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in education. | CHRISTINE BARON

47's a Crowd

October 14, 1998|CHRISTINE BARON

The teachers at my school had a chance to speak with some school board members recently. There were the usual questions about salary negotiations, building repairs and personnel decisions.

Then the inevitable question arose about class size from a veteran teacher.

Let me back up. In California, we've dealt with large classes for so long now that it's become a kind of sick joke. Faculty members discuss their numbers like soldiers swapping war stories. Sarcasm and bravado are part of our pattern of denial.

But this teacher, who had 47 students in one of her classes, suddenly dropped any tough facade and for a moment displayed the frustration and pain we all feel.

"I just don't think I can do it this time," she said. "I just don't think I can do it." The room got very quiet. Her voice cracked as she asked a board member, "When is this going to end?"

I have a gut feeling this question is being asked in a lot of junior high and high schools this fall. Although there has been great progress in reducing class size at the elementary level, it has had no significant impact on the upper grades. The new state budget includes money to reduce the sizes of ninth-grade English and math classes, but it works on matching grants, and many schools, including mine, lack the money to match. Even then, the money will affect only a small portion of high school students.

We now routinely have geometry classes of 37 students, English classes with 38, remedial reading classes with 39, chemistry classes with 40--and, yes, art classes with 47 should be cause for shame and outrage. With all the improvement at the primary grades, California still has the highest student-teacher ratio in the nation.

Just fitting 39 students into the average classroom is a struggle. The teenagers are crammed together for an hour, restless, in love, tired and hungry. Some may not speak much English, some may have attention deficit disorder. Many many read below grade level.

And that's just one class. Most teachers have four more classes like that during the course of a day. My daily total of students is 175 or 180.

If I assign an essay a week to each of my English students and I spend only eight minutes reading and making comments on each one, that's 25 hours a week outside the other demands of the job. Yet the ability to write good essays is crucial to their ability to perform well on SATs, to attend good colleges--and to express themselves throughout life.

Imagine grading science labs, social studies essays, foreign language projects, and math problems where the process as well as the answer is important. All this takes hours and hours in addition to the regular tasks of teaching.

And for each student there is a multitude of tasks: learning their names and faces, calling on every student for class discussion (once a week, forget once a day), seeing who is absent and why, handing out makeup work, making enough photocopies for everyone, finding enough undamaged textbooks, recording and keeping track of all the grades, and responding to the parents who want to talk to you.

There's also the very basic task of keeping tabs on so many young people so they don't fall through the cracks. Whose grade is slipping, who has been absent way too much, who looks sad today? The pressure of dealing with this many students is constant and it wears down even the most dedicated teacher.

I wish I could say this was an exaggeration, but it isn't. Teachers are being stretched to the breaking point and students are increasingly at risk of falling through the cracks. Inevitably there is less writing, less discussion, less effective remediation, less individual attention of any kind. We can't assign the amount or kind of work students should be doing for optimal education and stay sane. Many papers go ungraded, and those that do get less attention.

Because teachers tend to be responsible types, most continue trying to do it all even when it's clearly not possible. I have colleagues suffering from any number of stress-related problems and some who are considering early retirement because they just can't do a job they're proud of any more. Rather than gaining status and perquisites with experience, many dedicated teachers feel their job gets harder each year. And lazy teachers can always use the cynical excuse, "Why should I do anything under conditions like these?"

Teaching is a profession many of us chose because we loved it and we thought we could make a difference. Yet the conditions we teach in continually deliver the message that this work is not considered of the highest importance.

We keep trying, but staying in this profession too often means shortchanging students, and that's a compromise no decent teacher wants to make.

Christine Baron is a high school English teacher in Orange County. You can reach her at or (714) 966-4550.

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