Middle schools do it. High schools do it. Should elementary schools do it too? Asking teachers to drop their traditional roles as generalists and serve instead as experts teaching one or two content areas is part of a growing trend called departmentalizing (or platooning) and some say it can result in many benefits for teachers and kids if it’s well planned and executed.
We scoped it out and came up with this list of pros and cons:
Allowing teachers to focus on and master one or two subjects provides for a greater level of expertise and deeper understanding. Because of this, teachers have a greater ability to differentiate their instruction to meet the needs of all learners. Also, when teachers have the opportunity to teach what they love, they’re likely to be more invested.
Departmentalizing is a cost-neutral way of upgrading instruction. In other words, the number of teachers doesn’t change, their responsibilities just shift. Teachers become more effective and the budget isn’t impacted.
Departmentalizing lends itself to a cooperative teaching approach. Grade level teachers work together to collaborate and coordinate content, manage communication with parents and students, and orchestrate parent conferences. Teams provide mutual support for one another and share grade level responsibilities. For example, teachers might take turns writing the newsletter, updating the website, or attending district professional development meetings.
When grade levels departmentalize, teachers take equal ownership of the students. The motto “everybody’s kids are everybody’s kids” becomes a reality. Teachers have the opportunity to bond with more students, not just their own homeroom.
Teachers benefit from a time management standpoint—they don’t feel stretched so thin trying to fit all subjects into every day evenly. Lesson planning can become simpler and less time consuming.
Departmentalization breaks the monotony for students. Students are able to move more frequently during the day, which helps increase attention. It also provides students with an opportunity to be challenged academically by different teachers in different classroom environments.
Students also develop interpersonal skills by being exposed to different teaching styles . This is particularly helpful if a student and teacher aren’t exactly a “match.”
Departmentalizing prepares kids for the transition to middle and high school. Graduating to the next level of schooling is not such an overwhelming prospect.
Many would argue that departmentalizing is not developmentally appropriate for elementary aged students because young children need a stable and secure learning environment with the opportunity to develop a close personal relationship with their teacher.
There is less flexibility in scheduling throughout the day. Each block period is dedicated to a single topic, so teachers don’t have the freedom to spend more than the allotted time or pick up a topic later in the day.
It’s harder to make connections across the curriculum when you are not in control of all of the content. As a generalist you can weave together a lesson that incorporates reading, writing and math. As a specialist, your subject may not jibe with another subject.
Consistent discipline can become an issue when students have a number of different teachers. When you ask students to learn multiple sets of rules/routines before they are ready, you may be inviting misbehavior.
Too much time is lost in transition between classrooms. Some kids have a hard time “resetting” quickly.
Departmentalizing does not necessarily solve time management issues for teachers—sometimes it makes them worse! More time communicating and coordinating with teammates is definitely required.
Some teachers love the variety of teaching across the curriculum. Specializing in one subject may get boring and lead to burn out.
Sharing students with other teachers dilutes the feeling of classroom community—they’re not just “your kids” anymore. Teachers and students lose their class identity and pride.
Research does not necessarily back up the effectiveness of departmentalizing at the elementary level. More research needs to be done about the overall effectiveness of the practice, not just the effect on test scores.
If, having weighed the pros and cons carefully, your team has decided to go ahead and give departmentalization a try, here are a few tips that may help ease the transition:
- An intense focus on professional development is a must to truly become expert in your topic. This requires not only personal commitment but support at the building and district level.
- Expect a lot of growing pains at first. It can be a big transition and will take time for students to get used to it.
- You definitely need a cohesive team with great communication, organization, and consistency. Everyone must respect schedules and depend on each other. This requires a high level of trust.
- Expect a lot more time to be spent with your teammates on planning communication, procedures, schedules, conferences, etc. A daily debriefing time to touch base is usually recommended.
- It’s important to have cross-disciplinary conversations so that teachers know how students are doing across the curriculum.
Share you thoughts on departmentalization with us by adding to the comments below!