One Size Rarely Fits All

teacher_block_scheduleMorning time is still quiet in my neighborhood. The big yellow school bus that stops just outside of my living room window won’t be picking up children until next week. Nonetheless today virtually every school teacher in the state and a significant number of students are officially back on duty for the new school year. Thus begins the annual effort to educate our youth accompanied by the criticisms of our educational system that are certain to come from parents and pundits, professors and proletariat. Everyone has an opinion when it comes to how best to teach our children and for as long as I have been associated with that profession most of the critiques have leaned toward the negative. In spite of all of our discussions it sometimes seems as though we never quite escape from the sense that somehow we have failed our teachers and our kids.

Bashing our schools and the hard working individuals who man the classrooms inside them is a perennially favorite topic of office seekers who lay claim to having the magical answers that will instantly solve all of the problems that plague our educational system. Of course the truth is that they and many of those who vote for them oversimplify both the perceived difficulties as well as the solutions. Only those who have spent enough time inside a classroom doing the heavy lifting have a true concept of what happens from day to day and few of them are ever consulted for ideas.

It has been suggested by those who analyze such things that it is only after at least five years of experience that a teacher is truly battle tested. While there are naturals and rock stars within the teaching profession just as in sporting events, their true greatness usually doesn’t exhibit itself until they have garnered a thousand days of dealing with a variety of students. The laws of probability make it likely that the more tested educators will have encountered both rewarding and challenging situations. These experiences will either have enhanced their abilities or encouraged them to choose a different profession. Teaching is so difficult from day to day that few who lack the necessary determination and skills are willing to stay for more than two or three years. Sadly there is a tendency in today’s world to promote sorely unprepared individuals to leadership positions based only on a couple of good years in the trenches along with credentials from top rated universities. In far too many schools the leaders know far less than their battle tested underlings. Their experiments often lead to both a loss of talented teachers and dire consequences for students.

I have walked thousands of miles in a teacher’s shoes. I’ve worn out my feet and my bladder moving around classrooms and monitoring hallways. I’ve been observed by my superiors just as I have observed other educators. I’ve had good days and bad and seen excellence and failure. I suspect that I know a bit about how best to teach our young but not really enough to tout myself as an expert. Still I have a few ideas that seem to point in the right direction for improvement of our systems. 

Several years ago I worked at South Houston Intermediate. There were times when I had so many students that I struggled to fit the desks inside my classroom. I had already learned that the problems that crop up are increased exponentially with the addition of each student after around twenty five. My finest teaching moments always came when I had a group of around twenty to twenty two kids. I had enough time and energy to provide them with a more individualized experience.

Many students need extra attention in order to learn. Pacing of a lesson to include one on one interventions is crucial, particularly in subjects like mathematics. If a teacher has thirty students for fifty five minutes it is often impossible to provide the necessary time to those who are struggling to understand a concept. Removing only five students from the equation is likely to make the situation more doable. It is a fact that smaller class sizes improve the odds that more individualized instruction will happen and less time will be spent putting out classroom management fires.

A few years back the powers that be decided to make South Houston Intermediate a seventh and eight grade campus and to move the sixth graders to a different building. The difference in the general atmosphere is astounding. Movement in the hallways is more fluid with fewer altercations and misunderstandings occurring without the crowding that existed when I worked there. Students are more likely to be on time for the beginning of each period. There are fewer of them in each area of the building. Class sizes are smaller. The change has created a much happier place for everyone but most importantly it has given each and every student and teacher more opportunity to interact. It is less likely that someone will fall through the cracks than when we were crammed inside the school like sardines.

There are now curriculum specialists on campus to assist teachers in every subject area as well. They are individuals with many years of experience who know the challenges that teachers face. Their goal is to alleviate many of the time devouring activities that distract educators from the heart of their work. When those who teach become paper pushers their students suffer. The facilitators at South Houston work alongside the classroom instructors to ensure that students are getting the best of their teachers’ energy and talent. The educators feel less isolated and alone in dealing with the many challenges that they encounter from day to day. The specialists are available to mentor, guide and help rather than create more work for often beleaguered teachers. The system creates a more dynamic and student centered school.

Reducing the size of schools and providing teachers with dedicated and expert facilitators are simple ideas that help to place the focus on what is most important, the individual student. There really is no one size fits all in instruction. The best teachers are adept at quickly shifting gears as the situation demands. They know the strengths and weaknesses of every child who depends on them. Watching them from one moment to another reveals that they are fluid and expert in creating unique lessons that enhance the experience of everyone. When given the right tools, support and optimal numbers of students the results are often magical. Education is seen at its best. Sadly such supports exist in very few schools.

Those who make decisions regarding our schools spend millions and millions of dollars each year and often miss the mark. They waste precious resources on trends that make promises that are unlikely to be fulfilled. They purchase tools that will quickly be broken and outdated without providing the desired results. They train and retrain teachers in methods that supposedly work for all but which fall far short of classroom realities. Perhaps if they were instead to give teachers the gifts of time and space they might find that everyone is more productive and able to reach desired goals.