Dealing with difficult situations in the classroom

The following is mostly from a handout I used while delivering workshops for a few years on the above topic at the Teaching and Learning Center at Temple University. Instructors of various levels of experience seemed to enjoy it and we had many productive discussions afterward, so I’m hoping that this might be useful for our experienced teachers too, though it is primarily aimed at our new faculty. 

First, the bad news. You will never be able to prepare yourself for every possible teaching situation, since there is literally no end to the strange things that students can (and often, will) say or do with regard to a class. Also, theory goes only thus far. However well you think you may have prepared for every eventuality, when your favorite student leans over and projectile vomits onto your shirt in the middle of class, it’s invariably worse than when you pictured it mentally. However, there is a little good news. As long as you keep a very open mind to any and every potentiality, and use some of the strategies outlined here, you should be able to deal with most – if not all – teaching situations, and defuse many of them before they assume troublesome proportions.

Pre-emptive strikesMany troublesome situations can be defused by dealing with them as soon as, or even before, they start. The natural tendency when fearing that some thorny question or issue may arise in the class is to avoid touching it and hope it never shows up. Often, however, it is better to explicitly introduce the subject yourself and deal with it immediately. Not only will you be the one controlling the situation/subject (by virtue of having introduced it, instead of a student doing so), but it will give the students greater confidence in your ability to plan ahead and have considered reasons for your teaching choices.

InfallibilityIt is always easier for students to complain about the standards you ask them to achieve if you do not live up to them yourself. If you are going to penalize late papers, then try to make sure that you do not return student papers late yourself. If you will penalize absences from class, then try not to miss a class yourself, unless it’s an absolute emergency. You will probably never have to point it out to students, but the fact that you put in as much – and preferably more – effort into the class than them will be apparent and there will be less likelihood of students complaining about their workload. Continue reading