Classroom ratios need a second look

Imbalanced classroom ratios underpin behavioural issues in schools.

Dear editor,

To the Hon. Peter Fassbender, Minister of Education:

I work as a lunch supervisor with the school district, making a paltry $300 a month, speaking in support of teachers whose paycheques are exponentially larger than mine. Not only that, but I also happen to have a master’s degree in art education. If only I would do my student teaching requirement, I would be able to work in the school system for a starting salary of about $50,000 a year (before considerable deductions) — but I say no, thank you. Life is too short to spend living with such stress and frustration at any price! As far as I’m concerned, $100,000 a year is not even enough to compensate for the complications of teaching in present day classrooms.

I have about 10 years worth of teaching experience as a community art instructor. Interestingly, the classes I taught at the municipal centres had a maximum enrolment of 12. I seem to remember the odd class of 15, possibly of older kids, but I mostly worked with younger age groups. Even when I was less experienced, I never had any “discipline problems” with the kids. I never had to send anyone to the director’s office because they were disrupting the class. I never had to take a child off to the side and give him or her a talk about his/her behaviour. I never had to say, “Your behaviour is inappropriate.” I never had to yell, threaten, punish, give students detentions, write their names on the board, or talk to their parents after class…as so often happens in public schools. Why?  The main reason: the teacher/student ratios were reasonable.

I was able to maintain discipline by keeping the children busy at all times, and I used plenty of redirection and positive reinforcement. I made sure I had enough activities planned, so my students would not have time to think about acting out. I made sure to include something tantalizing with the lesson, like a special “fun” material to work with or an inspiring game to make my students naturally want to participate. If a child looked like he or she was getting into a situation that would lead to trouble, I would redirect him/her to a more positive activity, then offer praise for succeeding at it. If any children looked distracted, I would bring them back with strategic questions about the lesson, a change of pace or activity, or by getting directly involved in their projects. If a child was being purposefully disruptive to get attention, I would ignore him/her and the behaviour would dissipate because the student was not getting the desired response. I felt that if I looked frazzled, frustrated, angry or even a little uneasy that I would be giving the potentially disruptive child what he/she wanted — a feeling of power, and it would cause the bad behaviour to escalate. I would direct my attention to children who were behaving appropriately, giving them the limelight instead. To do this I had to be able to actually physically see each of my students all at the same time and anticipate their possible next moves. This is feasible in a class of 12 or 15. This is absolutely impossible to do with a class of 20 or 30 or 40 or more…at least, for mere mortals.

I am of a certain vintage that I remember the day when there was a strap hanging from a nail on the wall behind the teacher. Compared to what I see today, we were reverent of authority and remarkably obedient. I only recall the teacher using the strap on someone once. But, of course, that was all that was needed to make the rest of us fearful and behave ourselves most of the time. Since I’ve been working for schools, I have witnessed some astounding examples of fearless defiance and unruliness. The strap was abolished over 40 years ago, but classroom sizes have not been adjusted to the new reality. Instead of being controlled with outdated, threatening class-management strategies, students need to be kept busy and involved with their lessons, and for that, a lower teacher/student ratio is needed.

The net result of this resistance to change, I believe, is what I would call an “epidemic of misbehaviour.” Teachers don’t have time to give individual attention to students to keep them on track and out of trouble. They are forced to maintain an authoritarian, somewhat threatening stance. But of course, teachers of today don’t have the power that teachers of yesteryear did. Fearful of losing control of their very large classes, teachers will right away react to any act of “misbehaviour,” large or small, deliberate or accidental, in the hope of “suppressing” it. What happens instead, I believe, is that by trying to suppress misbehaviour, they are actually, unwittingly, reinforcing it! By drawing attention to students’ undesirable behaviour and then broadcasting it to the rest of the class, teachers are instructing children how to behave the next time they want to get on someone’s nerves.

In my off-the-beaten-path experience with children, I’ve found that they are not naturally defiant. I feel they are only defiant because they believe it is expected of them, because that is what adults tend to respond to most readily, because that is what brings the most “drama.” I’ve also discovered that if you treat children with the utmost respect, they will give it back to you in spades, and then some. Children are so malleable that they can be anything we want them to be. If they are angels or devils it is because of the way adults respond to them. I also feel that children naturally want and need to learn. When they aren’t feeding their rapidly developing brains through learning or play, that is when there are problems. Boredom and stagnation are like death to a child. If children can’t get the mental stimulation they need from their lessons, they will get it by trying to cause a disruption. A lower teacher/student ratio will provide students with more challenge, more activity and the mental stimulation that they so desperately need, leaving little room for defiance.

Even in the day-care world there is a much healthier view of supervision. In the B.C. government’s own child-care licensing regulations, child-care centres that have kindergarten and grade one children enrolled must have one staff member per 12 children (there’s that magic number). In child-care centres that don’t have kindergarten or grade one students, the limit can be raised to one staff member per 15 children (another magic number)…not 20, not 30, not 40 and certainly not 60! If day cares only have to keep the kids occupied and safe and there are such controls on adult/child ratios, why, in school classrooms — where children not only have to be occupied and safe but also taught — do teachers have to work with double or triple the amount of kids? Why is something that is illegal in the “real world” allowed to go on in schools?

When school teachers have salaries that make some people envious, yet they are always going on strike, you have to suspect that there is something is terribly wrong with the school system. The present classroom size and composition situation is simply a hangover from the days when violent punishments were the norm in classrooms. Education now has to make a 180 degree turn and make learning appealing and satisfying to children. Teachers have to be child learning supporters, rather than ineffective classroom police. All tactics that are damaging to children’s innocence, motivation and self-esteem must be eliminated. The only way to do that is to adjust teacher/student ratios to match the staff/child ratios outlined in your own day-care licensing regulations.

Yours truly,

Debra Lynn

Port Alice