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How to manage large classes in high school science: What to do when you have way too many students

manage large classes

Are you looking at your roster and thinking, “I have WAY too many students this year – how on earth am I to manage large classes like these and actually do labs?!”

You aren’t alone, teacher friend.

I was reading a report the other day from 2018 that showed the average class size of departmentalized classes by state ranging anywhere from 18-29 students in a class.

The majority of states, however, were closer to the upper end, with averages of 27-29 students in a class being typical. Now if you are reading this, you are most likely a science teacher, and thus you know how averages work. We take the sum of the class sizes and divide it by the number of classes we are looking at. So for 27-29 students to represent an AVERAGE class size, that means while there are classes smaller than that in public schools around the US, there are also classes larger than that.

That means some of you are teaching high school science classes with 30+ students in them. You get paid the same amount as the teacher down the hall with only 15 students. How are you expected to manage large classes like this?!

As science teachers, class sizes of this magnitude are honestly disturbing. 30 first graders is one thing. They are at least all around 4 feet and under. At least I am assuming so – I’ve never taught first grade. But while I may not know the average height of a 6-year-old, I am VERY CONFIDENT that thirty 17-year-olds would take up a LOT more space than thirty 7-year-olds.

As high school science teachers, not only are you dealing with students that physically take up more space but you are also expected to do LABS with all of these giant pubescent beings. Like actually use fire and chemicals and sharp dissection tools all while their giant seemingly uncoordinated bodies are raging with hormones.

HOW ON EARTH ARE YOU TO MANAGE LARGE CLASSES LIKE THIS without (1) anyone getting hurt and (2) losing your mind?! If this is how you feel this school year then this post is for YOU!

Full disclosure before we dive in any further: my largest class I’ve ever taught was 30 students and at the time, I had a large classroom with desks in the front and lab space in the back. However, I have also taught several sections of 25 students in a TINY classroom that was an old computer lab converted into my “science room”. It was considered appropriate for teaching science because I had tile floors instead of carpet like the others on my hall. But no running water, definitely no gas or hood, and absolutely zero space for anything other than my teacher desk and my students’ desks. That’s it.

So all of that to say, you may not have 30+ students, but looking at the number of students in the square feet of space you are expected to teach in (hello an opportunity to practice population density calculations) you may find you could benefit from a tip or two for how to manage large classes. You are in luck – I’ve got six tips to help you manage large classes – whether large in terms of physical bodies or large in terms of density. Let’s dive in.

Tip #1 for how to manage large classes: Arrange desks or lab tables into “pods”.

manage large classes

If you hear “pods” and immediately think of the show, “Love is Blind”, we probably have similar tastes in trashy binge-worthy television shows. But I am not talking about a Netflix reality series here.

By “pods” I simply mean clumps. If you have individual student desks, group them in fours. If you have lab tables for desks where students can sit side-by-side in pairs, group them in twos. I know it may sound simple, but you will be AMAZED at the space you can reclaim by just squishing a few seats together.

I was forced to do this several times when I literally did not have enough seats for all of my students. I was scavenging chairs from the storage trailer at the back of our school property just to ensure no students had to stand. While I was able to ensure a place for every bum to rest, I was NOT able to nail down a table for every student. By grouping my tables in pods, I was able to squeeze 6 students into every 2 lab tables – albeit a little cozy.

Practical note: To avoid any backs to you, angle the desks and tables so that students’ sides face you. While this means no students are really face-to-face with you, it at least ensures no one’s BACK is directly to you.

Now, this may feel like you are just hand-delivering an open invitation for off-topic conversations, but that’s where tips #2 and #3 come in.

Tip #2 for how to manage large classes: Be strategic with seating charts.

manage large classes

Listen, I know seating charts may be “old school” but hear me out. To manage large classes, you NEED SEATING CHARTS. You HAVE to be strategic with where students are sitting in order to negate as many distractions as possible.

When I had 25 students in a classroom that was made to comfortably hold 16, we were truly packed in like sardines. I had to beg my 4th-period class to NOT eat lunch outside before coming into my class because the smell of 25 sweating bodies in a room designed for 2/3rds that amount was too much to handle.

Using seating charts was the only way I could semi-manipulate those sweaty bodies to keep the chattiest students as far away as humanly possible from each other.

Practical note: I personally like to switch seats after every unit, but with a large class in a tiny classroom, you only have so many options. So take the pressure off! Only switch seats when you feel like you need to. Heck, if the arrangement is working, keep kids there all year! There are no rules!! You are in charge! Change seats as many or as few times as your sanity needs.

