Yes, class size matters - and here's why

Dear Editor:

Peter Cameron, speaking to media on behalf of the B.C. Public School Employers' Association, has been dismissive of the notion that class size matters to student outcomes. Seemingly as a side note, he acknowledged that class composition has some impact.

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Then, he strongly emphasized that teacher competence is a very important determinant of improved student outcomes. What he neglected to mention, but most likely understands, is that the three factors are interrelated in important ways and cannot be sensibly discussed as separate issues. Arguments in favour of including class size and composition in the teachers' contract are fundamentally about institutionalizing working conditions that facilitate teacher competence, and thus support the diverse and varied learning needs of students.

I have been a teacher for over two decades, in large and small class-size situations, in public schools in the Lower Mainland of B.C., and in private schools overseas. I have found that class size has had little impact on the numbers of hours I devote to my work, but it does have a very strong impact on the quality of my interactions with students. When I teach large classes and have a larger student load overall, I have to shift to more of a "mass consumer" approach, rather than attending to individual and diverse learning needs of my students.

Both instructional approaches take time and energy, but the way that time is utilized is different. In large classes, students get less individual and personal care, and I as a teacher learn my craft more slowly.

One of the things that I love about my work is that I never really feel as though I have mastered it, thus I'm provoked to continually strive and struggle to learn and improve.

Even though over 3,000 students have been in my various classrooms over the years, when I have time and capacity to attend more closely to individuals, students are still showing me more and more layers of the ways in which they understand and make sense of things (or, misunderstand and struggle to make sense).

Thus, they continue to teach me how to be more useful to them as their guide and mentor. Each of those layers revealed to me by individual students is part of the ongoing training that helps me learn to be useful to a higher percentage of my students each year (when one student wakes me up more fully, all my students benefit).

Smaller classes are important for students, for the teachers, for the system as whole, and thus for our society.

Smaller classes, with supports appropriate to the diversity of learning needs within those classes, establish conditions in which teachers have the capacity not just to provide academic instruction to the masses, but also to provide care, and to more effectively learn and develop their professional expertise.

The institutionalization of class size limits and support for diversity in class composition is an investment in current and future students, which ultimately is an investment that supports the long-term heath and development of B.C. as a whole.  

Mati Bernabei, secondary school teacher, Burnaby school district

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