Tips for Departmentalized Teaching in Elementary School

What’s Here

Are you teaching in a departmentalized school? Is your grade level thinking of departmentalizing?  On this page, you’ll find resources for classroom management and organization for departmentalization. Read on to get practical tips from teachers who have taught in departmentalized classrooms at all different grade levels.

Pros and Cons of Departmentalized Teaching From Joann Wood

Departmentalized teaching

Departmentalizing? Definitely!

After years of being a self contained teacher and always struggling with time issues and getting it all done, I have been departmentalizing to varying degrees for 2 years and love it! As is the case with anything, there are pros and cons to departmentalizing – and it certainly doesn’t solve all your time management issues – sometimes it even seems like they get more complicated! Here are some of my “pros” first.

 

Pros

  • You get to know your subjects very very well and are comfortable differentiating because of this expertise
  • You get to know all the students in your grade level or team, not just “your class”
  • You get a teammate, or two, or three, to bounce ideas around, help with conferences and parents, and just keep you sane!
  • You get variety during your day to change things up
  • You only have to grade one or two subject areas

Before we get into some of the “cons” I have run into, let me describe the departmentalized situations I have worked in. My first year in this situation I was on a 3 person team in 5th grade. I taught SS and Science, one person taught Math, and the other person taught ELA. We all had about 90 minutes each. I decided, after some schedule grappling, to teach 3 days of one subject per week and 2 of the other and then alternate. This got all my lessons covered with plenty of time for enrichment. The ELA teacher on our team had the most difficulty getting it all in 90 minutes – Reading, Writing, SSR time and grammar. It was a lot.

All three of us had equal ownership with the students, we all did conferences together and supported each other. The amount of graded papers was lopsided here, as I never had as much as the ELA teacher did. I would try to help when I could, but because it was her subject area, she felt strongly about grading them herself to see how they were doing. Late in the year, there was dissension on the team between 2 of us. This made for a very difficult end of the year, and is one of the cons in this situation. If you all don’t really see eye to eye or get along, it makes things very difficult.

The following year I was paired with one other teacher. I was the ELA/SS teacher, she taught Math and Science. This worked out great! We switched classes one time a day, shared conferences, shared responsibilities and were able to be flexible with each other. We took turns doing the newsletter, updating our website and it just worked seamlessly. We got along very well and became good friends outside the classroom as well, which really helps.

Cons

  • A lot of time and planning involved in communication, procedures, schedules, conferences, etc.
  • If you all share the students, you almost need a daily debriefing time to touch base
  • Must adhere to schedules and depend on each other – high level of trust
  • Less classroom community feeling when you share students – they’re not just “your kids” anymore
  • Organization issues with the students – it is hard for them sometimes to keep up with materials

For me, those about sum it up. I have really loved departmentalizing instruction the past two years, even with team issues the first time around. It has allowed me to really hone my skills in areas I already felt comfortable with, and not stress about having to teach Math, which makes no sense to me at all!

This year, we are deciding on complete departmentalization right now. Four teachers, four subjects, kids switching all day. Whew! Our principal is worried about the items on the con list above – really communicating properly, managing our time well and really meshing personally. I will keep you all posted as things progress and let you know how it goes!

Check out my blog for more updates:
Fifth is Fabulous!
Joann Wood

Thank you, Joann, for offering to share your expertise in this area! I’m looking forward to following your adventures in departmentalization on your blog this year. –Angela

Questions About Departmentalization in Elementary Schools

The following questions were submitted to me as part of the Ask Angela Anything blog post series. You can submit any teaching-related question anonymously to maintain your privacy and student confidentiality. I’m including the two questions below here on this page instead of in the column to make it easier for teachers in departmentalized schools to find answers all in one place.

My colleagues want to departmentalize our five 3rd grade classes. This would not be simply one class going to another room. It would involve homogeneous groupings and a mixing of classes. I have done this before and found it impossible for me to relate to 65+ students. The only advantage I have seen is less teacher preparation and feel that is the only reason some are pushing for it. (Our 4th and 5th grades do not departmentalize.) Our students come from unstable poverty homes. The adults they live with often change or there are several children in the home and many life problems to deal with that leaves their kids to raise themselves. I feel that they need the stability of one consistent adult on a daily basis at school.

