While few of us, we hope, will ever face an incident of extreme violence in the classroom, many of us will face a student who continues to escalate beyond acceptable student behavior. So let’s talk about what are some options to contain the behavior, allowing you to continue in your teaching mission.
In this first blog post, I will talk about how, in this kind of an escalating situation with a student, there are three elements of the interaction—two of which are more under your control. In next week’s blog post I will continue the discussion by sharing a way of assessing individuals, based on literature about how hospital emergency room staff assess and intervene with a patient or family member who may be escalating toward violence. And in a third post, I will discuss ways to seek help with a student conduct problem.
Your Teaching Self
I’ve written before that it is important for each faculty member to discover what behaviors by students bother you the most. These behaviors can likely be categorized as:
1) Attitudinal, e.g., rolling eyes during class, disengagement, rudeness, anger
2) Disruptive to learning, e.g., excessive talking during class, texting during class, arriving late and interrupting others, or leaving early
3) Communicative, e.g., talking back, hostile posts to discussion board, intentional negativity aimed at you or other students, threats [verbal or written].
Be sure that statements and policies in your syllabus address any of these behavioral categories which concern you. In particular, have you specified clear consequences for normative violations? I recommend at least a “one time” warning system before consequences begin. Let the student know, normally in private, that today’s conduct meant that another incident of the same behavior would lead to negative consequences. Sharing the reasons for your behavioral norms can help students to understand them. I tell several stories (anonymously) about the origination of some of my classroom norms—these stories help students to remember my norms, I have found.
Be sure that you hold yourself to the same standards—for example, in 32 years of teaching, I never was late to a class and I expected students to be on time unless there was a scheduling issue (e.g., sometimes my institution’s bus schedule was not always on time and students coming from a part of campus several blocks away might be late. But on the third day of class, I asked students to tell me their schedule and where their classes were so that I could have that information and memorize it. I asked students to tell me in advance if there was a one-time personal reason that they might be late, like meeting with their advisor or an appointment at the Student Health Center.)
My teaching persona is what I have sometimes called “pedestrian pedagogy.” In my class of 300 students, after I start the class on the stage, I was constantly walking around the classroom. I usually put 5000 steps on my Fitbit during the class period. My graduate assistants and undergraduate embedded peer tutor also were constantly walking during class. If I headed to the back of the classroom, one of them would walk to the front and another would walk the row that was perpendicular to the stage. We’d just keep crossing paths. So students knew that any member of my pedagogical team could be directly behind them, by their side, or in front of them, at a moment’s notice.
There was another part of my teaching self: my grey hair and age. Being the oldest person in the room gave me a wisdom and interactional advantage that—while I tried to not use it often—was a source of power. I learned non-verbal ways to convey the “don’t mess with me and we’ll all enjoy class better” message.
The Classroom Environment
Where will you be teaching the course? The built environment can impact student success, for better or worse. For example, if there are alcoves in the room that make it nearly impossible for you to see the students who sit there, that space will likely draw students who might be thinking of breaking a class norm, thereby complicating your pedagogical strategies. If you are assigned to a room where the seats are bolted down, that could make active learning activities more difficult and might stress some students out (e.g., “I have to sit on the floor to be in a group? Oh no I won’t.”).
Course content can also influence classroom discussions, thereby increasing the likelihood of troublesome behaviors, especially attitudinal and communicative ones. Controversial topics—common in political science, anthropology, sociology, religion, philosophy, and psychology courses—can lead to disagreements. In particular, these often involve moments when students’ personal values conflict with course content (e.g., a student’s faith might contradict with a marriage equality law being studied). That doesn’t mean that mathematics and natural science classes will never have this kind of conduct violation, but they are more likely to involve the student becoming so frustrated over her or his inability to master how to work a certain type of mathematical problem or chemical formula, for instance, than hostility about the course content itself. The student might shift quickly, for example, from frustration with themselves to anger at you.
One way to help is to apply behavioral norms consistently, especially when students might come talk to you before or after class. Know that there will be other students listening just to see if you are being consistent and fair. However, I’m not saying that you must follow your norms rigidly. If compassion was needed regarding one student’s special circumstances (e.g., death of a family member necessitating a change in an assessment’s due date) I either asked the student to come to my office for that conversation or we would negotiate over email—but never in the actual classroom, in front of others.
Class policies need to follow best practices for the type of class you are teaching. For example, a laboratory dealing with dangerous chemicals might need more behavioral norms (e.g., no running with chemicals, etc.) than a class where students are seated for the entire class period. A class with graduate students will likely require different norms than a large class of all first year students, and an asychronous online class might need more norms about communicative misbehaviors because individual students (and you) might see a discussion post which is offensive at different times, across different days, and tension might build quickly, which will require more intervention.
Recognize the days in your class which are likely to stress students the most, such as test days and days when tests or assessments are returned. These are frequently the days when student behavior could violate classroom norms. I try approach these days with an especially tolerant attitude. I want students to care about their grades and recognize that some will likely have less practice coping with what the students might perceive to be “bad news.”
The more you know about your students in general, as well as individually, the more you will be able to personalize interventions. Are they first year students, transitioning to college or seniors who are more focused on finding a job and starting to pay back loans? Does the student appear stressed or tired, sad or lonely? Are they primarily enrolled because the course is required or have they chosen the class more out of scholarly interest?
If you can situate the student in his or her social context, you are better able to deal with behaviors outside of the norm. In next week’s blog, we’ll continue this conversation by thinking about how to react when students misbehave.
Please note: Institutions have policies about student conduct in classrooms, residence halls, and other spaces on campus as well as rules about guns on campus. Each faculty member needs to consult these local policies; these three blog posts are general comments about how to deal with escalating student behaviors and are not meant to supercede local norms and laws. For this reason, these posts will not be addressing situations involving weapons in the classroom.
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