Large classes – a good thing??

“Students may be better served by being in larger classes, if by hiring fewer teachers, a district or state can better compensate those who have demonstrated high ability and outstanding results.”

I can’t look at this statement by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos without wondering what classes were like in those private schools she attended.  Did they resemble the movie version of British schools of the last century, the ones where a fierce man in a dark suit hurls questions at students and adds clever, cutting insults if their answers don’t meet his standards?

Or–as a friend teaching in a rich-kid schools described it–did spoiled kids get away with threatening teachers because instructors could be replaced much easier than the tuition their parents paid?

Yes, there is research out there indicating that smaller class sizes are not necessarily better, but most I’ve seen compared classes of 24 with those of 18.  And results were mixed. Small classes make it easier to help too much–give the instructions three times, answer an unlimited number of questions, extend deadlines, etc. It becomes enabling. Small classes also make it easier to allow students to be creative and responsible.

There’s been less research on classes with 30 to 40 students, because there are rules against researchers harming their subjects.

Teaching methods must change as classes get larger. Projects take space; small group activities make noise. And 30 five-minute presentations would take nearly half-a-week of class time.

And verbalizing–converting thought into words–is one of the most important skills K-12 students must learn.

For students, large classes mean more listening and less doing.

For teachers,  they mean more grading and discipline and less creativity and fun.

And it saps teachers’ overall energy.  I used to feel I started each day with a big bag of motivation. I ‘d move among the students, dispensing a little here and there, downloading cup-loads where necessary–and even more late in the day when everyone was tired.

Secondary teachers have four to six classes. That means 120 to 200 greetings to give, voices to listen to, and names to remember. It’s hard to convince students that their progress matters to you if you can’t remember their names, plus a personal interest or two. (Kudos to those who teach large group activities–music and PE–and work with even more students.)

Teaching demands energy.

Someone who says, “I’ve taught classes of 40 before and I’ll teach classes of 40 again,”  hasn’t a clue what it means to teach youngsters.

And this is what makes Devos’s statement so ridiculous.  A good teacher will leave a job because of large classes, not sign up for a higher salary.

If it becomes difficult or impossible to do the right things for students–the things teachers know they are capable of–they suffer burn out.

Good teachers are willing to forego luxuries to hear a kid say, “I understand this now,” and they use their own money to create a classroom where kids who once felt behind or disinterested gain the confidence to explain newly-learned concepts to others.

Not that pay isn’t important. Fewer college students choose to go into teaching once they know that teachers earn about 80 percent of what other college graduates do.

And teachers can only postpone having a family or getting a decent car or paying on that student loan so long.

But no one should have to give up doing their best teaching to get higher pay.

Maybe DeVos’s schools all had classes of 18?

Note this editorial by Judy Ferro published by Idaho Press – 2019
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