Changing traditional thinking and practices in our school system isn’t always easy. In my 20 years in elementary education, I’ve stumbled across two practices that I think would help students and staff if they were changed.
For some background, I worked for 10 years in a PreK-1st-grade building, four years in a 2nd-3rd-grade building, four years in a 4th-5th building, and the last two in a building that houses students in grades 3rd-5th. The first of these two things is more suited to upper elementary while the second I believe applies to all elementary schools.
1. Traditional practice – Placing a student on a class list and leaving them in that class for the next nine months no matter what. I know that we all have great practices in place when developing class lists. So much time, effort, and thought goes into creating balanced class lists. We code students based on behavior, academics, and other needs. We consider personality matches between student and teacher. Hours and hours of thought and our very best work goes into class lists. Having said that, is it really possible we bat 100% on those predictions? Is it possible there might be a better match for a student than the one we hypothesized in the spring? We certainly know that a new mix of kids can lead to students displaying different behaviors than the previous year. That doesn’t even take into account move in students and how they impact the classroom dynamic.
1. My thinking – Be willing to make changes! Just because you put a student’s name next to a teacher’s name last May shouldn’t mean the student HAS TO stay in that classroom for nine months. We sometimes fear the impact on the student and the stigma of moving classrooms. When doing so, we underestimate the resilience of kids. We underestimate that the fresh start might be exactly what THEY want. One possibility is to transparently share with parents that your school will be looking at class lists in October and again at the holiday break to see if adjustments need to be made. What stops you from having a student spend 1/4 of the year in each of the four classrooms in the grade if change is a positive for them? In my experience, exploring a move only applies to 5-10% of students in any given grade. But if we can improve the school year for a handful of children, isn’t it worth it? In my experience, when we have been able to get the student, parent, current teacher, and new teacher all on board with the move, we have had really positive results.
2. Traditional practice – Keeping teachers in the same grade level even if the chemistry within the grade level isn’t great. I get that we aren’t big on change in education. I know the merits of learning a curriculum inside and out and how that positively impacts the instruction delivered. There was a time where teachers could shut their door and teach. That time is over. Collaboration is better and more frequent than at any time in the history of education. Because of that, the chemistry, collaboration, and working relationship within a grade level must be better than it’s ever been.
2. My thinking – Be willing to move your staff around to find the right mix. First and foremost, I’m not talking about moving teachers against their wishes. I’m not talking about moving ineffective or minimally effective teachers. I’m talking about teachers who could be even better when on a team that fits their needs. I think the business world has this right. People are moved to new desks, different teams, various departments, relatively often. We can learn from that. I encourage principals to look at the strengths of their individuals, the mix of their teams, and be willing to make changes that will allow grade levels to be better than they’ve ever been before.