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Departmentalized or Not?: 5 Questions to Consider

Departmentalizing is a huge trend lately. I've taught in both departmentalized and non- departmentalized environments. They are both great. This blog post lays out the challenges and victories you may face in utilizing this teaching style. Hopefully, reading this sparks conversation between you and your fellow teachers and your administrators on if this would be a good fit for your school.{departmentalization, elementary, teaching, subject}
In upper elementary grade levels, departmentalizing has been a huge trend. In Facebook groups, I often see questions asked about the advantages and disadvantages to embarking on a departmentalized system in your grade level or school. 

I taught fifth grade in both a departmentalized and un-departmentalized setting. To be honest, I loved them both! So, I wanted to share my take on it to spark a discussion between you, your teammates, and your administration. 

Will you miss teaching a particular subject?

For me, I loved teaching reading. You know I discovered how much I loved teaching reading?

By teaching math all the time. 🤪

I am a total math nerd. I loved math both as a student and a teacher. But I missed teaching reading. Before you pick a subject or allow yourself to be assigned to a particular subject, think long and hard about if you'll miss teaching that later. 

On the flip side, I was able to get really good at teaching only math. My math scores were the highest in my building, and I felt like my lessons and routines were spot on. I can't say that would have happened without departmentalizing. Later, when I was by myself teaching all subjects, I knew I could let math slide a bit and focus on reading, writing, and grammar. 

Does your teaching style match the rest of the team?

This is a serious question. Departmentalization requires flexibility, time management, and consistent discipline. If your views and teaching styles don't jive with the rest of the team, then forget it. There would be days where my teaching partner would call me two minutes left before we were supposed to switch and say, "Amanda, I need like five more minutes!" So, I would continue doing stations or play a whole group math game to stall. In return, she didn't bat an eye when I'd call a few days later and say the same thing. When you have your own classroom and don't switch throughout the day, if you are running a few minutes behind, that's ok. When you are working with another teacher, that flexibility matters. Can you handle that? 

You'll also have to work together to discipline students. If my teaching partner had a student move their clip or take a Dojo point, I had to back her. She had to have my back and follow through with the punishment. It's just part of the set up. Make sure that you and your team are on the same page when it comes to how you'll handle behavioral and responsibility issues.  

Will you be able to integrate subjects?

For me, I love to integrate subjects. When we were departmentalized, I also taught science and social studies. Since my teaching parter and I were both so new to teaching, we weren't really collaborating on integrating subjects. I wish we had been better about that. 

We were also both total procrastinators and that didn't help. These are all things to consider when you begin to consider being departmentalized.

If I were to do departmentalize with another teacher again, I would want to plan out what units or topics we'd be covering throughout the year. Obviously, things change as the school year progresses. I think sitting down ahead of time and planning out science and social studies units at the beginning of each quarter or semester might help remedy this problem. 


Is administration on board?

Some of you may be reading this BECAUSE your administration is pushing you to begin departmentalizing. Others, may be trying to convince your principal to let you give it a shot. Either way, you need to make sure that they are aware and understanding of a few things. 

Who will be responsible for assigning grades to each student? Do you assign grades for your subject(s) for every homeroom? Do you grade work and the homeroom teacher records it in their grade book? How does that work? This also ties into making sure that your teaching styles work together. If you are always three weeks behind on grading and your teaching partner is the first one in the building to finalize grade for report cards, that could cause tension. Make sure you are setting up a system that sets you up for success. 

Another aspect to consider is teacher accountability on state-wide testing. In Indiana, the scores are reported by homeroom teacher. Meaning, my name was tied to scores where I actually had no part in the instruction. Are you ok with that? I was, because I knew my teaching partner was a hard-working, dedicated teacher. She worked hard to help all of our students meet their fullest potential. When it came to my evaluation with my principal, he looked only at the math scores from each group of students. 

How will parent communication work?

I believe that parent communication needs to be split between both teachers. In the case of my teaching partner and I, we had a classroom blog. We worked together to create a daily post with our homework, reminders, and information. It didn't come from only one of us. We both had access and we scheduled posts ahead of time. 

If you are using something like Class Dojo, make sure that you and your teaching partner(s) make a plan for how you'll handle parent communication. Do you share it? Do you each take care of your homeroom? These are important things to address ahead of time.

I also think that you need to make your preferences known to your students and parents. Make sure they know who they should be emailing or calling if they have a question about grades, homework, or projects. 

Can your students handle it?

If this is brand new to your school, make sure your students are ready. One year, we had a group that was extremely irresponsible and unorganized. While we still continued to be departmentalized, it was torture for some of our students. They constantly had the wrong book for the wrong class. They would forget their folder that had their graphic organizer in it. So, while we attempted to teach them valuable lessons in responsibility, it also wasted class time. It also brought consequences for them, like losing recess time. Maybe they weren't ready to be switching classes. Maybe we could have better structured our classrooms to have textbooks and materials already IN the room instead of bringing them on their own. Make sure that your students are ready and you aren't setting them up for a difficult situation. 

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