One of my clearest memories from middle school is the time that my class made our teacher break down and sob on her desk. She was a new teacher who seemed passionate and kind, and the increasingly vocal disrespect and general meanness from the class culminated in her total loss of control of the classroom and herself. The principal came in and give us a severe talking to, but we never regained respect for our teacher.
Part way through my second semester I’m thinking a lot about how I can improve as a teacher. As I’ve mentioned, my research-focused training didn’t prepare me for a teaching-focused career. One thing that I’ve come to realize is that I don’t have complete control of my classrooms. I’ve never been anywhere near a breakdown, but I certainly have times when I’ve felt uncomfortable in front of my classes. I was a shy introvert growing up, too nervous to ask questions in classes or go to office hours. The worst days of my life were when I had to give presentations. What is teaching a class but 15 weeks of presentations?
Some of my discomfort comes from being new and struggling to keep up. I’m only staying days or hours ahead of the students while prepping three new classes. As a result things aren’t as organized as they should be and I don’t feel like as much as an expert as I need to be on some topics. I’ve focused more or organization and activity planning this semester, since many of the moments I felt myself losing control of the classroom were when I was flying by the seat of my pants. However, I can’t help but think that my gender and age (younger than some students) aren’t winning me any points. I’m trying to dress for success and stay poised, but it’s not always easy. Plenty of anecdotes and studies have shown that young women professors are the most likely to experience disrespect.
I really like most of the students I’ve had so far. They are eager to learn and are genuine people who have worked hard for what they’ve achieved. However, just because I like them as people doesn’t mean I always appreciate having them in my class. There are always going to be the minor issues: students that sleep or play on their phones, or students that expect their recreational lives to come first. These mild annoyances seem part and parcel of teaching a diverse group of people.
The ones I’m more worried about heading off are the more aggressive challenges to my authority. One of the students who was one of the most fun to have my classes last semester, a dude, also made a habit of loudly making funny-but-not-funny comments about hating assignments. Another, a woman, would make smartass disrespectful comments in sotto voice. And currently there is a woman who takes over and derails class discussions, and has aggressively challenged me in front of the class.
I don’t have an intuition about what to do in those situations where a student is directly challenging my authority, and when I’m in the moment I get flustered and defensive. The more I read about teaching the more I feel like I need to choose between being fun-engaging-pushover teacher or bitchy-respected teacher, when I really want to be fun-engaging-respected teacher.
I’ve read a lot of advice at some great sites, including blog posts and forums on the topic. It’s a lot to keep track of, and I can’t (at least immediately) change some things about myself, but I’m trying to incorporate some of the most common pieces of advice into my daily teaching to help me feel more confident about my control of the classroom.
- The first: Don’t argue. Arguing gives too much power to the student and makes you seem weak. Of course, the line between arguing and explaining why a student’s perceptions are wrong can be a fine one, and come down to attitude more than anything else. This links into the next commonly given piece of advice:
- Don’t lose your cool. This can be hard when students are acting out in particularly frustrating ways. But time and time again effective teachers advise “You have ACT like there is no emotional response. An emotional response rewards the students who are acting out”.
- Express empathy. Acknowledge that students are people with real problems. Don’t belittle them, and they will be more likely to respect you.
- Explain why you are asking students to do things. This includes doing a good job of linking specific topics and exercises back to course learning objectives, so the students feel like progress is being made. I think that some of the decisions I’ve made in how to design assignments, tests, and papers, would have been met more positively if I’d explained (not defensively, of course) why I developed them in that way. For example, I designed a lab where all I provided the class was the primary question and a set of possible methods. I left it up to students to select the sources, specific subjects, methods, and analyses. They were frustrated at not being told what to do and how to get a good grade – and in retrospect I should have made it clear that the experience was about the process and learning to think like an researcher, rather than the final product. Next time I plan to both provide a bit more guidance and explain why the lack of structure is an important way to learn new skills.
- Don’t ignore problems. Don’t hope that disruptive behavior, inattentive students, or classroom disrespect will just go away. It almost never does and needs to be addressed head on. If not addressed you will be perceived as weak and ineffective and students will learn less as a result.
- Don’t single out and shame the students who are misbehaving in front of the class. This can actually turn the entire class against you – even if the misbehaving students had been annoying everyone, the rest of the class will start to feel sympathy with and ‘side’ with them if you make a scene in class. However, many discussions of how to deal with misbehaving students have somewhat contradictory views on this; some do suggest calling students out, including asking them to leave the class, in certain situations. Nonetheless, most people agree that the first line of defense should be talking to disruptive students one-on-one.
- And lastly, Don’t take it personally. This is one of the most difficult ones for me, but chances are, troublemakers aren’t singling you out. Students like to test boundaries, and some will do so with every professor. I found out that my most irritating student this semester has the same disruptive, annoying behaviors in every class – but how the class as a whole goes depends on how the professor responds.
I expect that as time goes on I’ll develop an effective toolkit to deal with all types of problems in the classroom. In the interim I’ve been asking for help and advice with my most significant problems, and I’m lucky that my Chair/Mentor has been very supportive and helpful. And here I’m asking all of you – how do you deal with disruptive and/or disrespectful students?