In this interview, we learn from a pair of insightful Montessori educators who skillfully manage co-teaching in their sizable classroom. Contrary to the widespread belief that co-teaching can be as demanding as a marriage, these teachers have successfully honed their approach to foster collaboration and prioritize student-focused instruction.
by Letty Rising
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Tania Torres Delgado and Gabriella Gonzalez, of Guidepost Montessori School in Hollywood Beach, Florida, make co-teaching seem effortless. Sharing a large classroom of 48 students, they have implemented successful mentorship programs and have found joy in working with a large class of students, which they wouldn’t trade for any other teaching experience.
What are the benefits and challenges of co-teaching in such a large upper elementary classroom? And how do you solve the challenges?
Gabriela (G): I love the size of our classrooms so much. The benefit of our large classroom really comes back to the authenticity of a Montessori environment and the students having the freedom to self-govern, work together, and mentor each other.
Having such large numbers allows the community and environment to stay child-centered. It also helps with flow and normalization because they keep each other in check. It functions so much smoother with those large numbers, to where Miss Tania and I can frequently step back and watch the students do their thing.
How did the large classroom come about?
Tania (T): We merged two classrooms with a 24-student capacity to get our classroom size. Having upper elementary students means having taller tables and bigger children that occupy more space. Opening those spaces and giving them freedom of movement between both spaces makes the classroom feel much larger.
The process of organizing the environment took about a month during the summer. And the whole purpose of everything we placed around was to make sure that flow was always present and there were no obstacles in the space.
G: We also organized the shelves in such a way that we didn’t have two sets of shelves for each subject. We were able to spread out all the material over the space, which made plenty of room for everybody.
What kinds of systems do you have in place to keep the class as a well-oiled machine? What do the lesson delivery, planning, and record-keeping look like while co-teaching?
G: Lesson planning was one of our biggest challenges when we first came together. It took us a couple of weeks to figure out lesson delivery for this number of students. We each know what grades we’re pulling from and what subjects we’re tackling each day. I teach all the humanities subjects while Ms. Tania covers all the math and science subjects. The mastermind behind this was Ms. Tania.
T: Our model and goal have always been authenticity. So, every time we look into changing, adapting, or making something more functional for us, we ensure that it remains authentic to the Montessori philosophy. Lesson planning was challenging because we wanted to make sure that we meet each student’s needs, and that doesn’t necessarily mean by grade level. So, we were scrambling between our groups and making sure that we weren’t calling students on the same day, which can become overwhelming.
We also wanted to make sure that we teach all 48 students for all the subject areas each week. So, it came down to planning by grade level while still delivering lessons that each child needs.
We plan our one-on-one meetings and conferences for Mondays to set up a successful week ahead. We want them to reset after the weekend. Having these meetings on Mondays is much more productive, and it’s helped us set the tone for the week. Then, we divided our days by grade level. On Tuesdays, I see 5th and 6th-grade math while Gabriella sees 4th-grade language. And then we switch on Wednesday.
About half of our classroom is 4th graders, which means we’re seeing about half the students each day. Some students might get pulled both days because they need lessons more frequently, but our current system enables us to avoid overlapping. Each student receives about five to six lessons a week, including language, math, science, history, art, music, and literature circles.
Do you ever have an impromptu lesson that requires you to jump out of your areas of specialization?
G: The beauty of having the big open classroom is that students always have access to both of us. I might have plans to give language lessons to the 4th graders, but my 5th and 6th graders can touch base with me at any point during the day. They can show me what they’re working on, and I’ll help them through that.
When the 4th graders who are dismissed from my lesson are off to work on fractions, they have access to Ms. Tania whenever they need help. So, we’re always giving impromptu mini lessons and reviews on the go.
What does recess look like in a large classroom? Are there any things you’ve had to do differently?
T: There are a couple of things that have helped smooth our transitions beautifully. When we’re in transition, the students will know because we play a specific song. So, each month we have a composer of the month.
We display the biography and a piece of music or the song we’ve chosen on the board. We also have that by the music shelves, and some of the students can learn how to play it. As soon as they hear that sound come up, they know it’s time to clean.
We also do silent transitions. Our students observed that when the transitions are silent, they stay focused on planning so that they can be in the meeting quicker or get to recess faster. So, we kept the silent transitions. The students hum or sing along with the music in their heads or dance along a little bit when they hear the song. This usually takes a minute or two and then they get going with their transition.
Another piece of the puzzle is our prefects (student assistants). Having just one student leader for the whole community was overwhelming. So, we divided the classroom into four groups based on the four pillars that we have – loyalty, generosity, creativity, and courage.
The 48 students are divided into those four groups of twelve, and each group has a prefect. Then, each group has an area of the classroom they’re responsible for cleaning and keeping organized. After a transition ends, we call the prefects to check their environment and see if we’re prepared to move on. The prefects call on students that need to do their jobs so that we can be ready for the next thing.
How do you divide your responsibilities? And what best practices have you come up with to ensure that you’re not overlapping or leaving gaps anywhere?
T: We haven’t created an actual list of responsibilities. We are both very attentive to detail, and we are always on top of things. So, we’re really good at communicating the minute something needs to get done. We keep lists of the things we have to do. At the end of the day, we meet to share the tasks and see if we can do some together to get them out of the way quicker. If one person feels that they can tackle something faster, they do it.
The key to our success is how good and open we are at constantly talking. Nothing is hidden from the other person. Having 48 students that we’re both responsible for means 48 families to work with. So, there is constant communication.
