Class Size and Deathless Prose: Clamor in the Classroom!

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by Maren Johnson

When you teach five high school classes a day, five days a week, you're not inclined to go home to clear your head and fashion deathless prose. After a day of five classes your head is filled with the clamor of the classroom.

~Frank McCourt, Teacher Man

McCourt, a thirty-year teaching veteran and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela's Ashes, is describing the reason it took him so long in life, until the age of 66 actually, to write his first book.

Unlike Frank McCourt, I am not trying to "fashion deathless prose." I am just trying to write this blog post. However, I know what he is talking about. After a day of five classes, interacting with one hundred-and-some-impossibly-large number of high school students, putting together a coherent series of thoughts can be a daunting challenge.

Last year I had a student teacher–an outstanding one. This year, she has her own classroom in a different district. One of my fellow teachers recently gave her Teacher Man, which we also read for a school book study a few years ago. My former student teacher brought the "deathless prose" and "clamor of the classroom" quotation above to our attention. Yes, that "clamor of the classroom" is often a positive thing, but, still, it is a day-long clamor! My former student teacher is dealing with many of the challenges faced by new teachers as they enter the profession. On top of all this, she has some very large class sizes! I have a few of those as well, and some of my colleagues have classes that are downright physically crowded.

My large classes are full of students with large personalities! One student wants to tell about the funny thing that happened to him yesterday afternoon. He has a new story every day. Another student has a long, complicated, and ongoing drama involving a boyfriend. A student is learning English and wants to follow me around asking questions. Another student is learning English and sits silently. One student unexpectedly shows up with some silica salts that change color when dehydrated. This will require a Bunsen burner. Three students are about to leave for the sports event and need their homework right now. All that put together adds up to "clamor in the classroom," seriously complicated by large class sizes!

While the sheer number of daily human interactions itself can sometimes be hard for both students and teachers, there are other reasons large class sizes pose problems. With smaller classes, we are able to provide more individualized attention to each student–and students have more opportunities to make relationships with adults in the classroom and with eachother. Low income students show especially large academic gains when they have small class sizes. Teachers stay in the profession longer when their class sizes are not so large–and this results in more consistent and stable instruction in schools.  School counselors with large caseloads face similar issues.

Back in 2009, the Washington state legislature passed ESHB 2261, which established the Quality Education Council. The Quality Education Council adopted recommendations for specific lower class sizes, but staffing allocations in the state budget have yet to fund these.

Now the Washington state legislature needs to put its own recommendations for lower class sizes, recommendations adopted by the Quality Education Council, into place in our schools.  It might be time to clamor for it.

5 thoughts on “Class Size and Deathless Prose: Clamor in the Classroom!

  1. Rob

    A large class compounds almost every difficulty in teaching. Our finite amount of energy is split among more students. Grading, conferencing, report cards all take longer to complete. Managing materials, movement, and the physical space within the classroom is more difficult. Coat racks overflow. You run out of curricular materials. Students have less opportunity to use the available technologies in the class. Large class sizes simply makes the job of teaching more difficult.

  2. Mark Gardner

    I agree with Rob, but it not only makes the job of teaching more difficult, it makes the job of learning more difficult for the students. For a kid who is one of thirty-plus in a room, the demand for independent work, having a natural intrinsic drive to learn, and the capacity for advocating for oneself increases tremendously. If teachers are going to do their jobs in overcrowded classrooms, then someone else needs to be instilling the independence, work ethic, advocacy skills, and intrinsic desire to learn. Make our classrooms smaller, and we have greater flexibility and time to build these as well as our content.

  3. Mark Gardner

    *I meant that independence, an intrinsic desire to learn, and self-advocacy skills are what students need to bring with them to class if class sizes are going to be so large.

  4. Tom

    I hear you. Boy do I hear you. I also hear Frank McCourt. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to school thinking about what I could write on this blog when I get home, yet seven hours later all I want to do is watch a ballgame on TV.

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