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Monday, July 6, 2020

The Pros and Cons of Departmentalization in Elementary Schools


Collaboration is one of my favorite things about my Inspired by Upper Elementary Facebook group.  It’s a safe place where upper elementary teachers can ask questions, share ideas, and collaborate with one another.  If you haven’t visited, you should definitely check it out!

Recently, a teacher asked about the pros and cons of departmentalizing in upper elementary.  The discussion that followed was amazing and included a ton of great thoughts, tips and ideas.  The whole discussion had me reflecting on the pros and cons of departmentalizing in elementary schools...


Based on my experiences and the comments in the group, I've boiled it down to five key areas to consider when deciding whether departmentalizing is right for you, your team, and your school.  If you are considering departmentalization, I hope these help you make a well thought out decision that helps you meet the needs of your students.

Teacher / Student Relationships

The relationships we build with our students is a key factor in the learning process.  A mentor once told me that building a relationship at the beginning of the year is key because once you have that relationship the students will do just about anything for you, and she could not be more right. I saw these words in action year after year. It's important to consider the impact departmentalization will have on your relationship with students.

CON:
  • By departmentalizing, you are not spending as much time with your students. You lose time and activities that help to build relationships with students. Numerous teachers that transitioned from a self-contained classroom to a departmentalized approach felt that they did not have as strong of relationships with their students as they had in a self-contained setting. They also felt that they did not get to know their students as well as in previous years. (Note: Many teachers shared that although they were worried about this at the beginning of the year, it really didn't come to fruition. They were able to be more intentional in their relationship building and didn't see as much of a difference. I will note that when I was co-teaching and only seeing my students half the time, I was still able to build great relationship with my students.)
PRO:
  • Departmentalizing gives students multiple teachers they can go to for support in academics or life.  Sometimes a student does not “click” with one teacher but they will with another teacher.
  • I really hesitated to mention this one, but I think it's important. We all know that not every student and teacher can have an ideal relationship.  When students/teachers don't necessarily see eye to eye, many teachers note that challenging relationships are usually less strained when students move to another teacher(s) for part of the day.  Moving from class to class seemed to actually benefit some of the more challenging relationships, caused less teacher stress, and made for a better learning environment for everyone.

I loved reading how much passion there was from both sides of this issue.  I love that teachers want to build strong relationships with their students.  If this is something that is important to you (and it really, really should be), then I believe it can happen in either setting.  Yes, it might look a bit different in a departmentalized setting, but that doesn’t mean good student/teacher relationships can’t happen.  Be intentional about making building relationships an important part of your classroom environment.

Recommendations: If you decide to go with this approach, it's best for students to have a homeroom teacher and a "home base." This way, students still get the benefits of having daily morning meetings, team building activities, and more. On the same topic, be sure you have plenty of opportunities for students in separate homerooms to work with one another.

Consistency

Whether you’ve been a teacher, parent, or both, you probably know that kids thrive with consistency.  Children do best when there is a consistent routine and consistent expectations.  So how does departmentalizing impact consistency?

CON:
  • By changing teachers multiple times throughout the day, students lose the consistency and routine that they so thrive on.  They tend to struggle more than in a self-contained classroom because of the differences amongst teachers, changing expectations and classroom environments.
  • Students with special needs tend to have a much more difficult time adjusting to the change and transition from teacher to teacher.

PRO:
  • While consistency is very important for young children, as they get older they are better able to adapt to change.  As students enter middle school, changing classes and teachers will simply be a requirement.  Departmentalizing with a team of 2 or 3 teachers in elementary school helps to prepare students for the future and ease the transition later on.  Departmentalizing in upper elementary is a good baby step to help students get from self-contained elementary classes to middle school.  
  • Consistency does not mean nothing changes.  Students in a self-contained classroom often change for specials, so they've likely already been prepared for the next step of changing core teachers.  Students can have consistency in a departmentalized setting even when they change teachers and classrooms. The consistency comes from classroom expectations. 
  • Students with special needs have been successful in departmentalizing.  The switching of teachers becomes their consistency.  Helping them know what to expect and preparing them for the changes is a great way to help them learn the new routine that comes with departmentalizing.

One of the common themes in this online discussion was the need for team teachers to work together.  Many teachers were quick to say that consistency can happen when teachers work as a team to provide consistent classroom management routines, student expectations for behavior and work completion.  However, these same teachers also said that when the team teachers are too different and don’t work well together that the consistency will not be there and the students will be the only ones that suffer. 

Recommendation: Consistency can be achieved by having a consistent routine each day within your departmentalized schedule. Try not to deviate from that routine on a regular basis.

Mastery in Subject Area

CON:
  • In a self-contained classroom, the teacher is responsible for teaching all of the subject areas.  It is difficult and time-consuming to truly get to know the standards for all of the curriculum (possible understatement of the year! Ha!). 
  • Teachers spend a lot of time with lesson planning for all the subject areas. A. Lot. Of. Time.
  • By only focusing on one or two subject areas, you can become out of touch with the standards and best practices in other areas. 
  • There is a great benefit to cross-curricular, transdisciplinary teaching for students to see how different skills and ideas can work together.  Having taught in an IB school where all learning is supposed to be transdisciplinary, it would be a huge challenge to only teach one subject.

PRO:
  • By focusing on one or two subject areas, teachers can dig deep into the standards and develop a teaching specialty. Students benefit from a more focused teacher. 
  • Less time is spent on lesson planning freeing up more time for developing new lesson activities for students.
  • Teachers can work together to create cross-curricular lessons that help meet standards for different subjects.  
  • With less time spent on lesson planning, it makes teacher/life balance a lot easier.
  • Students benefit when a teacher gets to focus on the subject they are passionate about or that is their strength.

