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A teacher’s biggest challenge is often the size of their classes. How do you help your kids find success when you are dealing with classes of 35 or 40 students, or even more? Join the guys as they discuss their own experiences with big classes (4:00), making sure kids feel welcome (10:30), and some of the best strategies that help with classroom management and organization (17:00). Full episode transcript below.
Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education, and I’m your host, Andrew McCormick. By now, everyone is well into their routines in regards to that second semester. We’ve got those routines going, new classes set up, and everything’s kind of moving along. Some of you, though, may have noticed a little unsavory fact about these new classes, this new group of students, or maybe this is something that you’ve been dealing with all year long. Giant class sizes. The simple math is this. As many of our schools are struggling with proper funding, we’re all forced to do more and more with ever less resources. Fewer teachers, more students, giant class sizes.
From my experience, and from what we hear from listeners, these giant class sizes are especially frequent in middle school. I kind of have a theory about that. I think school districts like to start their students off really well and be really appealing to parents, and then we really care how we finish them off and send them off into this magical real world and after high school. Sometimes I think that being in the middle, as a middle school teacher, you sometimes get kind of overlooked and forgotten about. I’ve even seen it happen where middle schools get hand-me-down technology, hand-me-down buildings, all of that stuff, so I think it’s especially a problem at the middle school level. We hear of teachers making the transition from elementary school, where maybe they’re teaching 25 kids per class, to middle school, where you feel like you’re busting at the seams. 32, 35, 40.
For those of you who have been there, you know how tricky these big classes can be. The good thing is, I’m bringing on Tim here in a second to talk about ways to navigate and succeed despite these tough odds. When we encounter these big classes, your classroom management game has to be strong. You’ve got to have a plan, and you’ve got to work that plan. A bad day of classroom management, being inconsistent or not setting up good routines early on can really spell disaster for such a big class. While I know that some of us can’t even fathom a spring break or let alone a summer break, we know that it’s going to be here before we know it. It really is a great time to brush up on your classroom management so that you feel equipped to tackle these big classes.
AOE’s class Managing the Art Room is just the thing that you might be looking for. The thing I’ve always loved about being in AOE classes, whether as an instructor or a student, is connecting and sharing with a diverse group of quality art teachers. Every month I teach, I work with amazing teachers that have loads of experience and knowledge, and the learning that happens with that cohort of teachers is amazing. Managing the Art Room is a two-credit class, and it starts at the beginning of every month, so head on over to theartofed.com and check it out. All right, so let’s bring on Tim to see if he can share any tips and tricks in dealing with these big classes. All right, well, Tim, thanks for coming on, man. I’m excited to catch up with you. It’s been a while since I’ve had you on.
Tim: Yeah, for sure. We’ve had so many episodes lately dealing with the Art Ed Now Conference, and now that that’s done, we can kind of move on, so yeah, I’m excited to talk to you.
Andrew: Well, and I think this is a good topic, because it’s like the Christmas break kind of glow has kind of faded, and the second semester has started, and the routines are back in place, and seems like it’s a long way down the road that there’s any break in sight for a lot of teachers. I know some teachers are kind of feeling this grind. One of the things I know that teachers are feeling a grind with because they reach out to us sometimes and say, “This would be a great idea for a podcast talk,” is really big class sizes, just like monumental … I mean, just huge. What’s your experience been with large class sizes?
Tim: Well, I mean, I guess it depends on how you define “large,” because I know there are teachers out there that are teaching 40 or 45 or even 50 kids at a time, which is just insane to me. My biggest class, I think, has been 37, but I usually-
Andrew: Oh, my gosh.
Tim: … have like 32, 33, 34 in a lot of my courses, so that’s not out of the ordinary for me, but yeah, I guess when I do have a bigger class like that, you just need to kind of have the mindset that, “Hey, we’re all in this together, and we’re going to get through it.” Like I know when I had a huge class before, kids don’t have enough chairs and I’m just like, “Hey, guys. Sorry about this. We’re working on getting you more chairs.” It’s just one of those kind of team building things, I guess, where you just have to get all the kids in the mindset where, “Hey, this is not fun for anybody. Okay? Not for me, not for you, but it is what it is right now. We need to deal with this, and we’ll get through it together.” I think just kind of instilling that mindset into them where, “Hey, this isn’t an ideal situation, but we’re good enough to get through it,” I think is a smart way to go about it.
