Cook & Friend, 2007; Murwaski & Swanson, 2001).

Research is promising on the effectiveness of collaboration in secondary schools, especially co-teaching. Teachers who use a strategy of co-teaching have reported positive student outcomes, noting that they’ve seen “such growth for the students [with learning disabilities] … They seem to enjoy and acquire so much more with the hands-on activities, the attention they can get from each of us, and what I think of as ‘double teaching.’ If I’m teaching something a certain way, my co-teacher can explain it and show it in a different way and connect with the kids that I didn’t reach” (Cramer, Liston, Nevin, & Thousand, 2010, p. 67).

The rest of this summary focuses on ways teachers in secondary schools can collaborate interdepartmentally using evidence-based research, and provides practical tips. These collaboration ideas are designed around helping students with exceptionalities, specifically those with learning disabilities (LDs), to succeed. There is also a list of author-vetted resources (in print and online) that can be accessed for further information on collaborating between teachers in secondary schools.

Communication when Collaborating

An exponential growth in personal communication technology over the past decade has made communication more impersonal than ever. As Hamlin (2006) notes, we tend to email the person in the office next door, we have a list of 15 phone numbers to reach our family (home number, work number, cell number, and that’s not even considering the number of email addresses to keep straight!), and we even tend to go online immediately after waking up and before our first cup of coffee (as cited in Dettmer, Knackendoffel, & Thurston, 2013).

However, while technology can be a boon to collaboration, face-to-face interactions are still the “standard and most effective type of communication for most collaboration” for educators (Dettmer, Knackendoffel, & Thurston, 2013, p. 187).  Thus the strategies presented here utilize face-to-face communication.

Strategies For Classroom Teachers

Collaborative Teaching

As mentioned earlier, the best form of collaboration to increase the educational success of exceptional learners is co-teaching (Cook, 1995; Cook & Friend, 2007; Murwaski & Swanson, 2001). Traditionally, co-teaching is the process of “two or more professionals delivering substantive instruction to a diverse, or blended, group of students in a single physical space,” although co-teaching has been described in many ways (Cook, 1995, p. 2).

Murawski and Dieker (2004) provide guidance for teachers who wish to try co-teaching in secondary schools, noting that the process of co-teaching needs to begin before the start of the term, with principals helping to accommodate teams of teachers in scheduling. Often times, an approach of “ready, fire, aim” is taken with co-teaching, where class schedules and teacher placements have already been created before the decision to teach collaboratively is made (Murawski & Dieker, 2004).

In order for classes to get the most out of co-teaching, both teachers need to be prepared to practice the skill for the long term. Research suggests that one of the largest factors inhibiting the use of co-teaching is that many educators, especially those in a leadership role, tend to “jump ship” midway through the process of co-teaching when results are not immediately apparent (Villa, Thousand, Nevin, & Malgeri, 1996). Co-teaching is a slow process, one that does not provide immediate results.

Often, teachers begin co-teaching as a carefully planned unit, where each segment of a lesson is assigned to a specific educator. As co-teachers become more comfortable with each other’s teaching styles and patterns, they are able to more effectively collaborate during class time, allowing for impromptu interruptions or changes to the lesson (Villa, Thousand, Nevin, & Malgeri, 1996). This process takes time. Co-teachers can “interview” each other before being placed together, comparing their teaching philosophies, routines and student expectations, in an effort to speed up this process (Villa, Thousand, Nevin, & Malgeri, 1996).

As indicated previously, co-teaching is an effective teaching strategy for enhancing the education of students with learning disabilities. Rice & Zigmond (1999) found that, like many types of differentiated instruction, co-teaching benefitted learning disabled students as well as those considered typically developing. Teachers also reported that with a second teacher in the classroom, it became easier to implement various types of differentiated instruction, including the Tiered Approach to Classroom Tasks and Classroom Assessment.

Click here to access the article Tiered Approaches to the Education of Students with Learning Disabilities.

