4 Challenges of Departmentalizing in Upper Elementary and How to Prepare for Them

4 Challenges of Departmentalizing in Upper Elementary

This is Part Two of my blog post about departmentalizing in upper elementary.  Click here to read Part One, which describes five reasons why departmentalizing benefits teachers and students in upper-elementary grades.

I hope you’ve read Part One of this blog post to learn five huge benefits of departmentalization in upper-elementary school.  My team was departmentalized for two years and I saw many ways it helped students and teachers.  It rejuvenated my desire to teach.  It helped me get to know more kids.  I finally felt knowledgeable about the content I was teaching.

However, if you are considering departmentalizing for your grade level, there are some challenges that you’ll need to be prepared for.

Challenge:  Being the reading teacher

At my school, reading was the subject that administrators scrutinized more closely than any other subject…and it wasn’t even close!  It seemed like several academic coaches on our campus dealt with reading, while one coach was there to support math AND science.  When district officials did walk-throughs, they spent most of their time observing the reading teachers, then sucking them into meetings to provide tons of “constructive feedback.”

One thing you can do about it:  If you are considering departmentalizing in your grade, be sure the teachers who teach reading really love that subject because they are going to bear the brunt of the pressure from administrators.

Before we departmentalized, we had an honest conversation about each teacher’s strengths and weaknesses.   If you are considering departmentalizing, be sure your team discusses which subject area each teacher feels confident in.  Be sure the reading teachers understand they are probably going to feel more pressure from administrators than the people who teach the other subjects.  It’s an extremely important conversation to have.

If teachers are hesitant to teach reading, see if there are things the rest of the team can do to help lighten their load.  I regret not doing more for the reading teachers during the time we departmentalized.  I should have been looking for little things to take off their plate because they got sucked into way more meetings than I did.  (I taught science.)  I could have taken their dismissal duty a few times.  I could have brought their kids back from lunch a few times a week.  I could have brought them coffee once a week.  Anything to let them know that I understand that they, as a reading teacher, were under more pressure than me as the science teacher.

Challenge:  Scheduling

When we departmentalized, each fifth grader rotated among three teachers each day for ELA/SS, Math, and Science.  Each class period was 90 minutes.  I adore making schedules, so I volunteered to create the schedule each year.  Here was our master schedule looked like:

5 Reasons to Departmentalize in Upper Elementary

(Note:  We used the nicknames of the three closest major colleges as names for each group of students.  We also had early-release on Wednesday, which is why you see different times for that day.)

It was important that each student had an equal amount of time in each class every day.  There were a couple of days when I saw two classes for the full 90 minutes, but one class for 45 minutes due to an unexpected special event that came up at the last second.  All the fifth-grade teachers hated that because it wasn’t fair to that last class that their instruction got cut short.  They had to play catch-up for several days to make up for that lost time.

One thing you can do about it:  It’s important that you have someone who can adapt the schedule and communicate those changes to the team, even if it’s at the last second.  Then when a special event is announced, everyone knows this person will handle creating a new rotation schedule for that day.

While we certainly discussed the schedule as a team, your team needs a go-to person who can quickly change the schedule on those days when an assembly is announced five minutes before the kids arrive.  This person must also be able to clearly communicate these changes with the team.  Your principal is NOT the person for this job!  It should be a member of your team who knows the schedule and how changes are going to impact things for each class.

It’s also important that the other team members respect these changes and go with the flow because there’s not always time to discuss scheduling changes.

Challenge:  Ending class on time

It is imperative that each teacher ends class on time so students can have the full amount of time with their next teacher.  There were a few instances when other teachers had to chat with me because I ended my science class five minutes late.  I explained that we really got into an experiment or cleanup took way longer than I thought.  Guess what?  They didn’t care.  All they cared about was losing five minutes of instruction time with the kids that I kept late.  Plus, this teacher had to stand in the hallway and monitor the kids who were scheduled to be in my room.

I soon realized that I ABSOLUTELY HAD TO BE DONE WITH MY LESSON 2-3 MINUTES BEFORE THE CLASS TIME WAS SCHEDULED TO END!  So I set a ton of alarms on my phone to help me stay on schedule.

5 Challenges of Departmentalizing in Upper Elementary

One thing you can do about it:  I set an alarm seven minutes before each class was scheduled to end, which gave me time to wrap up my lesson.  Then I had another alarm on my phone go off two minutes before class was scheduled to end so I could have all the kids lined up and ready to get to their next class on time.  You could also have a student who is good with keeping track of time tell you when class is about to end.  Do whatever it takes to get your students to their next class on time because it’s not like middle school where you can ring a bell in the hallway.   Ending your class on time shows you respect the time of the other teachers on your team.

Challenge:  Hallway transitions

NOTHING will shut down a team’s effort to departmentalize faster than students being loud in the hallway while they are switching classes!  Other teachers will quickly grow tired of telling your students to be quiet while they’re trying to teach.  They will not hesitate to go to the principal with these concerns.  Administrators could tell you to stop departmentalizing if they are constantly dealing with kids being sent to the office for fighting or yelling while they are switching classes.