How do I convince my fellow teachers that this is difficult for our population, especially ADD and immature children? Is there research that shows positive and negative results of departmentalization at the 3rd grade level that I could benefit from reading? Have you had success with this? This is June and they want to make these changes for August. If I have to departmentalize, how do I make the best of it? 
-Kathy

Hi, Kathy. This is a growing trend in elementary schools, and it can be a decisions that really benefits the kids if it’s well-planned. I agree that there is questionable benefit to the 3rd grade students if they departmentalize and the 4th and 5th graders do not, although I’m assuming that if things go well, the 4th grade would departmentalize next year, and then 5th the following year.

Since the team has mixed opinions on whether or not to departmentalize, you could discuss departmentalizing just for certain subjects, so that each class would have a homeroom in which they spend the majority of their time (and begin and end the day for consistency purposes.) I do see some advantage for departmentalizing for reading and math because students can get more instruction on their individual levels, but you have to be careful not to leave lower-achieving students surrounded only by other low-achievers, or else they have no peer models to learn from.

Personally, I like the idea of departmentalizing for social studies and science, as it’s rare to find an elementary teacher who enjoys and is good at teaching both. I pushed for this one year when I taught third (I was never a particularly strong science teacher) but it didn’t happen because of logistics. I wanted to trade classes for one period a day so I could teach social studies and my colleague could teach science. That to me would be the ideal situation for departmentalizing in 3rd.

Check out the recommended resources below to see how other schools have worked it and to find the research you’re looking for. If you end up having to departmentalize, embrace the concept and give it your all. Certainly there will be some advantages, and you can reassess the following year.

Recommended Resources

The research behind departmentalization in elementary schools
Departmentalization in 5th grade
How departmentalization works in 3rd grade, 4th grade, and 5th grade in South Florida schools

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Angela Watson was a classroom teacher for 11 years and has turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has published 3 books, launched a blog and webinar series, designs curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Check out the free teacher resource pages for photos, tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jermal Riggins August 18, 2012 at 11:06 am

“Our students come from unstable poverty homes. The adults they live with often change or there are several children in the home and many life problems to deal with that leaves their kids to raise themselves. I feel that they need the stability of one consistent adult on a daily basis at school. ” Did I miss the answer to this question? Is it addressed in the research you provided? What is the population of the school you used to develop the ideas found in Resources for Departmentalization?

Reply

2 Angela Watson August 18, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Hi, Jermal! The quote you copied and pasted is part of a question from a blog reader, and that was her opinion of her students, not a question for me, so I didn’t address that part. My response was based on the work I’ve done in schools for the last 15 years (all in urban and 12 in Title I schools.) You can check out the three links above (under “Recommended Resources” to find out more about the research for and against departmentalization.

Reply

3 Susan Moore March 29, 2013 at 4:24 pm

Math and reading should be departmentalized in elementary schools. The 3 group model waste
reading time for the children who are not in the reading group that an adult is working in. Those
children are wasting time daily, doing whatever they want to do, mostly visiting. When the teacher is instructing the entire class, all the students are engaged in reading. Also, the teacher can still bring struggling students together for more reading time. Any school that is still using the 3 group model, for 20 minutes reading group, are taking value reading learning time from the students. The whole group reading model in middle and high school are successful because all students are engaged. The elementary schools should learn from the upper grades on how to teach reading.

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4 Anne Koperski June 7, 2013 at 11:22 pm

It has been my experience that students who are taught as a whole group instead of their instructional reading level are significantly below grade level in middle school and high school. I have taught reading groups and multi-grade classrooms and was able to keep all the groups engaged in purposeful learning activities. This type of teaching does require a lot of planning on the teacher’s part, but provides a way for students to learn instead of stumbling through material that they do not understand because they are not ready for it.

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5 Stephanie B. June 3, 2014 at 8:08 pm

Hello,
I am a 4th grade teacher at a Title I school in southwest Phoenix with a population of about 600. The 4-5 teaching team has been discussing departmentalizing for this coming school year. We are a bit apprehensive about this move due to the implementation of a new evaluation/performance pay system rolling out in the 2014-2015 school year as well as the recent common core adoption. What is the professional research and consensus regarding multi-level departmentalizing in a low socio economic school district? Can you send me research links, websites and other resources to study before we make such an important decision? Thank you so very much,
Stephanie B.
Phoenix, AZ

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