Alaska Teacher Placement
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Teaching in Multiage and Multigrade Classrooms

Alaska has the highest percentage of multigrade and multiage classrooms in the United States. Chances are pretty good that you will either interview for, or accept a multigrade teaching job if you work in the rural or remote parts of the state.

In fact, many of these classrooms combine three or more grades, making for a quite distinct teaching environment.

Depending on your view, the multigrade instructional setting is one of the strengths, or one of the biggest challenges of teaching in the Bush. It is this educational setting that has become one of the defining experiences in becoming an experienced Bush teacher.

Despite this, initiatives in education over the last 15 years or so have reduced public discussion about multigrade and multiage settings. Concurrent developments have resulted in increasing calls for subject specialization, and the dangers of teaching "out of content area".

Rural Reality Check

The ideas behind the concept of "Highly Qualified" teachers is a basic premise of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The basic idea is that teachers who have more specialized training, who are "subject specialists", are better teachers.

The NCLB's push for "Highly Qualified" teachers in each subject area has had some impact, but most schools in rural Alaska will not ever be able to replicate urban school systems where each teacher teaches only a specialty area.

This is a model of qualification that has not seen great debate in Alaska, but seems to be a mismatch with what school districts ask teachers to do when they get to site.

Many rural teaching positions in Alaska, in reality, require flexible teachers who can act in the role of a "generalist", and teach several other content areas in addition to their certification area. That is one reason why multiple certifications are viewed so favorably here.

A typical small school in rural Alaska may combine 2-3 grade levels in every classroom, for instance, because the district only has funding for perhaps four or five teaching positions to handle 50 or 75 students in grades K-12 with a typical distribution of student ages and abilities over this range.

There is little chance that such as school will successfully find secondary teachers who are certified, or Highly Qualified in the right combination of subjects to teach all required subjects in grades 7-12.

What's a School to Do?

Districts take variety of approaches in staffing their multigrade schools, but most will want anyone they hire to be Highly Qualified under NCLB in at least one subject area.

» Check your home state's requirements. States vary in how hard it is to get this designation, but once you meet the criteria, Alaska will accept it automatically.

In cases where your state has an easier standard of meeting Highly Qualified status thatn Alaska's, you may be better off getting a document which lists your status.

Districts frequently try to find teachers with specific strengths – outside of endorsement areas – that will compliment those of existing staff members at a site. This is why questions about what other areas you are willing, or feel qualified to teach are critical in interviews.

This is also why districts will ask probing questions about your other interests and hobbies. They are looking for diverse individuals.

The reason you get, or don't get a job may not have to do with your perceived skill in teaching your specialty area. How you fit or compliment the reality of that district's site specific strengths and weaknesses can have a powerful influence.

Are You a Generalist?

Oddly enough, there are no "Multigrade Generalist" teacher endorsement programs in Alaska, and few exist in other parts of the country.

There are a few programs in other states which result in "Generalist" certification, and Alaska does recognize these for teachers moving up here. Alaska will use the same wording from your Institutional Endorsement paperwork to reflect what you can teach, and with what age ranges.

Because most teachers – whether trained in Alaska or in the Lower 48 – have not had specific pre-service training in how to address multiple age and grade levels taught together, we have tried to assemble some basics here on what works in these settings.

The skills a generalist uses to reach diverse levels in the same classroom are not necessarily what you experienced in your pre-service training, or in your student teaching. Even experienced teachers need to adapt to multigrade settings to be effective.

Effective Multigrade & Multiage Instruction

For our purposes here, we will use the terms "multigrade" and "multiage" interchangeably. Some researchers have said that multigrade classrooms are settings where grade levels are combined due to necessity, while multiage are "vertically grouped" or "mixed" for pedagogical reasons, or "on purpose".

Researchers have found that whether combined by necessity or by intent, there were certain common practices that made these settings more effective (Miller, 1989; Venneman, 1995).

These practices will be alluded to in the questions and answers below. Far more detailed information is available through the links the bottom of this page.

If you are looking for practical information, don't miss downloading Bruce Miller's excellent Multigrade Handbook in PDF format. This resource has examples, and research based conclusions about the nuts and bolts of multigrade classroom practice.

Differentiated Instruction

In addition, resources about Differentiated Instruction will listed here, and briefly discussed. In recent years the "DI" literature has combined research and best practices from both regular and special education areas to focus on differentiating instruction to meeting individual, rather than group needs.

The techniques found in effective "differentiated" classrooms mirror in many ways those recommended by Miller, and observed in Veeneman's study of classrooms structured for multigrade instruction by choice.

For those of you interested in Differentiated Instruction, the Alaska Staff Development Network ( ASDN) offers one taught by distance delivery. This course provides a good background in DI literature, but focuses on practical tips and tricks intended to be implemented by working teachers.

Questions & Short Answers

Among the questions you are likely to have as a first year multigrade teacher in Alaska are:

How do I teach all those grades?

Short Answer: Don't try to do a prep for each grade level. You'll probably go insane, and the kids won't be learning much.

What is the best way to organize my classroom for this setting?

Short Answer: Organize by purpose. Have an area for each function that you want to take place - i.e. group work, listening center, individual quiet study, theme or project center. This is true at both elementary and secondary levels.

What are effective lesson plans like for a multigrade class?

Short Answer: Usually tiered so that you have an objective for the lesson, and then have sub-objectives by age and ability.

Won't it be chaotic?

Short Answer: Probably – but structured choas. There will be a higher level of noise. Kids will be doing different things at different times, and you won't use the same classroom management style you have in the past.

Is ability or age grouping best?

Flexible grouping is probably your best bet – group for ability in skill acquisition times, like math groups, or phonics help, but use mixed, heterogeneous grouping when you can. Grade level grouping is not particularly useful.

Is it bad to let older or more skilled kids help the others?

Short Answer: No, and it doesn't make you lazy, either. It's called cross-age tutoring by think tanks and grant writers, and is said to be very innovative ;-) You'll need a structure, though, and it isn't going to work with all kids all the time.

Does this sort of class mean I'll have the same kids for several years?

Short Answer: Probably. It depends on the school. This is a real plus in my mind, and the buzzword for this is now "looping" in some circles. Static groups kept together over years are a reality in most small villages. In a K-6 class, the teacher could have the same students for 7 years, in theory.

Should I use lecture format for high school classes?

Short Answer: That's up to you, but being the proverbial "guide by the side" seems to work better for most experienced secondary Bush teachers I know. I doubt you'll want to rely on frontal direct instruction very much. And, in really small sites you'll likely have to individualize at the high school level. Not everyone, for instance, will need or want chemistry the same year.

We have had lots of questions and answers about multigrade teaching on the ATP Forum Archive, and you can search for keywords there.