Overcrowded classrooms hurt everyone.
In the education world the motto is, “Do what is best for students.” This is wonderful and inarguably needs to be the goal for all educators. But what does that really look like and what are the powers-that-be doing to achieve that?
The basic ideas of education are high quality research based curriculum. Looking at the history of education you can see clearly that different generations have different feelings about what this looks like.
In college we learned about educational psychology. Based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs humans first need to be fed, clothed and sheltered. Next we need safety and security. Then, loving and belonging. With these three elements in place humans can then develop self esteem and finally self actualization.
This means that if a student doesn’t know what they are going to eat, where they are going to live, and are in unloving or inattentive families, they aren’t going to be able to learn.
Schools have solved some of these problems. We offer free or reduced lunch, have programs and resources available for homeless families and provide a loving environment in our classrooms that helps students who aren’t getting the love and attention they need at home.
But, what happens when educational policy works directly against the teachers being able to provide that loving environment? Teachers get stressed out and burnt out, that’s what.
This is exactly what happened to me in my 4th year of teaching. My first couple years I had large class sizes. 27-30 eight-year-olds requires good classroom management skills, but I managed. All my students were at or near grade level, and I only had a handful of students that needed severe interventions. A student in need of severe intervention is one that is several grade levels behind their peers. A balanced classroom allows for a teacher to give equitable attention to all the students.
But, my 4th year… I was assigned a 3rd grade class of 32 students. Over half of these students were severely below grade level (reading and math at a kindergarten-first grade level) the other half were one grade level behind. Very few students were readers, and none of them could access the 3rd grade curriculum (textbooks, etc) that I had on hand.
I soon realized that I didn’t have the resources to support these students. I reached out to my administration, got two aides and some 2nd grade materials. How could I teach students 3-digit addition and subtraction with re-grouping when they didn’t have basic number sense to add 8+3?
In a balanced classroom, I would be able to get the majority of students on independent work, and then provide small group intervention to the ones in need.
With both my aides and myself taking on small groups, dividing 32 students into 3-4 groups still means you have 8 students in a group. 8 students isn’t an ideal “small group”.
I have come to find that many students that are below grade level have behavior challenges. Their motivation is smothered by repeated failures or they didn’t learn the material because their behavior got into the way. Also, home challenges manifest into behavior challenges at school, as mentioned above. With 6-7 students struggling with behavior problems, it was sometimes impossible to teach because their behavior seemed to bring the rest of the crowded class into a frenzy. It seems like one would trigger another and then before I knew it I had to stop teaching.
By the end of the year, my physical and mental health had deteriorated rapidly. I was in and out of the doctor’s office, for migraines, stomach aches, fatigue, and muscular/skeletal problems. One day one of my colleagues had to actually drive me to urgent care. I was not okay and my students were suffering right along side of me. I was looking for alternate careers, and felt like a failure as a teacher.
Ideally these students would have benefited by first being separated so that the burden didn’t fall on one teacher. Next, they needed a smaller class size so that more time could be devoted to each student.
When one begins to talk about class sizes a bunch of negative clamoring is found. Teacher grumble that class sizes are too big, but say that research doesn’t show that smaller class sizes affect achievement until you get to about 18 students per class. This is impossible they say, because the district won’t spend the money on more teachers and more facilities. And so, the cycle continues with teachers getting sicker and more burnt out year by year. The attrition rates are high and that turnover isn’t good for our future.
At some point in time small class sizes were mandated by the state. A maximum of 24 students per teacher was the law. Somewhere that law changed so that primary grades (K-3) can have up to 32 and intermediate grades (4-6) capped at 34.
A number of problems arise with this many students including lack of physical space, management challenges and more work for teachers.
This year is the first year that I have had a small class. With 18 students, my classroom feels like a dream. I have two students severely below grade level, some near grade level and some above grade level. My small groups are going to be fantastic. 3 groups of 6 students is so perfect. I can devote a significant amount of time to each student as I walk around the room conducting formative assessments. My students all fit into my classroom without crowding onto each other. They have space to breathe and to get away from each other when needed.
Grading time is significantly reduced and I have found that I don’t need to take things home to grade. I am saving money on materials and was able to buy one pack of birthday gifts instead of 2. When a student has a behavior challenge I am able to devote more time to helping them find better coping skills. Since I only have three students that need extra practice in self control, I can give them the attention they really need to help them earn those skills. For example, I am able to have one student that has ADHD sit close to me so that he can be my helper. Meanwhile another student with ADHD can be on the other side of the room with freedom to move about without disturbing others.
I know that I learned a lot about myself as a teacher and as a person last year. But at what cost? The experience put me into a depression that caused my health and finances to suffer. I was spending money on building my own curriculum to support my students. The medical co-pays began stacking up and I had to take multiple days off. The cost to me as a person was high.
The bottom line is, what is best for students is also what is best for teachers and vice-versa. When teachers are less stressed students thrive.
If you care about your child and the future of education, you can take action by petitioning to your local school board demanding smaller class sizes. Go to school board meetings and get to know the people in charge of your district. You can call your legislative representatives and explain to them the harm that is being done to students due to lack of oversight in class sizes. In California your district has developed a plan called, “Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). This plan requires parent input. You can become involved in your school’s School Site Council meetings where budgets are approved and parents vote on where the school’s money goes.
Getting involved is the best way for everyone to make the changes that are necessary for the wellbeing of our future. Smaller class sizes are what is good for students. It needs to happen. Because when the teachers are happy, everyone is happy.