Category Archives: Education

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.

What Students Want

Recently I wrote a piece about asking students for feedback, which I have since discussed with several friends who are also educators. Subsequently, I had a conversation with a teacher assistant who is working towards teacher certification. She had a few questions that made me smile because they were questions that I first had in her shoes many years ago, questions that I grapple with often. In light of this, I thought it would be helpful to outline a few themes that came through in the DP Psychology course evaluations from my grade 12 students. As their words suggest, students appreciate the following:

Opportunities to learn from each other

I believe that the world needs good people, and I believe that good people work together. They support one another, they work towards shared goals, and they do what is right for the benefit of the group. Schools are phenomenal places of socialization and I’ve learned that these are the lessons that carry outside of the classroom and into the real world. Therefore, one strategy I often use in class is “jigsaw” learning. Divide a task into pieces, share the pieces among the group, conclude the task in a way that requires all pieces to come together. For example, if an essay question contains three parts and then requires an overall evaluation, all three parts must be complete before the group can work together on the evaluation.

But what if he doesn’t do his part, or she completes hers to a much higher degree than they do?

Certainly, this happens. But this is where the framing comes in. When this is framed as an opportunity for students to learn from each other rather than just to complete a task, interaction is more positive. When jigsaw activities provide a means of sharing a range of examples and information in circumstances where there is choice in what students ultimately decide to study, sharing knowledge means that a student might find what a peer has to say more interesting than what they themselves had prepared. In this case, the student has some background knowledge when it comes to making the choice to study a different example than the one they were originally assigned. A student’s overall success does not depend on peers, but working as a group gives everyone a clearer point from which to start.

Real deadlines

I am a stickler for deadlines and have always been. Normal classroom interactions, regardless of grade level, are as follows:

  • “I didn’t finish this.” –> “Submit what you have now.”
  • “Can I have more time?” –> “Submit what you have now and if you’d like to make changes, you have until X time. At that point, I’ll mark whatever is submitted.”
  • “I’m not ready for this test.” –> “Give it a try and if it’s a disaster, we’ll talk about it.”
  • “Do we have to turn this in today?” –> “Yes.”

(Full disclosure: There are exceptions, but they are rare.)

When students ask, as they always do, why deadlines matter, the answer is straightforward:

Deadlines matter because everything operates within the context of a bigger picture. If the problem is procrastination (this is very often the case, and the issue of distraction due to technology grows more alarming with every passing year) postponing a deadline will not solve the problem. Instead, it will exacerbate the problem by creating a domino effect with other deadlines.

Deadlines matter because they allow teachers to catch significant errors when there is still a chance to fix them.

Deadlines matter because unlike the students I work with, who are going through the IB Diploma Programme for the first time, I actually do know how the two-year program works, where the areas of difficulty are likely to be, what to watch out for, and the fluctuations in work ethic that occur throughout. It is not my first time guiding students through this program and that expertise counts.

The easiest example of maintaining real deadlines is with the submission of my students’ replication of a psychology experiment, an internal coursework component that makes up 20-25% of their final official psychology grade. Many students complain about the deadline and protest that we are months ahead of the IB required submission date. Yes we are, I tell them, and you will have plenty to do between now and then. Invariably, every single year, we laugh at this before students go off on study leave. They are always glad that this task was one more thing off the to-do list that never ends.

Organization

A number of years ago, when I moved into a school system that was fully integrated with technology, I started keeping daily plans for my students on blogs and websites with links to all of the resources we would need for that day. This evolved to include search functions, folders of resources, calendars, key words tags, and useful external links. Parents love it because class becomes transparent, and students love it because they know exactly what to do when they’re out and they know where to find everything we’ve ever done in class. When revising for an exam that covers two years of coursework, knowing where to find materials is especially useful. If I am organized, it takes that cognitive load away from my students and allows them to focus on the aspects of learning that require their individualized attention.

My students also wrote about how helpful it was to learn how exam questions are constructed, to begin every unit with a revision document that we filled out in sections throughout the unit, and to follow the same patterns and procedures over and over again. By the end of the course, our psychology key ideas organisers should contain absolutely everything students need to study. And I have heard from students over and over that while there is a lot in these documents, they work.

