Today’s Classroom Model: A Rant

jj-thompson-142854

Can I rant a bit about today’s typical educational model? Please? Thank you.

I HATE IT.

I am talking about the typical set-up with one teacher and 18-30 children for eight hours a day, five days a week. I even have an aide, and it doesn’t help.

Here’s a glimpse into my day:

“This story is called Is This Panama? It’s the story about a bird — A, please sit belly or bottom. It’s the story — what is that in your mouth?”

“It’s gum, teacher!”

“No, it’s not gum, teacher, he’s lying.”

“Spit it out and throw it away, please. All right, now I need everyone paying attention. Look at how nicely Y is sitting. Can you all sit like Y? Oh, I love how M is sitting now. We’re just waiting on E. E. E. E. E! Hello-o. Please stop talking and look up here. So, this is the story about a bird named Sammy — “

“STOP TOUCHING MY HAIR.”

“I’m not touching your hair.”

“F, please stop touching S’s hair.”

“I wasn’t touching her hair.”

“YES YOU WERE YOU LIAR.”

“S, kind words. F, please sit down. Y, please stop touching my knees, for the third time. SO THIS STORY IS ABOUT A BIRD NAMED SAMMY AND HOW HE MIGRATES TO PANAMA. Can you say Panama?”

“Panama!”

“A, what is in your mouth?

Welcome to one of the better-behaved classes academically outperforming the other K5 students.

You might wonder, why so stringent? Why can’t he lay on his back? Why can’t he mess around with the string on the carpet? Why can’t they call out comments and questions as the story progresses rather than requiring them to raise their hand?

Because we are always one wiggle away from all hell breaking loose.

With a handful of kids, it doesn’t really matter if they lay on their back or mess around with something or call out a response. With eighteen kids, it is an unstoppable tide.

It kills me, it really does, to focus so much of my energy on crowd control. This is not the education I want for them. I want an individualized education that works with their quirks and preferences. It’s exhausting and disheartening trying to squeeze little individuals into a predetermined way of learning just to keep the class together enough just so at least some kids will catch on.

I mean, never learned best sitting criss-cross applesauce on the floor or sitting upright in a chair. I did history draped across the couch, with little naps here and there. I did math sprawled across my bed, with extra time to doodle scenes from the novel I was working on. And I was done with school for the day in two to three hours. To this day, I never work at a desk.

I can’t imagine spending over eight hours a day in school and on the bus, only to have homework waiting when I get back. And I’m an adult. This is what we require of kids as young as four-years-old.

To be clear, I am not opposed to children going to school. I am opposed to children going to a school with an educational model that fundamentally undermines who they are as kids and as individuals.

***

The problem is two-fold: there are too many kids, and there are kids who don’t work well in classes.

Of course, some kids do work well in classes. The majority of mine are whip-smart. They can focus fairly well, they can work independently, they can read, they catch on quickly, and they would do just fine if the five kids who consistently cause trouble were absent from the class. I can pull out my fun games without worrying that a fight will break out; I can pull out the multisensory activities without worrying about spending fifteen minutes cleaning up; I can read and read and read books to them and even ask a comprehension question or two without the entire class melting down.

Oh, what a glorious day it is when certain children are absent and the class size is down to a manageable fifteen and we all have fun and I go home feeling like maybe what I do is worth it!

Don’t get me wrong — I love each of my children dearly. But there’s only one teacher and eighteen of them, and it’s impossible to give them all the attention they need.

Early into teaching, a parent mentioned to me that I spent more time with her child as the teacher than she did as a parent.

That terrifies me, because filling in as a parent for eighteen young students means everybody loses.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to put one child’s needs on the backburner in order to put out larger fires. Your head hurts, babe? One second — A just stabbed S with a pencil. Your dad’s in jail? Hang on, love to talk, but J is having a meltdown over here. You think I’m the best teacher ever? You’re too kind, sorry for interrupting, but I promised M I’d get her ointment for her sore finger and this is the fifth time she’s bugged me about it.

I feel the limits of my own inadequacy every day. I see the results of my inadequacy every day. Would S still have these behavioral issues if I had the time to talk with him? Would A feel more loved if I had time to kneel down, look in her eyes, and express genuine sorrow that she bumped her knee? Am I perpetuating a cycle of poverty and crime because I don’t have the time to meet each child’s needs?

That’s not as far-fetched as it seems. One of my students, suspended multiple times, has had siblings kicked out of school and a parent in jail. This student exhibits similar deviant behavior — despite being the smartest kid in class. I can’t help but feel that the time I have with this student might make a huge difference as to whether they end up kicked out of school, in jail, or graduating college with honors.

Ironically, it’s the well-behaved kids who suffer too. I hardly know my quiet, obedient students, because they’re not screaming at me, starting conversations about sex over lunch, or refusing to fill out their worksheet. They literally, physically cling to me at recess or beg me to read them stories to compensate — and it’s only a matter of time before somebody busts their lip or busts somebody else’s and oops, sorry, we’ll have to see whether he likes green eggs and ham another day.

Ignoring kids was not what I signed up for as a teacher, but I have to do it every day just to cover all the material and keep the class unit functional.

Suggested solutions: Smaller class sizes. No more than fifteen, please. The smaller, the better. Alternatively, add more teachers and teacher’s aides. One teacher for every five or so kids. Require parental volunteering. Something. If schools are going to be parenting the kids more than the parents, we need to be able to parent more effectively. And maybe make it a bit easier for people to get educated and certified as teachers?

