Managing Difficult Teaching Situations

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Most of the time, discipline is not an issue in a college classroom. Students attend college voluntarily to learn thinking skills that will be invaluable to them in their future careers. However, sometimes we are faced with difficult students or problem situations.

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When a difficult situation does occur, we are often caught off guard. It’s a good idea to prepare in advance for how you would handle various classroom management issues, so that you can be prepared if they occur. Think through possible scenarios and how you might address them.

Strategies for dealing with difficult teaching situations

The HEART approach is a useful acronym for remembering a good approach to dealing with students:

  • Hear what the student is saying
  • Empathize with student’s situation
  • Assess what the student’s needs are
  • Refer to campus resources
  • Tell the appropriate campus official or department

How to respond if a student displays inappropriate behavior

  • Don’t ignore the problem
  • Arrange a private time to talk, away from classmates but in a semi-public setting if safety is an issue
  • Be supportive and respectful
  • Don’t get into arguments
  • Don’t get caught up in their emotional state, it is not your job to counsel students
  • Acknowledge their distress
  • Ask how you can be helpful, provide options for the student or ask them to come up with options
  • Don’t label or diagnose them
  • Assess for any possible self-harm
  • Make referrals if needed – walk with them to the counseling center if needed

An example

During Instructor Green’s class, one student repeatedly interrupts with oppositional and negative comments. The comments are confrontational in nature and seem aimed at undermining Instructor Green’s role in the classroom. Using the recommendations above, Instructor Green should not let this behavior continue for more than a class session or two before asking to meet with the student outside of class. When meeting with the student, Instructor Green should not get emotional or get into arguments, rather using language such as “here’s what I’m observing…. and I’m concerned because…”  Instructor Green should ask to hear the concerns of the student, “what’s going on?” and listen without judging the student. It’s possible that there are root causes of the issue that can be addressed. Instructor Green should offer to help the student by asking how she can help, or offering some suggestions, ranging from: let’s agree to disagree on this issue, bring your concerns to me privately when you have them, I’ll consider your suggestions for doing different assignments (if appropriate), there is an Honor Code you need to abide by, or even, dropping the class. The student is given the power and opportunity to make a responsible choice.

What to do if nothing else is working

DU has created a Faculty and Staff Red Folder to serve as a quick reference guide regarding student behavior warning signs and available support resources. If you did not receive one and would like a hard copy, contact Student Outreach and Support.

  • Manage any physical dangers immediately. In the rare chance that a student becomes violent, don’t engage with the individual but remain calm and call campus safety (x1300) or 911. Don’t let a dangerous situation escalate.
  • If a student’s behavior is inappropriate and they refuse the above approaches, refer them to the Office of Student Conduct. The DU Honor Code covers issues of student conduct related to integrity, respect, and responsibility, and DU students are bound by the Honor Code. Documenting these issues can help patterns emerge across courses.
  • If a student is experiencing serious academic difficulties, refer them to their academic advisor. If there are issues going on in their personal life, there may be options for the student.
  • Contact DU’s Health and Counseling Center and ask to speak to someone to get advice about how to handle a particular situation.
  • If you notice significant behavioral change by a student (poor hygiene, intimidating emails, agitated, dramatic academic decline), refer the student to DU’s Health and Counseling Center (x12205).  Faculty members are often the “front line defense” for identifying and preventing psychological problems that can occur in the late teens and early 20s.

Resources for Managing Classroom Dynamics

Health & Counseling Center Presentation



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