Teaching Today

Try Meeting in the Middle

Will teacher-student conflict yield a mutiny -- even a public relations nightmare? Maria Shine Stewart shares a dozen tips that may help you reach better outcomes.

April 16, 2019

Not that long ago, we heard of an instructor-student deadlock on a San Antonio campus in which the professor had police escort a student from class. That story, complete with a video that went viral, rang warning bells for me as a teacher who wants to foster a stable and fulfilling environment. I was also concerned as a lifelong student and as a person hoping to shape a kinder campus locally and beyond.

In an ideal world, teachers do the best they can and students take responsibility for their own learning. That’s simple, right? Not necessarily. But perhaps by striving to move toward an envisioned middle -- through skillful compromise, willing collaboration and growing compassion -- we can avoid, or at least improve, some polarized situations. Here are some tips to consider when trying to make that happen.

Tip No. 1: Strive for order. The ability to sustain optimal climate in a classroom -- or any other work setting -- is not innate. Introverts need, even crave, quiet. Extroverts thrive on the rough and tumble. Every classroom has both -- and ambiverts, too, who can straddle both worlds.

Factions of whispering "pairs" who are disengaged from the group can disrupt a sense of wholeness. Retreat into phones does the same. No matter how compelling the content or how engaging the leader, some people fidget, jockey for power, roam off task and more.

I’ve written about committees before -- with humor -- because social skills of give and take are such serious work. Psychologist Bruce Tuckman offered the rhyming words forming, storming, norming, performing, adjourning to identify stages of group development. If you doubt his observations, try going to a brand-new group and see what happens. If it’s smooth from the get-go, email me. In the meantime, do not forget you are group leader. Sustain your nonverbals of authority, not an air of domination or of submissiveness. State expectations. Repeat.

Tip No. 2: Acknowledge clashing styles. Yet the opposite is also true -- a paradox my professor of Victorian literature would assert -- though I never quite understood it. I prefer to think in terms of a dialectical dynamic or, if you prefer, a continuum. What one teacher feels is insubordination may be what a counselor might interpret as a student’s resistance, easily confused. What a student interprets as a teacher’s distance -- "she is so cold" -- may be simply a teaching persona. I learned that as a student when the obvious “tyrant” in front of the class was actually a personable soul during office hours or at a campus gathering. A seasoned teacher is neither czar nor servant; a willing student is neither passive nor an entitled customer.

Yet those polarizing extremes characterize our worst projections.

Athletes, soldiers, dancers, singers, animal trainers and social scientists all understand that attention is requisite to receiving a signal. Nonverbal behaviors offer wordless monologue. I tell my students I can read the cartoon bubbles above their heads, no matter what they say. “Bored.” “Worried about essay.” And as in most cartoons, these are neat and legible and in all caps.

Tip No. 3: Note dangers of the phone zone. Although students, like most people, may not be yet sold on human cloning, some behaviors suggest otherwise. “I can be both active online and attentive in class in real time!” Sadly, that defies our brain capacity and what we once called manners and logic. Speakers are supposed to give eye contact and listeners encourage with their eyes, right? Electronic tools support but don’t replace us. Unless we let them. I have found some success in carefully planned use of phones as a tool.

Tip No. 4: Learn from others. Over a decade back, I took a seminar using Teaching and the Case Method by Louis B. Barnes, C. Roland Christenson and Abby J. Hansen. It was filled with riveting student-teacher dilemmas. What would I do in such situations? Not since sneaking my sisters’ ethics textbook was I so captivated. I loved hearing what my colleagues had to say, as well.

“Of course, nothing that outrageous like that would ever happen to us,” some insisted. “We would never be so [rude, careless] …”

No, it’s far more likely that each of us will screw up in our own distinct way.

Tip No. 5: Prepare for surprise. If I had one poem to take on a desert island it would be Alice Walker’s “Expect Nothing.” She writes:

"Expect nothing.
Live frugally on surprise …
Tame wild disappointment
With caress unmoved and cold
Make of it a parka
For your soul."

Pack that parka. All of us need one. When I had a class with a powerful undertow, I wished for a daily video to prove that, as captain, I was doing everything I knew to stay afloat. Once grades were in, I wanted to forget -- but a serious illness then brought me lots of time to remember. And seethe. And reflect. And cry. After all, from my first moment in front of the room in 1982, I discovered that teaching was a group effort. I still carry some scars from the journey.

