Like most teachers, the sizes of my classes have progressively increased over the past few years. This year is no exception, save for one of my classes that has 22 students. As we complete the first month of the school year, the differences between this class and my larger classes are instructive as to why “class size matters“.
The class is a 9th grade Global History class that meets towards the end of the day. Anyone who has ever taught freshmen when the clock is close to 3:00 pm knows the challenges involved. It is basically the same set of challenges for any class that meets towards the end of the day, only double. After 6 hours inside of a school building, kids start exhibiting symptoms of school fatigue: fidgetyness, boredom, irritability and intractability.
Yet, this particular freshmen class exhibits none of those symptoms. All of them are motivated and attentive in their own way. By the end of the period, most if not all of the students have raised their hands and contributed to the daily discussion. The few students who straggle with the “do now” assignment I am able to quickly get on task by quietly going over to them for individual attention. Most importantly, it easy for me to get know each one of their personalities. I know them better than I know the students in my other classes.
Contrast this class to the one I teach during the preceding period. This is an 11th grade U.S. History class with 32 students. They are a good group that I enjoy teaching. As 11th graders, they are able to pick up on subtle humor and we generally have a few laughs by the time the class is over. Yet, I cannot say that I know many of them as individuals. Just like the freshmen class, there are a few stragglers during the “do now” assignment. However, I cannot get to all of them because the class is just so large. There are a few students who have not participated all year. The quieter students tend to slip through the cracks while the ones who are bold during class discussions soak up most of the attention. To be sure, there are many students who excel at class discussion, so I am able to get a fairly decent spread of participants on a daily basis. Still, I have never been able to get to everybody yet, even though I know I will by the end of the year.
The difference between the percentage of students who participate in my freshman class compared to the junior class is not merely due to differences in numbers. The smaller class size in the freshmen class makes the students feel comfortable. There is a smaller audience for them to reach. They do not have to worry as much about saying something that others might think “silly”. Furthermore, they seem to feel more comfortable with me as a teacher. Even a student who sits in the “last” row (Yes, I seat kids in rows. Charlotte Danielson will probably have my head for this.) still only sits towards the middle of the room. In the 11th grade class, a student who sits in the last row sits all the way in the back, far away from me until I make my rounds throughout the room, which I do often. The smaller class size enables me to have a better rapport with my students.
If I was one of those yelling teachers, or someone who got ticked off easily, my 11th grade class probably would have driven me over the edge in week one. This is not because they are bad kids, because they are not. This is because when you have a room of 32 teenagers, it is inevitable that some of them are going to talk, or try to sneak a text message, or fall asleep or whatever else teenagers do. I am sure things go on during that period that escape my notice. When I do notice things in that class, I only have time to stop it by saying “stop it” or throwing a glare. To be sure, no truly bad or disruptive behaviors have taken place but a teacher still has to deal with a student who talks too much to his/her neighbors or does not want to do work.
With my smaller class, I can be much more inventive with my discipline. Since I have come to know them over the past three weeks, I can understand why each student does what they do. Instead of just telling a student to “knock it off”, I can try to work a normally disruptive behavior into the lesson or buy the time to go over to the student and deal with the issue personally. At this point, I know that none of the students in that class would be disruptive for the sake of derailing the lesson or showing me up. Whatever they do is an extension of their natural personalities, which is to say they do not do things simply out of pure malice. Of course, I know this is the case for all of my students in all of my classes. But the smaller class size allows me to understand from whence certain behaviors arise. In my larger classes, I just assume that malice is not a motivating factor for disruptive behavior. That does not necessarily tell me what the motivation is.
After 14 years as a teacher, I have no doubt that I will eventually figure all of my students out. The fact that I am able to do this faster with a smaller class means I am able to build a better rapport with them earlier in the year. Every teacher knows that the beginning of the year is vital, for it forges the channels over which the rest of the year will flow. I can already foresee that I will be able to be more creative, take more risks and teach more in the long run to my small freshmen class than to my larger classes.
This anecdotal evidence should be enough to give the lie to reformers like Bill Gates and Pharaoh Bloomberg who assume class size does not matter. What I mentioned here are merely the in-class benefits of smaller class sizes. It does not even speak to the other out-of-class benefits, like being able to spend more time on grading each child’s assignment, which would enable me to provide more individualized guidance. I am an effective teacher whether there are 22 or 32 students in my room, but there is no doubt that I am more effective with 22. Any veteran teacher worth their salt would say the same.
It also should give the lie to the KIPP and Success Academy philosophy of school discipline. Even with a classroom of 32 students, I never felt the need to force them to sit up straight or keep their eyes focused on me or keep their lips sealed until they are spoken to. With a class of 22, which is closer to the class sizes that exist at Kipp and Success Academy, there should be even less of a need to do this. If a high school teacher cannot keep the attention and focus of a class that size with kindness and understanding, then that person should not be teaching. How much damage are these charter schools doing to kids with their draconian discipline codes? How many kids are learning to hate learning in these places?
Only three weeks into the school year and already we can see that class size matters.