I arrived for the first day of class. I’d prepared the week before to teach four sections of remedial English during the Summer Session and was excited to begin. Then I saw my class lists. My classes had 43, 35, 48, and 62 students in them. I was dumbfounded. I knew there were only 34 desks in my room. As the term progressed, I found that seating was the least of my worries. Students’ education was suffering in myriad ways.
Poor seating: Most students were seated on a first-come, first-served basis. If they weren’t there the day before, they stood in the back of the room with a clipboard instead of a desk. I tried to get stools for them, but was told they weren’t available. The lack of open seats also made disciplinary seating problematic: I couldn’t move two talkative students-or students were were members of rival gangs-away from each other without restructuring the entire seating plan.
No second chances: If a student was disruptive, he was much more likely to be sent to the discipline office immediately. In smaller classes, the teacher has the luxury of giving some one-on-one attention to a student who needs a little extra guidance. Not so in a class with 40+ students. If Johnny is consistently making it hard for 39 other kids to learn, Johnny gets a trip to see the principal. In the summer session, which wasn’t mandatory, this meant that the trouble-makers simply got expelled from the session and didn’t make up missing credits. Because of the administrative willingness to send trouble-makers packing, by the send of the first week, all my classes had 36 or fewer students. It still wasn’t ideal, but I made it work.
Teacher-student disconnect: During my over-crowded summer session, I was one of the few teachers who learned the names of all of her students. That’s because the first afternoon I made flashcards and spent that evening drilling myself. It’s unrealistic to think that teachers can learn the names and faces of more than 200 students, let alone their personalities, hopes, dreams, needs, and abilities. Without actually knowing their students, teachers can’t adjust lesson plans to meet specific needs, emotional or academic.
Teacher burn-out: No matter how wonderful the new computer lab, how up-to-date the textbooks, or how impressive the school, if the teachers aren’t committed to making it a great year, the quality of the education will plummet. No matter how desperately under-funded, how leaky the ceilings, or how pathetic the gym equipment, if the teachers are excited to teach and committed to making it a great year, the quality of the education will soar. Teachers are the most important resource in the educational system and if they give up, no amount of money or testing will help students learn better. If teachers routinely have to cope with overcrowded classes, they will give up. That’s not good for anyone.
My students that summer session did learn. In fact, I had the highest pass rate in my classes of any teacher in the school and in the fall, my students scored better on their beginning-of-year assessments. I will always wonder, though, how much better it could have been if dozens of students hadn’t been expelled the first week and if I’d had enough seats that I didn’t have to re-assign seats every day.