Gosh, what a big class!!

Rather an ordinary start ... once upon a time

I have been teaching for 25 years. Public schools and private ones. Back then, when I was still practising in public schools, the classes were considered large in number when having 25 pupils. Later on, I ventured into private tutoring. Teaching up to 8 children and being absolutely free to explore any programme and the approach I fancied, while studying literature on learning mechanisms and ways of teaching methods, have led me into exploring new ways of teaching, focusing mostly on young language learning.

To me, it is thrilling and inspiring. Children are enjoying themselves, I enjoy teaching and parents are happy. A fairy tale ending, isn't it?

The good and the not-so-good elements in the fairy tale

Seeing a large number of unhappy, exhausted and frustrated teachers in public schools, together with some very bad experience regarding the teaching attitude towards my own children, led me to the idea, to share my practical findings (based on proven theories) with other teachers. I organised seminars (7 so far) and the teachers who attended them were all in praise, both with the new concept of teaching languages and the high quality of the seminars. A year has passed and all of the 109 teachers, who attended the seminars, had found themselves back in their school environment with no or very little support from the principal to help them put into practice their freshly acquired knowledge. Those few who were lucky, however, are doing their best, trying to 'swim their way in big classes' not knowing how to apply their knowledge in such demotivating conditions.

It was warmly advised and suggested to start forming smaller groups and employing cooperative learning. Yet it seems the idea was rather scary to all for the excuses were many. Maybe I am wrong, but I have a strong feeling that most of the teachers are not prone to changes (Better the devil you know than the devil you do not know.)

The good and evil characters in the fairy tale 

Hearing the complains and exhaustion from the teachers I undoubtedly believe: Slovene school system sucks. (Pardon my French, but that's the naked truth.)

Now, there is a fairy tale conflict; on the one side there's this devil (the school system) who makes the teacher's life miserable, and there are good characters, the teachers - innocent, good natured, kind ... clever? helped by others?

And there's a prince on a white horse who is going to rescue them ...

Yeah, right!

The devil I know

It so happened that I got a job at one public primary school a month ago. Classes are very large in number: 27-29 pupils per class, 6 classes. And so I met the devil.

I knew the 'classic' way of teaching could not apply in situations like this ... at least not to anyone's benefit. One simply cannot have a suitable control over all of the 29 pupils. Especially while being limited with some other unpleasant conditions:
  • the class is filled with desks and chairs, with no space to move around.
  • pupils are nervous, feeling as if being cramped in a tin can. Their personal space is constantly disturbed, they have no place to 'calm away' which results in their zero tolerance for a fellow pupil. Arguments and disturbance are a constant.
  • Their usual learning experience is sitting at the desks, listening to the instructions and filling up exercises in workbooks. 
  • I am stuck in a system of 45 minute lessons and 5 minute breaks in between. No room for extending the lessons if a situation dictates, but have to finish them 'ad hoc' regardless of its harm done on the learning process as well as children's learning attitude. 
  • I never have a chance to sit down with other teachers to discuss the pupils and/or talk about how to entwine our programmes. A 5 minute break is barely enough to discard the things from the previous class and grab the things I need for the next one. (To catch a breath is an illusion.)
Those are just the basic conditions. I believe I am not wrong if I assume most of the teachers are in pretty much the same situation.

A prince on a white horse?

The aforementioned conditions are the devil I know. And not I nor children do not like them. Not a bit. 

And where's the prince to rescue me? 

There is not one.  I'm the good character in my fairy tale therefore I posses innocence, good nature, kindness and cleverness. I believe that once I employ them, the help will come.

Using my cleverness, while remaining good natured and innocent, I started making changes in my class:

The first step: Forming small cooperative groups of children.

It is recommended that for small children, up to the age 9/10, groups of 4 children is optimal. This, of course, would be ideal, but my conditions are slightly different. There is simply no room for organising 7 or 8 groups in the classroom. Therefore, I had made 5 groups of 5-6 children. Not Ideal, but far better than one group of 29. The groups have names and the members do not change groups. At least for the time being. 

The purpose of the groups:

  • children have the opportunity to learn cooperative skills,
  • children have the opportunity to learn in action and through their own experience. They do not need to do everything by themselves as they have group members who can help them,
  • children can do activities more intensively in smaller groups. Their turn of involvement is more frequent,
  • children are far more motivated in completing a task since te groups are competing with one another by earning points for achievements,
  • I can monitor pupils better, observing one group at the time, while all of the groups are in action, busy working, and there is no disturbance among children,
  • children can do a lot of class management instead of me which leaves me more time to focus on children's progress and tailoring lessons to individual needs.

