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Getting to know one student at a time

Today's Lesson

Look at the desks. Seven rows wide and five deep-perhaps 35 students in one class. Thirty-five children to teach and to nurture. But wait-a full-time high school teacher teaches four classes. Imagine the numbers for her other classes dropping to 28, 27 and 30. Imagine an average of 30 students per class. That's 120 for a trimester. That's a lot of papers to grade. That's a lot of students to get to know.

And knowing adolescents is part of a teacher's job. That person in the back who looks down when called upon--he loves video games. That volleyball player to his right likes to read sports stories. The baseball player-on the eighth week I discovered he loved nature.

Striking out batters and building a raft to float the pond on his family's acreage-that describes one of my former composition students. He said little more than hi, but when he wrote about the pond, and the tranquil respite from life it provided, his language shouted: THIS POND IS IMPORTANT. On his final he wrote: "I didn't write well until I wrote about nature."

Once a teacher knows a piece about a student -- his pond, his cat, her job at Dairy Queen, her love of singing -- a relationship can sprout, and it is within safe relationships that the risk of learning, rather than a fear of failure, is cultivated. How many students take journalism because they like Mrs. McCusker? A lot. How many sign up for art because Mr. Ashley is funny, and he encourages his students? A lot. And how many work a little harder because a teacher has shown an interest in them. Many.

On the academic side, a smaller class affords more student opportunities. Discussions in smaller classes involve more students. In large classes the shy students clamp their jaws, locking their words inside; meanwhile, students who have opinions on everything from God to the best burrito always speak. The well-intentioned teacher will call on the quieter students who might say, "Don't know," and as usual-a few students will say a lot.

Then there are the unmotivated students seeking a place to hide. With 30-plus students per class, it's easier for a student to stare blankly into her future, not considering that with each class spent daydreaming her real dreams are fading. Place that same student in a class of 24 or less, and she is more likely to answer a question than become a dropout statistic.

A teacher dealing with classes of 30-plus generates another statistic-that of the dilemma of two minutes per student. The dilemma of not having enough time to gauge if the student is engaged or is just a warm body with a brain on sabbatical. Give me 24 students, and I can teach; give me 35 students and I can monitor. It's frustrating to look out at that sea of faces and know that I'm fighting a numbers game that unless I have the perfect class, I'll lose one or two students. (I've never had the perfect class.)

Still, smaller class sizes require money, but it is money well spent, as competition to get into college to later land a good job intensifies in a country that has few manufacturing jobs. A quick look at the Oregon Episcopal School web site is instructive. Tuition at OES is $19,000 a year. The average SAT scores are 664 verbal and 653 math.

One statistic OES trumpets-a student teacher relationship of fourteen to one.

That's seven desks wide two rows deep.

Now there's a chance to build a student/teacher relationship.