Andrew: Well, dude, okay, so I’ve had you on for like two minutes now, and I think it took you all two minutes to quote a High School Musical song. We’re-
Andrew: … all in this together. Oh, dude, that’s-
Tim: I need to-
Andrew: … really-
Tim: … watch more High School Musical, apparently.
Andrew: Yeah, you do. Yeah, you do. As soon as you said that, I was just like, “I’m ready to sing and dance and jazz squares and all of that.” The funny thing is, in the last couple of years, I’ve had what I would consider to be big class sizes, and then I hear from people, I reach out to people, and then I feel bad for even complaining or feeling that I’m put upon. Up until about two years ago, I would say normal for me was like 18 to 20, with-
Andrew: … like a small-
Tim: You are a lucky man.
Andrew: That was normal, and so a small one, you’d get like 15, and you might be like, “Wow, this is really easy. 15. Holy cow.” Then big ones, for me, would be like 23, 24, and I always had really tiny classrooms, like stupid tiny, and it was just like, “There is no way you could put more than 24 human bodies in here,” like it just wouldn’t fit. That’s both a curse and a blessing. When you have a really tiny space, 24 could feel like 40 if there’s no room for storage, and kids are on top of each other, so 24 was about it, and now I’ve been, the last couple years, 28 is average for me. I’ve gotten up to like 32, 33, but again, when I get to that 32, 33, it’s like we have no more chairs, and we can’t put …
I mean, it’s just like there’s no more bodies that could possibly fit in here, so I do think to some degree it’s all relative, whether 32 is too many, which I would say yes, or 26 is too many, but it gets to a point where, I mean, it really starts to hinder what you as a teacher can do and what your students can even do. I do like your kind of answer of like how to approach it is just to be honest with your kids up front, be like, “I know it’s not ideal for you. I hope you realize this is not ideal for me, and we’ll try to kind of get through this,” but I just wonder, are there some other kind of practical things that you’ve realized or kind of learned as you’ve dealt with those big classes that were kind of like little hacks that somebody might be able to take away and start using?
Tim: Yeah, I think so. I think there are some things that you can do, because like you said, if you don’t do things right, and sometimes even if you do everything right, your kids are going to be limited just because of the logistics of that. I think the biggest thing for me is, I always wanted to make sure that kids didn’t get lost in the shuffle. Right? Because there’s … I always try and make it a point to talk to every kid every day if I can, but if you have 35 or 40 kids, it’s nearly impossible to do that. What I would always do is just make sure that I’m at the door and I say hi or just chat up kids really quickly as they come in, just to make sure that you talk to all of them.
You always try and be available to kids if they need help, if they’re raising their hand … And you’re constantly moving around, obviously, with a class that large, but I would generally just start on one side of the room and kind of walk around and try and talk to every kid as they’re working, and then you sort of deal with other questions or put out other fires as they come up. You’re not going to get through the whole class, but the next day, you can start, “Oh, hey, at table four over there,” and you catch up with those kids, and you make your way around the room. Sometimes it will take two or three days to really talk in depth with every kid, but I think it’s important that you can do that.
A couple other just kind of simple hacks, like if you notice a few kids having the same issue, like shading’s not going well, or they’re having trouble with value or having trouble with mixing paint, whatever, you can call together like a small group, like hey, get those eight kids who are all having the same issue and just give them that feedback there. That can help a little bit, and then again, when we get to the end of projects, I like to call kids up one at a time, do those personal kind of critiques. Again, it takes forever, but if you can make the time for each kid, then that ensures that they kind of stay connected and stay involved and still feel like they’re part of what you’re doing, even if it is a giant class size.
