How To Manage Your Overcrowded Classroom

At the start of the year, you receive your classroom list and your jaw drops. How are you expected to fit so many students in your classroom, much less manage them all? Throughout the year, new students enter your classroom, adding to your roster and your workload. You want to create a positive learning experience for every student, but it’s hard when there are so many to care for.

You aren’t alone. Overcrowding is an issue in classrooms across the country. Follow these steps to connect with your students without overworking yourself to the point of burnout.

Find Ways To Connect With Students

You aren’t just a teacher for your students. You are a positive adult role model in their lives. You are a safe person to talk to when they need help and someone who has their best interests at heart. However, serving as this ally can be challenging when you have more than 30 students per class.

“Teachers should understand that they are not going to be able to spend time with each student every day,” says Derrick Meador, superintendent at Jennings Public Schools in Oklahoma. “They should understand that they will not get to know each student on a personal level. That is simply the reality in an overcrowded classroom.”

Fortunately, there are ways you can make a positive connection with your students and make them feel seen. You can accomplish this by greeting them each class, which will help you get to know them while looking out for any mood swings or changes in behavior.

Adriana Chavarin-Lopez and Dr. Michael Vea at San Diego Unified School District encourage teachers to greet students at the door. This is often seen in viral videos with young learners, but middle and high school students can benefit from this as well. Make eye contact, call each student by their name, and use a nonverbal greeting like a fistbump or high five. You can also use words of encouragement like “I’m excited for us to learn today” to create a connection.

This process will help you get to know the confident students while identifying shy learners. If a student suddenly stops talking or showing up, you’ll notice — something that’s hard to do in a large class.

Once your students get settled, you can identify ways to connect with students while still managing your classroom effectively.

“Assign each student a number,” says Elizabeth Mulvahill, contributing editor at We Are Teachers. “Then use students’ numbers to call out groups to move in the room or line up. Have students put their numbers on papers [when handing them in] so you can easily put them in order and save time when passing them back.”

While this may seem impersonal, it can be especially helpful at the start of the year as you learn your students’ names.

Students and professor at a lecture in an educational institution; overcrowded classroom concept

Build Classroom Support Networks

A large class means you won’t have as much time to spend with individual students. This can cause some learners to fall behind while leaving more advanced students bored and distracted. To engage both types of learners, consider setting up peer groups where students work in pairs or in pods of four to review their work and discuss the material. This means students can turn to each other rather than always asking you for help.

You don’t have to create in-depth group projects to let students break into these pods. You can pool students together when you need to help an individual student or if another teacher needs your help. Discussion pods can also break up your lectures.

“I’ve always favoured active learning within lectures,” says David Quinn, professor of mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. “This is to give students time in which they can contemplate and discuss the material together. Students are then participants in the lecture and not just recipients.”

You might also find that these discussions speed up the learning process as more advanced students help their peers. Studies show that group learning improves the results of students who are otherwise struggling with the material.

“One of the consistent empirical hallmarks of peer instruction is that students’ answers are more frequently correct following discussion than preceding it,” write researchers Jonathan Tullis and Robert Goldstone. “Performance improvements are found because students are more likely to switch from an incorrect answer to the correct answer than from the correct answer to an incorrect answer.”

Students who are confident about their answers can explain why, while uncertain students can understand the material by hearing the concepts again from a new source. This is an opportunity to reinforce your lessons from the perspective of a student, which can help everyone in the class move forward.

Consider Your Classroom Culture

Your students will quickly learn if they can fly under the radar because of your classroom culture. Some educators treat their large classes like lecture halls, enabling some students to zone out or miss work without getting noticed. Instead, you can take a large classroom and create a culture in which students want to participate.

“Presenting yourself — and your lessons — with energy and poise is a sure way to draw students’ attention,” says Jim Schultz, founder of Applied Educational Systems. “It’s effective because you establish that you’re the center of your students’ shared universe whenever you’re at the front of the class. [While] teacher enthusiasm doesn’t always have an effect on behavior…it does play a strong role in cognitive and emotional engagement.”

Admittedly, this is easier said than done. There will be some days where you can barely muster up enough enthusiasm to teach, much less to engage students. However, if you create a culture of excitement, your students will arrive more eager to learn, which makes teaching easier.

