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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 12, Number 3, Nov./Dec. 1999

Class-size limits:
Teachers and students benefit

by Bill Ferguson

Flexibility is a word teachers in West Vancouver hear whenever they discuss class size with their school board trustees. During its budget setting process, the West Vancouver Board invites its stakeholder groups to offer advice as to where its priorities should be. Year after year, the teachers and, more recently, the parents have advised the board to focus attention on reducing class size. Its response was always “flexibility.” Class-size limits would take away from the board its perceived need for flexibility in meeting the myriad needs of our public school system and thus create chaos.

West Vancouver is one of the few districts in the province with no language in its collective agreement concerning class size. At times the superintendent appears to take great pride in that fact, saying that it allows the board greater “flexibility” in meeting other needs of the system. However, whenever the trustees say “flexibility” the teachers hear the word control. Class sizes in our district continue to be some of the largest in the province. Teachers want the board either to direct its flexibility at class size or to accept class-size limits.

For the last number of years, the board, claiming that many studies prove that smaller class size has no effect on student performance, ignored the advice of both the parents and teachers who believe that smaller classes enhance student learning.

And then along came the new Letter of Understanding in the Provincial Collective Agreement that mandated firm class-size numbers for K–3 classes. Now that these “hard” numbers are in place, teachers are beginning to experience the benefits for student learning they always believed smaller classes would bring. Anne Stuart, a West Vancouver Kindergarten teacher comments, “More than anything, having a smaller number of children in my Kindergarten classes has allowed me to diagnose reading problems and to work with support teachers in remedial activities with those children. Kindergarten teachers are the front line in identifying those children who may have some learning difficulties. Having my class protected from ’flexibility’ allows me to be more effective in early intervention, especially with reading problems.”

Those sentiments are echoed by other teachers who believe that the smaller number of children in their classes enables them to be more effective in identifying children with learning difficulties and getting them into helpful programs earlier than they would be if they still had to deal with large classes.

“The smaller number of students helps me focus more on learning and less on crowd control,” said Grade 3 teacher Jacquie Whittaker. “Children at the primary level take up a lot of space as they spread out their material. Much of our teaching is done through the use of manipulatives, and this requires more space than even those large kids in high school [require]. Having my students protected from larger classes enables me to use more effective and varied co-operative teaching and learning strategies.”

Similar comments are made about the ability to actually work with individual children or small groups more frequently and effectively. “The inclusion of special-need students in the composition of primary classes has placed further demands on the teacher’s time. Smaller numbers help with this as well. I feel I can spend more time with my special needs students because of the reduced number. I believe I am more effective as a result.

“There are fewer social problems; the kids just aren’t as crowded and thus don’t bump into one another. I can meet with them individually to help establish a more co-operative learning environment.”

With fewer students, teachers also feel that they can increase the information on which they base assessments and evaluations. “Fewer students in my class creates a situation where I can respond to my students’ journals more frequently and in more depth. This is one of many examples where I can record more observations from which I can inform parents on the progress of their child,” says Anne Stuart. “Besides, with fewer report cards to write, I can provide more refined information to parents.”

Clearly the reduction in class sizes at the K–3 level, as provided by the new Provincial Collective Agreement, has resulted in enhanced learning opportunities for children. Teachers report that they feel less stress from teaching, and believe that they are more effective in meeting their teaching responsibilities. As a result, they feel energized rather than enervated.

The trustees in West Vancouver, who for so long believed that their need for flexibility was more important than firm limits to class size, remain doubtful about the benefits our new agreement has brought to these young children. At a recent meeting of the board, teachers presented work they are doing on early intervention for students with reading problems. Those in attendance praised the professionalism and the dedication of the teachers working on the initiative. However, as the discussions drew to a close, one trustee asked if the smaller classes as a result of the new agreement had any impact. The answer was short and to the point: “Yes!”

What will protect the learning of these young children? In West Vancouver, teachers believe that reasonable limits to class size provide a greater likelihood of success than returning to the board’s need for “flexibility.” We are not trying to take control from the board; we are trying to ensure that the benefits of smaller classes continue. It is hoped that this farsighted initiative will benefit the children in this province for years to come.

Bill Ferguson is president of West Vancouver Teachers’ Association.

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