Collaborative Planning

A common form of co-teaching used in secondary schools is referred to as “co-planning” (Cook, 1995). Co-planning is often used in mandatory courses that involve more than one class section, as this leads to multiple educators teaching the same curriculum.  Co-planning involves teachers meeting before the start of the school term to plan the course, decide what materials and texts to use, and what teaching strategies could be used to differentiate instruction. This leads to classes that are taught by a single teacher, but the overall planning and lesson plans contain the practices and teaching strategies of two or more teachers.

As an alternative to co-teaching, co-planning is a useful tool for educators and an easier way to begin working collaboratively because it relies more on planning by teachers rather than timetabling by school administration.

While there has been a wealth of research on the benefits of co-teaching and co-planning specifically for students with LDs (Simmons, Magiera, 2007; Trent, 1998; Welch, 2000), the following forms of collaboration are backed by research suggesting their benefits for students with any disability. And their similarity to co-teaching makes them good choices for meeting the needs of students with LDs.


While co-teaching takes place between two teachers in a single classroom, Conzemius and O’Neill (2004) recommend taking a school-wide approach to collaboration, through what they call SMART school teams. They suggest moving away from informal collaboration, such as two teachers meeting over lunch to discuss a class exercise, because “a collaborative effort that is focused on more complex or long-range tasks is more likely to be successful if the collaboration is formalized or has a clearly defined structure” (Conzemius & O’Neill, 2014, p. 27).

For students identified as exceptional, these meetings would encompass the students’ entire education, rather than a single class or lesson. They are similar in style to an Identification, Placement, and Review Committee (IPRC) meeting or an Individual Education Plan (IEP) meeting, although SMART teams would meet more often during the school year.

The goals of these meetings should be:

  • Strategic and specific,
  • Measureable,
  • Attainable,
  • Results-oriented, and
  • Time bound (Conzemius & O’Neill, 2014).

Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)

PLCs are growing in popularity in secondary education and are perhaps the most studied form of collaboration. The makeup of a PLC tends to vary from school to school, and is dependent on the needs of the school community in general—at their most basic, PLCs are made up of groups of educators who collectively examine and improve their practice (Alberta, 2006; Annenberg Institute, 2003). The role of a teacher includes “learning new ways to teach, trying them out, sharing [the] experience, making refinements, and then trying them again” (Edwards, 2005). A PLC is a safe space to share and refine these ways of teaching.

Since PLCs are made of a group of educators—and the best PLCs involve educators in different roles (such as administrators, special education heads, and teachers from various disciplines)—there is a strong variety of expertise and experience to draw upon (Alberta, 2006; Annenberg Institute, 2003; Edwards, 2005). This is what some call shared personal practice (Dufor, Eaker, & Many, 2008; Murray, 2014). This powerful process of collaboration, according to Murray (2014), “builds trust, leads to greater willingness to innovate and take risks and learn from mistakes, and share successful strategies. All of these results, in turn, are likely to lead to greater student engagement and achievement” (p. 25).

The Ontario Ministry of Education (OME) document, Learning for All: A Guide to Effective Assessment and Instruction for All Students, Kindergarten to Grade 12 (2013) stresses the need for teachers to be part of a PLC, as they are “critically important to any attempt to improve student achievement and close the achievement gap” (p. 53). The PLC, according to the Ontario Ministry of Education, is less about addressing the learning needs of the teacher participants; rather “a successful professional learning community works to address the learning needs of all within the entire school community” (2013, p. 54).

Three overall ideas guide this process: a commitment to ensure learning for all students; a culture of collaboration; and a focus on results (OME, 2013). Ontario’s Literacy & Numeracy Secretariat’s Capacity Building Series (2007), expands these ideas into six distinct components of a professional learning community: ensuring learning for all students, relationships, collaborative inquiry, a focus on results, leadership, and alignment. The ideas and research presented in this document overlap with Learning for All (2013), but it is an excellent resource for educators looking for quick tips on starting a PLC in their school.