It is extremely important that your students remain quiet while switching classes.  Next year in middle school, they can talk while they change classes.  But not in elementary school.  We told our students there was absolutely no talking while they change classes, even if they have to wait.  They had to wait quietly in a line outside their next teacher’s door until that teacher allows them into their class.

It’s also important for teachers to stand in the hallway during transition times.  Yes, there are a million things you could be doing to prepare for your next class, but we all know that fifth graders are going to try to get away with stuff if they are left unsupervised.  So it’s important to respect the other teachers in your building by keeping your students quiet during transitions.  I have heard of a school where the fifth grade departmentalized at the beginning of the year, but the principal made them stop because there were too many behavior problems when the kids switched classes.

These are just a few of the challenges that you’ll need to prepare for if you plan to departmentalize in elementary school.  There are more that will arise.  It takes a willingness to adapt and be flexible, but I feel like departmentalizing has so many more pros than cons for teachers and students.  If you have questions or would like to share your story about departmentalizing in your school (good or bad), feel free to email me at kgeswein@gmail.com.

Regardless of whether or not departmentalizing would work at your school, I’d like to thank you for all that you do for your students every day!

5 Reasons Why You Should Departmentalize in Upper Elementary

5 Reasons Why You Should Departmentalize in Upper Elementary

My motivation to teach was at an all-time low after my 11th year of teaching.  Few of my lessons were motivating kids to learn.  I was mortified when a paraprofessional walked in my room, shook her head, and said, “These kids are not working hard for you.”  I felt like I was teaching all of my 5th-grade subjects decently, but the standards and tests were always changing and I couldn’t keep up.  I also felt like my kids got restless throughout the day.  I tried to get them out of our tiny portable as often as possible, but doing anything outside in Florida’s humidity is not exactly ideal for learning.  I tried several things to rekindle my desire to teach, but nothing worked.  I felt like I was letting my kids down every day.

Thankfully, during the summer before my 12th year of teaching, someone asked the 5th-grade teachers if we’d be interested in departmentalizing.  At first, it sounded like one more thing being added to my never-ending list of things that change each year.  Then as I thought about it, I realized it could have major benefits for teachers and students.  It would be good for the kids to have a change of atmosphere throughout the day.  It would be a great way for me to master teaching one subject.  I could get to know half of the 5th graders instead of only a fraction of them.  For the first time in a long time, I was excited for the new school year.

We departmentalized for two years and I loved it.  Our fifth-grade team had six teachers.  Students rotated each day among three of them for ELA/SS, math, and science.  I got to teach science!  Each class period was 90 minutes.  This was at a Title I school in central Florida with a large population of ESL kids.

Here’s how it worked with our team of six teachers:

Teacher 1 taught ELA/SS.   Teacher 2 taught math.   Teacher 3 taught science.  Half of the fifth graders rotated among teachers 1-3 each day.

Teacher 4 taught ELA/SS.   Teacher 5 taught Math.  Teacher 6 taught science.  The other half of the fifth-grade students rotated among teachers 4-6 each day.

This is what our master schedule looked like.

5 Reasons to Departmentalize in Upper Elementary

We used the nicknames of the three closest major colleges as names for each of the groups of students we saw.  We also had early-release on Wednesday, which is why you see different times for that day.

Teachers who taught the same subjects planned together.  Our principal was very nice in allowing us to ONLY attend meetings that pertained to our subject area!!

I’m not saying it was easy.  It took a ton of communication, teamwork, and organization.  We certainly did not do this perfectly, which I discuss in a separate blog post (the link is at the end).  I also think it depends on a school’s teachers and students.  I’m sure there are schools where departmentalizing would be a detriment to student learning.

However, in my experience, I feel like my fifth-grade students benefitted tremendously from having three teachers each day.   If you’re thinking about departmentalizing, here are five reasons why you should go for it.

Reason #1:  Kids have more teachers who know them and care about them

One of the teachers on my team did not want to departmentalize at first.  She thought she would not connect as well with her students since she would be seeing them for a shorter amount of time each day.  As the year progressed, she realized this was not the case.  Instead of getting to know 25 students really well, we got to know 75 students really well.   Even though you’re seeing students for less time, you will still build amazing bonds with every student you teach.

Fifth graders act like they are too cool for adults, but in reality, they are still at an age where they crave adult attention.  Departmentalizing was great because each student saw more teachers every day.  Students knew they were going to see three classroom teachers who cared about them every day instead of just one.  I also feel like it reduced the number of behavior problems.  Kids knew that if they misbehaved in one class, their other teachers were going to hear about it.

