42. Class Size

Once, driving home from an evening conference at a parent’s house, I was listening to David Brodnoy on the car radio. He was saying that class size had absolutely no effect on the quality of education. A good teacher, he said, would do just as good a job with a class of forty as with a class of twenty. This was before they’d come up with car phones. If I’d had a car phone, I would have pulled over and called him. As it was, I had to try to keep my mind on driving, and call
when I got home, when, for all I knew, he’d be saying kids and teachers should stay in school on weekends and vacations.
For me, the ideal class size is twenty, with ten boys and ten girls. When the size gets smaller, it’s harder to build a diverse community, with different learning styles, personal styles, interests, etc. As class size gets larger, it gets harder to be sure individuals get the attention they deserve. It would be harder to make sure every child is heard, every personal problem or learning problem is addressed. And it would certainly be harder to have evening conferences at parents’ homes.
All of these things are hard anyway, and each year teachers work to come close. We know we can’t be perfect, but we do try. Teachers, for the most part, also have other things they need to do in their lives. They may need more income than teaching provides, so they may have other work. They may have families and friends who need attention and time. Every teacher has different ways to spend non-teaching time. Some were shocked that I had evening conferences, as I was shocked that they got all their paperwork done every day.
In all my years of teaching, my largest class had twenty-six children, and my smallest had eighteen. I usually had close to twenty. When I tell this to teachers who work in other towns, some consider it normal, but some are impressed, and want to work in Wellesley. I haven’t yet come across any who seriously say, “How can you teach with so few children in your class?” or “Eighteen children! How can you possibly keep track of them all?” The class size I’ve experienced in Wellesley seems to be what most teachers consider ideal.
I called David Brodnoy. I had thought the issue through thoroughly, I thought. I learned that oral debate is not my medium. He backed me into a corner where I think I said a class of eight would be fun to teach. Then he hung up on me before I could recover, and told the radio audience that I was a typical teacher – that I wanted to have an easy life, and squander the taxpayers’ money. Really, I don’t. Neither do the rest of the teachers. We want to make sure we can teach your children in the best possible way.

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