Classroom culture also refers to the guidelines that students follow, which include rules for participation that both parties agree to.

“Teacher and children establish responsibilities together as a guide to all expected behaviors in the classroom,” writes the team at Children’s Literacy Initiative. “These responsibilities build and support classroom community, and they empower and encourage all children to be responsible.”

Rather than strict rules, these are agreed-upon processes that both students and teachers follow. Instead of feeling lost in a large classroom, students can feel like they are part of a community as a whole.

Many educators with large class sizes talk about building communities and teams with students. This team feeling can help students learn together when they are in small groups while giving individuals the confidence to ask you for help.

“Right from the start, I help my students understand that we are a team,” says Katie Christie, former elementary classroom teacher and EdTechTeam member. “We are in this together…so we should be working and rooting for each other. Even if your time together isn’t so extreme (if you’re a middle or high school teacher), you and your students are still together often, so why not make the most of this time?”

Just because you can’t spend several minutes each day with every student doesn’t mean you can’t create a positive impact in their lives with a healthy culture.

math teacher at blackboard with an equation written on it; overcrowded classroom concept

Develop Your Classroom Management Style

Along with culture comes management. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by so many learners; however, you don’t want that to affect the overall learning environment.

“In my experience, there are two extremes of classroom management,” says Michelle Hope, assistant principal in Tennessee. “At the one end is the teacher who appears to have no control over the classroom culture… at the other end is the overly controlled classroom, with a rigid set of rules and procedures. Both extremes are the result of a power imbalance.”

In the first scenario, the teacher has no way to provide instructions and isn’t listened to anyway. In the second, students might hesitate to speak up if they need help.

With a larger classroom, you may need to break up your lessons into smaller sections — at least until you know your students can handle additional instructions. This means there will be more management on your end before you can let your students enjoy hands-off activities.

“If you dump all your instructions on students at the start of a lesson before turning them loose with an activity, confusion and disengagement will likely follow,” says Jackson Best writes at learning platform 3P Learning. “That’s why it’s important to scaffold larger tasks by breaking them into achievable steps. Each of these can be separated by brief ‘checkpoints’ of instruction, reorienting students and reminding them of what needs to be done next.”

This will save time while reducing your level of frustration when students forget what they need to do or how to do it.

Part of classroom management also involved student discipline. Unfortunately, managing large groups of students effectively is something that often comes with experience.

Youki Terada, research and standards editor at Edutopia, shares a study that compares how novice versus experienced educators approach classroom management. One of the key differences is that experienced teachers address the root cause of a problem while less experienced teachers focus on the effects.

For example, when students are distracted by one of their peers, a novice teacher might try to get them to focus, rather than address the student who is distracting others.

As you hone your classroom management techniques, you can create a healthier learning environment that is fair for all of your students.

very large empty lecture hall; overcrowded classroom concept

Keep Students Engaged

Finally, you want to develop a teaching style that keeps students engaged, no matter how many are in your classroom. Bonni Stachowiak, the host of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, shares a couple of her tips for keeping students in large classrooms engaged from what she has seen from compelling lecturers. These include:

  • Ask open-ended questions that allow students to silently reflect on their answers.
  • Minimize your PowerPoint decks, so students focus on the instruction rather than the notes on the screen.
  • Provide several applications and examples for the same concept. What sticks with one student might not be useful for another.
  • Present homework or assignments as “challenges,” which almost gamify learning.

You might also develop techniques to encourage students to pay attention — even when they’d rather tune out.

“I’m a big fan of calling on random students, especially among older groups,” says Richelle Gamlam, an English teacher in China. “No one wants to be caught daydreaming when the teacher asks them a question, and many students will pay attention and prep answers to questions just in case.”

You can also engage students by storytelling. Even if you’re teaching advanced calculus or physics, you can identify stories that engage students and get them thinking about the material. A short story can help students get settled into class or wake them up early in the morning.

Every teacher has their own frustrations that come with managing a large class of students. It requires a delicate balance to keep students engaged without letting the classroom get out of hand. You want to connect emotionally with each student while moving the lessons forward. Try a few of these strategies and see how your classroom experience changes.

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