‘See you next year’: How Michigan students benefit from repeating teachers

Red Cedar Elementary School. Photo Courtesy of East Lansing Public Schools website.

By Lucas Henkel

October 31, 2023

Learn how this elementary school teacher in East Lansing is keeping her students “in the loop.” 

Melissa Swales is a second grade teacher at Red Cedar Elementary School in East Lansing. She’s been teaching for over 20 years in Michigan. Throughout her career, she’s taught hundreds of students—sometimes for multiple years in a row. 

The practice of a teacher staying with the same group of students for more than one school year is called “looping,” and it happens a lot in K-12 education. Studies have shown that having a repeat teacher not only improves academic achievement, it also decreases absences, truancy, and suspensions.

Another benefit: It helps make a more well-rounded teacher.

“The first time I learned about looping was during one of my first years of teaching,” said Swales. “I worked with a woman, she was from England, and that’s common practice there. They would be required to switch grades after every couple of years so that they would have a better understanding of how children learn and develop.”

With more time to get to know each student personally, teachers are able to gain a deeper understanding of their students’ strengths and weaknesses. In a survey by Education Week, several teachers said looping allowed them to hit the ground running in year two, since they had already established relationships and expectations. 

“They know me, they’re comfortable with me. They know my expectations and routines, and it makes it so much easier,” Swales said. 

Speaking about one kindergarten student with “big emotions and big feelings” who was excited to return to her classroom for second grade, Swales said: “I can tell that she feels comfortable, feels safe, feels loved, and feels heard. She knows that if she’s having big emotions or feelings, she has some flexibility and control.”

“She even has been a great friend to our new students—really helpful and kind,” Swales said. “I think [looping] allows some children the opportunity to be leaders and be comfortable that maybe they wouldn’t have been allowed had they had another new experience.”

That confidence and comfort makes it easier for kids to learn their schoolwork and develop life skills. It also allows teachers to better spot areas where early interventions could make all the difference. 

Swales said one year, while teaching kindergarten, she noticed a student showing signs of a potential learning disability. 

“I remember one student in particular who was struggling with learning the sounds of the letters and putting the sounds together to read. It was a big concern,” she said. “Now he’s back with me in second grade, and I am noticing some characteristics that could be helped by digging deeper into some learning disabilities. I don’t think that all teachers who remain in the same grade would necessarily be aware of that, because they’re just seeing it for the first time when they have those students for that one particular year.” 

However, implementing looping can be challenging for some schools. If a teacher moves each year to a different grade, school administration needs to find another teacher who is willing to move to that newly vacated grade. Although Michigan is making progress in responding to its teacher shortage, vacancies can especially impact low-income neighborhoods, where access to any teachers at all is scarce. 

“[Teachers] are people who want to make a difference. We want to help, we want to give back,” Swales said. “[Teaching] is becoming a larger and larger task with how kids are changing, and the needs that they’re having. To be able to provide everything that a child needs is tricky.”

She added that school districts should consider hiring substitute teachers to help fill in the gaps. “I can think of just a million ways that they could be used to support students who really need an additional adult. I think that would incentivize people going into education—knowing that they were supported.”

While school administration can certainly do their part to establish this practice in schools, Swales believes that the best advocates for looping are parents. 

“We’re serving the families and their children. Parents have a stronger voice than even us teachers within the system,” she said. “Looping is not just great for kids—I feel like it’s great for all stakeholders.”

Author

  • Lucas Henkel

    Lucas Henkel is a multimedia reporter who strives to inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The 'Gander, Lucas served as a journalist for the Lansing City Pulse.

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