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Monday, October 17, 2011

When Less IS More: A Case for Smaller Class Sizes

When the district had no legal grounds to fire me in the wake of Bloggate 2011, they tried to make me superfluous by encouraging students and their parents to opt out of my classes. After all, what is a teacher without students to teach? Unfortunately for that plan, my numbers--though they did drop significantly, leaving me with about a third of the number of students I would normally have had, and with only a third of the number of students my colleagues have--did not zero out.

What I was left with, interestingly, is the number of students that each class SHOULD have for optimal teaching and learning.

The way our education system is set up today, however, the trend is toward increasing class sizes, and not lowering them. Sadly, this is a recipe for failure (which is what policymakers are aiming to do when it comes to public education. After all, if the public school system fails, it must mean that the right action is in privatizing all of education and making it more of a business than it already is. What a clever plan!) Teachers have too many students and not enough time (and, sometimes, resources) to effectively do their jobs. Students are lost in the shuffle as a result of a broken system. Everyone loses.

In years past, I've had classes of all sizes-- from 1 (yes, 1; in fact, I had 2 sections of 1 student each on opposite days and I always wondered why they couldn't combine those sections to at least create a class of 2...) to 30. Now, there is such a thing as too small. 1 is too small. There's no opportunity for collaboration, among other challenges. But 30 is way too large. First, there are too many bodies in the room. Next, there are too many individualized needs and styles and aptitudes and preferences--in a class of 30, someone is always going to go unnoticed.

My classes this semester are 12, 15, and 7 students. I have gone out of my way to make the most of this opportunity, which I've approached as a unique chance to get to attempt to run class in a way that makes the most of it for my students.

Here are just some ways I've noted a positive difference with a smaller number:


It is expected that teachers provide students with feedback on their work, so that students can use that feedback to move forward effectively in their studies. With larger classes, the quality of that feedback sometimes suffers because there simply isn't time to do the job the way it needs to be done to have the most positive benefits. Sometimes this might manifest itself in a check mark on a page or a blanket statement meant to cover the trends in the class. But with classes that are half the size, there is time to provide targeted feedback to each student on his writing, his projects, even his tests and quizzes. There is an opportunity to take the time to write comments on every piece a student hands in that is specific to what the student has handed in. There is time to conference with students on their work. Am I saying that teachers with 30 or more students don't manage to do these things in a quality manner? Of course not. Many still make it work. But it's much more difficult and may require, for instance, a teacher meeting with students before and after school, or spending hours on hours of her personal time working to complete these tasks (tasks which very often go unnoticed by outsiders who imagine that a teacher's day ends at 3pm, when, in some ways, a teacher's day is just beginning what with lesson creation, grading, and meetings taking place.) The larger class numbers may mean longer turn-around time to deliver helpful feedback or less pointed feedback being given. And, for the teacher, it may just mean more stress and less patience as there simply are not enough hours in a day to do her job the way she would like to do it.

Student Progress and Community
With large numbers, it is quite possible for teachers to have difficulty keeping track of individual student progress. Students could, theoretically, fall through the cracks. With smaller numbers, though, it's easier to keep on top of trends in homework completion, levels of participation in class discussions, and slips in behavior/interest levels. The smaller numbers make it possible for teachers to be aware of their students' work habits and intercede as needed. The small numbers also make it easier to make sure that all students are heard from in class. Does that mean that there aren't still some dominant personalities in the room? No; but it does mean that it's easier to draw students out who might normally be disinclined to talk. There's a perception that everyone talks--it's just what happens in there. With fewer students, there's more of a need to contribute because there aren't as many bodies to pick up the slack. It can even equate into a stronger class community because everyone knows everyone else; sometimes it can even feel like a little family.


I've been able to conference with each of my students about their progress in class. I've been able to sit down with them and talk to them about the quality of the assignments being assigned, the running of the class in relationship to their needs, and their individual levels of confusion/understanding of the materials. There is face time. And this conferencing can happen more regularly because it doesn't take place over a number of days or by appointment only. It can be integrated into a regular class period while students work on independent or group tasks. I've also found  my students more likely to talk to me privately about personal matters that may pop up, which I attribute, in part, to their comfort level in talking to me because they are used to doing so.

Individualized Needs/Pacing

Closely related to student progress and conferencing are individualized needs and pacing considerations. With smaller classes, teachers are able to consider the needs of fewer students in their class, and can let the class dictate the pacing of the lessons, instead of the need to move forward. I've been very surprised to realize how much more quickly certain lessons run with fewer students in the room. When one stops to think about it, it makes sense. But it's something I didn't consider very much until I was faced with lessons running smoothly because there were fewer interruptions or because every student was comfortable with the material and was ready to move forward. With more students in the class, it's less likely that everyone will be ready to move ahead. Therefore, at any given time, it's possible that some students are forced to wait to move ahead if most students need more time with a concept, while others are being left behind because most students are ready to move on. Some groups, too, prefer different methods of doing things. It's easier to identify and cater to those preferences when their are fewer people involved.

