Tips for Teaching in a Departmentalized Classroom

After teaching first grade for eight years, I made the switch to fifth three years ago. It was a major leap. I loved the team of teachers in fifth grade, and I loved the idea of a big change, so I decided to go as far up as I could. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. Not every day or every class is perfect, but I truly enjoy teaching this grade level. *Yes, even with the attitudes and the eye rolls.*

When I decided to make the change, my team was completely on board with departmentalizing. I was incredibly excited that not only would I be teaching writing all day, my true passion, but more importantly someone else would be teaching math. (Yay)! We found our niches and settled in nicely. The first year with only three classrooms, we had a writing, math, and ELA/Science classroom. It worked great, but even better the following year when we could dedicate one classroom completely to science on its own. We now have four teachers, and two years running on a schedule that is working. I am so lucky to be part of this team.

So many people ask me how we work out our departmentalizing schedule, organization, etc. So I figured a blog post was the perfect way to share some of our tips and tricks. Here are my five best pieces of advice for departmentalizing at the elementary school level.

1) Nail down your schedule – to the MINUTE.

The most difficult part of departmentalizing is working through the schedule. You need to work out your district’s instructional minutes and be sure everything is being covered in the allotted amount of time. You need to be sure you are able to teach your content area in the time you’ve allotted. You need to make room for intervention time, itinerant schedules, lunch, recess etc. It was grueling the first year trying to nail down a schedule and we had many revisions. We still need to tweak our schedule here and there. However, once you and your team sit down together and work out a schedule that meets the needs of you and your students, you have officially jumped your greatest hurdle.

Here is an example of my planbook color coded by each class.

2) Color code EVERYTHING

And I mean everything. Each one of our classes has its own color. We call every class by their color all day. “Purple line up, red take your seats, green your turn for playground, etc.” Once your classes have a color, you need to color code everything in your room. I color code my binders, assessment folders, plan books, everything. It is so much easier to have a visual and everyone knows students by their color.

Examples of charts and assessments I’ve created by color.

3) Be flexible.

There are many days where a teacher is without a substitute, there is a last minute assembly, or someone needs some extra time with their homeroom. If you can’t be flexible enough to change the schedule at the last minute, then you will have a difficult time departmentalizing. While this practice comes with a ton of structure and organization, you have to leave room for flexibility, or it can’t work.

4) Love what you teach

I am extremely lucky that I get to teach what I love every day. However, even teaching something I love can get tiresome by the fourth class. I can’t imagine teaching my least favorite subject all day. This conversation needs to take place with your team before you consider departmentalizing. If you are left few options by administration, then try hard to pull from what you do love to make it work the best you can. If you don’t put passion, commitment, and creativity into your lessons you are going to get bored. Very fast.

5) Trust your Team 

This is the most important. There will be no such thing as “my classroom” when you departmentalize and you will be letting go of a lot of control. This was originally actually very difficult for me. The teachers I work with are beyond wonderful, but I tend to be a bit of a control freak. Once I learned to let go, I found that sharing students, brainstorming ideas, collaborating on behaviors, interventions, enrichment opportunities, parent communication etc. has been amazing. We conduct parent conferences together, rotate report cards and progress reports,   input behavior logs together, share ideas, activities, successes, and struggles. Collaboration in this way has made me a better teacher.

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