I sat in an I.E.P. meeting today where the itinerant hearing specialist running the meeting made the comment over and over about how welcoming, safe, positive, and passionate our school is. As a charter school, we contract our special education services from San Diego Unified, so she only has her brief experiences with a couple of our kids to inform her about the type of school we are.
Truth be told, people from outside our school make the same types of comments after time with us. Though we certainly have our issues, I cannot imagine teaching in a more supportive environment for teachers, students, and their families.
Ultimately, I think it’s about our emphasis on relationships–among staff, with families, with students. We cap class sizes at 20 K-5 and 25 in the middle school. Each grade only has two teachers, and we all own all of our kids. As an eighth grade teacher, I know most of the middle schoolers by name and a large number of our elementary kids. My 8th graders are writing buddies with the 1-2 multiage kids, and you can see the little guys high-fiving my big guys on the playground in the morning.
Right now, I only have 47 eighth graders to teach English and history. I probably have another 20-ish sixth and seventh graders in the two electives I teach: Writing & Art and Book Club. I know these kids: their strengths and weaknesses; their home lives; their interests; who is on Myspace at twelve in the morning instead of in bed. I have the time, space, and support to know them. They trust me, they respect me, and they know ME as well.
I couldn’t do this as effectively back when I had 100-students I was responsible for, a number I realize is still a luxury for many teachers. How could I possibly be an effective teacher with 200 or more students on my caseload? How could I possibly know each one as a unique learner? How could I adjust my instruction to their individual needs? And how could I expect 200 kids to turn in four published writing pieces each quarter–800 papers to read and give feedback on, let alone feedback that the individual is most ready to apply?
Kids are not widgets. Learning does not happen by assembly line. Telling isn’t teaching. Relationships are at the heart of teaching; without that, you have kids like one of last year’s 8th graders coming back to express her hatred of high school stating, “My teacher doesn’t even know my name.” This after a semester in someone’s class.
Yes, it costs more, but it’s doable and quite worth it. If we can do this at my school, we can do it anywhere. It’s about districts putting their money where their proverbial mouths are.