Managing the Student From Heck

Maria Shine Stewart provides some advice for dealing with particularly difficult students in the classroom.

August 22, 2017

I bet you are pondering this headline with care. Perhaps you are thinking: “no, it’s not heck when a student is challenging or uncooperative. It might be more like purgatory.”

Some readers may wonder, “That never happens to me. No one ruffles my feathers, is uncooperative, relates in an oppositional way, shows rude or otherwise difficult behaviors, or reflects indifference.” Perhaps if you are thinking that, you have knowledge to spare (there’s plenty of room at the end of the column) or possess agape in abundance -- or at least ebullient goodwill.

I had a student from heck recently despite the carefully worded syllabus, the sequential curriculum, my passion about teaching the course and decades of classroom and group experience. This student, the Heckler, might have a learning or a personality issue or even anxiety or just what could be called bad habits. In any case, the behaviors were not only challenging for me, but I am afraid they disrupted the class dynamic more than a few times. Students spoke to me about it, and I had a nagging feeling after most classes that I was not steering the ship.

What did I do to make the situation (unintentionally) worse? I was unprepared for how the behavior would expand exponentially. If I were keeping a behavioral chart, the trajectory would be downward. More often than not, most of the more demanding students I have taught do, in fact, settle down as their confidence builds, questions are answered and they hit their stride. So my own lack of efficacy with a highly resistant -- or driven? -- student took me by surprise.

In short: this student wanted to rush every assignment, eschewing writing instructions and seeming to only partially listen to oral discussion, never made up the first week’s work or grasped the syllabus guidelines, and even attempted a mutiny of peers to cut a project.

There was some good news, though. It was an assignment only imagined. But the student’s reactivity included approaching, desk by desk, each peer to ask if they would join together to approach me collectively. Some bit. Others shook their heads.

To use a musical analogy, the effect feels like one member of the chorus loudly singing out of tune. Or a soloist playing one of the horns in the brass section off the beat and not yielding to the conductor. Kindness is important, but so is tough love. I wonder if a synthesis of tact and tenacity is possible.

Here are some approaches I considered -- and you might, as well, if you have to deal with the student from heck.

  • Give the heckler a place of importance. This may seem like a reward, but it’s really redirection. I could let the Heckler operate the clicker on the next planned presentation, for example. This can get at least one hand off the omnipresent phone as well as offering the person a bit of the limelight.
  • Defer the off-track question. Tricky. Maybe start by complimenting the question. (Otherwise, the strategy can make the squeaky wheel even squeakier.) If your blood pressure is already rising, your mouth is getting dry and your cortisol is prompting you to fight or flee, a cooling-off period may have merit.
  • Get support. These encounters make a teacher, whether new to the profession or seasoned, feel alone. And we risk feeling doubly abandoned if colleagues don’t get it or believe they don’t have such issues. (They just might, down the road. Every human being has buttons that can be pushed.) So I let my department head and dean know what was going on, because I felt the class slipping away and I, frankly, was in distress. I asked for tips on what they would do, as the boundaries were being steadily pushed farther and farther. From arriving late to leaving early. Texting, even talking on the phone in class. Not following instructions, showing me work and then expressing outrage at my comments. Be prepared, though. Different people may advise different approaches, ranging from “Read that person the riot act” to “Get to know the student better” to “Reassert the terms of the syllabus.” You will have to do something -- not too harsh, not too soft, just right.
  • Don’t rehash or replay the distress in your head. Your spare time is precious. You need to recharge. The scenario you are facing may feel like rejection or insubordination, but try your hardest not to personalize, as you are not really the enemy. Students bring behaviors from the outside world, from entertainment, even from championship wrestling. Consider savoring the memory of students who are surprising you and themselves in a positive way. If you’re a perfectionist (many people in academe are), accepting limitations takes practice. Even with butterflies in your stomach or feelings of frustration, chances are you are still reaching many students.
  • Rally on-task troops (more military imagery). Be explicit about your expectations of students, and repeat them. Motivate. Reinforce. From day one, you can find ways to promote the three C’s, which could stand for many things but I propose: camaraderie, collaboration and cooperation. It is not fair in a classroom or a family when others cannot get their own needs met because of a demanding individual who sees the course as strictly a you-me dyad. My general rule is that when I’m in a group of six, I get one-sixth of the attention, on average. If I exceed that, I need a good reason. When I have been in a group of five, 20, 100 and the same three people are front and center, it does not feel good. I made this rule up for myself while pondering the mysteries of the pie chart.
  • Attempt compassion. Many years ago I wrote this in a poem: “I will give living backwards a try.” It’s not a particularly graceful line, but it means reversing the timeline. When, decades ago, a difficult student died a few months after class was over, the entire campus grieved, and it also put the whole student-teacher encounter into a different framework. I wish there had been no funeral to attend, but I will never forget the faces of the students who were there. Compassion, for the other party, for one’s self, and for the whole messy business of teaching -- easy some days, a struggle on others -- can help all of us grow.

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Maria Shine Stewart teaches writing and is a licensed professional counselor. This is part of a column, “A Kinder Campus,” that explores human relations in the academy. It offers anecdotal and research support for the idea that when we work kinder, we work better. Workplace morale, civility and collegiality count. Goodwill is free, so stock up and spread it around. Topic suggestions are welcome. Contact [email protected].


Maria Shine Stewart

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