Effective Practices : Pedagogy
Pedagogy Section 1
1. What guidelines does your school have in place regarding class size for the early childhood area, the lower school and high school?
2. What are the legal restrictions that affect the number of students you allow in a class (licensing, fire code, etc.)
3. Speaking from a pedagogical perspective, what number of students does your school believe is optimum for the early childhood area, the lower school and the high school?
4. Does your school utilize assistants in any of its classes? If so, what effect does the availability of an assistant have on class size?
5. Does your school have any policies or written expectations that help direct a teacher with regard to class size? For example, is special approval required if the teacher wants to expand the class beyond a certain level? Are teachers required to keep interviewing students if there is physical space in the classroom, or can a teacher set a lower cutoff on his or her own?
6. What is your school’s philosophy with regard to class size?
7. What is working particularly well at your school with regard to class size?
8. If there is something that you would like to change at your school with regard to class size, what is it and why?
What guidelines does your school have in place regarding class size for the early childhood area, the lower school and high school?
Class size in Waldorf schools is a reflection of several factors. The age of the children, the size of the classroom, the length of a waiting list for the class, and various licensing restrictions all have an effect on the size of the class. Despite these various factors it is possible to speak in a general way about class size.
Typically parent-tot and prenatal classes are quite small with a maximum of 8 families in any classroom session. Nursery programs for students 2-4 years old typically are capped at 12 students per day. The per day restriction is important as often times students at this age group may only attend two, three or five days a week. A teacher may have more students enrolled in her class, but careful attention is paid to daily attendance so that enrollment is maximized while ensuring high levels of attention for these young students. Kindergarten classes for students 4-6 years old are typically capped at 22 students, with larger class sizes permitted on an exception basis.
In the lower school enrollment caps are typically set at 28 students, with approval required to accept students above this level. Several schools also have a minimum goal for enrollment of 24 students per class, reflecting their pedagogical belief that larger classes are healthier learning environments for the students.
One school noted that the experience level of a teacher can affect the number of students enrolled in a class. At this school a brand new teacher will have her class size capped at 24, helping to ensure the long term success of the teacher and her class as she learns her profession.
Class size in the high school is typically capped at 28 to 30 students, with approval being required to exceed this cap. Maximum enrollment is typically at 32 to 34 students. A few Waldorf high schools in North America have larger classes of 40 to 50 students, but these “double track” classes are broken into smaller groups for classroom teaching purposes.
What are the legal restrictions that affect the number of students you allow in a class (licensing, fire code, etc.)
The first factor that limits enrollment at a school is the facility’s conditional use permit. This limit, established by the city or county in which the school is located, establishes a ceiling on total enrollment at the school.
The local fire marshal and health department may also place restrictions on enrollment based on the physical size of the classroom. These restrictions are usually based on the square footage of the classroom and its layout, and are designed to ensure that all students can safely evacuate in the case of an emergency.
In the early childhood area it is frequent for licensing boards to establish additional limits on classroom size. These limits are typically tied to the student/teacher ratio, and to the training level of the teacher. For example in California the Department of Social Services licenses the preschool. It limits the number of students per teacher to 12 if the teacher has completed a sufficient number of early childhood classes; teachers who have completed fewer early childhood units may be limited to 8 students at a time.
Clearly, it is essential that school administrators take the time to be fully aware of all the legal restrictions that affect class size. Careful balancing of the school’s pedagogical insights with regard to class size and the restrictions that may be imposed by various government agencies is necessary so that the school can optimize the educational experience for the students it serves.
Speaking from a pedagogical perspective, what number of students does your school believe is optimum for the early childhood area, the lower school and the high school?
The schools in our study were universal in their perspective that, all other things being equal, a large class is better in the grades and the high school. This is particularly true beginning in the middle school where there is a sense of excitement and fullness that comes from a large class and significant benefits to the students from the social diversity a big class offers. The musical and dramatic experiences of the students are also richer when a large class is present.
Schools and the teachers in them do not all agree on what is meant by “large”. Many teachers would like to have 30 or 32 students, perhaps with the help of an aide, while some teachers think the number should be 28. Regardless of the actual cap number, several schools in our study have gone so far as to state the 24 students is the preferred minimum number of students for classes in the grades and beyond.
Schools are constantly working to balance the social benefits of a large class with what the teacher can realistically manage. When class sizes have become such that a teacher is not able to provide enough individual attention to students then they have found ways of providing the teacher with support. In some cases this has meant splitting the class for some subjects such as instrumental music or in math and English in the upper grades. Assistants are used in the handwork classes, and often times in grades 1 and 2 to assist the students with transitions and to prepare for painting classes and other specialized activities. The goal is to make the classroom environment one that is full, rich and dynamic while never exceeding what the class teacher can mange.
