Friday, November 2, 2012

Preventing and Responding to Uncivil Classroom Behavior

I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.

It is helpful to talk about these problems and hear what strategies other instructors use.
[Then] you don’t feel like you’re the only one.

Executive Summary:  This message offers resources about classroom incivility and support for preventing and dealing with disruptive classroom behavior.   It is meant to prompt reflection.   

Behavior Problems in College?  In forty years of teaching, I never had a student refuse to talk outside class—until October 2004.  On a student paper (inside other comments) I asked (politely and privately) for a brief meeting.  In return, I got an angry explosion—and very public, in-my-face—challenge:  All you need to know is in what I wrote.  I don’t need to meet with you, I’m busy and I’m not about to do it.  (I’ve omitted expletives.)  Another student responded to a benign, private expression of concern (about attendance, in e-mail) by advising me to butt out of her business.  Whoa!  Judging from behavior I’ve seen in classroom visits (and an increasing number of anecdotal reports from colleagues) out-of-bounds behavior is unhappily common if not openly discussed.   It’s happening at universities everywhere, and not only in freshman classes.  

We work hard to create a healthy atmosphere for teaching and learning.  A single disaffected, disengaged (or downright nasty) student can disrupt a carefully crafted climate of trust and collegiality and push us off balance.  Some issues (e.g. cell phones and side talk) are trivial but irritating.  Verbal assault and other disruptive behaviors can be much more serious.  All deserve attention, and how we respond to these things is noticed by students.  Solutions are suggested by twenty years of scholarship, and we begin to address the problem by acknowledging it is real.  The problems vary; there is no fits-all solution.  An excellent, compact review and strategies that prompt preventive reflection on your teaching practice, can be found at
Combatting Classroom Misconduct (Incivility) with Bills of Rights
(Linda Nilson and Susan Jackson, Clemson University)  
(Temple University)
(University of South Carolina)

My personal suggestions     I began to write about incivility in 2004, for my own faculty colleagues at Hawaii Pacific University.  My goal was to open conversation, for the culture then was one of silence.  They began to talk, first to each other and then to me.  Over a year or two, the culture shifted dramatically.   Here are some key ideas:

Keep your balance.    With few exceptions, most student behavior problems—even verbal attacks—are not about you.  This can be hard to believe when someone is attacking you verbally.  Don’t take it personally, keep your perspective intact, and delay response so you have time to reflect and consult others.

Collect feedback from your classes early and often.   Unvoiced concerns can be a major spoiler of class culture, and they can fester into attack mode on end-of-term evaluations.   Early feedback gives you an opportunity to re-shape instruction or approach when practical.  Perhaps more than any other behavior, simple self-assessment of teaching (such as Start-Stop-Continue) communicates your caring about the student experience.  This strategy also helps students understand they and their peers have different but complementary strengths in their methods of learning.  Getting started is easy, and the results deeply satisfying:   How-to strategies are here:  Assessment of Teaching   Don’t wait until the end of a term to do this.  Start early, and be certain to act constructively on the feedback when circumstances make change appropriate.

Co-create expectations with your classes.  Doing this is a major departure from rules-in-the syllabus, and while not for everyone it does generate major commitment to civil behavior from your students.  Read about this, and about how-to-do-it,  in the Nilson/Jackson article linked above, or at  

Model positivity in conflict; be careful about language   You will be seen as direct, but accessible and positive when you use appropriate language.  Avoid  language that might be interpreted, even when you didn’t intend so, as public demeaning or shaming.   When possible, set boundaries in private.  When student behavior sets off anger, frustration or shock, you may feel like striking out, but avoid reactive behavior.  But do tell the student, as privately as possible:  I’m excited by your passion and intensity about this, but expressing it in public is not appropriate, and harms my relationship with other students, who look to me for leadership.  We need to continue this conversation in private.  Then invite a decision:  When and where would this work best for you?  Even when a question could have been answered by consulting your syllabus, restrain negative comments.  Doing so will pay off in long term trust.

Develop knowledge of your institution’s referral resources.   There are times when students need direction to campus mental health resources.  (1) Find out what those resources are, and (2) make proactive contact with them to learn the best ways of referral.  (3) Carry a campus security contact number and learn from your supervisor when to make such a contact.  (4) Build a relationship with your supervisor or department chair; support is important when you find yourself in trouble.   File a proactive written report with this person for documentation when you get unusual student behavior in class.

Consult more experienced colleagues, or your teaching-center personnel.  For behavior or other challenges, other faculty members are a rich source of support.     Where I worked in Hawaii, faculty were reluctant to discuss student behavior for fear of being seen as wimpy or witless.  But veterans usually welcome requests for support and have long ago solved what seems intractable to newer instructors.

The internet is rich with resources, many of them at other teaching center sites.  For instance:
Classroom Management Tips
Student Behavior Problems
Collaborative Syllabus 
University of Texas
Discipline Pitfalls in the College Classroom  

Contact me for help:   I am retired and live in Vermont,  but am easily contacted by email:   Explain your problem in brief, and if possible provide a telephone number and hours when you can be reached.   In email, alternatively, we can arrange for you to call me, or to connect via Skype.  There is no cost for this; I enjoy being helpful.  On occasion I do two-hour interactive workshops on classroom management;  for this work there is a modest honorarium (plus travel and lodging if I am not near your area, which can be waived if I am traveling there anyway).

Michael W. Dabney (retired teaching center director, Hawaii Pacific University, Honolulu)
702 Wake Robin Drive Shelburne VT 05482 (best contact)
cell: 808-781-3294 home: 802-985-0088