Andrew: Wow. That’s impressive that you’re able to kind of get individual critiques. That’s something that I don’t think I’ve ever … I have not been able to pull that off, let’s say, with like really big classes. I do like your idea, though, of just … Because it is so important to build those relationships with kids and get them to feel welcomed and part of it. We go back to this, that our class is an elective, especially at the secondary level. We want the kids to come back again, and just meeting kids by the door, shaking hands, saying hi and saying their first name. I mean, it breaks my heart when I move to a bigger school district how many kids said, “Oh, yeah, my teacher doesn’t even know my name.”
I mean, I can say my first year of dealing with big class sizes, there were some kids who, it was tough to get to know their names and to remember them, because they were very content to kind of fade into the background. I probably had some kids, I could … It’s like I’m guessing at their names. I didn’t get to know them. I’ve done a lot better job this year of greeting kids by the door, shaking their hand, saying hi and then their first name. I think that makes a big difference. I would both kind of agree with you and disagree with you with kind of how you float around the room. I do think when you have these big class sizes, you do have to basically float around a ton. Right?
Tim: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Andrew: You’re everywhere, whether that’s just good classroom management, or it’s also building that rapport, but then I will do that maybe three or four times every 40, in a 45-minute classroom, but then I always have kind of a spot where I’m going to sit down and work alongside some kids, and I try to make that be like a different table every day, so I’m not always sitting by like the table of sometimes I call it the soft landing, like the place where the kids are really in the art, and they’re really into it. It’d be easy to sit at that table every day, but to then also sit at the table with the kids who maybe have like a bad attitude and don’t really want to be there and are screwing around.
It always surprises me just like what my presence and drawing next to them for 10 minutes and kind of shooting the breeze with them a little bit while we’re drawing does for like their outlook and their behavior, so I think it’s both. You got to float around, but then you also got to be deliberate with your time and sometimes sit with people. Maybe I’m being a little hard on myself. Maybe that’s kind of what you do with those individual critiques. I’m just kind of sitting at a table of four or five kids and giving them a little bit more focus time during that time.
Tim: Yeah, and if you can pull that off, I definitely think that’s worthwhile, and I try to do that as well. Like I said, I never make it all the way around the room to talk to every kid, because a lot of times you do those in-depth conversations, and they are incredibly valuable, so I would definitely encourage anybody to do that if and when they can.
Andrew: This is a whole ‘nother conversation, but it seems like every really big class I’ve had has also had some really big personalities, kids who require a lot of my time, whether they’re having some behavioral issues or having some sort of, they need some help understanding something, and you just feel so bad because it’s like, “Okay, if I could just get this kid in a class of like 18 or 20, I could really make some progress, but I got 31 other kids up in here that I have to deal with.” That’s been really tough for me. Have you ever had kind of an experience like that, where you’ve had to go to the counselor, go to the principal, and say like, “Listen. I know the reality is, I got to have this big class, but this kid and this kid are not going to make it in a big class. They need to be switched out to one of my smaller classes”?
Tim: I haven’t run into that, I guess, just because I was never able to move kids around as much as I would like to. I mean, I know there are teachers that can get them in different classes, but a lot of times that really didn’t work for me. It’s always unfortunate, but a lot of times I just kind of cut back on what kids are able to do. Like if they’re not able to handle supplies, if they’re not able to handle what’s going on, then we get a smaller number of supplies. We get more simple, more straightforward projects. Then once they can, I guess, show that consistent behavior, show that positive behavior, we’ll bring out more supplies. We’ll bring out bigger and better projects, but a lot of times you do have to go back to basics.
It’s unfortunate, because that’s not what we want to teach. That’s not what we want to learn, but if kids are going to be a distraction, they’re going to be an issue for everyone around them as well. A lot of times you do have to go back to square one, as unfortunate that is, and kind of build up from there.
