Best Teaching Practices: Classroom Climate

Best Practices

A wonderful place to be?

The classroom is a wonderful place to be when everything is working right. A class with a great dynamic refreshes the spirit, stimulates the mind, and basically reaffirms our belief in the value of teaching and our commitment to it.

In a fundamental way, the classroom climate flows from the attitude the instructor brings to class. The best teachers walk into a classroom on the first day and within twenty minutes the students know three things about those people: 1) They care deeply about their students, 2) They are passionate about and knowledgeable of their discipline, and 3) They are in control.

That control comes from self-confidence and self-awareness about what is necessary for successful learning: fairness and consistency, a calm and comfortable environment, and a sense of safety. We can be strong in a classroom without being angry or dominating, or sarcastic, which only has the effect of creating instant and enduring hostility and then we spend the rest of the semester fighting the students. Sometimes we do everything right and that still happens. Those are the classes where we feel betrayed and even lose faith.

Maintaining equilibrium

But there are ways to keep a class from losing its equilibrium due to student behavior problems. For ways to establish an engaged classroom, see the other four suggestions under this Best Practices link. Here are my lessons (definitely learned the hard way), and you're invited to share your own:

1. The first day sets the framework. I not only distribute my overzealous syllabus that spells everything out (including behavioral issues such as attendance, tardiness, cell phone use), I try to let them see my care, my passion, my sense of humor and my control. I teach. I never let them out one minute early on the first day. They find that really annoying but my point is clearly made.

2. If there is a student who is disruptive, I don't postpone dealing with him or her. There are many ways a student can be disruptive (and some of those ways have to do with what annoys us personally): carrying out conversations with other students during a lecture, coming in late, leaving early, coming and going (those are my pressure cooker behaviors), sleeping in class, aggressively challenging the instructor and/or other students, nonsensical challenges (heckling), dominating the class, etc.

Whatever the behavior is, the student must be addressed from the outset in a firm and respectful manner. If the behavior is public and clearly ill-willed, then the correction should be public as well because problematic students can give us an opportunity to clarify behavioral ground rules for everyone, and that means that further down the road other students will be less likely to test our authority. Not everyone agrees with this strategy out of concern for humiliating a student, which can turn an entire class against you, but I think self-aware behaviors merit appropriate consequences. That's life.

Suggestions

Now here are some of my more concrete suggestions for dealing with problems in class interaction, please feel free to submit to me your own specific issues and the solutions you have found effective in dealing with them:

  • The student with an opinion (usually ill-conceived) who will not let it go. Sometimes it's fun to argue, but other students can become very frustrated with this behavior. Set an internal time limit for these discussions, a couple of minutes, max, keep a level tone, and then say, "Okay, that's an interesting view, but we really need to move on to some other points." You can invite that student for further discussion outside of class; I find that students rarely take me up on this offer because they actually want the class audience for grandstanding.
  • Constant talking. Make pointed eye contact, pause, ask the talkers a direct question about the material at hand. The last resort is calling them out. This is one of those behaviors I never leave unaddressed until four weeks into the semester.
  • Personal attacks. If someone tells me in class that the class is boring, the first thing I do is think about it for a  minute because if it is so boring that I'm putting myself to sleep, then that's a legitimate gripe and it's time for me to do something else. If it is not boring (except to the undisciplined and unprepared), then the best thing to do is give that person responsibility for the class in some way (as in preparing a short lecture on the material for next class, or devising handouts or an exercise that will illustrate the material being taught).
  • Chronic Tardiness. There are not many ways to prevent this; if students have personal problems, then private conversations may help. Tough penalties work pretty well for me (I take roll and note tardiness and factor that into a grade deduction). I had a history professor as an undergraduate who locked the classroom door one minute after class started. That was 100% effective.

More resources on dealing with classroom behavior problems

Contact Information

For more information about the Center for Teaching Excellence, please contact:

Becky Kasper, Ph.D., Director
SUNY Plattsburgh
301 Feinberg Library, Plattsburgh, NY 12901
Phone: (518) 564-3043
Fax: (518) 564-5100
E-mail: kasperrb@plattsburgh.edu