In July 2012, I retired from a teaching career that spanned 31 years – 11 years spent in the primary grades and 20 years as a middle school teacher specializing in language arts and social studies. From the first education class I attended to the last classroom I taught, there was one common denominator that always made the greatest difference in learning – class size, hence the long overdue appearance of Initiative 1351. A nationwide study of 2,561 schools showed only one objective factor correlated with higher student achievement – REDUCING CLASS SIZE. Once we find a way to finance this initiative our children will have a greater opportunity to learn successfully.
I was struck by the importance of smaller numbers in my classroom early on. During my first few years of teaching first grade, I found myself with two consecutive years of classes consisting of 15 to 18 students. It took me about a month of teaching in these smaller classes before the impact of this intimate setting became apparent. It was like a dream. Any time of day, I could look around the room and see only happy faces involved in learning. Discipline issues didn’t exist. And at the end of the day, once I returned to my classroom after escorting the children to their various rides home, I found myself consistently inspired to prepare for a new day.
Furthermore, we stayed well ahead with our curriculum in comparison to past years. The majority of the children were reading with enthusiasm at appropriate levels and noticeably progressing throughout the year, giving me the opportunity to work more closely with those students who were lagging a bit behind.
The success I discovered with these two classes formed in my mind as an epiphany of sorts regarding small class size. I took this insight to my fellow first grade teacher, a veteran of 20 years, and she smiled knowingly at me, but she also warned me not to share this revelation too loosely with the other teachers for fear of stirring up discontent. I promised her ‘mums the word’ and for two glorious years we experienced the true joy of teaching. The third year my bubble burst, and I was given a population of 24 children in a split classroom made up of first and second grade students.
I eventually returned to teaching just first grade, but I never again had less than 20 children. The success with my classes failed to match those two early years of class size that averaged 15 to 18 students.
As time passed, I moved into a middle school setting that began with teaching special education students and gradually followed by a return to the regular classroom. During my last few years of teaching, I balanced a morning honors’ sixth grade block class (language arts and social studies) with an afternoon regular block class. During one of these years, my afternoon class’s numbers never exceeded 22 to 24 students while my honors’ class fluctuated from 29 to 32 children. Although my honors’ students were highly motivated learners, I found myself much more relaxed with my smaller group where I had the leisure to include additional bonus learning activities, games and group work.
My energy level was so much higher with this smaller class, and it appeared reciprocal with them. I shared this information with my coworker who taught these same students math and science, and she agreed with my findings – teaching these kids was a delightful two hours. Furthermore the state test scores that year showed more actual growth with my regular learners then my honors’ students.
The realization that smaller class size improves learning is, of course, no longer an epiphany for me. Teachers have been discovering this breakthrough over and over for as many years as students have been going to school, and yet Washington state ranks 47th out of 50 states regarding large class size, leaving the education community with little choice but to present Initiative 1351 to the voters. Granted, the cost of establishing the class sizes laid out in this initiative will be a difficult burden,, but how difficult will the burden become if our children are not properly educated? We have no choice. We have to take that leap of faith. We must do better then ranking 47th out of 50 states. We owe all our students the opportunity to learn successfully.