Teacher and coach

Dr. Rob’s classroom culture

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.

2 Responses to “Dr. Rob’s classroom culture”

  1. bledsoe says:

    I took a class in college called “Intro to Poetry” (I think I had to take a humanities elective and that one seemed less distasteful that the others), and I ended up liking it pretty well. The poems we read were interesting, and I learned a lot about how to read and understand poetry. But I also remember being irritated with the rest of the class. There were maybe 25 of us, and most of the classes involved the professor leading us (or attempting to lead us) in a discussion about the poems we were covering that day. But about 90% of the time, when the professor would ask a question or try to get the students involved in a discussion, they’d just sit there. I think a lot of the students didn’t even read the poems. I remember thinking, “Damn, guys, come on; it’s not that hard to read a few poems and have a discussion.” A lot of our classes ended up just being a discussion between the professor and me.

  2. browse says:

    I’ve had a different math instructor for each of the four math classes I’ve taken, since returning to school, and it has been fascinating comparing the different teaching styles.

    Teacher 1 was a grad student. Knew the material solidly, but was not very good at conveying the information. Focused far too much on very theoretical proofs, at the expense of doing more practical examples. Came to class poorly prepared, was a bit of a control freak about classroom behavior. Snapped at students when their questions weren’t up to par, then complained when people weren’t participating in class. I’ll be happy if I never have that clown again.

    Teacher 2 was also a grad student. Knew the material cold, had a good feel for which of the material we would find challenging and which was easier. Did a slew of examples in class. Left free time in class for us to attempt problems and would wander around answering questions 1 on 1. Was unfailingly upbeat and positive. I liked this one a lot. (Though I know at least one student in that class who didn’t like her teaching style at all, failed and had to repeat it.)

    Teacher 3 was a fully tenured prof. She was obviously very comfortable in front of a class and knew all the tricks about subtly (but irresistibly) forcing people to participate. Seemed to genuinely like the material and got a tickle out of showing us unexpected tricks or paradoxes in the subject matter. Demanding material, but this one was my favorite class of the bunch, by far.

    Teacher 4 has been okay, but nothing to get excited about. She tends to lecture _at_ the students, and is pretty dry and straight ahead. She’s another grad student, and just doesn’t seem very at ease in front of a room of students. Needs seasoning.

    I’m looking forward to taking another class with Teacher 3, and trying to enumerate all of the things she does to force the classroom to engage and participate.

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