G: That constant communication is absolutely necessary. We’ve taken a lot of time to identify each other’s strengths and weaknesses. So, we’re clear on who is more efficient at one thing than the other. It’s all about efficiency, communicating, and having that teamwork mentality. We succeed or fail together; it’s not about who’s doing more or less. As long as we’re both putting in our all, then we’ll get the best result.
We support each other even within our respective subjects because our results have to be cohesive. Tania spent a good portion of her day helping me with DIBELS today. So, we bounce back and forth. We have a general overarching idea of our responsibilities, but it’s more of a cohesive vision that we both have for the community.
And how do you handle the record-keeping?
T: We go by our subject areas. We each take care of the lessons and subject areas we’re responsible for. It keeps things neat because we know the lessons that we present, especially when there are a lot of impromptu lessons. We each have our own work journals wherein we write everything that we do throughout the day, and that gets inputted into Altitude (digital record-keeping platform), for example.
A lot of that record-keeping happens because of the Altitude platform and students constantly capturing images of their work. We then observe the pictures and see the work that they turned in, which also helps us a lot with record keeping.
When we go over pictures, and we’re still determining what we’re observing, we always ask each other. If Gabriella sees a math lesson and she’s not sure what it was, she will ask me. But for the most part, we remain within our subject areas.
One of the concerns about dividing record keeping by subject is the feeling that each teacher doesn’t get the whole Cosmic Education experience. Do you have any thoughts about that?
T: Gabriella is very observant when it comes to lessons I might be giving in science or those she might be giving in history. She always finds the perfect way of tying them to language and writing lessons in other subject areas. She can make quick connections that way. And that’s a big portion of our joint lesson plans being successful. We plan the lessons for each of our subject areas together, meaning we can bounce ideas off each other and see how we can interlock the curriculum.
Do you create some common planning time each week, and when do you do that?
G: We have planning time every day after school. However, that time is not always dedicated to lesson planning. It’s dedicated to record keeping, parent-teacher conferences, school meetings, and meetings with just the two of us. But we make sure that all our planning is done together because that’s the only way for it to be successful.
When we took on this project, we both knew that it was essential to maintain the authenticity of the Montessori experience and the Cosmic Education. So, when we chose to divide the subject areas, there was an intentional reason behind it. We thought those upper elementary-level students would benefit from seeing lessons with somebody who had an area of expertise in each subject.
I have an affinity for the humanities as an English major, and Ms. Tania is a STEM mastermind. So, I might be able to deliver the lessons, but I can’t go as deep into those lessons as she can. Since we plan together and have familiarity with the whole curriculum, a student can ask me about fractions, and I will be able to help them on the spot.
The students are given the additional support of having a guide who is really proficient in a specific area. It allows them to take their curiosity further. Hence, we divided the curriculum that way. Because we planned together, we’ve been able to protect the integrity of Cosmic Education. So, we don’t feel disconnected from what the students are doing in each other’s lessons.
Do you have any advice for teachers who are teaching in a large classroom?
G: Set really clear procedures and expectations in your head ahead of time. That helps the students to feel independent and already know what to do without having to seek out help. So, independence in the classroom is what makes it possible to deliver the number of lessons that we’re giving to that number of students.
T: We sat down and broke the day down to the tee so that everyone knew their expectations of each part of the day. The students could also know all the procedures in the classroom environment. They know where everything goes and who to go to for help.
Everything has a procedure, including our jobs. Every single job has a card with the steps and procedures. This allows for independence that frees you as a guide to doing your job efficiently. When there are no procedures in place, you find yourself busy constantly helping the students. It becomes overwhelming, and you don’t really get to the lessons you want to give.
Our first three weeks were focused on procedures, grace, and courtesy.
How long would you say it takes for a new class to independently practice those procedures?
T: I don’t know if I can give it a timeframe. We relied on our older students to make sure that others were held accountable for the procedures. So, we didn’t have to be policing procedures constantly. If we saw that a procedure wasn’t getting done properly, the privilege was removed until the students could show that they can follow through with the procedures.
G: I would say it took us about eight weeks to see that flow, but that number is connected more to the implementation of our perfect system. When we divided up the responsibilities amongst the four leaders, we began to see a super normalized environment where the students govern themselves.
All those procedures and processes related to getting through the day just became muscle memory. The students automatically do what they need to do without an adult having to step in. And that’s when we were able to really feel the magic and start diving into the bulk of our lessons.
Do you have any students who have executive functioning issues that find it hard to automate those systems and procedures? And how do you support them?
G: We do. We created a mentorship program for them. We have a few students who were struggling, especially some fourth years, and students new to upper elementary. A few were struggling to feel that independence and grasp some of the expectations that were placed on them. And so, we decided to institute a mentorship program with some of our other 6th-grade leaders who had been with us for some time.
We realized that the 6th graders stepping into a mentorship and leadership role would really support them. So, we started pairing the mentors and mentees based on their personalities, interests, strengths, and even some of their weaknesses.
The students can ask their mentors if they need help with anything, and the mentors help to keep our mentees on task and follow through with some of those procedures using gentle reminders. And the students respond well to that peer-to-peer engagement. This program also doubled as a review for the 6th graders who are mentoring 4th graders, so it was a mutually beneficial relationship.
Are all your 6th graders mentors or did you only select interested students?
G: It was definitely a conversation. We chose the pairings based on what we know about the students, and what their strengths were, but we would first approach the 6th grader we had in mind. We’ll tell them what their responsibilities would be and who their mentee would be. We then ask them if they’re interested. So far, nobody has said no.
This sounds like an incredible practice that hopefully, you can share with other teachers! Thank you both, for your time.
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several public and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. Letty currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.