Thoughtful use of time

I think that one of the reasons students complain about school is similar to one of the reasons adults complain about meetings – they feel that their time is being wasted. I am all for teachers developing a rapport with students. This is critical to creating environments conducive to learning and and to getting to know one another as people, which is essential for working together. However, there is a time and a place. There is a time to laugh and joke, a time to tell a quick story, and a time to spend a few extra minutes on one topic over another.

On the other hand, classroom time is limited and there is a lot that is important to do during that time. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture and get caught up in tangentially related ideas, or to spend too much time sharing an interesting story and not enough time following the plan for the day.

We all know that it can be fun to get distracted in class, for teachers as well as students, and I have learned that students appreciate when teachers have an eye on this. There is always a lot to do and it is the responsibility of the teacher to make sure that it gets done and to make sure that limited time is used well.

A general sense of security

Overall, I think this comes down to the message that students appreciate actions demonstrating that teachers know what they’re doing and are working to help students achieve their goals. They want to know that teachers make decisions based on what works for students, that teachers are consistent, and that their time in school is valuable. They want to be treated with dignity and respect – and don’t we all?


Shortly after I wrote the first outline for this blog post at the beginning of April, this article came out. It says in better words, backed up with research rather than anecdotes, what I am trying to say here. “Calm, clear, and kind” are the themes that come through. And again, isn’t that what we all want in our interactions?

“Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think.” – Hanna Holborn Gray

Asking for Feedback

During a session not too long ago, my German teacher lamented how hard it is for teachers to receive real feedback, feedback about and from students themselves. We see exam results, but numbers on paper say nothing about the kind of person someone becomes, or the factors that shaped them. Some of my students have kept in touch over the years, which I deeply appreciate, but most go off into the world and end this chapter with finality.

When I was training as a teacher, I wrote to the high school teachers who had had the greatest impact on me. I have since received messages like this and understand how special they are. These are young people writing to say, “This is who I’ve become and I’d like you to know.” That means a lot.

In an attempt to understand my students’ experiences and to continue to develop my classes for future students, I ask for an anonymous course evaluation at the end of the year. There are questions about which units and assignments students liked and disliked, aspects of the class that they would definitely change or keep, their most important take-away message, and anything else they’d like me to know. For the most part, there’s diversity in preference but some very clear messages come through. Sometimes I heed them and sometimes I only smile, trusting that I actually do know better than these young people, or can at least think further down the road.

I’ll say more about common threads in these course evaluations in a future post, but here I’d like to mention a piece of real feedback that has stayed with me and told me I was doing something right. I can clearly remember when educating people became my focus. Once I understand the content of a course, and this is true with every new course, the real work of raising good people takes precedence. I want my students to feel seen and heard, but this is rarely something we actually find out. Enter: Course evaluations.

A student once wrote that they appreciated the LGBTQ pride in the classroom, effectively removing a taboo. Wherever I have been allowed to, I’ve had ally stickers on the board, for example, and lately there has been a rainbow flag on the desk at the front of the room. Never have I drawn attention to them, because that’s not what they’re for.

Another student told me that they first felt deliberately included in a class when I overtly addressed one of the problems with psychology research on relationships. It relies overwhelmingly on heterosexual couples, with lesbian women a particularly understudied population. In this discussion of limitations of research, a student saw themselves and felt part of something.

Knowing the impacts of such small acts on students is critical to understanding how to build rapport with young people, how to create an environment in which the goal is to grow, which may look very different for different people. It also calls into question the small acts that have negative impacts, erode relationships, and also leave their mark on learning. The kind of feedback many teachers crave is the kind that tells us how we are doing in the deeply human part of this profession, the kind that is far more important than exam results or university acceptances. I learn from these course evaluations every time and every time I am a little nervous when handing them out. What will they say this year?

I was almost expelled in grade eight when, in response to a teacher demanding “the truth” about why our class “didn’t like her”, I raised my hand and answered. From that experience, I internalized a lesson: If you ask the question, you need to be prepared for the answer.

Thank you for a great year. Please let me know your candid, honest thoughts on the questions below so that I can improve this class for future students. Thank you!

And really, I thank you.

Weimar, Germany – April 2022