Class Size Matters! (to me).

By Nick McDaniels — If you do the research, or if you trust bloggers who do the research, or you trust bloggers who pretend to do the research, you know that class size matters in determining outcomes for students.

However, if you do enough research, you will also find that class size doesn’t matter or that class size only matters when the class size get below a certain threshold. The latter findings are convenient for policy makers who are dying to make education more efficient (read as: cheaper).

But, today, I intend to set the record straight. You see, I’ve been doing my own research: Teaching.

In my short, though eventful, teaching career, I have never taught a class smaller than 26 students (and that class was smaller because it had a disproportionately high number of students with behavior problems). Probably more representatively, I have never taught a class smaller than 32 students. This year, like last year, as many of you know, I am co-teaching, meaning there are reasonable grounds for increasing my class sizes. Additionally, I moved up a grade, looping with some of my students, and adding some of my former students by my choice and or theirs to my roster because my co-teacher and I know how to meet their specific needs. The end result is that my smallest class is 36 students.

Now for those experienced in inner-city teaching, you know it is not uncommon to have a class roster of more than 40 students. However, the attendance is usually so atrocious that the teacher never sees more than 24 at a time. My students, fortunately, have pretty good attendance, meaning there is rarely a day when I see less than 30 students in any one of my classes. In fact, for my formal observation last week, there were 37 live student bodies in the classroom.

I am a teacher, like my co-teacher, who teaches from relationships. In other words, I work very hard to know my students individually and teach them individually. However, I have been so overwhelmed this year with the number of students in my class, added to teaching a new curriculum, grade, in a new classroom, etc…, that I haven’t had a chance to really get to know my students.

This fact alone has crushed my classroom management philosophy that it is better to be loved than feared as I am now somewhere in the teacher-purgatory of neither being loved nor feared, and sometimes, neither listened to nor noticed. My classes are far from out of control, but the behavior of my students, because there is not enough of me or my co-teacher to effectively use proximity control with 36+ students, is less than perfect. This fact alone has caused me to think about changing my seating arrangement (from groups to rows), though I have talked myself out of it. It has caused me to “tame down” my teaching strategies from one that intentionally excites students to one that intentionally settles them, because once excited, they are too difficult to re-focus. The end result of all of this is that my students are not receiving a great education because I spend so much time putting out fires that I haven’t had to put out since my first year teaching.

These management issues are minor though compared to the real issue of not getting to know my students better. The relationships I have built with students have sustained me through the time in a teaching career when most teachers quit, and I am saddened to not be able to have a more personal impact on each of my students this year (though the year is young). And while that rationale for a smaller class might be a bit selfish, I have to hope that the joy I feel from building relationships with students is one that the students share.

Meaningfully, because I have been hyper-conscious of the class-size issue, I can tell you that there is a substantial difference between when I see 35 students one day and 30 the next, meaning the policy makers who arrogantly claim that class size only matters when you get below a threshold of 20 students or so need to really rethink their policies to align them with what I know to be true. Class size matters to me.

With that said, if someone came to my door tomorrow and told me I could reduce each class by 10 students, I would decline the offer. I love my students and I am committed to making this work for all of us. I wouldn’t get rid of any of them (hyperbole intended). It is very likely that my style of teaching is most altered by increases in class size, which is why I know, if nothing else, class size matters (to me).

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