When I returned to my fourth grade classroom in Hell’s Kitchen after half a year of remote teaching, I expected every aspect of teaching to be harder. I thought that meeting the needs of children who had endured six months of emotional and academic disruption — challenges that were ongoing — would feel nearly impossible. I was wrong.
One of the strange silver linings of these terrible two years has been a huge reduction in the number of students in my classroom.
I’ve been teaching in New York City since 2012. For eight years, I consistently had between 25 and 32 children on my roster. In 2018, I began the year with 36 students, even though the legal limit is 32 students.
And then, of course, the pandemic set in, and when we returned to campus in the fall of 2020, I had only 12 students who opted to learn in person. This year, due to the large number of families who left the city during the pandemic, I have 21 children in my fourth grade classroom.
Now, a bill before the New York City Council could make smaller class sizes permanent. The legislation, called Intro 2374, would require every city classroom to provide a net floor space of 35 square feet per child, resulting in rosters of 14-21 students.
My students — the lights of my life — get the increased classroom attention that they’ve always deserved.
It almost feels too obvious to explain the enormous difference that a one-third reduction in class size has made. My students — the lights of my life — get the increased classroom attention that they’ve always deserved but never quite had. With 11 fewer children in the classroom, my co-teacher and I meet with any learner who needs support, multiple times a day, every day of the week.
With increased chances to communicate with their teachers, our emerging bilingual students are learning English at a rapid pace. Some of our readers, including those who returned from remote instruction on a kindergarten or first grade reading level, have already made over half a year of growth in the first three months of school. Some of our mathematicians, having missed much of second and third grade, returned without a conceptual understanding of multiplication. Now, they are multiplying multi-digit numbers.
In overcrowded classrooms, we’re forced to adopt teaching and classroom management strategies that prioritize efficiency over quality because we must reach every student somehow. Inevitably, the added noise and movement that comes with additional 10-year-olds contributes to a more chaotic environment.
But now, despite the trauma of the pandemic, our children frequently place their names on the “calm” section of our classroom mood meter; fewer people and more space result in a more placid environment for students and for teachers.
Of course, this is one classroom. But an overwhelming body of research underscores the point: Our children need smaller class sizes to thrive, especially now, especially in the younger grades, and especially in schools that teach historically underserved students.
It’s with great anticipation, then, that we education advocates were watching Intro 2374 wind its way through the New York City Council.
The de Blasio administration has argued that reducing class sizes is too expensive. And the city’s education department has also claimed that the plan is impracticable due to the amount of new building space it would require. But with the institutional will, there are solutions to these problems.
Although the bill could have sailed through the council with a super-majority, a vote on it has been delayed indefinitely, and the legislation will have to undergo new hearings under a new city council.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, and it’s only a matter of time before class sizes in the nation’s largest school district swell to their previous, untenable levels. But as this legislation waits, our children will continue growing into the people we will one day rely on to lead our city and nation.
Last week, my class read ”The Invisible Boy” by Trudy Ludwig. When we finished the book, I asked my students if they had ever felt invisible. One child immediately responded, “I felt invisible in quarantine.” He was referring to the year and a half he spent in remote learning.
Our children are finally back in school now, surrounded by classmates and caring adults. We cannot let them feel invisible in another, equally isolating way — vying for attention in overcrowded classrooms. In small classes, we can ensure that every student — in their joy, wisdom, wonder, quirks, strengths, and struggles — is seen. We can make enormous strides to overcome the pandemic-fueled academic gaps that many of them are facing. We can do this, with the appropriate amount of political will. We can do this with an emphasis, not on dollars and cents or “practicability,” but on where it always should have been: our kids.
Jenna Lempesis is a fourth grade teacher in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. She has taught kindergarten, second, fourth, and fifth grades in Brooklyn and Manhattan.