Positive student-teacher relationships and well-managed classroom environments have a powerful influence on academic achievement, especially for at-risk learners. Discouraged and disillusioned by repeated failures, these students often believe themselves incapable of learning. A competitive classroom focused primarily on grades reinforces these insecurities. However, a recent study describes how one teacher, teaching primarily at-risk students, created an effective classroom environment that contributed to the achievement of a wide range of educational goals and also had a positive impact on students’ attitude and morale.
Research on effective teaching seldom explains how teachers actually create an environment that is conducive to learning. Undertaking to describe one effective teacher in the context of her classroom, Cecilia Price, University of Alabama, analyzed the techniques employed by Mary Morgan, a seventh-grade social studies teacher with 24 years of experience. This teacher was chosen for study from the recommendations of teachers, administrators, parents and former students. Her classroom was observed daily for three months. Classroom activities were taped and teacher-student interactions were analyzed.
Mrs. Morgan’s classroom is located in an inner-city school. Sixty-seven percent of the the school’s students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch. Fifty-eight percent come from single-parent homes. Seventy-one percent are African-American. All Mrs. Morgan’s students had a history of poor academic performance.
Mrs. Morgan believes that her job is to change her students “from losers to winners” by instilling in them a belief in their ability to learn and a desire to achieve. She wants her class to bond into a cooperative unit based on mutual respect. To accomplish this, she creates a “safe-haven” atmosphere in which her students actively participate without the threat of failure, and without feeling that their competence is personally threatened by public competition. This risk-free climate has three identifiable components: a classroom organization based upon standards of correct behavior and sensitivity towards others; an enthusiasm for all students; and support for academic effort.
Rules are important
Mrs. Morgan begins the first day of class by discussing why rules are important. With her guidance, students develop rules to govern their classroom. By soliciting their suggestions, she demonstrates that their opinions are valued, and establishes the participatory relationship between students and teacher that will continue to grow all year. When improper behavior occurs she immediately explains why it is unacceptable and then she and her students explore alternatives to such behavior. Later, her students commented that she hadn’t put on a “tough-guy act” at the beginning of the year as many teachers do. They said she not only taught them what not to do but why they should not do it.
Sharing and caring
Mrs. Morgan makes a point of allowing her students to share in her life by discussing with them her feelings, what is of value and importance to her, and personal stories about her relationships with her family. She also demonstrates a concern for her students’ lives outside the classroom and they soon become comfortable in talking with her about their problems. Humor is an important element in her classroom, but sarcasm is stringently avoided. She openly admits mistakes and develops an understanding that no one is perfect. One student described it this way: “She takes things from a kid’s point of view. When I have problems, I know I can talk with Mrs. Morgan. I look forward to coming in here. It’s like every day I see her smiling and every time I see her smile it gives me courage just to go on to the next period. ” Another student said: “Mrs. Morgan, she brightens my day. It’s like she cares more about us than she does about herself. I would come to her before I would go to a counselor. I feel safer with her.”
The communication network
One of Mrs. Morgan’s primary goals is to ensure that her students will not experience mental or emotional discomfort during classroom interactions and assignments. When a student answers incorrectly, before discussing the correct response, she might suggest that the student’s answer would be a good idea for future study. She also accepts partial answers, encouraging other students to elaborate. The result of her artful handling of students’ responses, is a classroom in which there is always an active dialogue between students and teacher.
Much of this communication network is based on Mrs. Morgan’s desire to understand exactly what her students are attempting to say. Her careful listening makes it clear to them that she considers what they have to say valuable.
The climate in this classroom was created primarily by Mrs. Morgan’s orderly management and demonstration of caring, respect and closeness to her students. The environment she creates produces better attitudes in her students which are reflected in increased attendance and fewer uncompleted assignments. Students also show marked improvement in academic performance. The median score at the first six-week grading period was 58. By the third marking period, the median score was 72. SRA reading scores increased from 5.9 in September to 7.1 by April.
“Importance of Classroom Climate for At-Risk Learners”, Journal of Educational Research, Volume 88, Number 1, October 1994.pp. 37-42
Published in ERN March/April 1995, Volume 8, Number 2