First Lessons : Establishing Classroom Culture

It’s the beginning of the academic year here, and new classes are starting up. And despite having taught for years, I still feel nervous before meeting a new class. Groups of students are a bit like slippers – old ones are comfy and new ones feel strange. Old slippers are comfy because they’ve become “moulded” to a predictable shape and you know they won’t give you any nasty surprises. Old groups, if they are successful, are the same. Within the group a “classroom culture” has developed and everyone knows where they are.

Perhaps the best definition of culture which I’ve ever heard is “the way things are around here”. It sums it up nicely. Classroom culture means the often unspoken and frequently unconscious assumptions about how people (both the teacher and the students) will behave during the lessons – Where will people sit, or stand? Who will speak, when, and what about? What types of behaviour are appreciated, tolerated or frowned upon?

If you watch different teachers working with different types of class, you can see a wide variety of answers to these questions – and there is no single “right” or “wrong” answer. But there are classroom cultures which are conducive to learning, and there are others which are clearly not. I would suggest that the classrooms which work are usually those where the teacher has a clear, reasoned view of what type of culture s/he wants to create, and has worked with the students to create it. What those decisions are, are often of secondary importance – I’ve seen equally effective learning going on in classrooms where the teacher has a highly authoritarian role and learners “speak when spoken to and do what they’re told”, and in much more “democratic” classrooms where students are encouraged to take full responsibility for their own and the group’s learning.

Here is a list of some of the things that I feel will influence the classroom culture. It’s by no means exhaustive. I’ve focused mainly on areas which I’ve noticed causing problems in lessons, mainly because they haven’t been thought through by the teacher. And again there are no necessarily right or wrong answers to the questions. It will always depend on the situation, which may include features of national culture, company or school culture, or simply depend on external factors – if your students are a group of hospital doctors who could be called to A&E at any moment, it may not be reasonable to insist on full attendance or punctuality.

1. Teacher-Student Image and relationships: Are there differences between the teacher and students in terms of factors such as status, age, dress, or sex? Are there differences in terms of these factors between individual students? Do the teacher and students have the same or different views of their various roles and responsibilities? Do the students already know each other from outside the classroom? What image does the teacher project? Is the students’ own language used in the classroom at all? If so, by whom and for what purpose?

2. The Setting of the Lesson : is the room the right size for the group? Is it an attractive room? Are the students on their own territory (eg. in-company), on the teacher’s territory (eg. in a private language school) or on shared territory (eg. in a state school).

3. Attendance and Punctuality : Are students expected to attend every lesson? If not, is time spent “catching them up” in following lessons or are they expected to catch up at home? What’s the relationship between the scheduled starting time of the lesson and the arrival time of the students? What happens if students arrive late – does the teacher wait for them, do they come in and explain why, come in and sit in silence till there’s a change of activity, or do they not come in at all?

4. Seating : Where do students sit? Do they choose their own places or does the teacher decide? Do they sit in rows? In groups? In a horseshoe shape? Do students stay in the same seat for the whole lesson or move around? Does the teacher sit or stand? Where in relation to the students?

5. Interruptions : Are the students encouraged to interrupt the teacher/each other with questions and/or comments? If so, what happens if these are “red herrings” in terms of the objectives or activity sequence of the lesson? If not, when and how does the teacher check that they have fully understood or answer their questions?

6. Attention : When the teacher is talking, or during full class activities such as listening, are the students fully focused or might they be checking unknown words in their dictionaries, involved in side conversations with their neighbours etc. Are mobile phones on or off during the lesson? If they're on, does the student answer calls in the classroom or go outside?

7. Pace : Do lessons usually move at a slow or fast pace? How does this match the group as a whole and individual students in terms of their personality type, learning styles, ability level etc? How does it correspond to the time of day, or to the overall objectives of the course (for example, are they aiming for an external exam)?

The answers to these questions will affect the atmosphere, or the culture, of each classroom, and ultimately the degree of success of the lesson and the course. But whatever type of classroom culture you want, it needs to be established from the beginning – it’s far harder to change later on. For this reason, the first lessons are crucial. To take a simple example, if you want students to sit in different places either from lesson to lesson or within the same lesson, then get them to sit in various positions around the class within the first hour. If you wait until each student has got used to one place, territories get established and it is far harder, psychologically, to change.

In later posts we’ll look at some of the issues raised here in detail, but if there’s anything you think I’ve missed –let me know. And enjoy your first lessons!