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Growing Pains: Hints from an Elementary Principal

By Kyra Gailis

As many international schools deal with the departure of approximately thirty percent of their student body each summer, the hope is that the same number of students, or even more, will enroll for the following school year. Due to the economic downturn, some schools have felt the need to push the limits of the maximum class size or to hold out until the very last minute before hiring another homeroom teacher, as this is more cost effective.
In the summer of 2013, I left for summer break knowing that our Grade One class was almost full. More and more students were enrolling but I was unsure if all our kindergarteners would actually continue on. Naturally, the Head of School and Board knew that we were close to full and my hope was that we could start looking for a teacher soon. We cleared out an extra classroom and decided to use it as an inquiry playroom for Grade One, in case we needed it.
The first day of school arrived and all the kindergarteners returned. Our 40-square meter room was buzzing with 21 students. School policy insured a limit of 20 students in a classroom and 22 under special circumstances.
Oh no! As the principal, a multitude of questions and thoughts began to flood my mind. What are we going to do? We are in China, where securing visas for new teachers takes time. No one has budgeted for a new class or for all of the resources needed for this. Where is the money going to come from? How do hire a teacher fast? What are the parents going to say, as we have been a small school that prides itself in having small classes? Oh the Poor Teacher! No space. Tons of kids.
HINT: Always have a room prepared for growth before you actually need it. Finding and organizing a room can be a huge endeavor. We had the room ready and the students were using both rooms, even though we had only one teacher. This helped ease the anxiety that could have emerged later when students must leave their cozy classroom for a new one.
Situations such as this can be stressful for teachers as well as administrators. But we followed a few simple steps throughout this process. I would like to share them with you. I can proudly say that not one parent was angry during this transition time, but communication is the key.
The Head of School allocated funds to hire a second Educational Assistant (EA) and placed a temporary EA in the classroom until the permanent person was found.
We began to advertise for a second teacher immediately and to transform the playroom into a classroom. Of course, funds had to be allocated for this and changes were made to the budget.
A letter to parents from the Head of School went home immediately, outlining our plans to hire a permanent EA and co-teacher for the students.
HINT: React fast! We knew the class was too big. We needed to communicate with parents before they voiced their concerns.
So the hunt for the teacher began, both locally and internationally. Fortunately, we found someone locally, but she needed to leave the country to get her visa, so almost two months passed before she was working full time.
The new hire was able to join us for a few days prior to leaving, however, during which time she visited the classroom and worked alongside the current homeroom teacher. She planned activities and even taught on her own for a few days so that the students would get to know her.
Students went home that first day sharing news of the additional teacher in their classroom and excitedly told their parents that they now had two teachers. A letter went home that day introducing her to the parents and explaining that she would be attending parent-teacher conferences that week so that they could get to know her better. They were warned that that she would be off to her home country for a week to finish her visa requirements.
HINT: Sometimes, it is best to let students deliver news to parents. Since they had already met the teacher, parents did not express anxiety. Arranging for parents to meet with her and the current teacher one-on-one kept them from wondering about her for weeks on end.
Now the big question: How do we split the classes? Will parents be angry if their child is not placed with the teacher they want or with his or her best friend?
Even though a co-teacher model was not in the culture of the school, we felt that this approach would work best. The ESOL teacher, Elementary Principal, Grade One teachers, and members of the Special Needs Department all met to determine how to split the class so that there would be an equal representation of native English speakers, ESOL learners, behavioral needs students, and learning needs children in each class.
HINT: Take into consideration which parents have bonded with the current homeroom teacher and which can be “trouble” parents. Do not put their children with the new teacher.
The new teacher returned, visa in hand, and for one week the class remained intact, now with 25 students but with two teachers and two assistants.
HINT: Only split a class once all students have had a chance to bond with the new teacher.
Splitting this class into two classes midyear would likely have caused a riot among the helicopter parents. Each parent received a personal letter from me outlining that we had only one Grade One class, but from that day on students would meet every morning as a large group for community time, after which they would work part of the day in smaller groups for differentiated learning. The teacher who would be leading their particular child’s group was stated in the letter.
HINT: Be careful how you word your written communication. The mention of a morning community time softened the blow. Maintain routines for the sake of both students and parents.
Students and parents liked this transition and no one seemed confused or angry. Our program has thus grown successfully and without any real growing pains. If you find yourself in this dilemma and would like to vent or have help in how to communicate this needed transition to parents, feel free to contact me. I would be happy to help!
Kyra Gailis is Elementary Principal at Beijing BISS International School.

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01/09/2015 - K Gailis

I agree, Mrs. Jones. It can be a bit tricky with the TA/EA situation. But we were fortunate enough that most of our EA's had degrees so we could risk this temporary change until a more permanent one could be found. Every region is so different with their laws and standards. Our local staff could legally teach but our parent community would never agree to that as a long term option.

01/07/2015 - Mrs. Jones
I loved the idea in the final two 'hints' where the parents were repeatedly told that, indeed, the school had only one Grade One class. That truly solved a lot of problems. many jurisdictions, it is not allowed to have 2 separate classrooms with one teacher. The teacher has to be able to see all the parts of the classroom. I know this is true in Taiwan and Hong Kong....and it might even be true in Beijing.

Caveat: many of the 'assistant teachers' or EAs in mainland China's international schools are actually registered teachers in their home jurisdiction. Working as an EA at an international school pays more than teaching in their home this factor might have come into play. In a wealthier place, e.g. Europe, splitting a class into 2 rooms and having one registered teacher in charge of both rooms would not be allowed.



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