***

The other problem is, of course, that some kids don’t work well in groups of any size. I can rattle off to you all the kids in my class who would need or strongly benefit from one-on-one attention. They mostly suffer from being kids or needing lots of guidance because of their behavior issues.

I like to daydream about how I would approach a one-on-one education for some of my kids. Lots of STEM for one boy who literally never pays attention but loves dinosaurs, planes, and building things. Lots of sensory bins and active learning games for one girl who cannot sit still but loves to sing, dance, and handle animals. This girl is a spazz ordinarily, but put her with an animal, and she is the calmest, most tender, thoughtful child ever. I bet she’d love to do math with a rat in her pocket or read to a dog at the library.

Can’t we create a space for these kids? A tailored public education that gives two or three hours of individualized hands-on instruction (if even that much) and then lets them play and create for the rest of the day?

I know how idealistic all this seems, but it’s so needed. My kids and I myself would be eternally grateful for any improvements in our educational system that acknowledge the inadequacy of one teacher among 18-30 students and the uniqueness of each child whose needs buck the current system.

Rant over.

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18 thoughts on “Today’s Classroom Model: A Rant

  1. villemezbrown

    I don’t see this as a rant so much as a desperate plea for much-needed, sensible change. One of your students has been suspended? You teach KINDERGARTEN! Reading your description makes me so sad. I wish I could be more hopeful that we were close to turning things around. Often it doesn’t seem like we’re even looking in the right direction. How is it not obvious that 5 is too young for 8 hours of intense academic work? How is it not obvious that 18 5-year-olds is too many for one adult? Finland has one of the best education systems in the world, and prior to age 7 kids learn mostly through play and activities. At all ages kids have lots of breaks for outdoor physical activity. In fact, this article explaining why Finland’s schools are so good is almost an exact match for the the things you mention including “Let children be children” and “manageable class sizes: – http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0318-doyle-finnish-schools-20160318-story.html
    Adele

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      MULTIPLE students of mine have been suspended for physical violence and/or destruction of property. It’s difficult, because their behavior was truly inappropriate, but I just KNOW that if I had enough time — perhaps a whole stinkin’ class period in such a long day — to teach, model, and practice social skills every. single. day, suspensions and violent behavior would disappear. At this age, they really do care and soak up explicit social, behavioral, and emotional instruction. A guidance counselor once told me that she thought younger grades should focus on physical strength (it takes a lot of core control to sit straight in chairs), social skills, and play.

      See, WHY doesn’t America copy successful models of education from other countries or alternative skills? I just don’t get it. My mom suggested I send this article to my representative or the Dept. of Education or a larger publication, and I told her it feels so pointless…teachers have been saying these things all along; successful schools and programs have implemented but not duplicated; and NOTHING CHANGES. -.- I’ll stop now before I REALLY start ranting. ;)

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  2. Abigail

    This is so good, and a perfect example of why my family didn’t just homeschool for “religious reasons.” I’ve never been in a public school environment, so sometimes I’ve wondered if my negative view would be tempered by actual experience. Now I see otherwise. Since not everyone has the parental stability, finances, ability, and desire to homeschool, public education needs to change. I appreciate you articulating the problems you see from a personal perspective, recognizing the faults in the system without blaming yourself, the children, or parents. Even though I’ve never been in a public school, I know how much more I would learn at church with smaller class sizes and individual attention from leaders, and I see how much that impacted me spiritually. I agree that in education, it’s a make-or-break issue with children’s lives and futures, and not something to take lightly or dismiss with the message that “oh, well, this is why so many families homeschool.”

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      YES. I took that cavalier attitude of, “Oh, well, thank goodness *I* was homeschooled.” I think that’s a horrific attitude to have now, particularly since the homeschoolers who DID receive a unique education are in a great place to offer solutions, or even just volunteer at schools (because we have the time!). I wish I would have done more with the primary school with which I volunteered as a teenager. :/

      Like

  3. colleen55

    I can completely relate to your post. I felt the same way as a kindergarten teacher for 14 years. I now teach a UPK program which is better because it is state mandated to have 18 students with one teacher and one aide (plus parent volunteers). I am able to follow NYS curriculum in a way that best meets my students in a half-day program. My student have those same needs – poverty, home issues, different learning needs – but at least I feel like I can meet them better and more appropriately. But I see my k-5 colleagues continue to struggle with all of those issues and I too wonder why there can’t be a better change. With all of the research and studies that have been done that show best learning and teaching practices, why do we continue to structure schools and classrooms in the same manner? Unfortunately the long and the short answer is money and politics. I completely feel your pain and frustration!!

    Like

  4. Korie

    I feel you. Totally feel you. I taught high school. I realized that I COULD NOT be a teacher because I don’t believe in the educational system at all. At its best, it’s inefficient. At its worst, it’s downright detrimental. I could go on and on about why I think it’s harmful. As a senior in college, I did my thesis on public school reform. It’s still a subject that fascinates me. Unfortunately, I came to the conclusion that public education is an institution that creates and perpetuates inequality in society. And I couldn’t think of a way to fix it. I still daydream about how schools would be structured and run if I were the boss…

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  5. scottsthoughts12

    Well written. Zooming out, the REAL “problem” is the second word after School …thats SYSTEM. The sole purpose of the system is to train children to be employees. Employees dont question authority(OR ELSE), ask to go to the bathroom etc…schools – especially government run ones (Public) cannot last much longer like this- focusing a corporate education – when most students are forced to “learn” even if they are not interested….

    Like

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