Today was a crazy sort of day. The day began fairly early with some chores that included watering plants, taking care of the dog, and packing for the beach. My two teenagers and I headed off to Marconi Beach in Wellfleet. We were there fairly early and spent the morning sunning, swimming, and watching surfing lessons. Watching this group of surfers learning confirmed what I already knew. Class size matters! But I'm jumping the gun. This connection wasn't made until way later in the day.
My kids and I were chatting. Full disclosure, these two non-surfers were analyzing the skills of the students in the class. They had given some of the surfers nicknames based on their ability and effort. This was not a great example of how kind my kids can be. After a while, the conversation shifted back to the previous night's chat about favorite teachers. My high school aged son started talking about this sub at his school. Apparently, this guy greets each child by name when they walk in the door. He then reads the plan of the day (which is typically...log into Google classroom where you'll find the plan for the day) and tells the kids to get to work. Then he sits down and reads. According to my son, he never even looks up over the course of the class. The kids don't mess around. They get right to work. There are never any issues. WHAT??? Seriously? He never has to use a stink eye or raise his voice with high school kids? My only thought is, there must be something pseudo-magical in the way he started the day. He greeted each child by name. Hmm. We'll return to this conversation in a moment.
Next, I asked my children about their worst teachers. I asked them to think about the worst teacher they ever had. I was wondering what makes a bad teacher, well, bad. In a nutshell, they said that the bad teachers never got to know them. My son said that he felt invisible in one of his classes. He really is kind. Really. He tried to explain that it was probably because the class size was so large. He said that he could, if he chose to, sit there day after day and daydream. He never felt any pressure to engage and the teacher would never call on him if his hand wasn't raised. Of this same teacher, he said that he really couldn't picture the teacher out of school. He hadn't gotten to know this educator on a personal level at all.
My son then transitioned back to talking about one of his favorite teachers. This teacher had gotten to know my son. My son insisted that this teacher was not "chummy" with him. He insisted that teachers shouldn't be their students' friends. He also told me that this teacher always seemed to be in an academic conversation with my son. The teacher was always trying to make sense of my son's thinking, applauded the way he thought about math in different ways, and pushed my son to think deeply and to make connections. My son always wanted to participate but when he didn't, he could count on this teacher to ask him about his thinking. You might be thinking, "well, your kids is just a math kid so obviously he connected with this MATH teacher." This is true but BOTH teachers were math teachers. One ignited my son's love for math and the other, on a good day, did little to inspire him, and on a bad day, lead him to question his ability to do math.
Relationships matter. Whether you're a sub or the everyday math teacher, you need to connect with your kids and get to know them. Kids respond when they feel that they are more than just a body taking up a seat. Connecting with students and taking the time to get to know them and their thinking makes all the difference. In the first class, my son was a struggling learner. His understanding and ability to do math at the expected level suffered. In the second class, he thrived. Not only was his achievement high (and it really was) his perception of his ability was off the chart. He took risks and pushed his own thinking even when the teacher was attending to other students. The class size was smaller in this second class but I think much more was at play than class size.
Does class size make a difference though? It absolutely does. Let's go back to those surfers. A couple of the surfers took to surfing right away. Maybe they had more experience. Maybe surfing is something they do with their families. This could be why they had a leg up. Anyway, every-time those kids got up on their boards they got positive feedback from the instructor. These kids were surfing anywhere from ten to 100 feet at a time. Their success was easy to notice and celebrate. They kept at it and attacked nearly every viable wave. Some of our kids are like this too. They come into our rooms thriving, perhaps because they come from a home culture where learning is valued, and need minimal positive feedback to keep thriving. Sure, their determination given positive feedback will help them meet the standards, as so little growth is necessary. But, how can we as educators help to guide these kids? Are we doing enough to take their learning deeper? Some surfers spent most of their time hanging out on the board looking like they were waiting for the perfect wave and the instructor never intervened. Do we have kids like that in our classes? We absolutely do. They are sitting at their desks waiting for the perfect opportunity to participate but are happy to be completely disengaged until that moment comes or until pushed. There were kids who were trying to get up on their boards with zero success. The instructor was able to get to very few of them to give them individualized instruction. Some of the students who received attention from the instructor improved. Some didn't. The instructor didn't check back in with all surfers to give additional feedback. One surfer, while attempting to surf, made a critical error and was taken to shore. She did not have the skills necessary to get her board through the surf so that she could rejoin her class. My kids watched this surfer struggle for over ten minutes. It was unreal. No one noticed her. No one helped. FINALLY, she managed to rejoin the class. She never made another attempt to surf. This happens in our classes too. Sometimes, students skills are far below grade level. They fall behind and struggle alone with little help from us. The get really frustrated. Their goals shift. No longer is the goal to thrive. The goal is to survive, unnoticed.
My big take away is that relationships do matter. The connections I make with students help them to feel like they have an important place in our classroom. The frequent check-ins and the questions I ask help my students to know that their thinking is important and that I believe in their ability to develop as a learner. All students come with different skills. Some are more confident. Some are already frustrated before they walk through our classroom doors. My job is to meet them where they are at, to notice them every day, to wonder how I can take them to the next level, to question, question and question their thinking and to make space for them to get their voices into our classroom. I need to let each student know that he or she is an important part of our community. I need to notice when I've lost one for crying out loud and I need to "swim" out there to where they have drifted and coach them back. I need to send the clear message that their learning is important. I need to send this message every day.
Class size matters too. Relationship building is so much more difficult to do well when there are too many students (or surfers) to coach. My class size is something that is completely out of my control. There are years when it has been way too large (27-29 students in 3rd to 5th-grade classrooms) and this next school year, I'm slated to have the lowest class size I've ever had (21 students, which would still be considered on the larger size in more affluent districts). I'm giddy about this. However, even when the numbers are high, I need to do my best to connect with all kids. It will make a difference.
Final note: Should my own kids ever want to take surf lessons, I'll spring for private or at least semi-private lessons.