The current plot or, the real-life situation after a month of the cooperative-organised class 

Classroom management:
  • after two lessons, children have learned to prepare the classroom themselves. When I arrive for the English lesson, all of the desks are already pushed to one side of the classroom, leaving us enough room to make a large 'oval' for the starting part of the lesson and/or to arrange 5 groups of children for cooperative group work. 
  • The 'group achievements' chart is visibly fixed on the wall for everyone to see the results. 
  • The 4 smilies are shiningly beaming from the wall, encouraging children to keep their voices in low volume in order to hear each other better. Whenever the volume increases, one smiley is turned over and a letter 'O' appears instead. If the 4 smilies are turned over, the word 'OVER' echoes upon the classroom which means the class has earned a piece of homework.
Group work:
  • By now, children have come up with the basic understanding that unless all of the members in the group complete the task, the group does not earn points.
  • There are complains from the 'working' members of the group, that certain members have not completed their tasks. The reaction is only natural and was expected. My explanation to them is always the same: "I am sorry, but that is not my problem. Make sure you remind your member to complete the task next time. You are his fellow groupie and it is your responsibility to make sure that everybody does their job." 
My role:
  • I make sure that the group tasks are not too complex for a start. I also make sure the lesson does not finish without a reflection on a work group achievements:
    • I always reward a group with one point when all of the members have completed their tasks. I praise their effort and use them to set an example in order to encourage others to do better next time.
    • I praise the effort of every individual who encourages their fellow groupies even though not all are willing to listen to their schoolmates. I have learned it is going to be a longer process to make children become aware it is in their interest to listen to their groupies and take into consideration their comments. It is simply something they have no experience of.
    • Those, who do not want to cooperate, I simply ask: "Do you want to work alone? Would you rather nobody wanted you in a group and you'd always be alone in everything?" Usually it works ... until next time. And then I repeat again. Sometimes I have to make individual conversations to see what the real problem is. There are many, but let us leave that for some other time. For now, I can only say that working together is not a self-understood skill, but rather something that needs a lot of time and practice to learn. Specially with young children!
  • Assessing children became easier. I have my own chart with children divided into groups. When they are working in groups I simply move from one group to another, observe and mark their achievements. 
  • Next year, I have a plan to make a chart with aims and the children will individually colour the aims they have achieved. I do that in the private school I teach and it works magnificently.

The evil has slightly changed. There is a new devil I know.

Changes, though small, have made my teaching and children's attitude towards English slightly better. I still rush from one class to another. A 5 minute break is simply not enough. 

45 minutes are also not enough for some real cooperative work. In the period of a learning-skill proces it will do, but applying some real knowledge to it, it will definitely not. 

Pushing desks from one place to another is not a long-term solution. 

I have a better solution to a new  devil. I'll discuss it over with my principal. Will keep you posted about the outcome...

About the help that will come

The first help was from the principal. I came to him with the problem and the solution: "I need more time for English lessons in order to fulfil my professional desire and achieve all the curriculum aims." And he granted my wish for the next school year. Until then I am free to make double lessons as long as I coordinate with the primary teachers individually ...

The second help I seek ... I am looking for like-minded teachers. Again, in order to achieve that, I have to take an action.

I have invited three teachers from our neighbouring schools to come and see my lesson. They all have the same approach in language learning, they use the same material and they have shown interest into their own professional development. (They visited my seminars). If they are going to be interested with my proposal, I would like to engage them in mutual observations in order to find better solutions to teaching. Engaging our principals in helping us making better working conditions is also in my plan.

The sequel to my fairy tale

I am currently exploring the possibilities within the given situation but in the near future I hope I will find some other teachers willing to cooperate with me, following my steps and adding some new ideas on different subjects, and different fields.

I am currently working on effective classroom management and children-oriented teaching. In the long run, I would like every teacher to have what is necessary to make a quality teaching. I have a plan to organise teacher to teacher observations among schools, constructively reflecting on their work, their achievements and supporting them in their professional development as well as building up better working/learning/teachng conditions. And, to share a little secret with you; in the latter (building up better working/learning conditions) I do not stand alone. We are a small group of people from different fields already working on ways how to approach the subject. In Slovenia, I know, it is going to be a tough job.

So, if there is anyone who shares my view, my approach, who has been to my seminars and knows my enthusiasm, my belief and my persistence or has enough courage to make a change ... actually anything from the above mentioned ... contact me. 

I hope I hear from somebody.

They lived happily ever after

That does not depend on me. The success depends on all of the teachers. If you join in, the outcome will be positive. Changes in the system can be made only if we are many, and we work together towards the same goal. 

My success and the success of any individual joining me, however, is achieved the moment we start making changes for ourselves. That would be 'our happily ever after', but not your ... if you're not in the team.

Actually, I already have one 'happily ever after': I share my knowledge through seminars, through blog and through writing articles and I have made teaching tools for English language learning. And I know (and you should, too) that what you do with it is not my responsibility. 

BE ACTIVE or ACCEPT YOUR  CURRENT SITUATION THE WAY IT IS. You have a choice. But know that: "You only get what you invest in." Because, there is no prince on a white horse. It's only you.

To be part of our fairy tale

Simply sleep on what you have just read and decide whether you would like to join the group of teachers who are willing to find a better working/teaching conditions and enrich the ways you teach.

Follow 'Kje pa vas čevelj žuli' social group on Facebook created by Marjana Škalič. You will get the picture of what is going on ...

And when you decide ... contact me.