Andrew: Well, and man, being a teacher is so hard. It’s so complicated, because I’ve had classes that are big, and I’m just like, “Oh, my God, we’re not going to do anything but like markers and paper, because this is just unruly.” Then, for whatever reason, you have a stroke of bravery or stupidity, and you’re like, “We’re going to try this.” If you have no business doing this new project, it is just ridiculous that you would even fathom trying to do this project in a class of 18, let alone 32. For whatever reason, it works, and every kid’s invested, and your class of 32 feels like 24, because everyone’s kind of into it. It’s hard to always kind of say what exactly the formula is, because every class is a little different, and personalities are different, and you know this.
You can have a teacher warn you about a kid, and they’ll say, “Oh, this is the worst kid ever,” and then you’re freaking out that it’s a class of 32, 35, and that kid’s great for you. It’s sometimes hard to tell, and every class can be a little bit different, but I want to kind of circle back, because you’re talking about some kind of large group accommodations you’re doing with supplies, projects. Have you kind of found some projects that you think work really well with big classes?
Tim: Yeah, I don’t know. I think it’s just kind of a process where you say, or when I talk about going back to square one, I’m like, “We’ll just start with pencil drawings.” Then if they get the hang of that, maybe we move on to start adding some color, and we’ll do markers, and if they do well enough with markers, then we graduate up to colored pencils. Then if they can handle both the project and the behavior with that, they move on to the next one, and we go from colored pencils, and then maybe we’ll introduce some watercolor. Then after watercolor, maybe we move to acrylic, but it’s just kind of a … I don’t know if scaffolding’s the right word for it, but we’re just kind of building up more and more.
When kids are able to have success with the project as well as have success with behavior, being consistent, being positive with that, then I’m happy to move them along the spectrum a little bit. I think that’s probably the easiest and best way I’ve found with huge classes, to kind of make it a progression of supplies, to make sure that we’re not wasting things, that kids are respecting materials. Sometimes it goes really slowly, and that’s frustrating for everybody, but I found that it really is the best way for me to go about it.
Andrew: One of the things, and it kind of surprises me on paper when I stumbled across this, is I found, when I have a big group … There’s that old adage, like if you can’t beat them, join them. Right?
Andrew: I’m not advocating that teachers just kind of throw in the towel and be like, “Whatever. No rules,” but sometimes it’s like I think we’re trying to force our big classes of 35 and 32 to act and behave and sound. Sound is such a big thing in classroom management, like our classes of 24 and 22, and you’ll catch yourself saying like, “Gosh, this worked so much better in my last class.” It’s like, yeah, you got like 33% more people up in here. Things are going to change. Sometimes I’m just like, “I’m going to give in, and this class is going to be a little more unruly.”
I’ve actually found that some of my bigger, funkier sort of collaborative projects work really well. I don’t know if that, with a large group of people, and you’re doing like a big drawing or a big painting or a sculpture that requires four people to work together. It’s almost like they’re kind of policing their own, and there’s fewer kids that kind of can melt away and kind of be left out and misbehave, because they’re kind of feeling like internally accountable to everyone else in the classroom. I don’t know. Maybe that’s crazy, but I feel like that has been working for me in the past.
Tim: Yeah. I’m a fan of group projects, and I think you can do some really cool things. I think there are a lot of ideas just on the AOE website of different plans, different group projects, collaborative projects, that really can help, like you said, get kids more involved with the class, get them knowing their classmates better. A lot of times, that really can cut down on your behavior issues, and I think that’s a really good way. We’ve talked about that ad nauseam, I feel like, on this podcast, like kids engage. When they are engaged, they’re going to be so much better in every way, so if group projects are a way to get that ball rolling, then absolutely, go for it.
Andrew: I want to circle back to the beginning. You’ve kind of talked about scaffolding a little bit and going back to the basics and limiting some things. I have actually found some of the biggest successes I’ve had as I’ve struggled, too, with big classes is even taking it back to basics for me as a teacher and maybe giving up on some things that I thought were really important. For example, as a middle school teacher or a high school teacher, and even upper elementary teacher, one of the things that you think is like all kids should be accountable and responsible, and that’s part of what art is teaching. You want every kid to have a good cleanup routine. Right? That’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax when you have 32 kids trying to paint or clean out paintbrushes or put clay away. You’re just like, “Oh, my God! The last 10 minutes of this class is pure madness, is, 32 artists are trying to clean up their stupid studio that’s not big enough for them.” You know what I mean?