Tip No. 6: Dont take it personally! We all have heard that unhelpful adage. Nevertheless, out-of-the-box behaviors can be attributed to dorm or other norms.

Case in point: a small cluster of students was sometimes raucous in midday English class. Often entering late, the gentlemen slouched, yawned and stretched, perhaps too full from lunch. My young son relished hearing about their antics: “Class has started, and one is still throwing his little ball up and down in the air. His friend is still reading the comics. His other friend, even later, rushes in with a melting ice cream cone. When he can’t juggle the journal entry, too, he stuffs the whole cone in his mouth!” And this clique would strive to push their desks away from the rest of us.

Breaking through such norms isn’t easy. Old friends are reassuring. If we are lucky, we all have a pack or two for comfort. Some movers and shakers on the campus running in their own might realize this -- and that with their in-group they have left many of us out.

Tip No. 7: Release the outcome, good or bad. “They like you,” an observer said. I deflected her compliment, mentioning the bond within this particular class.

“That may be so,” she insisted. “But they like you. The moment you arrived, they gathered around you in a circle. You were like the mother duck.”

Our writing class was at the campus art gallery to write. This perspective fueled me through the end of the term. Gently shake off worry and even praise. Release even the sense that you should be able to reach everyone. Some moments of grace will blossom.

Tip No. 8: Bring along what steadies you. I remember the shocked face of a colleague soon after one of her students “lost it” upon receiving a low grade. His outburst also frightened his peers. Thereafter, this professor put the number of campus security on the board and instructed the class that they, too, could call it in a crisis.

That steadied her own reaction in a remote location with little support staff around. Despite the temporary dimming of embers -- or idealism -- this colleague still was a glowing success. Though some days’ results tilt toward low or high extremes, they do not solely define us.

Tip No. 9: Adjust the listen-talk ratio. That is ratio, not radio. But buttons and dials could help some of us, as well as a self-mute button. Listen, talk, listen. Doesn’t that feel great whether you are shy or outgoing? Middle ground -- even common ground -- is worth finding.

Tip No. 10: Choose the best time to confront. It was 8 a.m. in Adolescent Psychology, with some students barely older. As midterm approached, there was panic. There is no study guide for the test! The lectures dont match the book! General Alarum.

As the teacher entered cheerfully, a student raised his hand: "The test is coming, and we don't know what's going to be on it. All you do is talk, but what you say has nothing to do with the readings."

The professor was flustered but explained how texts and lectures may diverge. He said that the test would be based on the book -- in fact, the publisher had provided questions. He ended his remarks with, "I don't appreciate this."

The student said: “What do you mean, this?”

“This comment of yours in front of everyone,” the teacher said. “If you have problems with what is going on in this class, see me privately.”

To my surprise, another student raised her voice to her peer: “You do not speak for me! No one speaks for me!”

Maybe Mercury was in retrograde. Maybe it was a full moon. Maybe there is never an ideal time to confront a teacher or a student. But prepare for emotion and make sure that goodwill -- the aim of this column, "A Kinder Campus," from day one -- persists, as it can help buffer conflict.

Ah, conflict. When that would emerge in my childhood home, my sisters and I would retreat to the front closet filled with down blankets, bedspreads and winter coats: a womb of a room. If you ever find such a place in academe, let me know. I’d like to hide there again some time.

Tip No. 11: Give permission for one bad call. Slips of the tongue and pen happen. A middle school principal shouting that he wished aliens would land from outer space and remove the whole class was a bad call. My grade school teacher’s tearing up of everyone’s assignments due to a few chronic misbehavers was a bad call. The student who yelled at me about her B-minus grade made a bad call. She returned contritely after the weekend; her parents had told her to apologize to me.

Tip No. 12: Kindle hope. I am working on hope myself, derailed by a difficult class one year ago and recently reminded of it though the trauma had retreated to the back porch of my mind. I had then, and subsequently had, other classes with greater equanimity, but I am human and remember the pain.

If you hit a rough patch, perhaps you can find a colleague who cares. But if no one on your campus has your back, get support outside of academe.

I also try to find hope in each new student. It's true: there may be a time when I have had enough of rudeness or too much disappointment. Nevertheless, the message on our campus gates should not be “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” On a kinder campus, there should always be hope.


Maria Shine Stewart is a licensed professional counselor and adjunct lecturer in writing.


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