Big School, Small School

Almost ten years ago (where has the time gone?) I wrote my Master’s thesis on the school where I worked at the time, an all-girls school in the town where I grew up. I had had myriad stereotypes about the place as a student in the area, and I couldn’t have been more wrong about it. This interested me enough to conduct a case study to answer the question of why different stakeholders choose all-girls education. (Short answer: It depends. Long answer: Contained in aforementioned thesis.)

As part of regular practice, I’ve been conducting informal research throughout my time as a teacher. What happens if I refer to this as a “task” rather than “assignment”? What happens if the “rough draft” becomes the “initial submission”? If I want to encourage dialogue in class, should students sit with their friends or not? How does the environment change when the tables are in a U shape, rows of three, groups of four? How does the environment change when student-led discussions are an assessed part of the course?*

I have learned to be a teacher not only through deliberate training, observation, and practice, but also through a lot of trial and error. What works in one environment or for one group may or may not work for another, and there is a significant level of adaptability and flexibility that is required to help students learn. (Insert home-based learning here.) This is why some teachers argue that every class is a different prep, even if the class is a second section of the same subject – two grade 9 Individuals and Societies classes, for example. I don’t usually go this far; the plan and materials remain the same, though the approach might differ. The conversation will surely be different with different groups, and the response should follow naturally from the conversation. The environment matters.

A significant way in which environment matters is in terms of school size. If I were looking for another Master’s research project, I’d be interested in exploring the relationship between school size and culture. I deliberately moved from a school of around 3,000 students to one of around 300, both of which serve students in nursery school through grade 12. The larger school had more course offerings, activities, facilities, and resources. It had more options for students, professional growth opportunities for teachers, and the possibility of just about anything for a project or event. At the same time, it could be slow, bureaucratic, and frustrating to work within that system. With so many projects running at once, it sometimes seemed like nothing was ever thought through before execution, leading to problems that individuals had anticipated and wanted to address, but the meeting to discuss the idea was likely never held because something else took priority.

This is not to say that a small school is the answer to the above dilemma. In a small school, everyone goes above and beyond because the school’s daily functioning depends on teachers acting as support staff where needed. Due to budget concerns, there’s an awareness of cost when organizing large projects, but the projects themselves are easy to pull off in a relatively short time because the scale is so manageable. A limited number of adults also means no middle-management, which gives students and teachers immediate access to the school administration when it comes to presenting ideas or addressing problems. This proximity also contributes to visibility. Students are known by most teachers and teachers are known by most students; everyone is around and relatively easy to find, making for casual rather than formal interactions. While small staff size makes for relaxed meetings and easy dissemination of information, the opportunities for teacher growth and development are minimal.

At the moment, I’m curious about school culture and how the different issues faced by schools of different sizes contribute to the development of a learning environment. On the one hand, I truly miss the closeness of colleagues and friends of the large school and the community that we built among ourselves because the sheer size of the place could be overwhelming. The small school functions more as a collection of individuals who happen to work in the same place; people are comfortable enough that they don’t need a community.

But in the small school, I’ve been able to work with a group of students who come up with school-wide ideas and carry them out without too much interference. The small school also has fewer rules and procedures because individual students are easier to catch and redirect. But I miss having an overview of a process before it begins and clear steps of what to do in different situations, which was the case at the large school. That being said, I don’t miss the time it took to go through processes just so that all relevant parties would have the time to participate. It is easier to get things done in the small school because fewer people are involved, but I miss the teamwork in the large school. I miss having people around who know what I’m doing, but I’m glad to have the freedom to do what I think is right.

As for the students, it seems to me that there’s less academic pressure in the small school but perhaps more social pressure. A smaller number of students means less competition, which may or may not be a good thing, but fewer social opportunities for those who might actually find “their people” in a large environment. When there’s a social problem, everyone is affected, everyone knows, and there’s nowhere to hide. But there are perhaps fewer social problems because the students are closer to one another than they would be in a larger environment. By the time they graduate, many of these students have been together as a class for the majority of their lives, which means they function like a family. There may be some frustration and disfunctionality, but they grit their teeth and get along.

The flip side is that the sadness and apprehension palpable in grade 12 is far greater than anything I’ve seen before. The students understand the school because they have grown up in it, and being in such a small, safe environment with constant supervision has preserved their innocence. Again, this may or may not be a good thing. In a large school, perhaps some students would have been pushed by their peers to be more academically successful, or perhaps they would have been offered courses better suited to their needs. With peers less tolerant of immature behaviours, perhaps some students would have been forced to act differently. As before, this may or may not be a good thing.

I look around and ask these questions because it all comes down to the most significant question: How can I be the most effective teacher for this group of students in this environment?

Step one: Ask the questions.
Step two: Watch carefully.
Step three: Try something. And then try something else.
Step Four: Repeat.


*The last question was actually my first action research project as part of my Master’s program and what I learned from it fundamentally shaped my approach to teaching and learning.

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