Andrew: I had to kind of give up and just say like, “Listen. We’re going back to like elementary school, and we’re going to have one person at every table do X, Y, and Z job, and the rest of y’all sit down and be quiet and just chill out,” because I can’t have 32 people moving around the room. I can have eight, and that is good for me, and I think … I don’t know. It’s like I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, and it took me a while to kind of realize like, “I can kind of scale back and make my cleanup process and my handing out materials and getting materials a little more simple, a little more elementary school.” It caused me a whole lot less commotion and headache and all of that stuff.
Tim: For sure, and I don’t know that I’d tell my kids we’re going back to elementary school, because they may not like that, but I’m always, always putting kids in charge of things, of passing out supplies, of cleaning up supplies. Like if we … I don’t know, what’s something you go through? Like masking tape. This one kid in charge of masking tape and say, “Everybody gets one foot of masking tape,” or, “Everybody gets one yard of masking tape,” and man, that kid is going to be way stricter than I ever will with that supply. Or I have this kid passing out colored pencils, or I have this kid cleaning up brushes. Yeah, any time you can pass that along to your kids, find the responsible ones or the ones who maybe aren’t responsible but still want to give it a try, and give them the shot to be in charge of those things and see how it goes. Like you said, again, that’s something else that’ll get kids involved and something that takes a lot off of your plate as well.
Andrew: True. Well, all right, so I got to ask you a kind of big picture here now. We’ve been kind of micromanage-y and talking about paper, passing out, and all that stuff. The reality that I had last year, I think I flirted with being burned out by school a little bit, if I’m honest, and I think I made it through. If you had a hard, if you really pressed me hard here on how did I avoid it, I don’t know if I could summarize that.
I want to just say, part of the reason I was flirting with being burned out, and I’m sure there’s other teachers out there that have this, not only did I have most of my classes at 30 to 32, that’s what almost all my classes were, and I taught seven out of eight periods, a lot of my classes were actually AB, so I actually had more classes than your math teacher or your science teacher, because they didn’t teach AB. I’d see for the first three periods of the day 1A, 1B. 2A, 2B, and each one has 31, 32 kids, and you got to remember all their names and their dynamics and where their artwork is. Okay, so I’m just kind of setting the scene. What do you say to a teacher like that, who’s got 500 kids, crappy supplies, 35 kids in every class? How do they get their mindset right to avoid that burnout and kind of survive through the year and then start to thrive?
Tim: Yeah, that’s a tough one, because it is just so hard, day after day after day, to come into that situation, and so I think the biggest thing you can do is just get your classroom running the way you want it to run. We spend a ton of time talking about the small-scale things, talking about the logistics, but if you get those right, the big picture comes into focus. Like if you have whatever size a class, if you have kids working together, if you have kids that are happy to be there, if you have kids that are engaged and feeling welcome and really involved in their art, then all of a sudden you can see, “Hey, I am making a difference for all of these kids,” and you can see that even though you have huge classes, it also is a huge opportunity to make a difference for all of the kids that you’re coming into contact with. It’s going to be tough, and there are going to be some really, really rough days, but that’s part of being a teacher.
I guess that if you can get things running the way you want them to run, that’s going to make your life so much easier, and you’re going to feel so much better each time you go in there. As much as we are sweating the small stuff, I think it’s vitally important to get that right so that you can have the right mindset every day when you walk into that classroom.
Andrew: I would say this. Not that I have an answer, but I feel like I have an idea of what the wrong answer would be, and I think I’ve seen teachers go down this path, and I just want to caution people against this. You might say, “Well, this is an elective, and I have 35 kids. Man, if I’m just really mean that first week and I tell them how hard it’s going to be, and they’re going to get an F, and I don’t ever smile, I’m going to chase some kids away, and then my classes will be more manageable.” That’s like a really short-term win and a long-term loss, because now you’re hurting your program, and now you’re going from having a lot of kids to not enough kids, and now your program is in peril.