Sitting in pods isn’t all bad, though. One of the best parts about having students sit in clumps like this is how it promotes group work.

Tip #3 for how to manage large classes: Small group work is essential.

manage large classes

Having pod-style seating arrangements truly promotes students working together – so don’t fight it! Use what you’ve got to work with and make small group work a daily part of your classroom rhythm and routine.

I could go on and on about why I love using small groups – both for my students AND for myself – but I’ve already done that elsewhere. So you can read more about the benefits of using small groups here and five practical tips for using small groups in your high school science classes here!

Practical note: Build small group work into your lesson plans from day one. This gets students used to working together and so even the most hesitant students will stop fighting it and learn to expect it.

Now at this point, you are probably thinking – REBECCA, YOU HAVEN’T EVEN TALKED ABOUT LABS. HOW ON EARTH ARE WE SUPPOSED TO DO LABS with SO MANY bodies and SO LITTLE SPACE? I’ve got you. That’s where tips 4-6 come in for how to manage large classes.

Tip #4 for how to manage large classes: Use stations.

manage large classes

If you are trying to figure out how to manage large classes this year doing anything at all out of their seats, you MUST take advantage of stations.

There are a lot of ways you can do stations, but my best advice is to take every lab and break it into chunks where students will rotate in groups from one station to another to complete the lab. Set timers and tell them all when they need to rotate and in what order. This will keep the moving masses orderly.

Additionally, I would go ahead and plan to include an extra day (or two) for every lab you do when you have a large class doing it. This will take SO MUCH PRESSURE off of you and your students. You can even have half of the class in their seats working independently one day while you do the lab with the other half and then swap the next day. I know this may seem overly simplified, but it truly makes such a big difference. Give yourself that extra time built in for breathing room!

I have SO MANY things to say about stations, and if you want to read more, check out this blog post here that covers everything you need to know about using stations.

Practical note: If I’ve said it once I’ve said it 1000x times –> when it comes to labs, less is more. Don’t do labs just for the sake of labs – especially if you are already managing the load of mega-large classes. Be extremely strategic about the labs you block the time and energy out to do. If your admin complains you aren’t doing enough labs, tell them to give you smaller class sizes.

That may seem harsh, but it is true. I would seriously look up any OSHA rules in your state and/or if you have a teacher union, anything there about class sizes because it really may be a safety hazard to be doing labs with the class size you are expected to teach.

But if you can’t find any legal support or cry enough to get your admin to show you class-size mercy, then you need to get especially serious about your procedures.

Tip #5 for how to manage large classes: Get serious about procedures.

manage large classes

I am extremely passionate about teaching procedures in my classroom. I believe clearly taught and consistently reinforced procedures are the backbone of solid classroom management. I teach my students a billion, but there are five procedures I think are especially important to teach at the beginning of the school year.

Procedures help SO MUCH with classroom management and decrease the amount of time and energy you spend having to be reactive to everything that happens in your classroom. Conserve your energy by being proactive in teaching and implementing procedures.

Especially when figuring out how to manage large classes, you NEED to minimize time wasted (1) during transitions and (2) when getting class started. Procedures will enable you to do that!

Practical note: Make a list of the things that make you the most frustrated that happen in your classroom. Write a procedure that, if taught, could prevent each frustration point from happening. Now commit to teaching your students these!

While procedures are the foundation of my classroom management philosophy, a little whole-class reward-based system has also proven incredibly motivating. That’s where my final tip comes in.

Tip #6 for how to manage large classes: Utilize board points for whole-class motivation.

manage large classes

At my first teaching job, a veteran teacher introduced me to the idea of board points, and I have found it to be an incredibly simple, yet effective, whole-classroom management strategy year after year. I’ve talked about them so much on my podcast and in my professional development course that some of you reading this are probably rolling your eyes, but if you DON’T know about board points yet, you can read all about them here.

Practical note: If you aren’t able to offer any sort of bonus points or you don’t find them to be an incentive for your students – ASK THEM WHAT IS. Do they want a “Starbucks day” where you bring in your coffee pot, play music, and they get to catch up on work? Do they want donuts? Do they want to drop their lowest quiz grade? Ask and see what reward would motivate them. Give them ideas that are SIMPLE and that you would be happy to execute for them (Ex. Don’t offer to bake if you hate baking).

I hope you find these 6 tips helpful as you manage large classes this school year!

Looking for suggestions for the other direction in terms of engaging SMALL classes? Check out this blog post here!

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