• September 20, 2014

Dealing with Nasty Students: The Sequel

NastyStudentNation.com. Bitter&Longsuffering.edu. WitsEndFaculty.org.

These are some of the Web sites begging to be started, judging from the deluge of e-mail messages that I've received -- and continue to receive -- in response to last month's column about dealing with nasty students. I mean, I knew there was a problem, but I surely didn't realize just how frustrated many faculty members are in dealing with difficult students.

Students are more apathetic, more infected with an unwarranted sense of entitlement, more lacking in basic civility, and more downright rude and abusive than they've ever been in the history of American education. At least that seems to be the conclusion of the vast majority of you who wrote to me, including faculty members, deans, administrators, and even some school teachers.

One adjunct recounted how some of her students, angry at their poor test scores, verbally assaulted her, then stood up and blocked her from leaving the classroom until she muscled past them to safety. Dozens of adjuncts and full-time faculty members told of being "reported" to the higher-ups for giving low grades or assigning demanding projects, and then of being forced to adjust their requirements by those higher-ups. Several teachers in secondary education told of being verbally and physically assaulted by their students -- shoved, called "bitch," "whore," and other names, and pelted with wadded-up paper in the classroom -- and of being required to keep those students in class.

Indeed, the school teachers who wrote to me suggested that faculty members in academe are struggling with our students more than ever because the climate and culture of primary and secondary education has declined in this country, especially in public schools. For a host of reasons, problematic behaviors are tolerated, by both parents and school officials, in today's public schools. Students grow up thinking these behaviors are OK, and they bring all that with them to their first day of college. Then, shocked and enraged when their behavior is challenged by faculty members, they complain to the dean. Since the students have critical mass and tuition dollars to withhold, many deans and administrators bend to their will.

The most common suggestion I got this past month for dealing with problematic behaviors in class is one I didn't mention in last month's column: Call security.

Many of you who wrote recounted horror stories in which an armed officer, or at least the threat of calling such an officer, seemed the only workable solution. One adjunct told of a group of three students who refused to stop talking during lectures, even after the adjunct asked them several times, both in and after class. Finally, after a few warnings during one class period, she ordered them out of the classroom. They refused to leave, and simply sat in their seats, staring her down. She finally stepped out to call security. The students left, escorted by an armed guard. The adjunct discussed the matter extensively with her hiring administrator, who was very supportive, and went on about her business. Two of the students dropped the class, and the remaining one finished out the semester without incident.

Well, that's one way to establish authority in the classroom.

Certainly, in situations of disruptive or downright abusive behaviors, calling security is probably the best option, short of just walking out of the classroom and refusing to show up again unless the problematic students are removed. Of course, walking out and refusing to teach works best when you have tenure or some other safety net of employment, like a contract, which adjuncts don't have.

I have to hope, however, that calling security is a rarely used, last-resort approach. Maybe I'm naïve, but I think that most instances of problematic classroom comments or behaviors can be solved through creative and focused teaching strategies, or through respectful, but firm conversations with the student outside of class.

I know, we shouldn't have to have these conversations in a college environment. Students should have learned basic civility long before they show up in our classrooms. But apparently, some of them haven't. So we can either generate creative ways of dealing with bad behavior or leave the education business. One administrator who wrote to me is doing just that -- leaving academe -- because he believes that we are powerless to do anything about bad students other than improve our "performance" in the classroom and hope it entertains the students well enough to keep them from complaining to the dean. He is surely not alone in that opinion.

Rather than advise them to quit, I would offer the following advice to adjuncts and other faculty members struggling with difficult students.

Document everything. Record every incident and every verbal exchange. Keep a log. Keep hard copies of all e-mail messages or other correspondence between you and the student, as well as all written assignments, especially if those assignments are part of the "issue."

Make sure you have witnesses. If at all possible, try to address the problem in front of the entire class or within earshot of other students or faculty members. You need other people who can corroborate not only the student's bad behavior, but your attempts to deal with it.

I did this once with a particularly volatile student who habitually stayed after class to talk with me, often venting her views about the class readings and about other students. I listened patiently, steered the conversations to a conclusion, but could hardly ever make it out of the classroom without her following me to the parking lot. She scared me a little. So I enlisted the aid of three students in the class who often hung out together in the hallway afterward -- students who had taken my classes before, who I trusted and who knew me well. Without telling them why, I asked them if they would stay in the classroom after class instead of going out in the hallway. They agreed. That way, I could talk with the volatile student in the presence of others, and then conclude the conversation and send her on her way by turning my attention to the other students in the room. It worked, that time at least.

Communicate with your supervisor. Tell your boss about the situation from the beginning, and ask for advice. If the student ever makes a formal complaint about you, it will help that you've been in contact with the administration from the outset.

I say these things from experience. Twice in the recent past I've had students pursue their issues with me to the highest level of university committees and formal hearings. In both instances, the committees voted in my favor, not merely because the students' complaints were ridiculous, but because I had handled the situation from the beginning in conjunction with my supervisors. Get the administration on your side as soon as you can -- let your side of it be the first they hear of it. That, along with consistent documentation and unwavering professionalism, will help cover your tail if the student pursues formal action against you.

Finally, a few faculty members who wrote asked for advice about how to go back into the classroom after you've lashed out at students for being apathetic or unprepared or rude; that is, assuming you've not been fired.

I asked around for input on this question. One full-time colleague of mine told of how she had gotten sharp with her 20 students one day because of their lax participation, telling them they were lazy and ungrateful. She immediately felt bad about it, and told them that she was bringing doughnuts to the next class period as an odd sort of punishment. Every time she called on them and they had nothing significant to say, they had to eat a doughnut. It assuaged her guilt for lashing out at them, it "broke the spell" of languor that had been over the classroom, and it rejuvenated the class for the rest of the semester.

Most of us aren't in a position to do this kind of thing, either because we've got far more than 20 students, or we as adjuncts can't afford to buy doughnuts for all of them, or because we don't want to start a dangerous "food for participation" trend in our classrooms.

I think the bottom line is you have to do what is consistent with your personality, your own professional and personal ethics, and your rapport with the students. That's something only you can gauge.

But consider these options after you've "snapped" and lashed out: Don't do anything. Just go back into the classroom, resume your normal professional stance, and proceed. This can communicate that you're on a "clean slate" with them. No residue of hostility remains. If you feel that your rapport with the students has been ruptured a bit, you could go in and briefly apologize for the harsh language or attitude. Your goal is to restore rapport without minimizing whatever they did or said to bring about your outburst.

Whatever you choose to do, don't let students off the hook if their behavior was truly objectionable. Like it or not, we have to maintain some sort of authority in the classroom, or else the whole thing is a wash. Too much groveling will leave you looking weaker than ever.

If all this fails, you could always start up one of those Web sites I mentioned above. Misery loves company, and you'd find plenty of it.

Jill Carroll, an adjunct lecturer in Texas, writes a monthly column for Career Network on adjunct life and work. She is author of a self-published book, How to Survive as an Adjunct Lecturer: An Entrepreneurial Strategy Manual. Her Web site is http://www.adjunctsolutions.com and her e-mail address is adjunctsolutions@aol.com

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