Many teachers often hear of their colleagues’ theories and practice through students’ dialogue. Students love to critique their professors, but they also have an uncanny ability to recognize when the class has chemistry and why that chemistry eventually formed. A classroom, like all matter, can be broken down into basic elements; the absence or addition of an element will change the matter.
What is chemistry?
Chemistry naturally occurs in conjunction with communication, understanding/empathy, bonding, respecting/reflecting, and setting boundaries (and sticking to them). When teachers allow themselves to connect with students – to not only teach them but be taught by them, to let them share and to share with them, to set ground rules and to hear what students themselves require for a comfortable classroom experience – something magical happens in the class: students become comfortable. They feel safe in voicing their opinions and questions. Chemistry.
Chemistry, the je ne sais quois of the classroom and a mystery to many teachers, occurs from the first second of the first day of class. Although some teachers might believe that it takes weeks create this ideal environment, establishing a rapport with students can begin immediately – with a few simple steps. The beauty and the challenge of teaching, however, is that all classes are different; chemistry will not occur in the same way every time, but if teachers can include these basic elements in their teaching philosophy, the magic will come.
1. Communication: Students feel more comfortable if they know what is expected of them, and teachers can help students immensely by sharing clear expectations on the first day of class. By clear expectations, I do not simply mean a syllabus. Many teachers think that if they give their students due-dates and rubrics they have reached their communication quota, but these handouts are only the beginning. Students appreciate a road-map towards success in your class. (Think about it, would you embark on a vacation with no pre-planning, no route, no hotel reservations?) When I go on trips I like to find out from others what the best rest-stops and hotels are, where the cheapest gasoline is, which restaurants are good, what attractions are worth the money, etc.
This road-map starts with communication. At the beginning of the semester, I tell my students that the key to their success is their communication with me. If they have problems, issues, or trouble, they should talk to me about it before they miss an assignment. In today’s technological climate, students have easier access to teachers than ever before; as a result, teachers should take advantage of this by making themselves available to their students. I have a policy that I answer all student emails on the day they arrive (but I don’t check after 8:30PM). This way, I create my own boundary but give students the security of my availability.
Years ago, teachers held the “secrets” to the students’ grade; often, students had no idea how they were doing until the end of the semester when it was too late to change things. Today, in most cases, online grading and parental access to grades has thankfully eliminated this practice. While some teachers may feel that they are being micro-managed through online grading, this knowledge gives all who are involved power. Students understand how they are doing and thus must take responsibility, parents can monitor students’ progress, and teachers can feel assured that everyone is on the same page. Teachers can continue this foundation of knowledge by simply showing students what is expected in each project with models, exemplary examples, and clearly explained rubrics. When students know what is expected of them, they are more willing to do the work.
2. Understanding/Empathy: Have you ever heard a student complain that the teacher “has no idea what I am going through”? Unfortunately, many students feel this way, and that is because a majority of teachers have been out of the classroom for years and have not written a paper, researched a topic, practiced in a sport, played in a band, or presented an idea for a long time. Teachers MUST be ongoing learners just like their students; when teachers are willing to learn, students respect that and buy into projects.
Showing students a willingness to learn can be easy. Write with them. Read with them (sometimes it can be fun to read a book for the first time with your class; they will appreciate your discovery with them, and it can be refreshing for students to feel like the teacher is reading with them, not dictating all the right answers).
Teachers can also be cognizant of the busy schedules that students keep. Students are busy: they have clubs, band, church, homework, friends, sports, etc. and many students have not learned how to hone their time-management skills. One way to build trust, and thus chemistry, in your class is to know when students are overwhelmed and to be willing to adjust lessons accordingly. We all get stressed out: students are no different.
3. Respecting/Reflecting: Teachers cannot expect students to respect them if they do not give their students that same consideration. Students are people too, albeit younger, and they bring into the classroom issues from home, worries, problems – just like teachers do. If we respect that students have a life outside of our class, students will be more willing to perform for us. So how can teachers show students respect? By Listening. I often ask my students for feedback about lessons: was it too rigorous, or not rigorous enough? Was it productive? Did they learn something or did they feel like it was busy work? When I get feedback I incorporate it into my next lessons, and students can see that I respect their opinions.
This leads to the next idea, which is a willingness to reflect. Teachers MUST be willing to reflect on and change their teaching practices from day to day, year to year. Just as we expect our students to learn from a process, so too must we process and learn. If a lesson doesn’t work, chances are that it is because of the teacher, not the students (difficult to swallow, I know, but usually true).
4. Boundaries/Consistency: Everybody needs boundaries: married couples, toddlers, business people, and students – they all need to know how far is too far. Teachers must create reasonable boundaries in their class and must be consistent and clear about consequences. If teachers can do this from the beginning, students will feel comfortable in the class and will know how to act. Boundaries, when used successfully, are often paradoxical in the classroom. When a teacher can establish and maintain ground rules, it becomes possible to give students more freedom, more respect. When students get this freedom, they tend to respect rules more.
Chemistry does not have to be an elusive, mysterious element that happens once in a blue moon; rather, it can occur naturally – all teachers have to do is listen, learn, communicate, reflect, respect, and adapt.