Classroom climate “profoundly shapes” the experience of both instructor and students. That’s a claim made by two authors of a study that looked at syllabi from sociology courses to see what they said about classroom climate (Valentin & Grauerholz, 2019, p. 219). They found that most of the statements focused on students and their need to respect each other. Students are key, but they don’t provide the leadership needed to establish or maintain the classroom climate. That’s a teacher’s responsibility.
Does putting a statement in the syllabus about the desired climate help to create it? In this review the authors looked at almost 900 syllabi. Only one in five contained some sort of statement on climate. That could mean a big chunk of faculty don’t think climate is important enough to mention, or maybe those folks don’t think a statement in the syllabus does anything to create the climate, which is especially true when students don’t read the syllabus. But then, if teachers suspect students aren’t reading the syllabus, they usually talk about everything it contains. Syllabus and teacher statements can help create a climate for learning in a course, but I firmly believe the classroom climate gets established by the behavior inside it. If a teacher claims to value divergent opinions but then argues vehemently when a student states such an opinion, that action says far more about the climate than what the teacher has said or written.
The authors' analysis of 100 syllabus statements in this study uncovered four common ways these sociology faculty conceptualized classroom climate. First and foremost they understood it as students’ respecting each other. Seventy-nine of the descriptions included statements to that effect. Between one-fifth and one-fourth of the statements referred to creating a safe space in the classroom, to scholarly engagement (i.e., keeping the conversation professional and not personal), and to accepting individual responsibility (which usually had to do with students coming to class prepared).
It’s interesting how frequently those of us in higher education use metaphors to describe classroom climate, starting with the name itself. What does this term refer to in a course? Is the idea of creating a “safe” space any clearer? It isn’t the referent is a space free from physical danger. The authors describe “shaping [a] classroom’s interactional and socio-emotional landscape” (p. 220). Are these descriptors that make sense to students? To teachers?
Some very early work on classroom climate (see, for instance, Fraser, 1986) assumed it evolved from sets of relationships—between the teacher and the class as a whole; the teacher and individual students, especially as they interact in front of others in the class; and between the students as they relate individually or in groups. Those various relationships become the context within which respect does or doesn’t occur. Respect isn’t the “climate” but an example of an action in a “good” one. Because it’s a course, that context creates expectations that the relationship will be professional, not personal. Teachers and students can be friendly toward one another, but theirs are not peer friendships.
The new insight for me in this research was that opener: the climate in a course profoundly shapes both instructor and student experience. Haven’t we all had a course in which the students connected and behaved in ways that made it a wonderful or horrible experience for us? Our relationship with the class gelled or turned sour. Teaching can be heaven, or it can be hell. Fortunately, having it mostly somewhere in between keeps us grounded and sane.
But the effect the climate has on all of us means it’s a shared responsibility. The respect a good climate requires isn’t just respect between students. It’s the respect they need to show us and equally importantly the respect we must show them. When it comes to creating the climate, students look to us for leadership. We can’t create it without them, but we can lead the way. A climate will be defined with or without our involvement. Without us that pretty much guarantees less than optimal learning conditions for the course.
Fraser, B. J. (1986). Classroom environment. London, England: Croom Helm.
Valentin J., & Grauerholz, L. (2019). Exploring classroom climate in sociology courses using syllabi. Teaching Sociology, 47(3), 219–230. https://doi.org/10.1177/0092055X19850252