by Jennifer Rita Nichols, @JennritaEdu
In many schools, looping has been integrated as a regular procedure. It has become normal for students to spend more than one year with the same teachers. Of course, as with any methods or practices, there are pros and cons that need to be considered when deciding if looping can enhance learning at your school and if it could be something you wish to implement.
Personally, I have been teaching many of the students in my own class for three years now. When my fifth graders pass into sixth grade next year, I will teach them once again – so they will have had me as a teacher for four years. Our school uses a multi-level approach, where classes have students at different grades and levels. I have personally encountered many positive and negative effects of this model.
Pros of Looping
1) Relationships with students
I know my students very well. I remember the stories they used to tell, the games they used to play, and even the Pokemon they used to like. We can look back and laugh at shared experiences from previous years, and also look ahead to what things we might do next year. There is a level of trust that can only be built up over time. They feel comfortable talking to me as a trusted mentor, and will often even share stories that most students would not typically share with their teacher. We have developed a high level of caring and respect in our classroom.
2) Relationships with parents and families
I also know the parents of my students very well. I have been working with them for several years now. As each new school year comes along, I welcome back the same groups of parents along with their children. They know the way I work, as well as what to generally expect during the year. They feel comfortable talking with me or sending me questions about assignments or grades, which can make things much less complicated than when parents need to adjust to completely different ways of working each year.
3) Understanding student needs
I know what my students’ strengths and general weaknesses are right from the first day of school. I can remember where they started from, the progressions they have made, and what goals we still need to work on. I can remember the skills that each student struggled with the year before, as well as what tasks they usually excel at. There are no wasted days at the beginning of the year – coming back from summer vacation is like coming back after a long holiday. We catch up on what everyone did, then pick up where we left off, with new skills and projects to work on. I also know what triggers my students, for good or for bad. I know who works well together and who should be kept apart.
4) Promotes teacher innovation
You just can’t teach the same thing every year when you have the same students! On top of that, I teach different grades each year, which means new skills and competencies to develop according to the education programs we follow. When you have the same students for multiple years, you need to think of new projects, new texts to read, new activities to do, and new units to cover. It really prevents teachers from reusing the same materials over and over for years on end. I also find that it keeps me up to date with new technologies and ideas in education, as I spend time searching for new things to incorporate into my classes.
5) Benefits classroom management
When you start teaching the students in your class, you establish routines and procedures for almost everything. There are rules to follow, and consequences/punishments for stepping out of line. There are times when students should be reading quietly, and times when they should be writing their homework in their agenda. They need to share certain resources in turn, and learn what you accept and don’t accept from each of them.
Often, there are a few students who seem to only start ‘getting’ the routines near the end of the year. Then, off they go into a new class with new procedures to learn. In my class, the students come in September already aware of what I will tolerate, as well as what I expect from them. New students pick things up quickly as they integrate into our well-established group.
1) Teachers can get ‘too comfortable’
While you can’t work on exactly the same tasks and projects each year that you loop, it is easy to fall into a certain complacency. The parents know you, the students know you, and you have built up trust and a reputation with stakeholders. As with anyone that is doing the same job for a long time, you need to be conscious of not allowing yourself to do less than your best. Letting things slide, or even going as far as to ‘live off your reputation’ without living up to it anymore, can impact the education your students are receiving.
2) Students adapt less to change
While the chaos that usually starts a school year can mean that a great deal of time is spent learning about each other in class, as well as on behaviours and general management, there are also benefits to that disruption. In life we need to be able to adapt to changes. When each year is very similar to the last in structure and attendance, then the students do not need to really adapt to new ways of working the way they do when everything changes each year. I have a student with autism for whom this is very reassuring, but for others I try to change things up a bit here and there to still have them get used to surprises and rearranging the way they function.
Also, when things have been done a certain way for several years, it can be difficult to change. As a teacher, you want to learn from your experiences and change your actions/reactions to reflect new understandings. You’ll find with looping that you encounter a fair amount of resistance and ‘we always do it like this, you never made us do that’ comments.
3) Persistence of negative relationships
While maintaining an ongoing relationship with a respected teacher can really benefit students, being forced to continue classes where more of a negative relationship is present can really be detrimental to student advancement. Not all students like every teacher. Sometimes relationships are difficult and volatile. It’s normal. Certain personalities just seem to fit together less gracefully than with others, and some mixes can even prove to be hazardous to your sanity. If a negative relationship exists between any students and the teacher, then looping can prevent all parties from building new, and more positive, relationships the following year.
Looping can also lead to judgments being passed on students based on preconceived notions. If a student has always been difficult in previous years, then it can be hard for you to notice they’ve changed and to react accordingly. Having to form new relationships, with new teachers, can sometimes give students that chance that they need to start over and build a new reputation.
4) Less exposure to different teaching/learning methods
Every teacher adopts methods that work for them and fit with their style and personality. In any school, just walk between different classes and observe them each in turn. We all teach differently. We may be covering the same programs, but delivery varies greatly from one teacher to the next! While it’s great for students to become comfortable with the way their class is structured, it’s also great for them to be exposed to as many different ways of learning as possible. We all need to find strategies in life that suit us, and school is a the perfect place to try out different things and figure out what works.
5) Teachers are less comfortable and skilled at every level
Since starting at my school, I have taught every grade level from two to six. The differences between levels can be huge! While my second graders were learning to read and write better, my sixth graders were busy converting fractions to decimals and writing comparative essays. We all have certain niches. Personally, I prefer teaching the higher levels – grades five and six. That doesn’t mean I dislike the younger students, but I am more comfortable with the material covered by the older ones.
Other teachers absolutely love teaching very young students. We all tend to be best when we are doing what we are really skilled at, and having a teacher switching grades each year can mean that they pass through the phase where they excel, then spend years teaching where they are less comfortable. Some core subjects, such as mathematics, also tends to be very particular to teach. Not everyone is able to teach advanced math well, and this can become a problem when teachers loop with classes. It should also be noted that a looping teacher needs to become very familiar with the education program at every level they teach, rather than become an expert for a particular level.
Even after considering the challenges and benefits of looping, it can be a tough decision to make. In my own experience, I have enjoyed it very much. The benefits have outweighed the drawbacks, and I am very happy with the relationships I have with my students and their families. When they move on to high school, I truly miss having each and every one of them in my class, as they are all there long enough to create their own ‘dent in the couch cushion’.
Would I suggest looping to others? Yes, I would. Any teacher that is willing to put in the extra effort required to keep things fresh and innovative in their classroom can make this model work wonders. There’s no better sense of community that can exist than when it is created and allowed to exist over time.
Image attribution flickr users philroeder and flickeringbrad