Elementary Specialization

I teach 5th grade, the last year of elementary school in my district. Do you remember what it was like when you were in fifth grade? I actually have a hard time remembering that year, so I’ll just think back to 6th grade. And maybe that’s better anyway because in my school, 6th grade was the last year in elementary. Ok. There’s my teacher: short sleeve button-down shirt and a striped tie. I remember sitting in his room all day long – time to do this, time to do that, recess, lunch, you get the picture. This doesn’t look anything like what 5th grade looks like in my school, and I’m pretty happy about that.

My school has three tracks, which means that there are three teachers at every grade. Not long ago there were only two, but we’ve grown. Before I came to this school the two 5th grade teachers (one of whom I now teach with) decided that they didn’t want their students to miss out on what the other had to offer, so they swapped students for one period a day. Many elementary teachers have done and continue to do this. I did this with my previous teaching partner at a different school with a single subject. “I’ll do all of the math; you do all of the science,” or whatever. What they started here went a step further, and then a step further. When the other teacher retired six years ago I slid into the program as the math and science teacher. When we grew to three tracks and hired a third teacher, the division of labor became even more well defined.

Our program is a little like middle school, but as we like to say – with a safety net. It’s still elementary school, but we do everything we can to prepare our students for what is to come. Students move between each of the three 5th grade teachers in the morning periods, and spend the afternoon period with one of us on rotating basis. They also see specialists once a week in the afternoons for P.E., library, and choir. There are many fine things about this arrangement. Students win because they are exposed to the gifts from each teacher and they get a chance to learn in different settings with different teaching styles. The teachers win too because they love their subjects, and they no longer have to prepare for six different classes, rather just two. But there are some sacrifices too. My student load is 78 students rather than just 26. That means more grading, tracking, remediating, challenging, and helping along, but nothing a typical middle school teacher would mind – many of them have a load of 125 or more. The relationships with students are typically not as deep as they would be in a self-contained class, but then again there are more relationships. Up until this year this type of arrangement always seemed really good to me, but now it seems to be almost necessary. Here’s why.

School has changed – even in the short timeframe (nine years) I have been teaching. We now have Common Core and Race to the Top – both of which have brought significant changes to every classroom in America. But beyond (and within) some of the shifting lingo, there is a great deal more being asked of our young students today than there once was. I think we all agree about that. As these expectations rise, the skills required to teach these disciplines does as well. Is a generalist expected to be an expert in all of these subjects (reading, math, science, social studies, writing, and health)? Don’t get me wrong, there are amazing generalists out there, but the job has gotten more and more difficult to the point where there probably just aren’t enough. I think it’s time to (re) consider having more specialists in the elementary schools. How about a math department that can coordinate and deliver a closely planned sequence of instruction for all of the students in an entire school? They would be able to deeply collaborate about math (or their shared math students) and not have to worry about “the other subjects.” In an era of ever-increasing teacher and student expectations, taking on everything in an elementary curriculum is a tremendous load.

Consider too that this model of teaching has impacted my professional development. Because I was so deeply engaged in mathematics, I was able to take on a master’s degree in math education in the evenings and summers without it being completely overwhelming. Not that it was easy, but all of the mental energy was inline with the rest of my work, so it fit. In addition to the master’s degree, I also added a high school math endorsement to my teaching certificate. This deeper grasp of math helps me better prepare my students for higher mathematics. A few years after I finished the master’s I pursued National Board Certification – equally rigorous, and deeply beneficial to my practice. This too was in line with my teaching practice as I certified in Early Adolescent Mathematics. Now, six years into this specialized program, I have developed a much deeper expertise in teaching math to young students.

The job of teaching is difficult on its own, but if that wasn’t enough there are often big changes that take place from year to year. This year my district adopted a new math curriculum for K-5. It takes a great deal of work outside of my contracted hours to learn a new program and prepare to teach it. In my case, I get to teach each lesson three times a day. My single prep is also made that much easier due to the depth of my content and pedagogical knowledge. Then there is the speed at which I become proficient with the material. Before winter break most elementary teachers will have taught about 70 math lessons, while I will have taught 210. Student learning outcomes surely improve with all of that experience. At the same time, changes coming down the pike in English Language Arts fall upon the shoulders of my more-than-capable colleagues.

Hung-Hsi Wu wrote an in-depth article making the case for elementary math specialists a few years ago, but I would suggest that similar arguments could be made for every discipline. What do you think?

One thought on “Elementary Specialization

  1. Tom White

    Great post, Spencer! I teach fourth grade, and we’ve talked now and then about specializing, but we’ve always stopped short, mostly due to the concerns you listed. Maybe someday…

    I should add that around the country, elementary specializing is starting to become the norm, especially in fifth and sixth grades.

Comments are closed.