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Should Elementary Teachers Specialize in Content?

A school-based content coach wrote to me because her K-5 school is considering moving toward content specialization. This means that at each grade level, teachers would focus on specific content areas and kids would change classes throughout the day. She wondered, is this beneficial for children? (This response is directed toward coaches, curriculum coordinators, and administrators, but classroom teachers may also find some of these ideas helpful.)

I strongly discourage elementary schools from moving to content specialization for a few reasons. 

 

Relationships and Community Are So Important

Content specialization doesn't help learning in elementary settings.

Kids learn more when they are connected with their teacher.

We all know how important relationships are for students. Kids need to know that their teacher knows them, and they need to feel a sense of positive community membership. When students split their day among different teachers it can diminish kids’ and teachers’ attachments to each other. It can also negatively impact a class’s ability to gel. This is especially problematic for kids who already lack consistent adults outside of school. Home-school connections are also impacted. Parents now have multiple teachers to juggle and they may be unsure of who to contact when they have questions. Teachers may take less responsibility for connecting with families since they see themselves as teachers of a specific content instead of teachers of one group of children.

 

Are We Teaching Math or Children?

Specialization can lead teachers to think about content before kids. They start to see themselves as a “math teacher” or a “writing teacher” instead of a third grade teacher. I sometimes hear teachers say things like, “I’m really good at teaching writing, so I should focus on that instead of science. Kids will learn more if they have teachers who are masters of content.” I disagree. If teachers feel weak with a particular content area, instead of avoiding teaching that subject, let’s help teachers boost their skills. Interestingly, a recent study (published in 2018 in a peer-reviewed paper in the American Economic Review) showed that student achievement actually decreased when teachers specialized in content.

 

Resist the Allure of Saving Planning Time

Another reason teachers may argue for this model is that they hope to reduce planning time. (“I would only need to plan one lesson to teach with three classes.”) However, this may lead teachers to artificially keep all of their classes in the same place at the same time. One of the beauties of elementary school teaching should be its flexibility. A certain group needs more or less of something (or they end up going on a productive and cool side journey), and teachers give them what they need. This doesn’t happen if the goal is to keep the pace the same for all classes. Instead, the teacher tries to plan a generic lesson for three different groups, whether they need it (or are ready for it) or not.

 

Content is Harder to Integrate

Content specialization also makes meaningful integration more difficult. Teachers may have the best of intentions to coordinate with each other in to integrate content, but this rarely happens. When do teachers actually get the planning time needed to pull this off? Additionally, when everyone is locked into a schedule that’s dependent on everyone else, flexibility is reduced. You can’t take an extra ten minutes when needed on a math activity if you’re trading students and everyone needs to change at the same time.

 

So How Do We Help Boost Teachers’ Skills?

This all raises an important question. How do coaches help teachers develop the skills and confidence needed to be strong in all content areas? While many districts try to side-step this issue by purchasing box curricula (the idea being that anyone can follow a script…it’s one of the most degrading and deprofessionalizing things to happen to teaching…), what’s really needed is effective professional learning. Hiring a consultant to support professional learning is certainly one way to go, but there are other in-house ideas to consider as well. 

A Few Ideas to Consider

  • Could school/district coaches visit grade level meetings once a month (or so) to share strategies for teachers to use? 
  • How about devoting some staff meetings to building teachers understanding/skills? 
  • Could you offer a voluntary book group to explore a professional resource to drive good teaching? (For example, Mathematical Mindsets is a fantastic resource to help teachers better understand good math instruction. Or, you might consider Kathy Collins’ wonderful book Growing Readers to explore reading in primary grades.)
  • You might also invite teachers to share effective strategies with each other—devoting a bit of grade level or department meetings to share about pedagogy.
  • Do you know of schools nearby who are using great teaching strategies that you could visit? It can be so helpful to see effective teaching practices in action.
  • You might model some lessons in classes and lead reflective discussions with teachers afterwards. (I use this strategy a lot when I consult in schools, and teachers rave about how helpful it is.)
  • Could you create an online binder of resources teachers could explore? For example, here’s one I’ve created to support the effective use of choice. Here’s another about effective language.

 

I certainly understand some teachers’ inclination to departmentalize at the elementary level. And normally, I’m in favor of structures and strategies that will reduce teachers’ workload and stress. However, in this instance, children pay a price that just isn’t worth it. Relationships weaken, content feels fragmented, and students learn less. Let’s all work to support teachers’ need for ongoing professional learning so that all kids get the benefit of great instruction in a child-centered environment in all content areas.

  • Mike Anderson
    Mike Anderson is an education consultant, award-winning teacher, and author of many books including What We Say and How We Say It MatterThe Well-Balanced Teacher, The First Six Weeks of School, The Research-Ready Classroom, and Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn. Learn more about Mike and his work or invite him to work with your school or district through his website: www.leadinggreatlearning.com. Connect with Mike on Twitter: @balancedteacher.

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    Leading Great Learning

    Mike Anderson is an energetic, experienced, and highly sought-after educational consultant who helps facilitate great learning in schools all over the United States and beyond. He has over twenty years of experience as a teacher, consultant, presenter, and developer and has authored many books and articles about great teaching and learning.