The difficulty with large class sizes is the effect of disorganisation on behaviour – simple lack of photocopies or a missing book can cut painfully into your tight timescales.
Then there is the mix of kids having a bad day: out of twenty it might be two, but if you have four or five out of forty setting each other off, your verbal reminders and negotiations can take most of the lesson and seriously darken the mood.
Space is also an important issue: classrooms designed for a maximum of 28 seats are difficult to master when filled with 33 or more. Not only are you subject to the foot-kicking complaints from threes sharing the ends of double desks, it becomes difficult to move up the class to speak to someone quietly; without a strategy you can find yourself calling certain names all day, or worse, shouting. If your school has an open classroom or a ‘no door’ policy, it can also be deafening listening to the equally over-packed neighbouring classes engaging in fantastically active learning all day, to the point where only the front row of your class can hear you.
Unfortunately, there is no government plan to reduce class sizes. Nonetheless, you can change your habits and expectations to make the day run more smoothly and ensure that everyone still gets the chance to learn.
Plan for it all to take longer
Transition does take time and can be stressful for many children. Allow time for it. When behaviour is challenging it’s tempting to pack a lesson to keep them busy but if you find that time runs out on you during one-hour lessons, plan for 50 minutes and have a standby enrichment activity.
Get to know your class
Be innovative about getting to know your students – including the reluctant learners hoping to fade into the background. Starting the term with ‘getting to know you’ questionnaires helps. If you keep a register list of one-word facts (academic or not) you have learned through personal interaction it shows which children have slipped through your net all month. Quash the habit of spending their walk-in time setting up your computer or the lesson or digital menu: if, instead, they learn that you are reliably accessible with a smile as they arrive every single day, it pays dividends.
Look up methods to structure your talk time
Instead of the entire class speaking over each other, train your students to listen as well as speak. Interviewing one front-of-class ‘expert’ works well and allows large groups to benefit from a two-way conversation. Another helpful trick is sharing information as A-B talk partners. Start by allocating them their role as partner A or B, then make a fun activity out of ‘listening encouragingly’: “Ok partner A, you don’t speak at all during this part: your job is to look pretty, encouraging your talk partner with enthusiastic nods and smiles, like this! If she gets stuck, you may whisper one prompt word. Partner B, you have thirty seconds to teach your partner absolutely everything you remember about sustainable rainforest products.”
Verbally review learning before you start
Your aim here is to minimise questions once you’ve started. You may feel that you’ve achieved less each lesson by spending ten minutes revising the previous learning, but in the long run it will work out more effective than taking fifteen individual questions. Use paired sharing to minimise the sharp ones getting bored during the review session.
Create strong working relationships
Cultivate strong and grateful relationships with your class adults. They can carry a lot of responsibility for the children’s learning. Use them for feedback and leading well-planned activities for groups. Train them to write detailed but concise named feedback in your file or on a post-it every lesson. You may not be able to work personally with every group every day but you can pre-plan by name every child to work with over a few days.
Plan plan plan!
Plan every detail in advance to avoid unexpected delays. However you organise your lesson resources (by day or subjects or other) your aim is to be able to grab and go. If you’re dealing with a nosebleed and a missing shoe and a lost book as you start the lesson, you won’t have much time to think.
Quit the admin
You are no longer able to hand out books or move around the room stamping sheets. Organise your materials and daily tasks in such a way that jobs can be handed out to class monitors without any instruction. Exercise books can be stored in boxes at the back that a single row monitor can always silently be responsible for fetching. Rotate and thank your class monitors regularly.
Don't mark it
No this isn’t a rebellion in the ranks, but it is time to think smarter about how to provide effective feedback to every student. I know heads who don’t allow children’s work to be taken home at all. The Fair Workload Charter stipulates a maximum of two hours after classroom time for teachers to complete their planning and assessment so find ways to mark only one or two lessons a night. Again, success is dependent on planning your resources (answer sheets or slides) so that each day you have a mix of (1) one self-marked lesson (2) peer assessed lesson (3) a lesson where other adults totally cover assessment and feedback to groups (4) verbal questioning/Assessment for Learning (5) Live marking as you move around the room.
Teach routines for every transition
Make your expectations clear about entering the room quietly and starting an activity from the first day of term. If you need to change the door from which they enter from a locker area to keep the sanctity of the peaceful zone, to do it.
Don't be afraid to ask for support
Remember to ask for reinforcement from school leadership: often Heads are able to offer support in ways you may not have considered.
About the author
Katie Newell BA(Hons) PGCE is an ex-primary school teacher, Head of Maths, Head of Year five and languages specialist. Katie qualified in Psychology at Liverpool then specialised in Primary Languages for her PGCE at Reading. Before teaching, Katie was a financial commentator and is now the Content Manager for eteach.com and fejobs.com. Katie feels passionately that teachers are the unsung heroes of society; that opening minds to creative timetabling could revolutionise keeping women in teaching, and that a total change to pupil feedback is the key to solving the work life balance issue for the best job in the world.