Tips For Teaching Small Classes

Last week, I wrote about the unique challenges of teaching large classes. This week, the focus is on the other end of the spectrum, teaching small classes. At first, it might sound like teaching small classes is easier. After all, you’ve got only a few students to keep track of, and classroom management ought to be a breeze.  But teaching just a few students can be surprisingly tricky.

First grade reading - small group breakout

Whether it’s because your class only has 3 or 4 students signed up, or because there’s a bug going around and only a third of the class is there, you’ll find that regular lesson plans need some adjusting for such a small number. These tips for teaching small classes will help you keep the class energetic, interesting, and fun.

Be sure to catch last weeks entry ‘Tips For Teaching Large Classes‘.

You have to rethink how you’re going to use the classroom

Chances are you’re teaching in a large classroom designed to accommodate a couple dozen students.  When there are only a few students in such a large space, it can feel empty and the class can feel out-of-place.  Consider how you might rearrange the classroom to make better use of all the space that you have.  A lot of times, it works great to rearrange the seating into one table to foster communication better.

You could consider designating different parts of the classroom for different purposes—for example, an art corner where you put some art supplies for them to work on in their spare time.  Or maybe you just push all of the extra desks to the back so that they have lots of space up front for more active games.

Whatever you do, keep it fairly simple and quick.  Once you make it part of the classroom routine to rearrange the desks, the students will gladly help out.

You need plenty of “filler” activities ready to go

A game or worksheet that would take 20 minutes with a large class can take about a quarter of that time with a small group of students. The last thing that you want is to be standing awkwardly twiddling your thumbs with half an hour of class time left and no plan for how to fill it.

Always make sure that you’ve got a good repertoire of simple games, activities, and worksheets ready to go to fill in on the fly.

Sometimes you have to slow things down

It’s tempting to just let the students breeze through their work and then have a big chunk of time at the end of class for a game or activity.  While there’s nothing at all wrong with that, make sure that you’re not short-changing the students; Just because they finished up their coursework in 10 minutes doesn’t mean they thoroughly understand the lesson.

Maybe you allotted half an hour for a particular topic.  Even if the lesson and activity only take ten minutes, gauge the students’ understanding before you move on—chances are they would benefit from using the rest of that time for an exercise to drive the point of the lesson home.

Shy students can find small classes intimidating

In a small class, it’s impossible for anyone to fade into the background.  Students who are typically shy or quiet can find this uncomfortable because they have no choice but to speak up and participate.

Have some icebreaker activities ready to get everyone to loosen up.  Keep the classroom environment very positive, especially in the first few days, so that students don’t feel afraid of making a mistake if they speak up.  Emphasize that there’s nothing wrong with saying a word wrong or not knowing the answer, and that it’s more important to be involved and engaged in the class.

Minor discipline/interpersonal problems are magnified

If you’re lucky, you’ll have a group of students who get along great, help each other out, and have tons of fun in class.  But, especially with younger students, it’s just as likely that you’ll be dealing with a lot of drama.

In larger classes, if you have two students who either don’t get along or can’t stop chatting, you can just split them up.  In a small class, you don’t have that luxury.  Rivalries, personality clashes, relationship drama, students picking on each other, or students who just plain don’t get along—it all compounds when they’re in a small classroom setting.

Be careful that you don’t start laying blame or picking sides, and that you know the whole situation before you start taking any disciplinary action.  One of the benefits of a small class, is that you have a chance to really get to know the students and develop a lot of trust with them.  This makes it a lot easier to take a student aside and talk to them about the situation.  Sometimes all it takes is having an honest conversation about what the real problem is, how it’s negatively affecting the rest of the class, and how to solve it.

Students can have more control of the class

In a small class, you can let the students take the lead and make decisions a lot more.  Whether that means letting them have more freedom deciding on a type of project to do, or letting them pick and lead games, you really can step back and let your students make the class their own.

For example, if you had planned to have them do a major writing project, but the whole class decides that they’d rather collaboratively write and perform a play, let them make those decisions.  As long as you can manage and guide the project so that they are all involved and making progress in the right areas, it can be a fully rewarding experience for everyone.

If the students feel like they have control and ownership over a project or a whole class, they are going to be much more engaged, work harder, and learn a lot more.

Students working at a different pace can be a major source of frustration

It’s tough to know what to do if you have three students who always pick up on everything and finish their coursework super fast, and one student who needs the full 20 minutes you’ve allotted for the work.  This can be a major source of frustration both for you as a teacher and for the other students.  Faster students will feel held back, while the student who is struggling can feel that he or she is being ostracized from the class, or is being punished for taking longer.

There are a few different ways to handle this, and it just takes some trial and error to figure out what works best for each individual situation.  You can do parts of the work together as a class to keep at the same pace, or have students do the work in pairs.  Giving struggling students some extra tutoring outside of class can be a huge help, too.  Make sure that you find out what the student is really good at and excited about—they may struggle with grammar and spelling, but are very artistically inclined.  Plan activities that use those strengths so that the student doesn’t start to feel like dead weight in class.

You can give the students a lot more individual attention

This is by far the best part of teaching a small class.  You have time to get to know the students, know what they struggle with and what their strengths are, and spend a lot more time helping each student out individually.  Take advantage of the opportunity.  Plan times in class when students are working quietly by themselves so that you have time to walk around and spend a few minutes with each student. You’ll have a lot less grading to do, so take a few extra minutes to give more detailed feedback.

In a small class, you have the chance to teach your students as individuals.  Getting to know them and  seeing them progress and grow makes teaching small classes incredibly rewarding.

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