When I was in grad school for my teaching degree I took a math course called Modern Geometries (aka Non-Euclidean Geometries) and I enjoyed it a lot. The subject matter was fascinating (e.g., situations where the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line, triangles whose interior angles don't add up to 180 degrees, etc.) plus the teacher, Dr. Robinson, was really good. He was smart and funny and we always had a lot of really interesting lectures and class discussions.
One day I was talking with another student who had Dr. Robinson for another class and she mentioned how boring the class was. I was shocked. Dr. Rob boring? I couldn't imagine how this could be possible. I tried to get some more information from her but she just said that they never did anything interesting, it was just boring lectures, she didn't think he was a very good teacher, etc.
I had never before really given much thought to the "culture" of a particular classroom. I knew that I had taken classes that were really good, and I had taken classes that were really bad, but I pretty much assumed that the good classes were good because the teacher was good and the bad classes were bad because the teacher was bad.
I mentioned this to Dr. Rob and told him I was confused how my friend could find his class so boring when I found his class so interesting. He actually confirmed that yes, the other class was kind of boring, and when I asked him why he said, "It's just a different mix of students. In your class, for example, there are a lot of students who will actively participate in class discussions, while in the other class there aren't. So it's hard to do much besides just lecture to them."
This was the first time I'd ever considered the fact that the particular mix of students in a class might have some influence on the class atmosphere or culture. Since then, of course, I've learned that there are a whole ton of things that contribute to the tone or culture of a particular class, and while the teacher certainly has a great deal of influence on it, so do a lot of other things. I suspect that really good teachers can mitigate the influence of a lot of these other factors and create a good class even in challenging situations, but I've also heard plenty of stories from really good teachers in which they found themselves in a class with really difficult students, or unsupportive administrators or parents, or just bad mojo, and nothing they did seemed to make it better.
I'm continually fascinated by this idea of a classroom culture, and what kinds of things can and can't be done to create or improve on it. In particular, how much influence does the teacher have in creating a classroom culture that's conducive to effective learning, and what things are beyond his or her control?
Image by Network Osaka on Flickr.