Students Struggle to Fit in Small Classroom

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I only noticed the conflict when a chair came crashing to the floor. In a writing intensive class of 30 students, I had become accustomed to conducting conferences in the midst of noise. But the explosive sound of a chair clattering across the floor stood out from the usual din. I separated two angry students and dispatched them to the principal and dean of students, respectively. Then, I tried to piece together what had happened.

Marcus, an 18-year-old football player, threw the chair after Kaliya pulled it out from under him. Kaliya, a normally cheerful senior, was angry that he had taken her seat. Both students had endangered each other and students around them by escalating the conflict to a physical level. Both students faced consequences, meted out by my school’s principal and dean of students, for their actions.

I felt somehow responsible. Engrossed in a conference with another student, I had missed the warning signs of a growing conflict. I missed the opportunity to intervene before things got out of control. No matter what I am doing in my classroom, I have the ultimate responsibility for keeping everyone safe, and in this instance, I was not where I needed to be. I’m grateful that the result was not serious injury for anyone involved. 

As I reflected on the incident, however, the web of responsibility grew wider. Both Marcus and Kaliya are typically easy-going young people who avoid confrontation when possible. This behavior was uncharacteristic.

I realized that we had an unusually large number of people in the room that morning. Two college students were visiting (part of a requirement for an education course) and a student from another class was in the room to work on a project. The total number of people exceeded the chair count by one.  Marcus had been displaced. Moving to Kaliya’s seat triggered the conflict. 

My classroom is long and narrow, about 15 feet wide by 35 feet long. It was  a former office space in a rented building in the middle of the city. By the standards of most teachers in Philadelphia, I am very lucky. The building is in good repair: no asbestos or leaky roofs, not many mice or bugs. The rooms are clean and bright, and the phones and computers usually work. 

Despite my good fortune, I still feel that 34 people, in a room that size, is too many. I can’t imagine any respectable organization calling a meeting of 34 adults and expecting them all to squeeze into such a small space. Never, in my adult life, have I been asked to occupy a room with so little personal space. I think most adults would find it unprofessional or even degrading.

And yet, my students are young adults, many of them full-grown. Marcus, easily – 6 feet, towers over me. Kaliya is also taller than me, and so are many of my students. As they progress through high school, they grow. But my classroom does not.

Normally, reducing class size is an argument made by parents or teachers who envision small classes as the ideal setting for meaningful education. And while I agree with them, this incident in my classroom  led me to a different perspective – my students. I realized how crammed and frustrated they might feel, how stuck, sitting elbow to elbow at small desks in a windowless room. I realized what a delicate balance my classroom is when over 30 people are all operating together in relative harmony. And I realized how little it takes to disrupt that harmony.

I don’t condone Marcus’ or Kaliya’s actions. But, my students have a right to space. Personal space is essential to concentration and deep thinking, to civil relationships, to healthy and safe learning conditions. How can we expect our young people to function productively in an environment that most adults would certainly reject?

I know that I am not alone. Many teachers and students spend their days in overcrowded rooms, making the best of things. Because some research shows that class size is not a critical factor in teacher effectiveness, our experiences are largely ignored. For me, it took an imminent danger – that flying chair. My students and I will keep working to maintain a peaceful environment in our classrooms and in our school, but we also need the support of people outside our crowded room. We need an educational system that considers students’ experience of learning, not just test scores, and that can ensure healthy, safe and productive learning conditions for everyone.

Melville is high school English, Spanish and drama teacher in Pennsylvania.