Culture of collaboration

A culture of collaboration within a PLC reflects the basic PLC structure – teachers support each other in identifying learning goals, they share differing teaching and assessment strategies, and they work together to analyze evidence of learning. Teachers inquire about all aspects of teaching and learning, and their inquiry is characterized by seven things: it is relevant, reflective, collaborative, adaptive, reasoned, iterative, and reciprocal (OME, 2010, 2013). Learning for All (2013) provides an example of this type of PLC:

[Teachers] shared their experiences in determining students’ learning preferences and implementing DI [differentiated instruction] and assessment for learning strategies and methods. Each time the PLC met, a different section of a board-wide template for applying Learning for All concepts and approaches was completed. This allowed teachers an opportunity to discuss their understandings and issues, effective practices, and resources (p. 55).

Focus on results

Success of a PLC is determined by reaching goals set either by the group, or by individual teachers. Murray (2014) suggests that the overarching goal of any PLC is simple: “the result educators are seeing is improved student learning” (p. 25). This cannot be simply stating that students have learned the curriculum, a set of facts, or a math equation. “PLCs are built on the premise that schools exist to ensure that all students learn essential knowledge, understandings, and skills. All characteristics of PLCs flow from this unwavering commitment to the result of improved student learning” (Murray, 2014, p. 26).

As an example of a PLC focused on results, one school board in Ontario formed a PLC to develop ‘key indicators for gathering student achievement data for students with special learning needs across the school boards in the region” (OME, 2013, p. 58). This example focuses on the diversity of PLCs – they need not be limited to groups of teachers within a school. According to the Annenberg Institute (2003):

PLCs can be school-based, district based, cross-district or national; the membership in a particular PLC is determined by its focus. For example, a grade-level team of teachers may form a PLC to focus on improving their ability to coordinate their students’ curriculum; a multigrade group of teachers may collaborate on ways to ensure a coherent learning pathway for their students; a group of math teachers may work together to adopt and implement a new mathematics program in ways that best benefit their students; teachers and administrators may meet as a PLC to learn and support innovative teaching strategies; principals or superintendents may concentrate on more effective ways to handle the particular challenges of their roles; a school system may meet regularly with core district representatives to improve operational effectiveness and to build capacity to support school and district efforts to improve schools; groups may form across districts, often as part of a national school reform initiative, to focus on common issues in their work. (p. 2)


The dramatic change students experience in culture when they move from elementary to secondary school makes collaboration an important strategy for ensuring the success of students with LDs. However, collaboration can be challenging for secondary teachers to accomplish. It has been shown that the departmental nature of the school can contribute to a lack of support for students with learning disabilities (and other exceptional students). Typically, this departmentalization pushes students with special education needs out of the more academic subjects (e.g. Math, English, Sciences) into the hands-on and technical and vocational courses (including Art, Drama, Music) when choosing electives (Brady, 2008; Hargreaves & Macmillan, 1995; Kelly, 2004).

Collaboration does not need to be as difficult as previously thought. Co-teaching is currently the most research backed form of collaboration. Many teachers of mandatory courses already co-plan without identifying it as co-planning or recognizing its benefits. Fortunately, the skills and thinking that make co-teaching so beneficial for students with LDs can be seen in other collaboration techniques, particularly SMART school teams and PLCs. While the research on these techniques does not focus specifically on students with LDs, their similarity to co-teaching makes these strategies as beneficial as co-teaching. A culture of collaboration in high schools can potentially provide students with LDs with much-needed support, enhancing secondary education for students with LDs.

Related Resources on the LD@School Website

Click here to access the article Teacher Collaboration and Achievement of Students with LDs: A Review of the Research.

Click here to access the video Using Collaborative Teacher Inquiry to Support Students with LDs in Math.

Click here to read the answer to the question What should I do to ensure a successful meeting with the parents of my students with LDs?.

