You’re the Thermostat

Not the Thermometer

Most of us would welcome a break from the lingering summer heat, but the climate within our classrooms may not be quite so warm. The social climate, that is.

Humans are social mammals, so our learning is profoundly influenced by our social and emotional context. When we feel welcomed and respected, we can be open to new experiences. We feel safe to engage, and we can exert our higher-order cognitive powers, so we can stretch intellectually. If we feel threatened, or alienated, or anxious, on the other hand, our cognitive abilities are curtailed, and we’re far less likely to be curious or reflective (Gilbert, 2018; Hammond, 2015; Steele and Aronson, 1995; Verschelden, 2017). Research on “chilly classroom climate” has demonstrated that a stressful or unwelcoming environment adversely affects student learning, particularly for students who belong to underrepresented groups, like women in STEM courses, or minority students at PWIs (Hall, 1982; Pascarella et al, 1997; Schulze and Tomal, 2006).

Attending to classroom climate is a critical part of maintaining conditions in which our students can learn. Most of us didn’t enter academia knowing that we’d need to manage our students’ emotions, and ensuring that all our students feel respected and includedtakes attention and intention; but these are skills we can continue to develop over the entire course of our careers. Here are a few strategies for warming up your classroom:

Practice “immediacy.” Making friendly eye contact, smiling, learning and using students’ names, moving around the classroom so that you’re in proximity to everyone at some time or another, speaking with animation and using gestures are all aspects of immediacy that help students relax. Arriving early to chat casually with students and ask how they’re doing goes a remarkably long way toward assuring students that you see them. Your students need to know that you care about them as humans.

Have students develop “rules of engagement.” At the beginning of the semester, or before potentially tense discussions, it’s useful to give students responsibility for maintaining an environment where everyone feels respected and comfortable contributing. You might ask them to individually write down a description of the conditions that would make them feel engaged and willing to speak up, and willing to listen to perspectives that might contradict their own. They can then work in small groups to develop guidelines for inclusive discussions, which they then share to construct class-wide standards. You might give them scenarios to consider, like “What if… (fill in your discussion nightmare)?”

Communicate high expectations of all students. We often don’t realize what our verbal and nonverbal expressions are communicating to students, so it’s important to be more intentional about conveying high expectations. An impatient tone, facial expression, or choice of words can dampen students’ confidence and engagement far more easily than we might imagine. It’s especially important that we don’t talk about “the good students” or “the A students” vs. everyone else.

Make good use of small groups. Most students will feel more comfortable sharing their ideas in a smaller group than in front of the entire class. Especially those who are less confident thinking aloud, or those who may fear that their ideas or perspectives might be ridiculed, will feel safer sharing tentative thoughts with a friendly group. It helps if the groups have had plenty of time to work together and get to know each other before you ask them to do anything that might make them feel too vulnerable. Groups should be heterogeneous, but you shouldn’t isolate underrepresented students (nor should you put them all together).

In addition to facilitating positive interactions amongst students, we need to protect those who may be feeling excluded, stereotyped, or bullied, so next week we’ll share some ideas on recognizing and responding to microaggressions in the classroom.