By Michael Lackey
The National Center for Education Statistics has recently given Minnesotans very serious reasons for concern about the education of our children. With regard to elementary school class sizes, Minnesota ranks a dismal 47th in the United States. This is a statistic that saddens me as both a teacher and a parent. To date, I have taught at three public and two private colleges and/or universities, and I can say that one of the reasons why UMM has been the most fulfilling place to teach has been the size of the classes. When students submit a paper in any of my classes, I spend somewhere between forty minutes and an hour typing my response. This obviously benefits the students, but it is also gratifying for me as a teacher, because I feel like I am giving the students what they need. In my twenty years of college teaching, I was only able to give students such extensive feedback at one other school, Wellesley College, which is triple the cost of UMM. At the other three schools where I taught, the class sizes were so large that it was literally impossible for me to give students nearly as much individual attention or feedback on their work.
What has thrilled me about Morris is the attention our students get in the schools. For instance, my daughter is in kindergarten, and during the course of the year, her teacher, Heidi Suess, noticed that she was able to read short books. To encourage my daughter to improve her reading skills, Suess started sending her home regularly with books that were suited to her interests and abilities. There are many reasons why Suess succeeded so well with my daughter. First, she has natural gifts as a teacher--she can readily assess students' abilities and she understands their particular interests. But above and beyond her natural gifts, what enables Suess to execute her job is the small class size, which consists of 17 students. The task of attending to students--assessing their abilities, identifying their interests, understanding their psychology--requires not just time but also motivation. If we overburden teachers with too many students, not only would it be difficult for them to get to know their students, but it would also have a negative effect on their motivation. This is a psychological reality about teaching that is of crucial importance.
Despite the horrifying statistics for Minnesota, we have been fortunate that MAES classes are relatively small. Still, it is important that we continue to remind our school officials of the importance of class size so that our teachers remain healthy and motivated and our children stimulated and well-educated.
Michael Lackey is a Morris resident.