Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Hekia had 46 kids in her class and she was taught well - how would that go in today's classrooms?

On Sunday morning I woke up to this article in my Twitter feed, an opinion piece from Jonathan Milne titled: A good teacher can inspire anywhere - but small classes help (4/9/16,

A read through soon showed me a bunch of out of date clich├ęs, such as the outdated phrase "stop work meeting", but this one from Minister Hekia Parata was particularly galling:

"I went to Manutahi School in Ruatoria," she told me. "I got in touch with my old teacher there recently, and he told me there were 46 children in my class, and that wasn't the biggest class in the school. We got taught well."

This is a classic that is often thrown out by people who think they are experts in how school should be because they went to school.  My grandmother went to school in the 1920s and often told me she had 50 odd kids in her class.  But to know that the Minister of Education is saying this is horrifying because that shows she understands so little of what goes on in schools today and how teaching works.

Minister Parata is currently 57 years old (I checked, thanks Wikipedia) so began school I expect in November 1963 when she turned 5 years old.  Back then I assume it was not to dissimilar to when I started school in late 1978, wooden tables, wooden chairs.  As you moved through the school you got a wooden desk with the lift up lid and the hole where predecessors put their ink bottles, and an incredibly uncomfortable wooden chair.  My teacher had our class sitting in our year groups.  Maybe Hekia's teacher did too.  Maybe her teacher had them lined up in rows.

Today I walk into a class and there are not enough desks and chairs for all the students - on purpose.  In a modern learning environment, students do not necessarily have to sit at the desk.  They may be on cushions on the floor or standing at a standing desk, all their possessions stored in a cubby or tote tray.

I just thought though after reading Mr Milne's opinion piece that Ms Parata needed a reminder of what having 46 students in a class today would be like - she needed a reality check.  So I tweeted her, 34 times, to get my thoughts across.

So let's look at what is different from the 1960s when Hekia was at primary school to 50 years later when my first nephew started school, following by another nephew and niece.  Let's compare their realities to Hekia's golden memories of her school days.

Well first of all, the biggest change, is we have a lot of assessment now compared to the 1960s and we have National Standards which means more reporting and graphs and stuff and it's all very intense compared to what Hekia's teacher did 50 years ago when s/he was teaching Hekia.  And I did a bit of maths to explain this.

Running records to assess reading were not around when Hekia began school.  But imagine if her teacher had to do 46 quality accurate running records for 46 students.  I estimated, conservatively, that this would take up more than a week of teaching time.

Then there is gathering writing samples.  The assessment and moderation with colleagues could eat up at least a week of teaching time if you all had 46 kids, because that would be 138 assessments to moderate.  And some schools expect you to do this twice a term, which would be up to two weeks of teaching time to do a quality assessment of a student's writing ability.

I reckon it would take at least another week to get through 46 kids to do either the full Numeracy assessment or JAM or Gloss accurately on every child... plus the time to monitor an IKAN assessment and mark and level those.

Plus there are the administration of assessments like spelling, basic facts, Burt Word Test, PATs, STAR, and possibly e-asTTle for triangulation purposes and the time to mark and level all these assessment and record the data in a Student Management System (SMS) along with the data from the reading, writing and maths.  That is at least another week of teaching time.  And don't tell me PaCT will make life easier Hekia, because that will still be just as time consuming and an 'add on' rather than an 'instead of'.

So far I think we have racked up four weeks of quality assessment of 46 students (conservatively) taking up important learning time.  Who is going to release a teacher for four weeks to do assessment every term?  Imagine trying to get quality assessment for that many students AND manage the class learning and behaviour at the same time!!

So times for some times tables.  If it takes me four weeks every term to get the assessment done for 46 students, that would be 4x4=16 weeks over the year of assessing instead of teaching.  A teaching year is roughly 40 weeks, so 40-16=24, so that is only 24/40 weeks used for learning and teaching to get my 46 students to the Standard.

Here is some more maths, putting those weeks into actual days:  I have 200 (approximately) real whole days to teach.  If I am assessing for 5x16=80 days and only teaching for 120 then I am using up 60% of my time with these children on assessment.  It should only be 10% maximum.

