A retired teacher sent this post:
Larger Classes— Less Education
By Anita Getzler
Listening to the public discourse on classroom size, it’s been suggested that the number of students in a classroom does not affect a student’s ability to learn. However, when I tell people that this can mean 45, 50, even 70 students in a classroom, they are shocked and their response is, “How can you teach? How can students learn?” The effects of increasing classroom size are more than a debate of numbers and statistics. The implications touch every student and teacher.
As an art museum educator for 25 years, I led teacher and students workshops and I have two sons who attended public high schools. However, until I actually taught in a public school, I had no concept of how incredibly rewarding and inspiring, difficult and exhausting the profession could be. Or, how ineffectual and boring school can become for students in overcrowded classrooms. It’s been suggested that with improved classroom management skills, teachers would be more effective and alleviate problems arising with increasing classroom size. I mastered those skills and managed to keep a class of forty-five, 9th and 10th grade overly energetic high school students seated and working. What I could not anticipate was the extraordinary effort it would take to maintain a compassionate, disciplined, and creative classroom as student numbers steadily increased.
To promote kindness and respect, and teach lessons of patience and hard work, I constantly monitored the classroom— instructing, encouraging, and analyzing students’ artwork. This was especially true during the first semester in my Art 1 classes comprised of primarily freshmen needing more supervision. Sounds right—teachers should be engaged with their classes. But what happens when half the class asks for help? I warned students it might be a long wait before I could respond to their raised hands and many were patient, but some became frustrated and even angry. Several put down their hands and never raised them again. Later, I heard students lamenting they needed more one-on-one instruction and were disappointed in their work, or felt rejected and personalized it to mean that I didn’t care about them.
It became necessary to simultaneously assist individual students while observing the entire class. I could anticipate certain students might stop working, possibly throw an eraser or pencil, use their cell phones, or begin chatting across the room. I weighed the benefits between teaching individual students or securing overall classroom discipline. How could I help students in a caring and sensitive way when I had just minutes to point out the positive in their artwork or discuss their intentions? The result of my quick comments and demonstrations was some students felt I was critical of their work. I sensed the reluctance to undergo the risk of a quick critique. Finally, I didn’t want the risk either and spent more time with fewer students.
Each of my classes included students who didn’t make an effort; others who chatted and got nothing done; some who sat quietly but did little; and some who were always working, but never completed their assignment. Initially, I assumed they were lazy, lacking in motivation, inattentive, or didn’t care about completing work. It was tempting to make those judgments, give the D or F, and save myself a lot of effort. But after having a private conversation with each of them, I learned some were lacking in basic skills and were embarrassed in front of their peers, while others just couldn’t keep up with the pace of the class. Many students were too shy or insecure to ask for help and could easily be overlooked. As classes grew, I gave up more instruction time to have these conversations to encourage more students and design individual goals.
Art is often the chosen elective for students with special needs. Some of these teens discovered hidden artistic talents. Others struggled, never getting enough instruction to master a technique and were left lacking in self-esteem and self-worth. Similarly, when the highly talented students created art pieces, they lacked the personal instruction time required to more fully expand their abilities. The demands of overcrowded classrooms do not afford these students the necessary time, space and attention.
I began my first year teaching with the notion that students were absent because they were sick or lazy. Over time, the realities behind continued absences, tardies, poor grades, and sleeping in class became clearer. Students didn’t offer the information; they just walked in and took a seat. But through private conversations, I discovered the homeless student, the student with her own child, students who remained home to baby-sit their younger siblings so parents could work, and others who suffered from illnesses. Several had late-night jobs, and many were in great distress experiencing home foreclosures, divorces, unemployed parents, while others lost a parent and/or friend to terminal illnesses, accidents and suicides. Most were relieved to share their stories and grateful for a sympathetic ear. In this past year of teaching, there were more students with more serious problems, which meant using more instruction time to have these critical discussions.
The art class offers opportunities to express personal emotions and develop creative ideas. Students expressed extraordinary insights in the narratives that accompanied their art pieces, but it was a constant challenge to elicit verbal responses during class discussions. Why was it so difficult for students to share feelings and ideas with each other? Some articulate students said they stopped responding to my questions because they were “tired of thinking for the other students who were lazy and unwilling to put out the effort.” That was certainly part of the class dynamic, but I also believe that lack of trust is a factor. Students were not willing to share personal feelings or ideas with 45 other students they didn’t know or trust. Why risk their lack of understanding, someone’s ridicule, or a tactless remark? Students watched me deal with students’ disrespect on a daily basis, why should they place themselves in that position? Creating an honest, caring class community became more elusive as the numbers grew. This was reflected in the larger school community as well.
Along with bigger classes came more administrative tasks, more meetings with counselors and parents, additional computer entries for daily attendance, class participation, grades, and anything that needed recording. During my first four years of teaching, I devoted many hours after school and on weekends grading artwork and exams. During the past two years, as student numbers reached 240, my grading methods changed dramatically. The time to review each work and the number and length of comments were reduced considerably and finally, I graded artwork during class.
As classroom size increased I ran into basic density challenges.
In an art room, increased classroom size means decreased artwork size—there isn’t enough room on each table for working large. Extra students meant extra furniture. Eventually it became a challenge to squeeze my way across the room once students were seated. I worried that a larger substitute teacher would simply not be able to navigate across the classroom! Students seated closer together also meant more behavioral problems and lower grades. This lack of personal space resulted in students acting out and distracting one another from working to their full potential. My attempts to insure the right “mix” of students at a table made seating assignments a mind-bending task.
Numerous studies indicate it takes five years for a teacher to feel confident and secure in the classroom. That was true for me. I had my lessons ready to go, knew what to expect from my 9th and 10th graders and didn’t take things quite so seriously. During my 6th and final year, I held the reins pretty tight for the first three quarters of the school year. Finally, when the fourth quarter arrived, most students worked for the sheer satisfaction of creating beautiful pieces. They trusted me, asked for help and critiques and we could relax.
So why did I choose to resign from teaching at the end of my sixth year? It was hard to leave a profession I dearly love and at which I had become accomplished. As with any profession there were difficulties as well as great satisfaction and joy. But only teachers know the physical, emotional, intellectual and psychological effort it takes to truly teach. I wanted to teach with an interchange of ideas and creativity. However, as student numbers grew, I could no longer sustain the person I had to be in order to maintain my personal standards for quality teaching. At times, I feel like a deserter, but the envy in some teachers’ eyes tells me that many would jump ship along with me if they could manage it. It’s not because we don’t want to teach, it’s because we signed up to work in teachable environments and now find ourselves in untenable situations. Many teachers are figuring out how to maintain their health, their sanity, and their standards of teaching as best they can, while suffering alongside their students in these overcrowded classrooms.
When students wrote their end of the year comments to me, the most frequent suggestion was for fewer students in the classroom.
I believe the public is unaware of the day-to-day realities of the classroom and the great harm being inflicted upon students and teachers by the steady increase of classroom size. I have written about my own teaching experience in order to shed some light on this critical situation, and move citizens to act to save the heart of our educational system.