Communication with Parents/Guardians

With fewer students, it is also more likely that teachers have time to notice or spend time on interpersonal matters. This semester, because I have such small classes, I had time to personally email each parent who attended back to school night. It was a great opportunity to create relationships with my students' parents and help build a bridge between home and school. I've had time to email parents when their student seems out of sorts or even when their student makes a positive contribution to class.

When I was shopping around for colleges, one of the big draws for me was the teacher: student ratio. I wanted to be somewhere where I would be a name and not a number. I chose to attend Rosemont College as an undergraduate and was always struck by the individualized attention I received from my professors in my small classes. My largest classes at Rosemont were intro or survey courses (100- or 200- level)--they were about 28 students. My smallest class (an upper-level French class) was 4 students. For most of my major courses, though, the classes maxed out at 12. Sure, it made it difficult to fade into the background. It made it necessary for me to be present and engaged in the proceedings of the day. It made it necessary for me to be prepared when I arrived. (When I wasn't, it made for an embarrassing hour. But I made damned sure I was ready the next day because I never wanted to feel that way again.)  Are any of these factors BAD things? I don't think so. These are the things that students need to succeed.

I wish that policy-makers would realize the benefits of the smaller classes, and find a way to make them a reality.

While my own low class numbers was the result of an effort toward punishing me, ironically, it's been a positive experience. It's helped me to realize anew that we're operating within a broken system, and given me a chance to see another specific way we could work to improve that system.

Perhaps there should be a push for parents to opt out of large classes for their students, so their kids can more consistently get what they need from an instructional and community standpoint.


  1. What a great opportunity to get to know your students. Here in Maryland, honors classes are often sized above 30 (my largest was 36 - and I don't even have room for 36 desks). When you get a small class and can personalize, that is a blessing.

  2. Hi - I've been following your blog since I heard about your story.

    Life is weird, but I'm glad you're still teaching, and I'm glad you've gotten your small classes.

    Hang in there - you rock!


  3. I've taught my share of large classes for most of my career (average size probably falls around 32). For the past four years, my school has tried the smaller class size with the low level freshmen. I now have around 12-14 in each class. Everything you said above is what my principal was looking for and I can back up what you are saying. Individualized attention, more feedback, more parent contact, more class community, everything. And guess what? Our state testing scores for freshmen English have gone way up. Imagine that.

    Politically I am conservative, but I get frustrated with the conservative approach to education. I think that Republicans have adopted this approach because teacher unions tend to be so liberal, that they feel they should automatically take the opposite side. Unfortunate.

    Glad you still have a job. I've been following your plight through your blog.

  4. It sounds like the smaller class size may create an atmosphere in which many of the problems you wrote about in your original "controversial" blog entry would be eliminated. Smaller class time leads to more teacher attention and feedback, and thus perhaps students that are more engaged and produce better work.

    Quality improvement guru W. Edwards Deming noted that something like 90 percent of an employee's work is a result of the system in which the employee works, and management is responsible for the system. Thus when there's a problem, management needs to change the system rather than beating up on the employees.

    Perhaps it's the same in education -- it's not that students are lazy, inattentive, rude, etc., but rather they exist in an educational system that promotes those negative attributes.

  5. Wow. And I thought that district could sink no lower. Black-balling? Really?

    Anyway, I love your attitude, and I love that you've made this into a positive experience. What I love more than anything else is that there are obviously some parents (and students, too, presumably) who were able to see past the smear campaign raised against you last year, to not buy into the hype, to be responsible, mature, and thoughtful enough to fully sit back and appreciate the situation from all sides. I applaud them for that, and I applaud you, too. Many people would have given in and sought employment elsewhere. Others would not have conducted themselves with the same grace you displayed. It is a brave thing that you, those students, and those parents are doing: Pretty much sticking it to the administration. Illustrating just how much you deserve to be there and how much they really do need you there.

    On top of all that, you're still blogging! Ha!

    Keep it up!

  6. Hi Natalie
    Hang in there. I was a teacher for 20 years and left because of the dysfunction. I have to say that what bothers me most about your critics is the assumption that you went into teaching "hating students." For one liking your students is not on your job description. Secondly, you were venting in response to being thrust into a system that is woefully cumbersome and archaic. The venting is what you do when you are not given the appropriate controls to make your environment work the way you want it to. Third, it seems like teaching has become more about cheerleading and winning a popularity contest than actually teaching. Why not? it's one of the few enterprises where the public demands less for their money.
    best regards

  7. Natalie,

    I am super excited to hear that although it may be challenging some parents and students opted to stay with you. It is crazy to hear that there may be some secret ploy to make things difficult for you (but totally believable). Please hang in there- and enjoy the class size. I believe that next year, those numbers will increase! I had the luxury of having 25 as my district attempted to meet class size. It was heaven, my english classes are back up to 33 & 35 but everything you highlighted is true. BE ENCOURAGED! There are many out there thinking of you and praying each and everyday is a little brighter!