It is important to note here that numerous people added this thought: Departmentalizing works well when teachers are assigned to teach an area they are strong in.  However, it can be disastrous when this doesn’t happen.  One teacher shared about being placed in a situation to teach language arts and social studies despite her strengths being in math and science.  She described the struggles she had and how difficult it was. Ultimately, she said it was the hardest year of teaching she had ever had and that she felt like she was not as good of a teacher for her students as she had been in previous years.

Recommendations: Communicating with the other teachers on your team will be so important so that you can still integrate cross-curricular themes as much as possible. This can be as easy as a quick 10-minute meeting each week where you discuss your themes and concepts for the upcoming weeks so that you can start considering how you can integrate them into YOUR content.

Use of Time

Another factor to consider when deciding whether to departmentalize or have self-contained classes is the use of time.

CON:
  • Transitioning from class to class wastes a lot time, no matter how well-prepared our students are.
  • You lose flexibility when you have to stay on a specific schedule.  In a self-contained class, if you finish early you can move on, or if a lesson runs a little over you can adjust the schedule or activities.
  • When activities like assemblies, field trips, and class pictures happen, one class ends up losing time in a specific subject matter while other classes would not.
  • It is more difficult to adjust to the needs of the students when you have multiple classes, and you are trying to keep them all together.  Not all classes learn the same and some classes may need more time on a skill or concept and another class may move quickly through. (Personal Note: This can be alleviated somewhat by grouping your classes, but that is a blog topic for another day!)
  
PRO:
  • Transitions make great brain breaks.  Students truly do need a little downtime between lessons, and the transition from one class or teacher to another provides not only a break but is also a great visual for the mental switch that has to happen when you move from one subject matter to another.
  • Transitions do not have to take a long time.  Students can learn how to transition quickly with well-defined procedures and expectations.
  • When team teachers work well together and understand how important it is to be flexible, they can adjust class times to account for occasional schedule changes.  One teacher shared how they teach on a block schedule so that each class has the same amount of time together but also the same number of mornings and afternoons since students often do better in the morning.

Collaboration

The ability to work together to solve problems or create amazing learning opportunities is a such an important part of teaching.  I am a firm believer that we can do great things on our own, but we can be even better together.

CON:
  • In a self-contained classroom, there is only one teacher to figure out how to address the needs of struggling students, behavior issues or other concerns.  While other teachers can give ideas they do not have in-person and first-hand experience with that student  like the primary teacher.
  • In smaller schools especially, departmentalizing often means that there is only one teacher per grade level teaching a specific subject.  This leaves the teacher as the sole creator of lessons with no one to share ideas with, collaborate with or learn from.

PRO:
  • Departmentalizing allows multiple teachers to have first-hand insight into problems a student may be having.  Teachers can work together to help resolve behavior issues or learning struggles.  Numerous teachers mentioned how helpful it was to have another teacher who was seeing similar issues in a student.  Not only was it a good confirmation, but it helped to have someone to talk to about a student’s issues. 
  • Teachers can collaborate on what is working well in a class to help students in other areas.
  • When doing a two way split where each class has two teachers, there are often multiple teams per grade level.  This gives each subject area two or more teachers that can plan and collaborate together. If this isn't possible, be sure to join subject-specific Facebook groups for support and request special PD opportunities to help hone your craft!

Much of collaboration comes down to the people involved.  If teachers choose to collaborate and work with each other, it can be beautiful in both a self-contained or departmentalized setting.

A Note on the Research...

Beyond anecdotes and advice, it's also important to consider the research on departmentalizing in the elementary classroom.  HERE is a really interesting article on it.


My Take-Aways . . .

If you are looking for an answer as to whether you should departmentalize, you are not going to find it here.  Why?  Well, because there are many factors that must be considered in this decision.  Every school is different, teachers are different, students are different.  What might be best for my school might not be best for yours.  So while I won’t tell you what to do, I will share some of my take aways from this important discussion:

  1. The pairing of team teachers is really important.  Whether this is done by the administration or the teachers, this is something that must be done with care. It’s important to make sure that teachers that are teamed up work well together, communicate well together, have consistent expectations, and are willing to work together and practice flexibility.
  2. The teaching assignment is another important decision that must be made.  Teachers should be able to give input into areas they feel they are stronger in, subjects they enjoy teaching or are passionate about.
  3. Teaching assignments should be fairly distributed.  Language Arts instruction is more than one subject (Reading, Writing, Grammar, Spelling)  and often carries with it the task of teaching and grading essays.  This work load is not the same as other subject areas and this should be taken into consideration when making teacher assignments.
  4. In upper elementary, a teacher team of 2 or 3 appears to be more successful and less overwhelming for students than switching classes with 4 or more teachers.  This seems to be the “sweet spot” for helping prepare students for middle school while still providing them the consistency and guidance they need at this age.
  5. Not all pros and cons are equal.  It’s important to prioritize the things that will make the classroom learning environment the best it can be for our students.  One teacher recommends making a pro/con list and then categorizing each as: pro for the student / pro for the teacher / con for the student / con for the teacher.  I really liked this suggestion and found that it helps to keep the decision focused on what is best for the students.  And remember that just because it is pro teacher doesn’t mean it is con for the student.  A happy and less stressed teacher can make for a better learning environment which is a pro for students too!


What Are Your Thoughts?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on departmentalizing.  Join the discussion by leaving your comments below.  If this is something you are looking into, then make sure to pin this to your favorite classroom Pinterest board so you can come back when you need to.  Also, feel free to share this with other teachers or administrators as part of your discussion on departmentalizing in upper elementary.

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