Now I have already mentioned that a teacher has to input the data collected on the SMS for their school.  But there is a heap of other stuff you have to consider would get bigger if they have 46 students: there is collating the data, report writing, planning, updating records, PaCT (if you get it past the gate, but that is another story)...

Then there are the meetings.  Teachers are always going to have staff, syndicate, curriculum and appraisal meetings, but do not forget about the meetings they have with parents and caregivers, RTLBs, RTLits, Special Education staff, speech language therapists (if you can get one!), and other outside agencies.  Several years ago my class of 19 Year 4-8 students had six students with special education needs - Downs Syndrome, Global Development Delays, Dyslexia - a third of my class and this is not unusual in many other classes!  With 46 students I would estimate 15 students would have special learning needs - that is a lot of meetings with parents and supporting agencies and a lot of writing and assessing of IEPs.

Hattie, Hekia's favourite academic, argues that class size is irrelevant and quality feedback is what counts.  So I am supposed to give all 46 students quality feedback every day.  Good luck with that!  When will I have time to develop my relationships with them, develop trust and know their little quirks and what they need when I have 46 students at once?  How do I support the wellbeing of 46 individuals?  How fair is that on the students?

Speaking of wellbeing, let's talk about the wellbeing of teachers.  Teachers are wilting under the workload of their current classes.  Imagine the chaos of teachers collapsing under the workload of 46 students.  Imagine the damage to their mental health, let alone the damage to their relationships with family and friends. 

In December 2012 a mental health worker told me she had seen five teachers that last week alone.  It's progressively becoming a bigger issue.  Every week I see posts on NZ Teachers of people who are over worked and worn out, seeking support or claiming they are leaving the profession due to the workload.  Personally, I am happier not to be doing the workload this year - studying is hard enough.  We are losing great teachers out of the profession because the workload has become what two teachers should be doing - yet you think we could have 46 in a class!

So how will one of your Teach First NZ teachers with their eight weeks of intensive training to be a teacher cope with 46 students in their class Hekia?

So back to the classroom furniture we talked about earlier.  Most schools struggle to fit 30 students and their associated desks and chairs into a standard classroom, let alone 46 students!  And I'm not sure that you noticed Hekia that kids are generally bigger than what they were 50 years ago, so fitting 46 students in would be a big challenge.... but I guess you will solve that with Communities of Online Learning, aye Hekia.

Ultimately, you need to remember that the teaching conditions of a teacher are the learning conditions of a child.  So if we flipped all of these arguments to the child's view, it means less individual time with the teacher, as teacher who is not teaching as much, too many assessments, lost in a crowd of other students and having a teacher who is stressed out to the max.

And this is what Global Funding could present to our schools.

But that's ok according to Hekia.  She was in a class of 46 and she was taught well.

Thanks to the fabulous cartoonists of New Zealand for the illustrations.  Hekia is giving you a lot of material, that's for sure.  Love your work.


  1. I like your style! Would have to say though, that the biggest difference is that kids are living very different lives now to what they were back in 1960!Or 1978 for that matter. most back then had someone waiting for them at home after school, most had two parents parenting together. None had the impact of media bombardment, or even TV! Mental health is different these days. One way we look after our kids (and their teachers for that matter) is to lessen the stress of multiple, dynamic relationships (some of which are VERY complicated). 46 kids is not good for anyone in our modern environment. I cannot think WHY the spin doctors are not out doing damage control on this one.

  2. Please forward this article to Mike Hoskins who also thinks we do nothing but enjoy long holidays. What's ironic is he's always on holidays with us mmmm.

  3. As a school child in the sixties I remember the big classes. There was a chronic shortage of teachers when I moved into standard 1- 1960-hence the large classes. Misbehaviour was dealt with swiftly by the strap, kids with special needs were in special classes or special schools, and whole class teaching predominated. Very different from what I see in classrooms today. RTLB

  4. I wonder how long Hekia would survive in one of my classes of 32 junior students - oh yes and this is at a decile one school. They have no idea at all.