[This is the fourth installment in a series of brief essays by some of the North Carolina advocates who helped lead the fight to repeal the General Assembly’s unfunded mandate to reduce class sizes in grades K-3. You can read previous installments by clicking here, here and here.]
I am a Nationally Board Certified educator with 14 years’ experience. I am a native Durhamite teaching 4th grade at Hillandale Elementary in Durham. Our fourth grade team had all been preparing for the eventual influx of more students in the fall with the class size mandate. Now that we have a partial ‘fix’ we’re still concerned about overcrowding and the space needed to eventually prepare for the class size caps.
I’m also disappointed this ever became the issue it did. It caused so much anxiety for educators and there was no reason for it. Currently, I have room for three more desks without stepping over other students to get to them. I have no idea how they expected us to eventually fit more children in these classrooms. We’re supposed to be teaching technology in our 4th and 5th grade classes and having overcrowded classrooms is not an effective way to do that. If we believe that all students, regardless of needs or ability, should be mainstreamed into a single class and that it is the responsibility of the teacher to differentiate instruction, then we must understand the challenges overcrowding poses. With 25 students, differentiated instruction is hard, with 30, it’s nearly impossible, with 40+ students, it simply will not happen. If we want smaller class sizes, they must give the school districts the funding needed to make it happen.
Behavior management also requires individualized approaches, all of which is impossible with a crowded classroom. Being successful with implementing differentiated instruction requires you to be incredibly creative, developing and providing diverse materials and, a considerable amount of planning time must go into this. The time that our students are at their Specials is the time we use as a planning period. If we lose that time we lose that planning time and the level of instruction will suffer. We already use weekends and weekday evenings to lesson plan, grade, communicate with parents and prep for the day. Without that planning period, we would simply not have enough hours in the day to do our job effectively.
Another issue often overlooked in this conversation is that we use an integrated curriculum. This means that much of what the students are exposed to in art, music and PE is reinforced throughout the day and in their other subjects. This approach builds the whole child, which is so important. If a child is struggling in one area, they still have the opportunity to excel and grow confident in another. The ‘fix’ was needed but the mandate should never have been passed without the funding schools require.
I am incredibly disillusioned with the current state of support for public education. It truly feels like our lawmakers are trying to destroy it. Our kids need us, now more than ever but it feels as if we have our hands tied behind our backs. I would challenge any of our lawmakers to come into our classrooms. They should see for themselves what teachers are up against and the struggles our students are facing. They can and must take action to restore public education in North Carolina. Our kids deserve better than this.