Hidden Messages: Why Classroom Atmosphere Matters

Oct 20, 2019

Imagine that you are entering a classroom for the first time. The first images you take in are speaking to your soul in a subconscious way. Immediately your senses are sending messages about the learning that will take place in that classroom. The learning atmosphere is being set before any actual content is taught. For most people it is a natural process to adjust to our daily surroundings and in turn become numb to the messages that the atmosphere of a classroom is sending. Because of this natural adjustment, which leads to “numbness” to the messages of our surroundings, we must take a fresh look at the classroom environments where we teach.

Charlotte Mason, a favored educator of the nineteenth century, pioneered a return to the ancient methods of education in a time when modern education was being mandated and public education was moving toward the product of a student rather than focusing on the process. She believed that education was more than just stacks of textbooks, large cold classrooms, and academic bureaucracy. She argued that education is upheld by three pillars: Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life. The first pillar, education as an atmosphere, is was vital as it set the stage for all learning. A three-legged stool could hardly stand without one of its legs. Atmosphere, for Charlotte Mason, carried just as much weight as the “discipline” and the “life” of learning.

Atmosphere is layered; it is richer and deeper than one might first realize. Charlotte Mason defined the word in this way: “The learning place is not a child’s environment but rather the formation of proper conditions for learning. She believed that the atmosphere of a classroom was equally important to the material taught. She also emphasized that the atmosphere in a child’s home played a part in their learning at school. In addition to the schoolroom, she encouraged parents to set the atmosphere for learning in their homes. Her philosophy compels educators to be intentional about creating an atmosphere that invites children to learn and love learning.

Teachers tell students: “Take care of your things”; “Do your best work”; “Be attentive to this subject.” In a room that is often disorganized and harshly lit, with bare walls and furniture that is old and broken. The articulated and implied messages contradict each other. Even though our words say one thing, our atmosphere speaks a much louder message.

In addition to our physical atmosphere of furniture and artwork, teachers often expect children to develop a sense of wonder in learning while they drag on for long boring lectures, giving no time for discovery, for thinking, and for wonder. Because a teacher is the key fixture in any classroom, a teacher significantly contributes to the atmosphere of a classroom. Children naturally love what a teacher loves. A teacher who is awakened to the classroom atmosphere will demonstrate love of material and love of students. They will understand that the physical atmosphere of a classroom conveys a message; and in turn they can either foster or hinder the sense of wonder and love of learning by their leadership in the classroom.

The belief that education is an atmosphere will be revealed in classrooms that are filled with life, beauty, and order, taught by educators who joyfully lead children into discovery and wonder. These three words prompt educators to ask three important questions when evaluating classroom atmosphere:

Does this room have life?
Is this room beautiful?
Is this room orderly?

Richer learning will take place in the classrooms that align with Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of atmosphere. In short, you could say atmosphere speaks louder than words.

Revisit the classroom you first imagined. Listen closely to all the messages that are being conveyed. Is it a classroom filled with distractions, or is it a classroom that encourages a love of learning? Review the lessons taught; do they invite children into a sense of wonder and a deeper love of learning? It is time for educators to be awakened to the hidden messages in the classroom. We must be attuned to ALL the messages sent by the atmospheres of our classrooms. If they are found to be lacking, we must make adjustments so that our atmosphere speaks the same message as our words.

Rebekah Shaffer

Rebekah Shaffer

Rebekah Shaffer is the Lower School Principal at Covenant School in Huntington, WV.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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