This may be counterintuitive, but if you do have a ton of kids, you almost got to put the most positive picture on that and get even more kids, and then start advocating with your administrator and say like, “Look at this program. It is busting at the seams. Come to my classroom. Come see me on a Wednesday when I have 35 kids trying to do clay in a room that’s got 24 chairs. Tell me we don’t need another teacher. Tell me we don’t need to create more space for these kids, because this program is awesome despite all these limitations that you’re putting on me.” Now, I can say that from afar and tell people to advocate and be the squeaky wheel, and you’ll get the grease, but that is hard for people, and I think that’s what you have to do to survive long-term, is eventually start playing the long game and advocating for yourself and your program.
Tim: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think I can add anything else to that. You said it very well.
Andrew: Whoo! I’m all fired tonight, man. Well, man, thanks for coming in. It’s been too long since I’ve kind of hosted one of these and brought you on, so it was fun to talk to you.
Tim: Yeah. You too, man. Thanks.
Andrew: All right. We’ll talk to you later. Back to basics. That’s my big takeaway from Tim. Don’t be afraid to pull back a little bit and do things a little closer to the vest when you have a big class. Don’t be afraid to admit to yourself and even your students that this isn’t ideal, but then make a plan and stick to it. Scale it down. Keep it simple. Keep everything consistent, and then advocate like mad for yourself to start moving the needle of class sizes in a more positive direction. I know for me, when I had struggles and I felt ineffective in the face of big classes, I got down on myself, and I started to feed into a negative loop of doubt and frustration.
Where did that get me? It got me close to the brink of being a burned out, bitter teacher, but I was, somehow, don’t ask me how, I was able to keep things in perspective, probably through the support of family and friends and fellow colleagues that reminded me that things just take time. My big class sizes came about because I changed jobs, and I changed districts. That’s a double whammy, and I really should have realized that it takes time for students to get used to me and vice versa, me to get used to them and the new district. While this year I’m still battling some big class sizes, I’m better equipped to put it in perspective, and my outlook, and some tricks that I’ve learned in keeping things a little bit more streamlined, have made a huge difference in how my year is going.
Art Ed Radio is developed, produced, and supported by The Art of Education, with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. Tim and I often try to steer you guys to check out some of the AOE courses or PRO Packs, but I do want to put a plug in for just simply checking out the sheer mass of great, free resources that are online with AOE. If we’re talking curriculum, we’ve got a ton of great PDFs and planning sheets to help you get that curriculum figured out and on its feet. Tons of great tips and tricks out there. I’m always amazed at how many awesome resources I find when I head over to the AOE website when I use it just for searching stuff. While you’re there, make sure you check out all the other great resources, including some of the podcasts that we’ve been putting together. We’ve got quite the list.
Speaking of which, allow me to give you a sneak peek into next week. Next week will be Art Ed Radio’s 104th episode. That’s two full years of weekly podcasts. This is an awesome accomplishment for Art Ed Radio, Tim and I, and for all the great folks at The Art of Education. It’s also a testament to you all for being awesome listeners, and I have to say, though, that I am feeling a little stupid that I don’t often take the time to just stop and say thank you to all you guys for listening. I really appreciate it. This has been a real blast to do and an honor that so many awesome art teachers out there are listening to us.
Some of you have noticed that I haven’t been hosting as much anymore, and I feel like I can share this with you now. Next week’s episode will be my last one hosting Art Ed Radio. Like I said, it’s been a blast, but I’ve got some things in my school district that I’m really passionate about fixing, and I just, I’ve been putting a lot of my energies a bit more locally lately. Also come around from time to time when Tim can’t find anyone better to talk to. Tune in next week when Tim and I will reminisce about how this whole crazy thing got started. As always, and for as ever long as Tim is at the helm, new episodes of Art Ed Radio will be released every Tuesday, and additional content can be found under the “Podcasts” tab on theartofed.com. All right. Thanks, everybody, for listening.