Tips & Tricks for Departmentalizing Across Your Grade Level

It is no secret that educators want to make a positive change in and around their schools on a daily basis. That driving force puts student achievement and teacher efficacy front of mind as administrator’s plan and design academic structures for the upcoming school year.

One method that seems to be gaining popularity in recent years that increases both teacher effectiveness and student achievement simultaneously is the idea of departmentalizing, also referred to as platooning. To departmentalize means to divide up instruction into departments where each teacher on a grade level team leads the teaching of one to two subject areas for a longer chunk of time rather than teaching all of the subjects for short spurts of time. Since teachers divvy up the instruction workload, students then travel to every teacher’s classroom throughout the day so that they receive all of the required grade level content.

  • Becoming an expert in the subject taught because of devoting endless hours to one specific area to hone one’s craft
  • Developing a simplified thought process because of not needing to keep up with multiple curricula and corresponding materials
  • Attending less professional development sessions due to the requirement of attending content area specialty only
  • Gaining time to a) create creative approaches to instruction due to teaching the same lesson outline to multiple classes and b) create more rigorous learning opportunities by deeply designing instruction for only one subject instead of many
  • Lacking knowledge of teaching best practices for other subject areas not taught
  • Keeping materials for multiple classes organized
  • Increasing pressure for grade level student achievement due to being solely responsible for student learning for an entire subject area
  • Developing a deeper understanding of academic concepts due to learning from a teacher with content expertise
  • Increasing the ability to adapt to new situations and advocate for personal needs due to learning from a variety of instructional styles and classroom structures
  • Developing life skills like time and material management
  • Increasing intrinsic learning motivation due to the novelty of changing classrooms and teachers often
  • Increasing responsibility at too young of an age creates a harsh adjustment
  • Lack of commonality with specific teachers creates tension, distrust and lack of enthusiasm
  • Forgetting necessary materials for specific classes (at home or in homeroom) decreases academic success

As school leaders decide to embark on this new journey of departmentalizing in elementary school buildings, where historically students solely learned from one teacher for an entire school year, parents have lots of questions. A “Meet the Teacher” night during the Back-to-School season is a great time to answer parent questions and present a united front with colleagues. Allow parents to travel to all classrooms in which their child will be a student to meet the subject specific teacher and receive information pertinent to being successful in that content area. It is a good idea that all colleagues on the grade level team come together to create one flyer to pass out to parents that includes a short bio of each teacher, grade level announcements, contact information, etc. Parents will want to reference this document often and do not want to have to hold on to separate information sheets for each teacher.

Teachers will also have lots of logistical questions for how to set up and adjust to a departmentalizing model in their classrooms. Below are tips and tricks for teachers to successfully departmentalize across their grade level:

Student Behavior Expectations

It is most important that all teachers participating in the departmentalizing cycle utilize the same behavior expectations for students and implement them consistently with each class that they serve. Having common expectations among teachers lessens students’ confusion when they have to assimilate into a variety of classrooms; although, it could be a long-term goal for students to adjust to learning from multiple teachers with differing expectations.

In order to have cohesive behavior expectations across a grade level, it is highly suggested to meet as a team to decide on expectations that all students must follow prior to rolling out the departmentalizing model to students. With a large amount of students on a single grade level, it is best to keep the list of expectations simple and add to it as the need arises instead of creating a laundry list of requirements that would be difficult to enforce and/or remember. A great place to start in formulating behavior expectations is to review school and or district guidelines to ensure continuity with compliance. This also showcases a community mentality when all classes are aligned to the school mission.

An example of common grade level behavior expectations for students are raising hands to speak, asking permission to leave seats, emergency bathroom visits only, and not being allowed to leave any classroom to retrieve forgotten supplies or materials once homeroom has dismissed for daily instruction.

Teacher Communication System

With class times being scheduled back-to-back and movement of a large amount of students in the hallway, it can be hard for teachers to communicate with each other about behavior, academics or share data points specific to the class as a whole or specific students. Similar to having consistent behavior expectations among teachers, it is suggested to utilize one simple communication tool to streamline the system. By keeping communication systems simple, it ensures all teachers are on the same page without anything getting lost in translation.

An example of an effective communication system is to have one folder per class that travels with students to each subject area teacher’s classroom. Inside the folder is a class roster for the subject area teacher to make notes on student behavior, academics, or place any important documentation for the homeroom teacher. Due to this information being private, it is suggested that teachers pass this folder to each other in the hallway, rather than having a responsible student carry the folder to and from classrooms. A bonus feature of this paper-pencil recording system is that this documentation serves as strong evidence for repeat offenders to be shared with the necessary stakeholders during parent-teacher conferences.

