Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Wed, 08 May 2002 08:58:29 -0400 (EDT)
Random Thought: Weather: My Seventh Word In My Dictionary of Good Teaching

A curse on a revengeful Montezuma and salmonella!! I had been lethargic, sleepy, achy, tight, uncomfortable, unfocused, out-of-sorts, drained of energy, lifeless because of a nibble on something unedible this past weekend. I was just under the proverbial weather. "Under the weather," isn't that an interesting idiom. It tells us that the weather effects how we think, move, and feel. Talking about the weather, it is hot and dry, hazy and smoky down here. The mosquitoes are wearing gas masks. The Okeefenokee Swamp is afire and its casting its irritating pall over the whole area. My eyes burn. I feel like I'm perpetually inhaling a cigarette. It, too, is effecting how I think and move and feel.

And, according to Mark Twain, I can do all the talking I want about the weather, but I can't do anything about it. Well, you know, Mark Twain didn't get it all right. You can do something about the weather--in the classroom and on campus. That's why the next word I am going to give Kenny for my DICTIONARY OF GOOD TEACHING is "Weather."

Why? Because, as I say again and again and again, in the spirit of Emerson, the fundamental purpose of a teacher is to help a person help him/herself become the person he or she is capable of becoming; because, as I have said earlier, I strongly feel that the prime purpose of a teacher, the all important MUST, is to prime good feeling in each student. And, to do that is to do something about the weather--in the classroom. Now, before anyone starts on me again with the touchy-feely or new age or similar whatevers accusations, hear me out.

I received read this end-of-semester evaluation from a student:

                ....You know, this class was a lot of hard work even 
                though there were no tests.  I guess you made the 
                projects seem like they weren't a struggle.  It was 
                almost that you tricked us into wanting us to do it.  
                It seemed at times so natural and easy that it was 
                hard not to believe we could do those crazy things.  
                It really makes a difference that the weather in the
                classroom was springy everyday in the class.  I know 
                that I always looked forward to coming to class.  A 
                lot of us did, strange as that sounds.  It was never 
                a dark and stormy and threatening place.  We felt 
                better and safer and fuller (sic) of energy....

That phrase, "weather in the classroom," reminded me of a conversation I had with several students as we small talked about the weather before class began. It was a cloudy and "cool" mid-70's side morning. The small talk went something like this:

"I like this weather," he said. "I don't like it when it's real hot and muggy."


"Because it's hard to be full of energy. It all gets to me real quick and I tire real fast. It's just not enjoyable and I can't do things as well. I can't focus as well. I just don't feel good. I lose my spring. I get lazy."

"You like the cold?"

"Not too cold. I get stiff quickly and slow down, too. I like it in between.

And finally, in a masterful interplay of actors and real people on a recent episode of WEST WING, in one scene, David Gergens said, talking of the President's role, that our best Presidents have a sense of how much better we can be than we are. The best Presidents create a climate that instills a sense of potential, the possibilites to make us dreamers of dreams and help us produce great action. That is also true of best Presidents on our campuses, of our best Vice Presidents, of our best Provosts, of our best Deans, of our best department heads, and of our best teachers.

Through the ages, people have been affected by the change of seasons. Winter's darkness and wintery white commonly brings a bad case of the blues for many. In spring, the fields are alive with the sound of music, and people are inoculated with large doses of a sense of life. The heavy summer heat and humidity is a prescription for lethargy. I don't think it's much different in the classroom. The weather of the classroom has real consequence for learning. When there is sun deprivation in the classroom, the "downers" prevail. When there is an icy chill in the air, students tend to freeze up. When the room is full of storm and lightening, students cringe in fear. When it is "springy," the room is inviting and students tend to dance to their delight.

Weather--a slick word for "mood"--has an enormous impact on those in the classroom. It sets the pace. It is catchy. It can inspire, anger, arouse, alert, bore, impassion, bore, enthuse, dampen, threaten, encourage, slow, hasten, dull, sharpen, enliven, build, destroy, raise, lower, soar, ground, frustrate, gratify, sadden, cheer. It grinds down or lubricates. When students feel upbeat, they focus on the upside of things positively. The upbeat will more likely go the extra mile. When they feel down, they tend to focus on the downside. The downbeat will more likely trudge along and feel beaten up after a few feet. Negative vibes are distracting and disrupting and dissonant. Positive vibes are focusing, settling, and resonant, How a student feels is more often than not a mirror of the teacher. In this sense, teachers who, like Typhoid Mary, spread bad moods are bad for learning. Teachers who pass along good moods help learning. The mood is either grit or oil.

Now, I am not so naive that I think the weather in the classroom is the only determinate or to think that every student responds to the atmosphere of the classroom identically. There are complex personal climate patterns outside the classroom and inside each of us. I have learned that the classroom weather does, however, significantly effect how people feel and perform.

You can say that students are responsible for their own learning. Fine. Like it or not, students take their cues from us just as we take our cues from our colleagues, department heads, deans, VPs, and Presidents. They listen more carefully to what and how we say things; they watch us more carefully for what we say with our body movements. The teacher's way of seeing things has special weight that makes sense of an assignment and that gives direction in a situation. What teachers praise or not praise, criticize constructively or destructively, support or ignore, encourage or discourage, clarify or confuse, teacher sets the standard and creates the mood. That doesn't strip us of our responsibilities as climate makers. We can be Irving Berlins: when blue skies are smiling at you, the blue days are gone; when the sun is shining so bright, things seems to go so right. Or, we can be Hoagie Carmichaels: when there's no sun up there, gloom and misery everywhere, stormy weather.

The weather of a classroom will largely determine whether anything else will work. It's sad to ignore the suffering effects of what I call academic SAD (Smile Affective Disorder) and not treat students with educational heliotherapy

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
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