Thursday, January 24, 2008

Who Controls the Classroom, Anyway?

Today in one of my classes I made an observation. I suggested that whether the class, as a whole, turned out to be good or not really depended in large part on how engaged the students in that class decided to be. If the class was quiet or uninvolved, the class wouldn't likely turn out to be very good (I don't mean "educational" by "good" - just that they won't enjoy it). If they speak and talk to one another, the class will be really good and fun. Whether a class succeeds or not clearly depends on the teacher setting things up the right way, setting a good tone, and so on. But some large portion of the responsibility for making a good class (or suffering through a bad one) is all on the shoulders of the student, and his/her own attitude towards learning, or towards education.

Essentially, I strongly believe that no matter how skilled the teacher, it's always possible that the class he/she is teaching will actually turn out to "suck." I very firmly believe that even good classes are always just a short step away from failing. One or two students who bring the right mood to class get sick and it's all downhill from there. Sometimes bad classes, in reverse, become good classes at the drop of a hat because one or two people decide to "tune in" (I've had that happen, and it's always strange). Someone decides to get invested, to laugh, and it's infectious. Others start doing it. And then, before you know it, you can't wait to teach that class again.

To me, the point is a humbling one: teachers, although they play a necessary role in making a class a good and enjoyable experience, really have limited control over the actual outcome of the course (again, not speaking "educationally"). In fact, I'd say that the teacher maybe controls 30% of the destiny of the class in this regard. If students resist (for one reason or another) and bring uncooperative moods to a class, there just won't be much that a teacher can do to change it. Too many of these folks and you're outnumbered. Teachers have names for these classes -- they call them (perhaps lacking some creativity) "bad classes." "It's a good class" means "people in there are receptive." "It's a bad class" means "they just stare at me" (well, it can get worse than that).

Sometimes I think that students underestimate the amount of control they have, as a group, in making their own educational experience a good one. While of course I realize that some teachers do a bad job of setting up a classroom in an effective way, many times when students say "man, that class sucked" what they really should be saying is "boy as a group we really stunk up that joint, didn't we?" At the same time, sometimes when students think a class is really good, it's not necessarily the teacher, but more so the students themselves who successfully brought the right mood to the class, one that made learning fun to do.

What do you folks think? If you had to assign percentages, how much control does the instructor have over making the class a good one? How much control do students have?


  1. With respect to class being good in the sense of fun, I've had a class become much less than it could have been in this regard because of a small group of students (about 4), and especially one of them, and by my responses to them.

    The most difficult student said something very inappropriate during the first week or so of class in response to a discussion question I asked, and I didn't handle it well. I ended up calling him out in front of the class later in the semester for his other disruptive behavior. The ongoing problems of course impacted my attitude towards this particular section--I dreaded going because of ONE student. But in hindsight, it is clear to me that the environment could have been better, if I had a better attitude and dealt with the problem student(s) in a more productive manner.

    For me the lesson is that we cannot make a class good all on our own, which most of us already know, but we can do a lot to set up the right kind of conditions and avoid seeing the wrong kind obtain by our demeanor, attitude, and so on. The best way to do this is to have in mind a general idea with respect to what I plan to do with difficult students. A little forethought goes a long way here.

    If I had to put percentages on it, I'd say 51% teacher, 49% students, because the difference-maker can be how we handle the particular challenges of a class.

  2. Mike,

    I had a class once that worked out the same way. One student basically was a problem, and the soured relationship wound up killing the class for me. I think as teachers it is difficult sometimes not to concentrate on the bad apples, even if there's only one in a class of 30. Maybe it's ego, I'm not sure. It could well be that we want everyone on board, and when it doesn't happen we get wrapped up in our lack of control over the situation.

    I agree, too, that we have a job to do in setting up the right mood, the right conditions, and so on. But over time I've come to think of this as a necessary condition for a good class, but surely not a sufficient one. There are classes where it seems, regardless of what you do, it's going to go downhill.

    You can usually feel such a class -- the mood of the class is 'life draining' in a way. You just sense the bad energy. It reminds me of Heidegger's talk of "thrownness" -- you just find yourself "thrown" into a student environment and mood, and there are some cases of it where you just can't seem to do much about it.

    Also -- I don't say this to relinquish any responsibility as a teacher. Even when it's bad, I still do everything I can to make it better. Over the years I've just learned to come face to face with the fact that all the control over the process is just not in my hands.