Many schools have a student intake group which participates in the decision to admit students. The intake group will work with the teacher and make a collective decision about whether the class can take additional students beyond some cut-off, typically 28 students or so. Schools recognize that in some cases a larger number of students in a class with remedial needs may limit the number of students that can be effectively served. Once a class reaches 28 students or more the intake group will also work proactively with the parents in the class to help them understand the very real benefits that come from a large class. Parents today have been misled by the media to believe that small class sizes are preferable, and fail to recognize the very important benefits that come to students socially and developmentally from being in a large class.
Teaching in the kindergarten is done through imitation in an environment that is rich in activity, and a closer relationship between teachers and students is a requirement. In the preschool the class size is even smaller, ensuring a high level of attention to these youngest students. Class size is the smallest in the parent-tot classes. This is due to the very young age of the children and space restrictions in light of the fact that there is an adult present at all times for every child.
Does your school utilize assistants in any of its classes? If so, what effect does the availability of an assistant have on class size?
Schools use assistants in a variety of ways. All use assistants in their kindergartens and the pre-school. Frequently these assistants will serve in these positions for many years. They are often fully trained teachers who have chosen not to take a lead role, and their expertise and support are invaluable in creating the ideal early childhood environment.
It is common for some subject teachers to have assistants, especially in areas such as handwork and farm classes. Instrumental music is another area in which assistants may be used. Often these assistants serve as section leaders. A section leader may help a group of students with the violin while the teacher works with the other stringed instruments or with the brass section while the rest of the orchestra works with the lead teacher.
Many schools report using an assistant in first grade or sharing an assistant between the early grade teachers. The assistants help students with transitions between classes, especially helping young students as they go out and come in from recess. The assistant may also help prepare for a painting class or other activity that requires extra attention and support. As the first grade class moves through the school year the students become comfortable in their new routine and environment, and the support of an assistant is needed less. As the year progresses the assistant may be freed to support teachers in the second and third grades with certain main lesson blocks and other ongoing activities. The use of the assistant is usually coordinated between the teachers. These assistants typically work from 8 AM until 1 PM, although the schedules can be varied. There may be times when a class has a practical arts session in the afternoon, and the assistant will come in later so she can help during that period.
The grade school assistants are often individuals who will serve as the first grade teacher the following year, but this is not a requirement. Some very qualified assistants are not considering Waldorf teaching as a career. It is certainly preferable to have assistants who have received some Waldorf teacher training, and this can be ideal when they consider class teaching as a career goal.
Does your school have any policies or written expectations that help direct a teacher with regard to class size? For example, is special approval required if the teacher wants to expand the class beyond a certain level? Are teachers required to keep interviewing students if there is physical space in the classroom, or can a teacher set a lower cutoff on his or her own?
All of the schools in our study have very clear guidelines that direct the teacher with regard to class size, and most of these include their written policies in this area in their employee handbook. These procedures generally cover class size minimums and nominal maximums, interview expectations, and the procedures to be followed when a class is above the nominal maximum.
One school reports its written policy states that 24 students is the preferred minimum class size in the grades. All students are interviewed when they apply, and a decision will be made as to whether an applicant can be accepted at that time. If the student is a good fit but for other reasons the class cannot accept another student at the time then the student will be asked to reapply at a specified later date. At this school all admissions decisions are made by an intake group along with the class teacher, so there is broadly shared support for all admissions related decisions in the school. The group provides support to class teachers in two ways. At times a class teacher may desire to limit the class to a level that is lower than the expected minimum. In those cases the group can remind the teacher of the expectation of at least 24 students, and ensure that if a teacher needs additional support it is forthcoming. In other cases teachers who want to accept everyone can be protected from their overly compassionate instincts so that the classroom experience is optimized for the students.
Other schools report slight variations to the above. In one school teachers are expected to accept students up to a minimum of 28 students, and then to continue to interview students until the class has a wait pool of at least four students. Of course the teacher has the right and responsibility to decline a student at any class size if a determination is made that the school is unable to serve the student’s needs.
Some schools ask their College of Teachers to approve a teacher’s intention to interview students when the class is at the nominal maximum. This approval must be received in advance of the interview taking place. While the school believes that large classes are preferable, the College will be a supportive partner if other factors require a teacher to keep a class below the preferred maximum.
What is your school’s philosophy with regard to class size?
