Split groups

One of the things I love about my job is the building of relationships between me and my classes.  I love the shared learning journey, the discovery of how one concept links to another, the ability to be able to freely reference topics we have covered together in the past and link it to what we are doing now.  I love seeing my classes regularly, marking their books and getting a really good idea of who they are as mathematicians, what it is that is stopping them improve and working through how I can help them address those barriers.

If I had to come up with one reason why this may not happen with a group – my top reason – it would be split groups.  If I share a teaching group with another member of staff then a few things happen.  Here are four issues that I face and what I try to do to minimise them.

1. Split groups don’t feel like a priority

Firstly, if I’m the minor partner in the split, I struggle to make the marking and planning for that class a priority.  I know I have less teaching groups than say an Art or Music teacher but it’s hard not to prioritise the students I’m going to be working with 8 times a fortnight over those I’m going to see 3 times.  Knowing that this is a temptation of mine lets me check in with myself to see if it is happening.  When planning a 5 or 6 lesson day, I’ll try to plan them first.  I also aim to reflect much more in writing about these lessons so I can remember how they went and what I need to do next.  I probably should do this for all my classes but find I carry lots of those details around in my head for groups I see most days.

2. Struggling with names

Secondly, I struggle to learn names in split groups in ways that I don’t have with groups that are ‘mine’.  I pride myself in knowing the names of all my students by the end of the first week in term but when there are 9 or 10 days between seeing my students I can find it difficult to keep the names straight in my head.  By January, students are insulted when you can’t remember their names, especially if you’ve seen them once a month since September.  To help with this I rely much more heavily on seating plans, the photos on SIMS when I’m taking the register and the use of lollypop sticks.  When the class are working independently, I’ll often run my eye across the room and test myself on the names, using the seating plan to help me out when I get stuck.

3. Lack on continuity

Thirdly, I feel the students get a jerky experience potentially lurching from one topic to another with little reference to what has come before and what the class has been thinking about together.  If you carve up the topics for that term with your co-teacher, they can have two lessons in a day on different topics.  Our year 7s are following a shared curriculum this year which means that shared groups know what has come before and after – that solves one problem but creates a new one, namely that content has to be covered in a lesson – it can’t spill over very easily.  I know of another school that aims to split groups over style of delivery rather than content – students get the same topics but delivered in different ways.  I haven’t heard yet how that’s going.

4. Increased potential discipline problems

Fourth, if there is a discipline issue it can take longer to work out with a split group.  It takes longer for relationships to develop and there is greater space between the repair and rebuild conversation following a behaviour incident and the next lesson.  This can allow that conversation to be forgotten and a potentially challenging relationship to take longer to mend.  It can also mean that students with challenging behaviour can forget about their own successes from one lesson to the next.  After I see split groups, I will often jot down some notes to remind myself about successes and issues that appeared during the lesson.  When I’m planning the next lesson, I’ll look back at these notes and try to find ways to reinforce those successes next time.  “Steve asked an awesome question last lesson … let’s see if we can answer it!”  “Sarah, your work last lesson showed amazing effort, let’s try to see that again this lesson.”  Helping our students feel known is so important but hard work in this particular context.

It can be a good thing to be in a split group – experiencing two different teachers, a different environment, a different classroom culture – but I think to make it work requires a lot of effort for each of the teachers.  Probably as much work as the group you teach all the time!

Are there any issues or solutions I’ve missed?

Illustration from Jason Ramasami, check out his work at saamvisual.com