Two teachers, one big class

Combined classroom splits instruction, allows one-on-one attention

First grade teacher Sara Beld reads to the class while they enjoy an afternoon snack

You could compare the compatibility of first-grade teachers Julie Dykstra and Sarah Beld to a popular combination: peanut butter and jelly.

“Welcome to the PB and J Suite,” said Dykstra, who with Beld is bringing team teaching to a new level at Gladiola Elementary by combining their classrooms into one super-sized group.

Sandwiched between their two rooms is a connecting space — a former coat closet transformed into a mini-library. Through it, students walk back and forth before settling into reading on one side or math on the other, depending on the time of day.

But the PB and J reference goes beyond teachers working in sync. One first grader defined how students refer to the rooms: “This is peanut butter,” he said referring to the classroom where he stood. “That’s jelly,” he said pointing into the connected classroom.

Together, Dykstra and Beld are teaching 38 students — dubbed Peanut Butter Kids or Jelly Kids, depending on whose student they are on the class roster and because they split up for art, music and gym. All students spend most of the day together, with one teacher leading and the other assisting students individually or in small groups. 

When it’s time for quiet reading and writing, students find a spot on either side. 

The combined classroom allows for more individualized instruction, including in groups

You Do This; I Do That

The longtime colleagues pitched the idea of joining forces last year. They were both seeing losses in instruction time due to behavior management and found it difficult to meet individual needs of students at different academic levels. Principal Cheryl Corpus agreed to pilot the idea, combining the group of 52 students. There also is a third, traditional first grade classroom.

“By the end of last year, we learned it was powerful collaboration of students and staff alike. Students were able to build relationships across groups and teachers were collaborating every day to meet the needs of their students,” Corpus said. “By maximizing instructional time, supporting one another, and differentiating for the students, we saw impact behaviorally and academically.”

Because of its success at the first grade level, second grade teachers Jennifer Blackburn and Charon Leal also joined their classes this year, sharing 56 students. Their space is different than the first grade teachers; it’s all one big room. 

Blackburn said Dykstra and Beld realized some of their students thrived under the combined model, and “sold us the idea.”

Dykstra and Beld both worked at a Wyoming school that closed 10 years ago. Huntington Woods Elementary School was a Glasser Quality School, a specialty school with multi-age classrooms with two teachers in one room. Beld taught in a multi-age room and remembered how nice it was to have a teaching partner, she said.

With Dykstra, “We were thinking about making our job a little easier so it wasn’t (one teacher) trying to do everything,” Beld said.

They also had wanted to dive deeper into planning and instruction, but had to cover all subjects themselves. “We felt so burned out. We felt we could never get great at stuff,” Dykstra said.

Now Dykstra hones in on teaching reading and phonics, and Beld focuses on math and writing. They share social studies and science instruction. “We chose to get really good at the things we were doing,” Dykstra said

Just having a second teacher in the room, they say, is a major time-saver. “No matter what, we are not losing instructional time because one of us can deal with the behavior while the other one carries on teaching,” Dykstra said.

Right now, thanks to student teacher Haley Garland, three teachers are working with the class. On a recent Wednesday, Dykstra and Garland taught separate groups — high and low readers — while Beld worked in the hallway with students who needed extra attention. 

“We had three different things going for three different levels of kids,” Beld said.

From left, Edna Zepeda-Reyes and Adan Arteaga-Rodriguez discuss facts about tiger sharks

Saved Time = More Learning

Data confirms the model is working, the teachers said. Last year, all students demonstrated growth, according to reading screeners and a math benchmark test.

“We got through every math unit, every reading unit for the first time ever,” Dykstra said. “We truly lost no instructional time. It was amazing.”

At first, parents asked questions and raised concerns about the class size. Beld and Dykstra make efforts to explain the model and how it works. “We had a parent that was concerned about the relationship piece,” Beld said. “But by the end of the year they were one of our biggest supporters.”

In the second grade combined classroom, teachers say they are also seeing benefits.

“It takes less planning and (allows) more focus on a specific content area,” said Blackburn. “It gives us the ability to reach more kids. There are no student interruptions because one of us can continue to teach and the other can handle the situation.”

Leal said a benefit is getting to watch someone else teach and learn from them. Also, “When one of us is gone, the other is able to keep the class running.”

And what do students think?

“I like having a big class because it’s like my family and it’s fun to learn,” said second-grader Naomi Cubias.

“We can make more friends,” added second grader Sadie Huffman.

But second grader Calvin Camp said there’s a downside. “I don’t like it. Everyone talks. It’s like two trumpets!”

Crunchy or Creamy? Strawberry or Grape?

Beld and Dykstra often finish each other’s sentences. For a combined classroom to work, compatibility is a must, they said.

“You definitely have to have somebody that complements you… You can’t just jump into it with anybody,” Dykstra said. While Beld is more of a big picture person, Dyskstra focuses on details. Beld uses humor and is direct. Dykstra can be serious but nurturing. They take turns playing “good cop, bad cop.”

But most importantly, they see every student as their own. “Half the time, I really don’t even know who’s a peanut butter and who’s a jelly,” Dykstra.

“We really think of the kids as ‘our kids.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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