  8. I don't think the public really understands what an impediment to education large class sizes are. I don't think any class, anywhere, for any subject should be larger than 20 students. My two cents.

  9. Awesome! If that's what it takes to have appropriate class sizes, teachers everywhere better start blogging what they really feel! I'll forever be in your corner, and I was just a substitute!

  10. I didn't go anywhere in a handbasket. I homeschooled my kids from K5 through 9th grade. Then we switched to a charter virtual school in our state for the last 3 years of high school. It was a great experience that included fun nonvirtual outings, yearbooks, and proms!

  11. You're awesome. I've just read a copy of your "inappropriate" blog and I gotta say that I couldn't agree more with you. I have to suffer around some of the blandest dweebs on the planet in class. I'm a senior right now and if I didn't already have an awesome English teacher I'd wish to be your student. Keep rocking.

  12. Natalie, you are awesome for standing up for your right to express yourself. The people that are complaining are probably the ones that have created the rude students you were talking about. The public has NO IDEA what teachers put up with on a daily basis. Students that curse at you, steal from you, try to kick/hit/spit at you - and I'm just talking elementary students!!!!
    I became a teacher because I do love teaching and I do love kids. BUT, there IS a difference between a teacher and a mental health professional. We are trained to teach, not deal with emotionally disturbed kids. Unfortunately, those kids disrupt the whole learning environment for the kids that enjoy being at school.
    People NEED to hear the truth about public education!!!

  13. Natalie: as the school year draws to a close, I'd love to read a follow-up reflection on this year's experience. I know teachers that would LOVE to have the small class sizes you had this year, and the hidden (or not-so-hidden) opportunities that come with them. Did it turn out to be as beneficial / fun / joyful as you anticipated? Were you hampered or otherwise challenged by attitudes of parents, other students, or the administration, or by the requirements of the district or the state BOE? I hope that everything turned out "happily ever after," but I have to be realistic in this as well.

    I note that your story is not "hot news" anymore. I don't know if that's a good sign or not. But we're still rooting for you over at Zyzmog Galactic HQ.

  14. Yeah, if 30 is too many, try 36.

  15. I can't even believe you're complaining about a class of 30. That's a small and completely manageable class. It seems to me that if you're incapable of finding a way to work with 30 students, then you're flawed as a teacher. I don't see a problem with the school system in this instance. Furthermore, understanding our population, I don't see how you think we could find the room and staff for every class to contain 7-15 students. That is an unreasonable expectation of the public school system within the bounds of our current population.

    1. Manageable, huh? That's the problem. We're expected to manage when we should be teaching. Any teacher worth his or her salt can wrangle a class of 30+, but that's not the point. Regardless of what any research may say, my own experiences with classes of 25 and smaller back up what Natalie says. Smaller classes are not just better for the teachers, but for the students as well. Combine it with better pay and measures to improve working conditions and we could lure more young graduates into our profession so that it might not be an "unreasonable expectation."

  16. What Natalie was pointing out was that smaller classes gave her the opportunity to do her job better. Don't be like the mom of 4 who doesn't understand why the mom of 2 sometimes struggles. Teachers would love an optimal class size of 18-20, and it does not hurt to try to achieve this. We all pay lots of taxes, and expect our kids to achieve high scores, but much of the money is spent on non academic endeavors.

  17. I wasn't complaining about a class of 30. I was pointing out that better, more individualized instruction can take place with smaller classes. As I pointed out, I--and other teachers--can effectively work with classes of 30. We always make it work because that's what we do.

    I was merely pointing out that classes of half that amount are more efficient and, ultimately, better for everyone. And I don't think it's at all unreasonable for the public school system to strive to lower class sizes to max out at 15. They can easily find the staff and space for it. It's a matter of money. And it would be money well spent.

  18. I'll be honest, I originally came to your blog to hate-read. However, after reading a few posts, I honestly don't think you're portrayed fairly. Maybe a blog wasn't the best place to vent, but hey, we all make mistakes. In my opinion, the school is treating you far worse than you deserve. I hope that more people read your blog and realize that you aren't the person the media is making you out to be.


Please feel free to comment. However, please note that not all comments will be posted, and that it does take time to read through them, so your comments may not be read the day you write them.

Thanks to all for your thoughts.