Additional Resources

Conzeimus, A. E., & O’Neill, J. (2014). The handbook for SMART school teams: Revitalizing best practices for collaboration (2nd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

  • If you want to try creating a SMARTschool team, start with the handbook that started the process by Conzeimus and O’Neill. The book details how to select appropriate team members, how to change the culture of the school, and how SMART teams and goals can be applied to all aspects of education.

Cramer, S. F. (2006). The special educator’s guide to collaboration: Improving relationships with co-teachers, teams, and families. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. ISBN: 9781412914918.

  • Cramer’s guide is interesting in that it focuses specifically on the tools for collaboration any special educator would need to work with general classroom teachers. While focusing on the typical collaboration skills such as communication, Cramer also details how a special educator needs to understand themselves and their specific role in facilitating collaboration.

Dettmer, P., Knackendoffel, A., & Thurston, L. P. (2013). Collaboration, consultation, and teamwork for students with special needs (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson. ISBN: 9780132659673.

  • Like Friend and Cook’s Interactions, Dettmer, Knackendoffel and Thurston have focus on the skills that educators need to collaborate. However, as the title suggests, they put particular emphasis on how these collaboration skills can help special needs students.

Friend, M., & Cook, L. (2013). Interactions: Collaboration skills for school professionals (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. ISBN: 9780132774925.

  • Friend and Cook’s manual on school collaboration isn’t specifically aimed at collaborating for the success of exceptional children, but the tips and tricks contained within will help any teacher learn the skills necessary to collaborate. Chapters on communication skills and problem solving are particularly useful in creating a culture of collaboration at any school. It is considered the go to source for information on collaborating.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2013). Learning for all: A guide to effective assessment and instruction for all students, Kindergarten to Grade 12. Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario.

Click here to open Learning for all: A guide to effective assessment and instruction for all students, Kindergarten to Grade 12.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2007). Professional learning communities: A model for Ontario schools.Capacity Building Series – Secretariat Special Edition, 3, 1 – 3. Toronto, ON: Author.

Click here to open the PDF Professional Learning Communities: A Model for Ontario Schools.

  • Both of these resources from the Ontario Ministry of Education layout plans for how to run professional learning communities based on the Learning for All (2013) model of collaborative inquiry, a focus on results, and ensuring learning for all students. The Capacity Building Seriesadds an additional guiding idea – relationships. In Learning for All (2013), be sure to specifically refer to Chapter 5 (p. 53).

Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation. (2010, February). Professional learning communities: Bibliography.

Click here to open Professional Learning Communities: Bibliography.

  • This bibliography, compiled by the Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation, is a comprehensive list of materials available through the OSSTF Research Library, located in Toronto, Ontario. Materials include books, articles and papers, as well as audio-visual resources. Many of the resources listed are also available through University and Public libraries.


horizontal line tealKyle Robinson is entering his second year in the Master of Education program at Queen’s University, with a focus on the Inclusion of Exceptional Students. Kyle is an OCT certified teacher (I/S), and has taught in schools in the Limestone and Toronto District School Boards. Besides inclusion, Kyle’s research interests also include the Psychology of Learning Disabilities, Special Education programs in Secondary Schools, and the History and Philosophy of Education.

Nancy L. Hutchinson is a professor of Cognitive Studies in the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University. Her research has focused on teaching students with learning disabilities (e.g., math and career development) and on enhancing workplace learning and co-operative education for students with disabilities and those at risk of dropping out of school. In the past five years, in addition to her research on transition out of school, Nancy has worked with a collaborative research group involving researchers from Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia on transition into school of children with severe disabilities. She teaches courses on inclusive education in the preservice teacher education program as well as doctoral seminars on social cognition and master’s courses on topics including learning disabilities, inclusion, and qualitative research. She has published six editions of a textbook on teaching students with disabilities in the regular classroom and two editions of a companion casebook.