Office of the Faculty Teaching Fellow

Classroom Disruption - Management Tips

Students, like everyone else, sometimes feel angry, sad, or disgruntled; and sometimes manipulate or act out—occasionally in destructive ways.    Sometimes teacher behavior is a cause; often it is unrelated.   A student might pick a verbal fight with a professor in view of other students.  Badly managed, this can draw in other students; and may damage the instructor’s effectiveness.   From a former secondary administrator, here are some tips:

  • Document problems in detail.  If you use a spiral binder as a journal-record, you can also document there ideas for improving instruction.
  •  Nurture a supportive relationship with your supervisor:  program chair, department chair, dean.  In some cases, you may choose to file a factual report of a classroom issue with that person in case of later need; that individual then is never blindsided.  If a student threatens to “go to an official,” don’t respond negatively.  But document the threat and report it to your supervisor, along with details of the incident.
  • Never argue with students.  You will probably lose.  Instead, invite civil discussion in private.  Example:  Brian, I’m concerned that you are successful, and I’d like to discuss this with you, but not in this setting.   Can you meet [suggest a day, time and place].  If you prefer, contact me to by email to set up an office meeting. Important:   Invite the meeting as privately as possible, perhaps asking the student to accompany you to the hallway outside when others are engaged in an activity.  [I just say, in a pleasant voice: please follow me and then I move without awaiting response.  This rarely fails to elicit movement; then we speak out of others’ hearing.]
  •  Avoid statements to students that could be construed as put-downs.  Example:  A student complains the day before an exam of not understanding a concept.  Avoid:  Why did you wait until now?   Instead:  Indeed, it is late to be seeking help, when you have so many other obligations and I do, too.  How could this be done better next time you need help?
  •  Set boundaries, in private on disruptive class behavior.  [Do not do this inside a class.]  Example:  Brian, when you [describe the specific statement or act] it engages others unproductively and prevents me from teaching others.  I cannot allow this behavior.  You are the judge of disruptive behavior.
  •  If an offered meeting is refused, or if behavior continues, get a third party involved.  This might be your department chair, a colleague, a counselor, or Rev. Burke.  The presence of a credible outsider sends a message that you mean business.  Get a desist agreement from the student with the third party as a witness.  Other options:  the student could transfer to another section or be transferred.  If there is persistent incivility or the Code of Student Conduct is being violated, refer the matter to Dean of Students.

Sometimes there’s a negative “vibe” rumbling from the whole class, and there’s no obvious cause.  One veteran instructor stops the class, describes the vibe.  She invites:   Talk to me about what’s happening.  This defuses tension, opens conversation.

Threat:  If you perceive a threat or are threatened by a student, it’s important to document.  Here’s how:   Call security (downtown, 753-7304; HL, 236-3515).  Request that an officer bring you an Incident Report, and complete the report.  Incidents are evaluated and appropriate action taken.   Faculty or staff action in reporting may lead to help for a student who needs it, or to disciplinary action if the student code of conduct has been violated, or to intervention by civil authorities.