Reason #2:  You aren’t alone

When a student is struggling, you have other teachers you can talk to who know the student just as well as you.  This was a massive game-changer for me.  I realize that not all students feel 100% comfortable talking to me.  I realize there are times when they may feel more comfortable talking to a female teacher.  So when I saw a student struggling in my class, I could always talk to this student’s other two teachers about how to help him/her.  Usually, one of us had an insight as to why this student was struggling.  Or one of us had a great idea about how to get that student back on track.  It was interesting to see the students who responded to other teachers better than they did for me.  I was so thankful they didn’t have to sit in my class all day for 180 days because something the other teachers did really clicked for them.  Likewise, some students from other teachers did much better for me than their homeroom teacher.

I’ll always remember one student who loved drawing comics under the answers to his bellwork in my science class.  They always involved two characters discussing the bellwork question in a funny way.  He drew this every day on his bellwork!  When I showed his drawings to his ELA and math teachers, they loved it and encouraged him to do the same in their classes as well.  His work below is in response to a bellwork question about characteristics of certain body organs.

5 Reasons to Departmentalize

Reason #3:  Master teaching your subject(s)

I loved teaching three classes of science every day.  I felt like I was finally teaching at a level my students deserved because science was the only subject I had to focus on.  I got to know the standards and test-item specs extremely well.  I found myself looking for science workshops to attend, which was something I never did before departmentalizing.

I was able to help our campus get cool science supplies.  I had the time to research a program called Lego WeDo.  Those involve kids building things with Legos, then writing computer code to program them to move in certain ways.  I was able to do a ton of research on this and persuade my principal to order it for us.  I also learned enough about them so when they arrived, I knew how to help the kids use them effectively.  There’s no way I could have put in the amount of time necessary if I taught all subjects.

I also enjoyed teaching similar lessons three times each day.  In my lesson plans, I included ideas to differentiate the lessons a bit based on the needs of the three groups of kids I saw each day.  If a part of a lesson went poorly during my first class, I loved being able to tweak it so the lessons for my final two classes went better.  It was challenging during science experiments and STEM activities because I had to organize supplies for 75 students instead of just 25.  I definitely had to arrive at school earlier on days when we did experiments with lots of materials.  That required way more prep time.  But remember, I didn’t have to worry about attending meetings for math or ELA.  I didn’t have to come up with materials for reading centers or study the story problems I was teaching in math.  I actually had the time to prepare lessons with depth.

Finally, it was powerful for students to compare notes with the other classes.  I loved making anchor charts like this after we did experiments because it helped the kids talk through the learning that just occurred.

5 Reasons to Departmentalize

Then when we completed the chart, I sometimes showed charts from the other two classes.  We had some amazing discussions about, “Why do you suppose Class A said ______________ while you all said __________________?”

Reason #4:  Prepare students for middle school

In our district, fifth grade was the final year of elementary.  It’s a big adjustment for kids to go from having one classroom teacher every day in fifth grade to having several each day in sixth grade.  Departmentalizing is an outstanding way to help kids feel more comfortable with having more than one classroom teacher each day.  It helps kids learn how to keep track of assignments for multiple teachers.  We spent a lot of time helping our fifth graders learn how to organize their homework agenda so they could easily keep track of their assignments for each class.

At the end of the year, I asked students to reflect on what they liked and did not like about fifth grade.  A couple of kids said having more than one teacher was a bit overwhelming.  But the majority of students said they enjoyed it.  Here are a few kids who said they enjoyed their first year of having more than one classroom teacher.

5 Reasons to Departmentalize in Upper Elementary

5 Reasons to Departmentalize in Upper Elementary

5 Reasons to Departmentalize in Upper Elementary

Reason #5:  Test scores went up

For people who need to see data to justify departmentalizing, I had a 19% increase in the number of students who passed the science test the first year I departmentalized compared to the year before when I taught all subjects.  I also saw a dramatic increase in the number of students who scored at the highest level possible.  Reading and math teachers also saw better test scores than the year before.  Although my scores dipped slightly in year two, results were still way better than when I taught all subjects.

If you feel like departmentalizing could work for your students and your school, I hope this blog post has given you some motivation to get the ball rolling on doing so.  However, there are some challenges that you’ll need to be prepared for.  I’ve outlined a few of them in Part Two of this blog post, titled 4 Challenges to Departmentalizing in Upper Elementary.

Unfortunately, research about whether or not departmentalizing increases student achievement is limited, as discussed in this Harvard Education Letter from 2009.  I spent quite a while looking up research before we departmentalized and couldn’t find much.  I also tried to find some research to include in this blog post and again, I couldn’t find any solid data.

With the lack of research, I’ll use my personal experience to say that I strongly believe in the benefits of departmentalization.  During the two years we departmentalized, it helped the teachers as much as the kids at my school.  Please feel free to email me at kgeswein@gmail.com if you have questions or would like to hear more about my experience.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the expertise to advise how exactly you should organize departmentalization at your school, since I don’t know your students or teachers.  But if you have some general questions, I’d love to hear them.  If you have stories of how departmentalization worked for your school, good or bad, feel free to email me too.   Regardless of whether or not departmentalizing would work for you, I want to thank you for all that you do for your students every day!