Not All Classrooms Are Created Equal

Insight as to why a certain instructional technique may work, or not work, for every school or every classroom.

By Tom Duda

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A Change in Careers: From Tech to Teaching 

If I were to choose a word to describe the first forty-three years of my life, spent in the same small town in New Jersey, it would have to be consistent. I frequented the same supermarket, gas station, and deli. I even watched the same DVD’s at regular intervals. After meeting my wife and deciding to live and work in Turkey, the page of my personal dictionary flipped to the page with a new word, unorthodox. This word would define the next chapter of my life, which turned out to last about five years. I was a web designer in New Jersey. When we moved to Turkey, I attempted to continue that job path. Nevertheless, a part-time teaching career found me in my job in the IT department in Çankaya, Ankara, Turkey. Interestingly enough, my teaching debut was not in ESL, but introduction to computers. I fit into the curriculum well because of my computer background, and the fact I spoke English was a plus. All my students were from the English department, and we instantly clicked. They loved the fact that they had a native speaker to teach an otherwise boring class. In their eyes, they were getting the chance to hear English the way it is spoken in the movies. With absolutely no teaching experience, I made it through the first semester and was given an accolade by the university because I had received the highest student evaluations in the department.  

A Rookie Mindset

An inflated ego in an unfamiliar field was not the best mindset for a neophyte attempting a new career. As much as I loved teaching for the university, my wife’s work relocated her to Izmir, Turkey—a city in the south west of Ankara. This left me to pursue a new position as an English instructor because teaching was the only credential I had in a foreign land where the native language was Turkish.

A Brand New Game

A position at a primary school found me as word circulated that a native speaker with teaching experience had entered the city. I adamantly acknowledged that I had no experience with children, but being desperate for an instructor, the school decided to hire me anyway. I took my newly found cockiness into a classroom full of children, and realized that the job was not about teaching, but that of disciplining young students with little self-control. Being an untrained teacher in classrooms full of children is not suitable for the faint of heart. With paper airplanes and spitballs flying, I came to the realization that classes had collective personalities. I had seen firsthand the class clowns, the bullies and the shy observers. I did well with the kindertgartners and the fifth graders. Every other class, however, brought discouragement that left nightmares floating in my head until my alarm clock rang, and it was time to survive another day at school. I spent many hours pondering why there was such a vast difference in classroom personalities. Kindergarten was an easy puzzle to solve, as very young children simply needed to be entertained. The fifth grade had a very nice collective personality for one simple reason—I was teaching them just before lunch. The threat of sitting in detention without lunch kept them in line. The seventh grade, the worst class, had the typical alpha dog that enticed the other students into misbehavior. Since I did not begin right away by engendering fear into the leader, I lost control which could never be regained. Ultimately, humbled by experience, I decided to seek out new employment. The next year, I moved to a position in an institution that catered to adults.

A New Set of Eyes

In my first adult classroom since my university introduction class, I found comfort once again. The fact that I was an American was a definite benefit. Once again, pupils laughed at my jokes, paid attention, and showed me some respect. It was a different environment. The students were all from different parts of Turkey and there were no friendships between classmates. There were no alpha students and the main focus was on TOEFL preparation (Test of English as a Foreign Language). The atmosphere of the institution was relaxed, which manifested itself in the general attitude of the classroom. Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, all good things come to an end. My wife had been offered a position, once again, in Ankara.

A Rubric for Classroom Personality Doesn't Exist

My next Ankura position was as an instructor in a school with an entirely different personality. Instead of the relaxed atmosphere I became accustomed to, the school was rigid. I discovered that learners were mostly friends, and consequently, I had to maintain some classroom discipline. Thus, I became cognizant that there were reasons for some of the classroom personality differences. Mainly, the goal of each institution had a bearing on class personalities. This new institution was more focused on social issues rather than purely test preparation. They recruited prospective students through representatives sent to various universities in Ankara. Often, groups of friends were encouraged to join collectively. Much of the class was already acquainted and comfortable with each other, making it more difficult to get them to settle down and focus on the lesson. Additionally, students were encouraged to speak to the management about instructors who they felt did not associate well with the pupils. It was not unheard of for a class to go through four different teachers in one term!

A Class's Personality Consists of Varying Factors

It is paramount to research the focus of an institution, as well as what is considered its overall agenda. It is important to know all about the school and its internal structure. One would also benefit from knowing the seriousness of potential students with regard to their education. There may be some classrooms that want a teacher to joke and play games, others desire some information about the  cultural aspects of instructor’s native country, and others just want straightforward teaching.  Now I look back on those early experiences with a bit of nostalgia and humor. However, the lessons learned stick with me to this day. Know your classes’ distinct personalities, educational goals, and social groups. Keeping those in mind and altering your teaching style to accommodate them will go a long way towards a positive experience for both the teacher and the class. 

Further Reading:

Classroom Management Systems

Writing Classroom Agreements using Inspiration & Word to Go