  3. Chris,

    It strikes me as healthy to remind ourselves that we are engaged in a collaborative endeavor, and as such, the responsibility for its success lies with us and with those we teach. It's not wise to interrogate our teaching as if we should be working miracles, and it's one unfortunate side effect of the otherwise healthy growth in faculty interest in teaching that people become unduly self-critical or defeatist. (An anecdote: Faculty on my campus were reading Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do and one of my colleagues remarked, "It's all good advice, but what if I'm happy just being good enough?") Indeed, I occasionally have to remind myself that I'm but one instructor; that most students will take only one course with me; that colleagues elsewhere in the university will also have a crack at those same students and may have better success in reaching them; etc. Surely the "raw material" of teaching — the students and their attitudes and behaviors — impose some limits on what I can accomplish in helping them to learn.

    At the same time, there is a tendency (I believe) to overestimate how immutable that raw material is. For instance, I often encounter the "some students are interested in philosophy, and some just aren't" attitude. But that's simply not true, either in my own experience or in the vast research on the psychology of learning. Students sometimes take time to latch on to a subject they come to care about later on, and our teaching in ways that are engaging and relevant to them enable that enthusiasm to grow. Besides, isn't part of our jobs to stimulate interest in what we're teaching? I offer that as just one example (student motivation and interest) where there's a tendency to underestimate our 'control' (to put in your terms).

    Of course, that could lead backward to the teacher as 'miracle worker' danger I mentioned above. I guess I practice a sort of ethically grounded false consciousness on this issue: Whatever influence on the learning process I actually have, it's better to overestimate it than to underestimate it, since I'll be more motivated in the former case to maximize my pedagogical potential. I.e., belief in a lack of control or influence is certainly a good reason (excuse?) to neglect one's teaching

    (And of course, rhese sorts of issues are why I'm fascinated (obsessed?)with what moves we can make to create that learning-focused, collaborative atmosphere from day one.)

  4. Michael,

    I think the 'miracle worker' mindset is very strongly embedded into the psyche of the teacher. It's just that kind of professor. And, for that reason, ego becomes a large part of teaching I think.

    I agree that we should neither overestimate nor underestimate the control of the teacher, and the control of the student(s). The trick is to read the relevant variables right in the classroom, and that's not easy to do.

    Bad faith can go either way. I can overestimate the student, and relinquish responsibility for my own obligations. Or I overestimate myself, and see it as my fault as the teacher all the time. Neither is wise.

    Still, when I have these conversations with colleagues I notice that for many it's a hard subject to discuss for them, because they don't want to think that there's much in that room that they can't -- if they just tried _a little harder_ -- control.

    And I'm not sure that this is the best way to go about things. Not to say that you can't think "is there anything I can do here?" because you should. But there's an unhealthy way to cultivate that attitude as well.

  5. I love teaching, but it's a pure accident. Of course, like the rest of you, most of us start teaching because we have to. That is to say, it goes hand in hand with being able to do research. I've read McGlynn's Successful Beginnings for College Teaching (quite practical) and Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do (decent, a bit too theoretical for my taste). By the way, check out Chp. 5 of McGlynn on dealing with diruptive behavior. I had a disruptive student and it ruined a class for me. I thought about that student day and night. It seemed as if she was truly out to sabotage the class and me. Ultimately, there's not a lot you can do. First, she didn't buy the books. Second, she tried to contradict me at every turn. Third, she left class abruptly at her leisure. (I didn't have an attendance policy in the syllabus--neither for coming late or leaving early). I was surprised by how much it affected me. To be honest, I despised this student against my better judgment. Other students took her side on occasion, and after class still others sided with me. I think it's a 60% (professor)/40% (students) split. I'm ranting, but i'll continue nonetheless. I should have done many things with that student, but i didn't. I was taken aback by her bold disrespect. It seems to me that we are performers and everything we do matters. How you respond to a brash student, the jokes you try and tell, your cheap imitation of Robin Williams' in The Dead Poet's Society, et cetera. My syllabus now has a lot of rules. Blah, blah, blah.

  6. Quick aside: I suspect that teaching a standard evening course will serve as a rude awakening to any smug instructor who wants to take full credit for good classroom dynamics. There is only so much concentration you can expect of people after a long workday and at the tail end of a three-hour session, no matter how much you break class time into different activities. These are factors that almost always bear on classroom dynamics, and they're beyond the instructor's control.

    But I may be wrong, and I'd love to hear about the strategies of the more experienced teachers of night courses sometime...


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