We are a tuition funded school. We must be cognizant of the impact enrollment has on our budget without allowing the budget to affect enrollment decisions.
The social experience of the student is richer in a larger class. Large class size must be balanced with the teacher’s ability to meet the students and provide the proper amount of individual attention.
We do not have double tracks, and find that a class size of 28-32 students in the grades and high school works well. We are able to meet the students.
A class of around 30 students is thought to be optimal, pedagogically speaking. This class size provides a healthy mix of temperaments in the class and optimizes the social experience for the students.
The current size of the classroom is also a constraint, but this is a physical one not a pedagogical one. From a budgetary point of view there is no limit on the size of the class that we will accept.
We would consider double tracking classes if we had a huge demand for enrollment.
We believe that limiting class sizes due to space constraints limits our thinking and goes against the mission of Waldorf schools. We have gone beyond the think-small model (smaller classes are better) that is so pervasive in North American education. We look instead at the long term relationships that develop between the class teacher and the students, and are confident of the value that comes from large robust classes.
There is collegial support around the teacher in making decisions about class size. This can provide encouragement to teachers to take additional students (or lead the school to consider replacing the teacher if he is not capable of handling more students). It can also protect a teacher who wants to help everybody from overextending her abilities and straining the health of the class.
The number of students is not the only factor to be considered in looking at a healthy class size. The teacher’s skill with form in the younger grades and the special needs of the students in the class are other factors that affect enrollment.
The best way to build a big, strong, vibrant class in the grades is to have a healthy kindergarten program. Having three kindergarten classrooms is one way of ensuring large classes with a healthy group of children.
It is important for a school to have good evaluative programs in place and appropriate remedial services available. It is important that a school not take students it is not equipped to handle.
A school must have clear policies in place regarding class size. Otherwise the teacher is placed in an untenable position of trying to defend her decisions about interviewing and enrolling students.
Big and vibrant classes are better, but there is an important balancing act that goes into supporting these larger classes. Factors to be considered include the teacher’s experience, the remedial needs of the students, the health of the parent community, the use of track teachers in the middle school and the availability of assistants in the first grade.
Parent support can be a huge plus in making a large class work for the students.
What is working particularly well at your school with regard to class size?
Schools in our study made the following observations on things that were working particularly well for them:
The College is the body that makes the final decision on all acceptances.
All students are required to visit for three days prior to an offer of enrollment being extended.
The sense of vibrancy that comes from large classes is palpable. There is joy and variety that permeates the school and gives a sense of health to the whole school.
It is our practice for a class teacher to consult with the subject teachers prior to accepting students. This helps all teachers feel included in the process and ensures that a healthy class size is maintained.
The decisions that are made with regard to enrollment are well supported by all members of the faculty. This is due to our practice of taking enrollment decisions to the appropriate core group (ECE, LS and HS) and of asking subject teachers for input prior to accepting students beyond the nominal enrollment cap.
We find that when a concern about class size is voiced it is rarely just one teacher who is expressing concern. When several teachers express concern we look carefully at the situation to determine the right course of action. In some cases the student is placed on a wait list, while in other cases an assistant may be added so that all students are well served.
If there is something that you would like to change at your school with regard to class size, what is it and why?
The financial impact of an enrollment decision is not a driving force, but at times it can be difficult to separate enrollment decisions from their budgetary impact. We continually encourage teachers to keep their focus on the student and the class.
We would like to push back a little harder against the imagination that a solid Waldorf school is around 350 to 400 students. The picture of 900 or 1000 students is not alive in North America, but is quite alive in Europe. This imagination has been quite a limiting factor, and has greatly impacted what we dare to dream and accomplish.
We must continue to be aware of the number of students with remedial needs that are accepted. We are good with remedial students but we can only accept a few as this is not our primary focus, and accepting students with too many special needs can have a negative effect on the class as a whole.
It would be wonderful to have a Christopher school nearby. The Christopher schools in Europe are Waldorf schools with small class sizes that focus on children with severe developmental needs.
Not all of our classrooms are large enough to have the class sizes we would like. The older rooms in our school vary in size and shape so we must make some concessions to that reality. This also means that a room might be designated as the first grade room one year and then be the 2nd grade the following year due to size constraints. We would prefer to have the same classroom be designated as the 1st grade room every year.
We continue to work in an ongoing way with parent perceptions about class size. Parents are quite aware that our local public schools have teacher/student ratio guidelines. These are well publicized and a smaller ratio is generally considered to be a characteristic of a high quality school. We must continually educate parents about the benefits that accrue to the children from being in a robust, socially dynamic classroom environment.