Class Chemistry

Have you ever taught a class that just never seemed to come together? Or one in which the students all worked together really well? Do you think that classes have their own personalities?

I first learned about the concept of class chemistry as a student teacher. My master teacher, a wonderful woman named Martha Bean, commented on one of the classes that I was helping with: “They haven’t quite gelled yet,” she said. By which she meant that they hadn’t yet gotten to the point where they could work well together and open up to each other.

Now this was in the context of an intensive English language program in Los Angeles. We were about two weeks into the new term. We saw our twenty-year old students every day for about an hour. Martha knew that, with a little time and a little direction on the part of the teacher, the students in the class would find their way. And eventually, they did. But that isn’t always the case.

And I’m still not sure about the mystery of class chemistry. Ten years later I was in my final term of teaching in that same intensive English program. I thought of myself as a pretty experienced teacher by then. I was teaching four different groups of students. One of them had the best chemistry of any class I’ve ever taught. There were fifteen students who spoke fifteen different languages. They encouraged each other. They spoke only English in class. They did their homework. They were cheerful and helpful to me and to each other. At the same time, I was teaching another group of students. This was certainly one of the worst classes I ever had. The students were uncooperative, didn’t want to speak English in class, and interacted with each other only when forced to do so.

Of course, I was the same teacher, wasn’t I? To this day, I’m not sure exactly how I might have behaved differently with the two groups. Did I cause that difference in chemistry? I don’t think so. And what if I had been observed teaching one class or the other? I think that the observer would have come to very different conclusions about my effectiveness as a teacher depending on which class they saw.

What experiences have you had with class chemistry? Have you found that certain behaviors on your part improve the way the students interact? Please share your ideas in the comments section below.

About Joe McVeigh

Joe McVeigh
Joe McVeigh works independently in the field of English language teaching as a consultant, author, and teacher trainer. For over 25 years he has taught at universities in the United States, including the California Institute of Technology, the University of Southern California, and the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. He has lived and worked in countries including China, India, Chile, the United Kingdom, Hungary, and Saudi Arabia. He has taught students from more than 50 countries. He is co-author with Ann Wintergerst of Tips for Teaching Culture: Practical Approaches to Intercultural Communication (Pearson Longman) and a co-author with Jennifer Bixby of two books in the Q: Skills for Success series (Oxford University Press). In addition to writing and consulting, Joe speaks at conferences and workshops, and maintains a blog and website on issues of interest to teachers of ESL. You can also find him on Twitter: @JoeMcVeigh. Joe is a past chair of TESOL's Intensive English Programs Interest Section and served on the TESOL Board of Directors from 1995-1998. He lives with his wife and son in Middlebury, Vermont, USA.
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One Response to Class Chemistry

  1. Korey Marquez Korey says:

    Hi Joe,

    Your post reminds me of some advice a professor gave to me during grad school. She said, “When things go wrong in the classroom, it isn’t always your fault.” I’ve always remembered this–not as a way to shift the blame, but as a perspective check. Like all of us, students bring things to the classroom that are completely unrelated to the class. Yet as teachers, we tend to blame ourselves, wonder what we did wrong, how we could have made the class better, why our methods failed. Self-reflection is important, but I find it helpful to consider the possibility that there may be more going on than just my ability to manage classroom dynamics. Sometimes checking in with other instructors can provide some insight. Are these students behaving the same way in other classrooms? Are there specific activities or approaches used by other instructors that seem to be working well with these students? I had a particularly difficult class last spring, and after talking with other instructors, I altered my approach a bit, which helped, but their feedback also confirmed that we were all dealing with an unfortunate confluence of highly unmotivated students. Teaching the class was still difficult, but I stopped beating myself up over it.


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