A Quick Note: If you are swapping classes with teachers not located in close proximity, consider an online communication tool that updates in real time.

Parent Communication System

Communication with parents is essential for student success in the classroom; however, when multiple teachers are instructing a single student, various communication avenues from stakeholders can make things confusing and the information often gets misinterpreted or lost in translation. To simplify the communication process, teachers should communicate to homeroom teachers for all subject specific announcements or reminders, specific student behavior updates, etc. Then the homeroom teacher can compile messages from all of the teachers and communicate to their set of parents in one simple fashion.

An example of parent communication from a variety of teachers through the homeroom teacher is the  teacher-teacher communication folder system mentioned above. When the folder is returned to the homeroom teacher at the end of the school day, it is then up to that teacher to take any necessary action on the information shared in the folder from subject area teachers, specifically communicating with individual parents.

Classroom Materials Management

Having multiple classes of students utilizing the same learning space can pose quite a problem for material storage and management. Therefore, extreme organization is key for implementing efficient storage and retrieval procedures for instructional materials among classes of students. It is suggested to dedicate space around the perimeter of the classroom for students to access necessary materials, but be sure to consistently use the same location for each class so that materials do not accidentally mix among classes. An organized space encourages material storage procedures to be followed on a daily basis.

An example of a classroom materials management solution is investing in organizational items like bins, cubbies, and/or crates in order to separate different classes’ writing utensils, folders, notebooks, etc. and then, clearly label such materials by class name (ie. homeroom teacher) and/or particular color.

Managing & Preserving Classroom Time

Since teachers are now working together to instruct a large group of students, it is of utmost importance to respect each other’s time. The school day is short enough as is to get through the required content so maximizing every moment is imperative. To do so, all teachers should follow the bell-to-bell schedule down to the exact minute so as not to interrupt the transition flow for the incoming class. Teaching past the required time creates a negative domino effect for the entire grade level. Teachers should close up instruction and have students lined up ready to exit prior to the sound of the bell.

An example of managing and preserving classroom time is knowing the daily and class schedule times, planning lessons with time stamps, and keeping an eye on the clock during instruction. When teachers are aware of the start and end times, they can better plan their lesson around such parameters. Taking it a step further, teachers can note in the lesson plan actual time stamps to help monitor their time as they teach (ie. anticipatory set – 5 min or 9:00-9:05 ; mini lesson- 10 min or 9:05-9:15, etc.). And lastly, by glancing at the clock throughout the lesson ensures teachers are not getting lost in the lesson but increasing awareness of time to appropriately pace themselves.

A Quick Note: Managing and preserving classroom time is an art. It is not something teachers master immediately. It takes intentional planning and heightened awareness during execution. It does not mean to rush through a lesson just to finish what was planned, but it does mean to be intentional with the time spent with students.

Classroom Transition Monitoring

Just as tricky as managing and preserving classroom time can be, so is transitioning students between classes. It also can easily eat up instructional time if teachers aren’t mindful of the clock. But this hurdle can easily be overcome with efficiently planned transition routes, practiced procedures, clear hallway behavior expectations, and careful teacher monitoring.

An example of transition monitoring is to create teacher posts near classrooms and in the hallway for efficient and safe transitions. Planning teacher monitors near and around these “hot spots” ensures students arrive quickly and safely to their next destination. Thinking through monitor locations ahead of time as a team is advantageous so that everyone is on board with the plan and the right team member can be matched to best fit the post responsibilities (ie. louder or commanding presenced teachers can be placed in the hallway directing student traffic, where as a softer spoken teacher can be placed in a classroom doorway welcome incoming students and controlling the flow of exiting students). If no teacher preference exists among team members, then choosing to go the fair route by developing a rotating schedule is a good solution as well. This way, every teacher hits each pre-determined post sometime during the school year- a true ‘share the workload’ mentality.

A Quick Note: If students are transitioning to classrooms not adjacent to one another, each teacher is then responsible for walking the class to the next teacher’s classroom, handing off the class and picking up the new class along the way. If teacher aides are available, transitioning students is a great way to utilized their help.

What is your current struggle with the departmentalizing model of instruction?

About the author, Gretchen

I am a teacher trainer and coach. Working elbow to elbow with teachers and teacher leaders to ensure instructional proficiency and student achievement soar lights me up. We have a real need in our nation for strong educators to remain in the field. My blog, book, podcast, courses and instructional materials are geared towards empowering teachers (and those that lead them) to receive the support needed to grow and thrive today, tomorrow and always.