It's inevitable, isn't it? As soon as you get the classroom routines going and you have a good rhythm happening, you get the phone call. You know the one I am talking about... a new student has arrived! You look at your classroom and see this...
I've been in this situation more than once... and it isn't pretty. I happen to be in the most over crowded school in the city, and in the most overcrowded grade. We have one less teacher than the other grades do, although our student population counts stay the same. Aren't we lucky? I've worked hard at identifying the ways in which I was successful (and not so successful) over the past few years, and used that information to help me plan for the future. So, here are my tips:
When you have 30+ students in front of you, time management is key. You are only one person with (likely) only one planning period, but you are expected to do a whole lot. Grading alone can eat up a huge chunk of time! If you spend even 5 minutes grading each paper- which is easy to do- you are looking at about 150 minutes of grading for one assignment. That is two and a half hours.... which is almost all of my planning time for the week. There literally just are not enough hours in the day... and I mean literally by the OLD dictionary definition, not the new "figurative" meaning! Points to focus on with time management:
- grade student papers in a conference with the student. They get immediate feedback, and you get to spend the time you need focusing on their work.
- correct homework as a class, then collect it to give credit and do "spot checks."
- accept that sometimes you have to just give a check/check plus/check minus and not traditional letter grade for less important work
- prioritize the grading that you cannot complete these ways. Do the most important things first, and accept the fact that you will not always get caught up.
- give students jobs! Not just some of the kids... ALL of them. I have as many jobs as there are kids in my class. Everyone does something. Kids sharpen pencils, fill the paper supply trays, and even reset the behavior chart. I give them some of our classroom currency as a "paycheck" each week, and they can save up to trade it in for prizes at the end of each term.
- Every day, set up 3 priorities that you have to complete outside of instruction. If you accomplish those three things, then consider the day successful. Do these before ANYTHING else!
I am a big believer in allowing kids to learn from each other. Sometimes, hearing something explained by a peer can be the "magic ingredient" to get kids to understand something- for both kids! The student that is explaining the concept deepens their understanding by teaching someone else, and the student that is listening has an opportunity to hear the concept again. I like to have students work together a few different ways.
- Peer tutors that are "experts" on subjects help other students while I work in small groups during guided reading and guided math.
- For some activities, I pair students of differing abilities so they can learn from each other.
- Assign reading activities in guided reading groups, so they can discuss and collaborate before coming back to me to debrief.
Routines & Optimizing Space
Making all of this work depends routines, clear expectations, and space optimization. I start engraining routines into my students on day one. Much of what I practice I learned in Fred Jones' Tools for Teaching. If you haven't read this book, I seriously highly recommend it. This book is what saved me my first year teaching, and I have revisited it before going back to school every year since. What works for me:
- Have a routine for everything. Throwing out garbage, turning in assignments, sharpening your pencil, using the bathroom. Clear routines that are always followed help to keep a class going without interruption.
- Teach students how you like things done. This one seems simple- but if you focus on it, you will save yourself some serious time! I spend a few periods early in the year showing students how I like them to correct their work. What marks to use, what to write (or not write), and what writing utensil to use. After doing this a few times, they have a clear idea of what is expected and I can collect the corrected papers to record in my gradebook. I "spot check" them once a week or so, and the students rarely cheat with this because they know I look at them.
- Setup space so it can be used for more than one activity. My guided reading conference area is also my guided math conference area, and doubles as a place for me to grade papers after school. My math centers are next to my reading centers so students can use one space for both. Use every inch of space! Hang pocket folders on walls with extra work, get stacking trays for paper, and put sterilite plastic drawers under tables for extra storage.
Let the Little Stuff Go
No matter what, you will never be able to do it all as a teacher- and especially not with an overcrowded classroom. Learn to let the little stuff go! Prioritize what is important to you in your classroom, and learn to let other things go. This is a huge struggle for me- and I'm sure so many other teachers! We are perfectionists by nature, it seems.
So, that's what works in my upper elementary/middle school setting. Some of these would work in other grade ranges, and some could be adapted to work. Good luck out there, fellow teachers with overcrowded rooms. I understand the struggle!