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.

Be cool, calm and consistentMany difficult situations begin as minor issues which get blown out of proportion by the reactions of either student or teacher, and often both. Whatever the situation, however stressful or worrying it may be, it will literally never help you to either get particularly excited about it or to show that you are. When you find yourself losing your cool, step back and take a few deep breaths, and remind yourself that this too will pass. There’s nothing that you will face that millions of teachers have not already faced and survived. In unexpectedly difficult situations, consistency is very important. If you treat a similar problem one way today and another tomorrow (esp. if they involve different students), you betray not only a lack of control but also some degree of unfairness. Keep calm, make a decision, and run with it.

HonestyFew things make students lose respect for teachers more than the awareness that a teacher is lying to them or making things up as they go along. Try to be as honest as you can with your students. If you don’t know the answer to a question, tell the student so and promise to check on it. If you are not happy with someone’s behavior, talk to the person (privately). If there’s a problem about some aspect of the class, talk about it rather than hoping it goes away. Your students will appreciate you the more for it.

Never make it personalA large number of teaching problems arise from teachers and students developing a personal dislike for each other. If you find a student has a personal problem with you and it is due to a fault of yours, amend it. If not, don’t worry about it. Teaching is not a popularity contest. And if you dislike a student for some reason, don’t let it affect your teaching, and especially not your academic assessment of the student. You are not there to grade a student’s personality. If your dislike for the student stems from behavior that disrupts the class for the other students, then call the student aside and talk.

Thou shalt not assume – Many problematic teaching situations arise simply because someone makes an assumption and acts on it without checking to see if it’s true. Avoid making assumptions in the classroom without incontrovertible evidence. That student who glares at you constantly and ‘obviously’ hates you may simply be concentrating on your words. The student who is completely disinterested and evidently about to drop out may simply be struggling with the material and too shy to ask for help. Always talk to your students instead of assuming things about them.

Matching expectationsMany problems also arise due to the divergence in the expectations of teachers and students. Try to be absolutely clear to your students about what you expect from them and why. Similarly, find out from your students what expectations they are coming to the class with, and explain which ones are justified and which ones are unwarranted. Once you have done the above, the structure and direction of the class should not provide any unpleasant surprises for the students or you.

Have a sense of humor/perspectiveYou will always encounter some difficult teaching situations in your college career. Having a sense of humor will always help you get through them more successfully. Many awkward teaching moments can be defused by seeing the humor in the situation, laughing about it and getting your students to do the same. As for perspective, never let your problems overwhelm you. You are one person teaching one class in one university in one country on one planet in one solar system in one galaxy in one universe. Your teaching problems aren’t that big a deal. Really.

Call for backupHowever alone you may feel in the classroom, esp. when facing a difficult situation, remember that you are not alone. You have the entire superstructure of an academic department behind you, with all sorts of support, whether it be in the form of sample teaching material, colleagues facing the same things you are, more experienced teachers who can give you advice, professors in charge of your teaching program whom you can go to, etc. Be aware of your resources and use them as and when needed.

Addendum: In the interests of trying to come up with something that would be applicable to a wide range of teaching situations I have relied on general suggestions above, which, in turn, leads to a lack of specificity. So I’m interested in hearing about individual examples of difficult teaching situations, whether you want to share how you dealt with it and/or ask how someone else might.

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One thought on “Dealing with difficult situations in the classroom

  1. Reblogged this on teachingandlearningatmsu and commented:
    This post is particularly useful for new faculty or for faculty who have experienced some struggle with class dynamics and student resistance. It aligns quite well with the tenets of critical pedagogy and showing compassion and caring for students as a way to engage them with their learning. I recommend that, along with these guidelines, you read Ira Shor’s Empowering Education (U. of Chicago Press, 1992).

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