How should we be in the classroom?

In our Adult Education classrooms, as is true to some degree in all of our classrooms, students use their bodies to express all sorts of things.

One student hunches over and takes a nap with her head on the table.

Another student leans back in his seat and catches peaks at his cell phone screen.

When an instructor presses a student for response to a question, he yells out “What the fuck?” and goes off, saying that “If she’s shootin’ at him, he’s shootin’ back”

One student asks questions consistently and out of turn. Another calls out answers. Yet another makes excited commentary on everyone else’s comments: Yes! Nah! Huh? Yeah I see that!

Various students stand up and walk out of class – to take a phone call, to get a snack, to move their legs, to stay awake.

There is subtlety too. So much of it. The slight grimace, blank stare, expressions of stress or happiness or routine. So many extremes.

These movements and expressions mean something, and I don’t know what they mean. I can only make contextual guesses at most, and often the students don’t know either. As educators, we observe over time and try to understand the complex emotions and triggers and reactions of our students. We try to find the best way to develop structure and provide tools for them to operate well in the classroom. What I do know is that our students want to be there. They want something positive for their futures and they understand and practice the first step: showing up. Negative reactions from students relate often not to defiance, but to home problems, academic frustrations, hunger, fatigue, and the list goes on.

So how do we funnel those reactions and how do we respond or not respond to them? And what should the classroom look and feel like? What level of uncontrolled noise and movement is ok? How much freedom do we allow? Or are we holding ourselves and our students to a control standard based on tradition and not learning? If we are to truly change the paradigm of hierarchy and who the purveyors of learning and teaching in the classroom are, we need to think through this aspect of control as well.

How can we see some of this unprompted involvement as positive, or provide the structure to make it so? Can we embrace students calling out and, after class, give them tools to be classroom leaders – tools that involve raising their hand, asking their classmates questions so they can elicit their peers’ learning? Can group work be loud, fun, and involve laughter or boisterous debate? I think it can, and should, when it happens organically out of a solid learning structure.

I don’t mean that we want chaos, and one of our primary goals is certainly to ensure a safe learning environment for all (the student who yelled out What the fuck? was not ultimately able to remain the classroom), but we do need to check our judgments at the door. We need to be responsible for the engagement of every student and that might mean refraining from just telling someone to be quiet in front of the entire class, or calling a student out for closing her eyes. These are precisely the students who might need us to ask, without judgment, how things are going, after class.. or even on a different day. They might need their actions reflected back to them in calm, one-on-one environment. And then given the tools and strategies for how to write questions down when they have them, and save them for the end of class. These are the students who might just need a little space to be.


  1. Rachel,

    As always, great post. Two things really speak to me here: your admission that you can, at best, only guess at the meaning and reason for students’ various responses (or lack thereof) in the classroom, and your call to reframe or restructure the class in a way that speaks and responds to existing dynamics. A student who calls out frequently can, within an appropriately structured, respectful environment, shift from someone who always interrupts her peers to someone who always has something constructive to add to her peers’ comments.

    Checking judgements at the door. Admitting that we don’t know why a student may seem unengaged, and resolving (as difficult as it may be) not to take it personally or immediately read it as a lack of engagement. Allowing room for students to simply be, and encouraging them to have a voice (whether through writing at the end of class, or opening up conversation on a different day). These are all really powerful reminders.

    It’s hard sometimes (for me not to view students’ behaviour in the class always as a direct reflection of my teaching, and it’s something that I continually work on. It’s a balancing act: what can I take responsibility for, and what can I let go? I appreciate your insights, and your reminder: “students want to be there.”

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Natalie! Yes, that’s an interesting point you bring up about what we should feel responsible for what we should just let be… I think, like we were talking about in our small group, we can ask ourselves for perfection. Classroom perfection – perfection in general – doesn’t exist. I’m don’t think that would even be desirable or what it would look like. We try things, we get better, and figure out how to both improve and be responsible for our classrooms and also accept that everything beautiful is a process…

  3. I LOVE THIS. I need more time to delve more deeply into it, but I can tell you right now that I’m going to want to continue talking with both of you about it!

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