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Class Size and the Student-Teacher Relationship

class size and the student teacher relationship

In an era where class sizes are increasing and educators feel they're losing the ability to form meaningful connections with students, the need for the student-teacher connection has never been more apparent. Students are struggling with their engagement, their ability to follow directions, their ability to  listen and work with one another. Executive functioning gaps are undeniably present. Teachers with large class sizes are struggling to meet their students’ needs and building relationships seems to be on the back burner. As one 7th grade teacher recently said to me, “I wish I had smaller class-sizes. I just can’t build relationships with my students when I have close to 25 in my class.” I spoke to another special education high school teacher who, after her first year of co-teaching, shared, “I miss the bond I had with my resource kids. We were like a family.”

I get it. As a former special education teacher, there is a sense of family that builds when class sizes are small. We know what our students need. It is a lot easier to glance over and see that a particular student is on track. It is easier to feedback and provide next steps all within a period. The teacher is able to learn about the lives of their students because rapport and mutual understanding is built everyday- even on those days when a student can’t seem to “get it together.”

Nevertheless, even with class sizes being out of teacher and school leadership control (because I believe that if leaders could reduce class sizes, they would), the research consistently demonstrates that building trust significantly impacts students academically, as they become more willing to take risks, put in effort, and engage actively in their learning (Zaretta-Hammond, 2015). This research is too important to ignore. 

So, how do teachers build relationships and trust and still provide 25 or more students with the individual support and attention that they need?

Tiered interventions grounded in data.

We know that tiered interventions work. However, far too often, Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions seem to be masked as supports solely reserved for resource rooms or other “special education” settings. This couldn’t be further from the truth. One on one conferencing and feedback, and small-group instruction, are remediation supports that must be part of instruction in a whole-class setting. These tiered supports, combined with strategic use of Checks for Understanding (CFUs), don’t only bolster academic progress, but also cultivate trust and rapport between educators and students. Plainly put, Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions can bridge the gap between educators and students, creating a more supportive and inclusive learning environment.

The Role of Checks for Understanding and Tiered Interventions

The focus on small, micro data collection moments should be leveraged. Why? Well, they allow teachers to provide instant remediation in the form of Tier 2 and Tier 3 support. The Check for Understanding (CFUs) is an indispensable tool that empowers educators to assess student comprehension in real-time, enabling them to tailor instruction to meet individual needs effectively. That tailored instruction should come in the form of small-group sessions and 1-on-1 conferences. The CFU plays a crucial role in guiding the intervention that is provided and ensuring that feedback is timely and succinct with time to continue moving through content within a single lesson.

Strengthening Student Relationships through Small-Group and 1 on 1 Support

Personalized Attention

In 1-on-1 conferences and small-group sessions, educators have the opportunity to provide personalized attention to each student. I had a teacher who shared that at the beginning of each small-group, he asks, “how are you?” and “what are you excited about this week outside of school?” Each student is given 30 seconds to respond. Usually, students are very eager to share and sometimes, students take a pass. In either case, it gives him a quick read on the student's state of mind and an opportunity to learn more about their interests.

Building Trust

Establishing trust between educators and students hinges on effective communication. When students understand that decisions regarding small-group sessions or 1-on-1 conferencing are grounded in concrete information rather than subjective factors, like behavior or having an Individualized Education Program (IEP), they are more inclined to trust that their teacher believes in their abilities. In such an environment, expectations remain consistently high for every student in the class, irrespective of their circumstances. When students feel heard and understood in this manner, they are more likely to actively engage in learning and develop a profound sense of belonging within the classroom community.

Targeted Support

Tiered interventions provide targeted support to students who may be struggling academically or emotionally. By using CFUs to assess student progress and comprehension, educators can tailor interventions to address specific areas of need effectively. This targeted support not only promotes academic growth, but also demonstrates to students that their challenges are acknowledged and addressed with care and empathy.

Celebrating Progress

CFUs not only serve as diagnostic tools, but also provide opportunities to celebrate student progress and achievements. By acknowledging and celebrating small victories along the way, educators can boost students' confidence and motivation, reinforcing a positive cycle of learning and growth.

As we continue to prioritize student relationships in education, let us leverage the power of CFUs to create meaningful connections that drive academic achievement and promote socio-emotional growth.

If you’re looking for a quick read that talks more about behavior, instruction, and building the student relationship, check this resource out.

And if you haven’t already done so, follow me on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Instagram for more.

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