The law of unintended consequences is on full display as North Carolina legislators wrestle with how to lower class sizes in elementary schools. House Bill 13 mandates fewer students per teacher in K-3, which in turn requires more teachers and more classroom space, expenses school districts can’t afford unless they eliminate programs such as art or physical education.
Plenty of research supports the benefits of smaller class sizes. Every teacher I know is more effective with a smaller class than a larger one, with fewer papers to grade, more time to plan, and fewer discipline problems to address. Smaller classes offer students more personal attention from their teachers, and that translates into deeper, more authentic learning.
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That’s certainly true for me. I started out this semester with 23 very challenging students in my last class of the day. 23 is actually a low number for a high school class, but it is an overwhelming number when 19 of them are boys with a history of repeated academic failures in high school. The reasons they struggle in school aren’t hard to find. Many live chaotic lives in unstable families. Most have the problems associated with growing up poor—lack of resources, inconsistent health and dental care, a history of moving from home to home and school district to school district frequently.
Their idea of what the last class in a long school day should be like included naps, chatting to their classmates, and playing on their phones. Needless to say, my vision differed considerably. For the first month we were in a not-so-pleasant tussle about what they had to do in my class. Reading was hard work. They were allergic to writing. Class discussions spun out of control into noisy free-for-alls.
“Why do we have to work so much!” one student complained bitterly.
“And why do we have to work so long!” another chimed in.
Then several students moved away. Another decided to get her GED. One boy left to enroll in the course online. One chronic absentee took a medical leave.
As the class grew smaller, student behavior improved. They stopped resisting me and started working all period long, and their grades improved dramatically. I started to get to know them as individuals as I moved about the room helping them, asking about a mother in the hospital, handing out cough drops and tissues to a sniffler, recommending a travel book to a boy whose goal is to see the world beyond the South one day.
I stopped bracing myself for the last class of the day and started enjoying the interactions we were having as a community of learners.
What turned the tide wasn’t a superior curriculum or innovative teaching or any real pedagogical skill on my part. My students started to care about the class as we developed a relationship that meant something to them.
Education doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens when students know that their teachers have valuable knowledge and wisdom to share, when teachers value their students as individuals.
What a gift it would be to let all children have teachers with enough time and attention to help them be as successful as possible, without sacrificing art and music and physical education, programs that benefit everyone. Surely that’s worth investing in – a future where children enjoy school and see its value – and believe in their own abilities and worth.
McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: kmcspadden@