Liz Fox is a graduate instructor in the Writing Program. She has taught Basic Writing, College Writing and she is currently a Resoruce Center staff mentor.
“Can I be really honest with you about something? I’m only in this class, because it’s required and I have to take it!” – 112 Student, First day of class
Welcome to the unifying attitude of every difficult student I’ve encountered so far. As teachers, we need to be honest: there are students who challenge us, make us miserable, make us laugh with the very shenanigans we tried to pull as undergrads, and who make us doubt our ability as educators. And if we’re being “really honest,” these are the students who force us to grow the most as teachers.
The biggest lesson I learned about dealing with difficult students came when I least expected it, in my fifth semester teaching for the Writing Program. I had a student whose animosity toward the 112 gen ed requirement was misdirected at me. Each class he arrived barely on time, with his lunch, and with his hair in such disarray that he had clearly just rolled out of bed. His overall attitude was that I was wasting his time and he couldn’t be bothered with my class. He would complain about grades and quibble over first draft comments. I let this behavior slide; on a day-to-day basis he never did anything so egregious that it warranted calling him into my office for a meeting. I wasn’t intimidated by the confrontation — I’d confronted students before.
My second semester teaching I had to meet with a student. On the first day of class he made it clear to everyone that he was a JUNIOR and that meant he didn’t really need this class anymore, but his advisor was FORCING him to take it. This student dominated each discussion and although he had rich contributions, he presented his thoughts in such a combative manner that it was difficult for other students to respond. When I met with this student, I told him he could either help the class or hinder it – and at present, he was hindering it. He needed to stop or it would affect his final grade regardless of his writing skills. He apologized and promised that it would not happen again. From this point on, my Junior was a model student: he would pair himself with students who were clearly struggling in the class during peer review and in class discussions would volunteer the seed of an idea and allow his classmates to run with it.
Another semester, I met a different brand of difficult. This student was there to blatantly make trouble, distract the others from doing their work, and clown around. When other students began to follow her lead, I brought 15 copies of the UMass Code of Student Conduct to class and we discussed the Code of Conduct as a text. In our discussion, I slipped in that anyone who did not comply with this code during class would be asked to leave immediately and be marked absent for the day.
Clearly, I have no problem dealing with the difficult students, so why did I not intervene with this particular student? Because I thought he was only affecting himself and at most, it was only annoying to me. I thought that ignoring his asides and not giving him the attention he sought would be the best way to diffuse him and I ignored him the entire semester only to find out I was wrong.
I was surprised to read in one Unit Five Reflection essay that the student whom annoyed me was the only thing the writer disliked about my class. From reading his classmate’s writing, I learned that his behavior did not just affect me. His demeanor permeated my classroom and although he was not overtly disruptive as other problem students are, his smoldering attitude was palpable and interfered with the class as much as one who acts out.
In hindsight, I realize that I should have stepped in earlier in the semester and done something. I learned from this student that in a classroom community, my job as a teacher is not only to educate, but also to ensure that no one hinders a student’s ability to learn in my classroom.