There are a lot of factors in making a great class: a good time of the day, a good mix of student leaders in the class, a comfortable room, and good texts to use. Sometimes there are factors you simply cannot control: the students in your class are tired due to their schedules, or the room just doesn’t work for the number of students you have, or the technology fails you. I’ve had 8 AM classes that worked well because most of the students were athletes who had early morning practices and were ready for class; other 8 AM classes lacked morning people and were lackluster. If your 11 AM class is the third class of the day, then you are in trouble. These are things we, as teachers, have no control over.
There are, however, a few things you can control. Students are deeply attuned to fairness (isn’t everybody?). If they feel you are being unfair to some, or to them, then they will be unhappy. If the class feels unplanned, has unclear deadlines that change, or goes over the stated ending of class, then students will be unhappy. Holding to the ending time of class (and hopefully beginning of class), taking attendance, and being clear on deadlines are easy ways to be fair. Students want you to be fair and open about what the class is, what the expectations are, and what is going on.
Coupled with being fair is the importance of being kind. There are all sorts of situations where one must be kind: students may have car trouble, face family problems, or simply be having a bad day. Some students are terrified of speaking in class. These are times for one to be kind, while still fair, and I find that students respond well when they sense you are struggling to be both fair and kind.
An important way to be kind is to listen to students. When they raise a question or challenge, or attempt to answer a question, listening to them and responding kindly but thoughtfully is vital. Do you dismiss their comments in favor of your outline for the day, or your prescribed answer? Or do you follow up their contribution with an affirmation and a good response? Taking them seriously, as thinking adults, is key to having success in the classroom. No one wants to be ignored. This also applies to their essays and writing; we must thoughtfully and kindly respond to their work, pointing to what is done well and what can be done better, but always in a spirit of gentle, fair kindness. The teacher is there to convince the students that the material is vitally important, but also to remind them that it is, after all, just a class, and some things may actually be more important than that particular assignment or class.
Balancing your expectations for the day, fairness, and kindness are always a challenge. But the classroom is the main place where a teacher can do good work for one’s students. Being unprepared, unresponsive, or humorless are ways to harm the classroom, which is a time when you can achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. Students will remember, most of all, those moments in the classroom when you listened and challenged them, and they learned something. They will best learn when the atmosphere, both inside and outside the classroom, is fair and kind.