Fostering a Positive Classroom Culture

An essential aspect of classroom management is creating a climate that best facilitates student learning. As an instructor or teaching assistant, how you interact with students will affect how comfortable students may feel participating in class or how successful they are in learning the course material. Building a positive classroom climate involves (a) recognizing the classroom power differential and how this affects your relationships with students, (b) engaging in egalitarian behavior, and (c) interacting with students outside of class.

Power Differential

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"Park in the tall pines of Southeast Texas " by Mike; licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Teaching assistants and instructors are responsible for grading student work,  instructing, helping students prepare for assessments, and sometimes being an intermediary between the professor and students. Although you may be similar in age to your students and share some interests, because you have control over their grades and performance in the class, there will always be a power differential between you and your students. It can be easy to want to see your students as peers or friends, but it is important to recognize the existence of the power differential and how students might take advantage of this to their benefit. Your similarities may make you more susceptible to manipulation. Remember you're there to help students learn, not to be friends with them.

If you share common interests with your students, feel free to use those interests to build rapport with them or to help them engage more with the course content. Just be mindful you’re not focusing on any individual or group of students more than others in your classroom.

Egalitarian Instructor Behavior

Creating a positive classroom culture also means making sure all students feel welcome and comfortable participating. Creating an egalitarian environment means that you treat students fairly. The goal here is to avoid any real or perceived bias, so all students feel their contributions are welcome. Some simple ways to do this are to make eye contact with all students and involve all students evenly and fairly. Think about your classroom: Do you most often call on or look at students in the front row? Do you have “favorite” students that you pay more attention to than others? Even if you're not aware of your biases, your students almost certainly are. Don’t underestimate your students; they may be more aware of your preferences than you realize.

It’s your responsibility to show all students that you care about their success in your course. Even if you’re doing it unconsciously, ignoring or not giving more attention to some of your students implicitly tells the others that you care less about their success. If students think you don’t care about their success, they'll be less likely to participate in class and less interested in the content you teach.

Out-of-Class Interactions

It is equally important to maintain professional relationships with your students for as long as they’re in your class. A good guideline is that you should be friendly, not friends. This means that you should be cautious of when and how you interact with students outside of class, as well as what information you share about your personal life. Again, interacting too much with one particular student outside of class might create a perceived bias toward that student. While it’s perfectly fine to say “Hi” or have a brief conversation when you see students around campus, accepting invitations from a select few students to lunch, a party, or connecting on social media might indicate you have a preference for those students. Accepting gifts from students while you're their instructor can have the same negative effect.

Interactions that occur outside of the classroom have the possibility to impact the instructional environment. Remember, as a teaching assistant or instructor, you're a professional first and foremost and should therefore behave accordingly. Your students should see you as someone they feel comfortable approaching when they have a concern and that you’re there to help them learn, but not as a friend. Always keep the power differential in mind when interacting with students and conducting class.