Cassandra Hinson stood at the classroom door, greeting kindergartners as they streamed inside to beat the 9:50 a.m. bell that starts each day.
As Hinson welcomed the youngsters with hugs and made sure they got to their seats, Ann Renee Evans put a writing assignment on the white board for the children to copy into their journals.
The two teachers circulated through the room, checking the work of their 35 students, backing each other up in a way that seemed almost effortless. One would stop talking and the other would jump right in, as if in a well-rehearsed routine.
Yet, in reality, Hinson and Evans became co-teachers just two weeks earlier, to accommodate Connerton Elementary School's rapid and unexpected growth. Ongoing registrations pushed the school from eight kindergarten classes to 10, and a lack of available rooms required some creative adaptation.
No one wanted to convert the school's computer lab into a classroom. Putting kindergarten into a portable wasn't a favored option. So the kindergarten team and administration decided to merge two classes into one room, an infrequently used state recommendation to meet class size limits.
Evans, a 15-year teacher, and Hinson, a 10-year veteran, volunteered. Principal Aimee Boltze didn't think twice.
"To team teach, you have to have a special relationship," Boltze said. With these two teachers, "we knew it would be perfect."
Friends outside of school, the two women had worked together before. They had adjoining rooms and often would collaborate on lesson ideas, sometimes sharing special class events — particularly around the holidays.
In short order, their two classes became one.
"What has made it work so well is we had a similar classroom management style and philosophy, and teaching style and philosophy," Evans explained. "It works because we are able to partner with each other. It's not a struggle to come to an agreement or to plan together."
Hinson saw the merger as an exciting opportunity.
"Teaching in general, whether you're co-teaching or not, you've just got to be flexible," she said. "You're teaching kids. But you're also a doctor, a mommy. You've got these kids eight hours a day. You're flexible."
The 35 five- and six-year-olds have adapted well. They interact without regard for who was and wasn't in their class before. They respond to each teacher as if they've been together forever.
"They're really good teachers," said Mark Kendall, 6, who acknowledged his initial concern about the change. "I said, actually, 'What? I have never been in that class before.' "
But the teachers made everyone feel comfortable.
"We used to have just one class, but Mrs. Hinson said we're one big family," said 5-year-old Rae Lynn Jarmin. "You know why it has a lot of people? So a lot of people can learn."
Despite the large numbers, the students don't get out of control or become too noisy, responding quickly to hand claps or a single word reminding them to behave — even after lunch and recess.
If their line gets too long, they've learned to curve it around corners. When they can't get instant attention, they've figured out patience.
At the same time, the teachers have found many positives to a situation that they admit could easily have gone wrong.
Evans led a lesson in phonics one morning, having the children work on words in the same sound group, such as "fan," "can" and "pan." She then assigned them to write in their notebooks as many words ending in "-an" as they could.
Hinson reinforced the ideas with words of support — when she wasn't dealing with a child's scraped knee or a late arrival to the classroom.
As the class moved from the colored carpeting in the middle of the floor back to their desks, Hinson pulled aside a small group to give added instructions. They were more advanced, so she asked them to write full sentences that include words that end in "-an."
One of the key benefits of having two teachers is that individualizing instruction can occur more readily, she said.
Six-year-old Dalainey Moore said she "really likes" having two teachers who can challenge her.
"It's better than one," Dalainey said, while completing her sentences. "It makes it easier."
Even with their comfort level, Evans and Hinson still needed some time to prepare for sharing a class. Neither wanted to act like the leader, forcing the other into a secondary role. Big egos, or bad relations, can spell doom for co-teaching, especially in such close quarters.
"You can't just move two people and expect them to come together," Boltze noted.
She assigned substitutes to their classes early on, to give the teachers time to prepare lessons and consolidate classrooms. Each agreed to give up her teacher desk, for instance, selecting more utilitarian tables where they can meet with small groups of students.
"It takes a lot of planning time," Evans said.
Does that mean she'd prefer to have her own classroom again?
"I think it would be hard in a lot of ways to go back," she said, Hinson nodding beside her, "because it has worked so well."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.