The working atmosphere in the classroom: a ten-level scale
The scale was devised to encourage trainee teachers to think about the degree to which teachers are in relaxed and assured control of their classrooms and can enjoy their teaching, and also, the extent to which there is a ‘right to learn' for pupils, free from the noise and disruption of others. It is not designed as an instrument to pass judgement on the class management skills of teachers (not least because there are so many other variables which influence the levels – most obviously, which school you are working in). Its purpose is to get trainee teachers (and teachers, departments and schools) to think about the factors influencing the working atmosphere in the classroom, the influence of the working atmosphere in classrooms on teaching and learning, and the equal opportunities issues surrounding the tension between inclusion, and situations where some pupils may be spoiling the learning of others.
Working atmosphere 10 point scale
|| You feel completely relaxed and comfortable; able to undertake any form of lesson activity without concern. ‘Class control' not really an issue – teacher and pupils working together, enjoying the experiences involved.
|| You feel completely in control of the class and can undertake any sort of classroom activity, but you need to exercise some control/authority at times to maintain a calm and purposeful working atmosphere. This can be done in a friendly and relaxed manner and is no more than a gentle reminder.
|| You can establish and maintain a relaxed and co-operative working atmosphere and undertake any form of classroom activity, but this requires a considerable amount of thought and effort on your part at times. Some forms of lesson activity may be less calm and under control than others.
|| You can undertake any form of lesson activity, but the class may well be rather 'bubbly' and rowdy: there may be minor instances of a few pupils messing around on the fringes of the lesson but they stop when you ask them politely but firmly to behave. No one goes out of their way to annoy you or challenges your authority.
|| You don't really look forward to teaching the class, it is often a major effort to establish and maintain a relaxed and calm atmosphere. Several pupils will not remain on task without persistent surveillance/ exhortation/threats. At times you feel harassed, and at the end of the lesson you feel rather drained. There are times when you feel it is wisest not to attempt certain types of pupil activity, in order to try and keep things under control. It is sometimes difficult to get pupils to be quiet while you are talking, or stop them calling out, or talking to each other at will across the room but in spite of this, no one directly challenges your authority, and there is no refusal or major disruption.
|| There are times in the lesson when you would feel awkward or embarrassed if the head/a governor/an inspector came into the room, because your control of the class is limited. The atmosphere is at times rather chaotic, with several pupils manifestly not listening to your instructions. Some of the pupils are in effect challenging your authority by their dilatory or desultory compliance with your instructions and requests. Lesson format is constrained by these factors; there are some sorts of lesson you would not attempt because you know they would be rowdy and chaotic, but in the last resort, there is no open refusal, no major atrocities, just a lack of purposefulness and calm. Pupils who wanted to work could get on with it, albeit in a rather noisy atmosphere.
|| You have to accept that your control is limited. It takes time and effort to get the class to listen to your instructions. You try to get onto the worksheet/written part of the lesson fairly quickly in order to ‘get their heads down'. Lesson preparation is influenced more by control and ‘passing the time' factors than by educational ones. Pupils talk while you are talking, minor transgressions (no pen, no exercise book, distracting others by talking) go unpunished because too much is going on to pick everything up. You become reluctant to sort out the ringleaders as you feel this may well escalate problems. You try to ‘keep the lid on things' and concentrate on those pupils who are trying to get on with their work.
|| You dread the thought of the lesson. There will be major disruption; many pupils will pay little or no heed to your presence in the room. Even pupils who want to work will have difficulty doing so. Swearwords may go unchecked, pupils will walk round the room at will. You find yourself reluctant to deal with transgressions because you have lost confidence. When you write on the board, objects will be thrown around the room. You can't wait for the lesson to end and be out of the room.
|| The pupils largely determine what will go on in the lesson. You take materials into the lesson as a manner of form, but once distributed that will be ignored, drawn on or made into paper aeroplanes. When you write on the board, objects will be thrown at you rather than round the room. You go into the room hoping that they will be in a good mood and will leave you alone and just chat to each other.
|| Your entry into the classroom is greeted by jeers and abuse. There are so many transgressions of the rules and what constitutes reasonable behaviour that it is difficult to know where to start. You turn a blind eye to some atrocities because you feel that your intervention may well lead to confrontation, refusal or escalation of the problem. This is difficult because some pupils are deliberately committing atrocities under your notes, for amusement. You wish you had not gone into teaching.
It should be stressed that there are many schools where you will not encounter the lower levels on the scale, (
but it is still important to remember that there are schools and classrooms where the lever levels do exist). Although recent Ofsted reports have suggested that pupil behaviour is less than satisfactory in under one in ten secondary schools, my research suggests that deficits in the working atmosphere are much more prevalent than that figure suggests, and that there are many schools where levels might range between at least level 10 and level 5.
It is unlikely that you will spend your entire training year in schools where the working atmosphere is always at level 10 with all your teaching groups. There are not just differences between schools in terms of the working atmosphere in the classroom, there are usually differences within schools – teachers can make a difference.
It is worth investing a lot of time, thought and work in this area because it makes such a difference in the extent to which you can enjoy your teaching. There are very few things in professional life less edifying than being, in effect, locked in a room with 30 children not fully under your control. These are some comments from teachers I interviewed recently about what it is like when you are teaching at levels 9 and 10 on the scale:
‘I cannot stress how wonderful it is to teach a well behaved class. It actually enables you to lower your guard and completely relax. I really enjoyed the lesson and the children did too… I could tell.'
‘You come out feeling great. You know that you have their respect, they rate you, they think you are a good teacher.'
‘Your teaching actually gets better when you are at levels 9 and 10… your exposition is more fluent, you can think of things off the top of your head… you seem to be able to think of lots of good ideas because you' re not thinking at the back of your mind about control and surveillance issues. You get a buzz out of it and you can let your hair down more, take a few more risks.'
‘As you are walking round the classroom, or looking out of the window, you think to yourself, there aren't many people who have a job as fulfilling and enjoyable as this.'
‘In terms of how much you enjoy your teaching, there's a massive difference between operating at levels 7 and 8… which are OK… no big hassle… and level 10, when it's just a fantastic job, pure pleasure… you can get a real buzz out of the interaction with pupils. It's like the adverts for teaching on the TV but in real life.'
Many of the decisions you have to make in this area are context dependent; there are very few, if any strategies that are guaranteed to work with every pupil, every class, in terms of how to get them quiet in the first place, how to cope when you haven't got complete control, in what circumstances to send a pupil out of the class, and so on. You have to think, learn and work to get to the highest levels possible – I think that above all it is about ‘being a good learner', from your own experience, from advice, reading and watching people who are accomplished in this field (although you can also learn from bad practice). It is helpful to have an open-minded attitude, and to be prepared to test ideas and theories about pupil behaviour against your own experience.
From Haydn, T. (2007 ) Managing pupil behaviour, key issues in teaching and learning, London , Routledge.
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