Small class sizes. It's one of those popular phrases everyone from politicians to school principals loves to cite as a goal. And, of course, a small class size is every teacher’s dream. But why? Is the size of a child’s class really all that important? Don’t teachers just want smaller class sizes so they can do less work?
No. Teachers want small class sizes so they can do more work. Teachers’ hearts break daily from not being able to work as intensively with each child as they’d like. Teachers are brilliant in their ability to spread themselves thin, to make themselves available to their students, no matter how many—but that isn’t the way they want it.
If you’ve never been a teacher, you might not understand—though if you’re a parent, you probably do. Here’s an anecdote from a Midwestern mother who wishes to remain anonymous. And although similar anecdotes abound, this one was chosen because it seems so simple.
“Our son hated anything academic, from day one. He loved to read, but anything else having to do with school, he hated. Around fifth grade, he dug in his heels and just wouldn’t do it anymore. Everything—homework, tests—was a nightmare and a huge drama. I’d see all the other kids doing their work, and I just couldn’t understand it. At conferences, the teachers would say, ‘He’s a great kid, respectful, causes no trouble. He’s very bright.’ Yet he was failing. He was the perfect example of a kid falling through the cracks, as they say.
“So we switched him to a smaller, private school, which had really small class sizes, about ten or fifteen, sometimes even fewer. The teachers knew the situation and, because they had so few students—although fifteen students is still plenty—they watched him. They had the energy and time to not let him fail. One of the sweetest of the teachers, this really kind woman, told me how she said to him the first week, ‘You are going to do your work. You might be stubborn, but I’m more stubborn!’
“And he started to do it! I’m convinced it was the small class sizes. The teachers at his old school told me they wished they were able to focus more on him, but they had a responsibility to all the other kids. And I understood. Teachers are human. And I don’t think the teachers at the private school were better teachers, necessarily—they were merely less overwhelmed.”
This story contains a few particulars that aren’t always the case in such situations—namely, the child was able to do the work, but wouldn’t. This would obviously present a much different challenge than a child who wanted to do the work but couldn’t. The two situations would both be extremely difficult, though each in a very different way. And no matter which scenario might seem more challenging or time-consuming, it is a fact that these and other such possibilities all require the ability to focus intently on a child.
This family is rare, obviously, to have had the resources to even consider private school as an option—though in this case, the mother points out, it was a “strangely affordable, small-town private school.” But for most families, no matter how comparatively reasonable the tuition, there would have simply been no way.
Of course, every child’s situation is specific, and some children’s reasons for academic failure run deeper than others. And, again, teachers are human. But, maybe sometimes, a simple adjustment in class size might be all that’s needed to lead a child to academic success.
Simple adjustment? Sadly, there's nothing simple about the struggle for smaller class sizes. But never forget, the reasons teachers need smaller classes aren't really all that simple, either.