This post is meant as a management primer for newer college teachers, or a refresher for veteran faculty who wish to re-tool their approach to building trusting classroom relationships.
It was first delivered as a 40-minute workshop at the June 2010 Lilly Conference in Bethesda, Maryland, with the title Taming the Unruly Elephant: Tools and Attitudes for Successful Classroom Management, and later that summer in a 2-hour interactive format, featuring group activities, in July 2010 at San Diego University. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org about doing workshops elsewhere.
Mano Singham, Director of the case Western Reserve Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education, has suggested there are two ways to deal with behavior challenges:
(1) when possible, prevent problems from happening and (2) resolve or manage problems that do happen. Five principles, briefly elaborated below but each worthy of detailed examination, form the foundation of effective classroom management.
The best strategies are proactive: things you can do easily to nurture your relationships with students, connect them to each other, and thereby prevent behavior problems from arising at all. The key: create a calm, orderly classroom climate right at the beginning and establish a friendly, trusting personal relationship with students. The perception of trouble forms through the intersection of two personalities; what appears a minor irritation to one faculty member may make teaching very difficult for another. So, while there is no one-size-fits-all solution, five principles help guide us.
Prevention: Principle 1 Develop Positive Relationships and Trust
Build trust and empathy, in every possible way; in doing so you will make problems far less likely to happen. The majority of small conflicts evaporate when you are trusted. How to do this?Here are a few ideas:
A -- Learn names; meet students outside class early; find out more about them. A vast array of suggestions for how to do these things can be found in an internet search, or developed in a workshop exchange. (This applies for all suggestions below.)
B -- Make coming for office-hours help a routine and expectation; maybe even make an initial visit a formal assignment.
C -- Know your non-negotiable bottom lines, but: Discuss expectations with students. Be clear, but don’t just list in the syllabus. When they talk about it, they own it. Thus:
---- What can I reasonably expect of you?
---- What can you reasonably expect of me?
---- What is reasonable to expect of classmates?
Prevention: Principle 2 Get Regular Feedback about Your Teaching
Self-assessment of teaching is the single most important source of trust and practice-improving feedback; it defuses anger about issues you can’t control, and it brings those you can control to your attention. Too few faculty do it; be an exception. Getting feedback builds trust, provides a roadmap for improvement of practice, and ends end-of-term-evaluation bombs. How to do it?
A -- Collect feedback data regularly, so that it becomes an expected routine. Never wait until the last week of class. COnsult print and web resources, or write me for specific suggestions (for which I do not have space here.) Ask colleagues and faculty developers how they do this, expect some puzzled looks from colleagues, and forge ahead.
B -- Feed the data, good and bad, back to students. Acknowledge all feedback, whether you can act on it or not. Some folks do this in writing as a handout; some do it verbally. Don’t omit the negatives.
C -- Act to change what you can, consistent with the overall best interests of the class. This demonstrates your learner-centered intention.
Respond or Resolve: Principle 1 React to a challenge only if you face a real emergency. When non-emergency: think, plan and respond later.
Reactive behavior from an instructor often feeds more objectionable behavior, inviting conflict escalation and negativity. Instead:
A -- Document, think and plan first. Move to action only when you are ready.
B -- Don’t refuse, but defuse. Defer talk with an angry student. buy time to cool your head, cool an upset student, listen, think, plan, ask for counsel or bring in a third party. Avoid public confrontation, which can escalate to public humiliation.
Example Language: I can see how upset you are. I agree we need to have this discussion, but not here on class time. Would you like to talk after class, in office hours, or before tomorrow’s class?
Respond and Resolve: Principle 2: Don’t Ignore, Do Respond Thoughtfully to Boundary Violations
Recurring anger or irritation usually signals that a boundary has been crossed. Don’t react, but don’t ignore. Don’t try to make rules that cover everything. Consider, plan and respond. Ignoring inappropriate behavior (in hope it will go away) gives tacit consent for that same behavior to continue or to escalate. Guidelines:
A -- Know what you want to achieve. A good action plan can develop only when your end-point outcomes are very clear. If you’re not clear, defer all action until you are.
B -- State, re-state or re-set the boundary; plan wording carefully. Choose a best time for approach, one that will least distract and upset others. Do this in private when possible. Public confrontation humiliates people and damages relationships.
C -- Consult with peers as part of your planning, if their experience might help. What happened to you has probably happened to others. Silence is your enemy.
D -- Script and rehearse if necessary.
E -- Plan and explain boundary-cross consequences—what you will do next.
F-- Avoid threatening language, posture, tone or gestures. You don’t need to sound angry to make a point.
This was used, just as written, with an adult student who was verbally harassing a teacher, and delivered quietly when students were working independently. The second part was delivered out of view or hearing of others.
- Jim, please follow me to the hallway (do not pause for an answer; get up and go; Jim will follow; this makes the intervention as private as possible)
- When you complain publicly about the work I’m giving you or about my behavior, you affect the learning of others and negatively affect the class culture. Say anything you wish in private, but please (or I expect you to) keep the negativity out of class.
- Can you agree to this? (If s/he says “no,” explain what steps you’ll take: I’m going to assume I’ll get your cooperation. But if this behavior reappears, I’ll ask the (dean, department chair or counseling staff) to discuss this with us together.
Respond or Resolve: Principle 3 Develop an Emergency Toolbox
Consider what might go wrong if all preventive measures fail. What are worst-case scenarios? Think through what you might do if one of them happened.
What’s In a Toolbox? Here are some ideas.
Know what to do and have a plan for when you are threatened or may be in real danger.
This varies by campus and should align with your university’s student handbook or discipline protocols. Know and keep handy emergency numbers; carry your cell phone with those numbers programmed in; get to know the responders.
Document, to keep facts straight and to avoid blind-siding a supervisor. In advance, plan a supervisor backup with whom you can file reports as needed. (This person might be a department chair, or a colleague.) Recording significant incidents in writing helps keep memory intact, should back-reference ever be made.
Develop peer relationships for counsel with more experienced faculty you trust. Silence is your enemy. Asking for help is a strength.
Develop consulting and referral relationships with student support personnel. This includes counselors, advisors, or other staff to whom students can be referred.
Crisis in the Air? There are times that the mood or buzz in a class tells you something is wrong. When you read this signal, whether the background crisis is real or imagined, there’s something more important than teaching content. Stop to ask students: What’s happening? Then, listen to them.
This post is a simple guide.
Detailed discussion in small groups, such as interaction planned for a workshop, commonly result in important insights. In turn, those insights can become the foundation of a personal plan.
My permanent residence is in Shelburne, Vermont.
I travel often to the New York City and Washington, D.C. areas,
and to the west coast: Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego.
To inquire about the possibility of a live workshop in your area
please write me
Michael W. Dabney
702 Wake Robin Drive
Shelburne, VT 05482
or call 802-985-0088