I’m not, for once, talking about subject discipline, but actual classroom management, dealing with disruptive student behaviour. I don’t know if this is one of those issues that raises its head about this time every year (isn’t it getting dark early? aren’t students getting more badly behaved?), or whether it’s genuinely getting worse, but I’ve had several discussions recently about how we address behaviours in our group teaching which are… well, shall we say not conducive to learning, and not professional or respectful. I know I’ve had a few troublesome experiences this term, and anecdotally have heard the same from colleagues in my own institution (subject lecturers as well as student services colleagues), and my counterparts elsewhere.
I mean, I know compared to teaching colleagues in primary and secondary education, we have it pretty easy – no one, by and large, is pulling anyone else’s hair, throwing chairs, hitting each other or shouting and swearing. We’re teaching adults, after all. And the vast majority of them are a joy to work with.
As learning developers, the way we work raises a number of issues which may be contributing factors.
- Not only do we not know the students, but they don’t know us – we very rarely have any kind of ongoing relationship with a class we teach beyond one or two sessions. We have to build rapport and good will very fast, in the knowledge that it’s an investment on both sides which is ephemeral, for an hour or two only. We have to find a way of making that investment worth it for the students.
- We’re often working out of context, outside the students’ expectations of the ‘norm’. We don’t ‘teach’ in a traditional way – we are not the authorities imparting subject knowledge at the front of the lecture theatre, we’re facilitators of workshops with reflection and development. However, if we are teaching a session embedded in a module, standing at the front of the lecture room in the same weekly timeslot as their subject lecturers, it’s very hard to run a proper workshop against all the connotations and associations and baggage of traditional teaching which that situation brings. Students may be unsettled and not sure how to respond.
- We’re often working in a very reflective way, swimming against all the currents of remedial, deficit model assumptions often made about study skills. It can feel very exposing to students, who may not feel comfortable making themselves so vulnerable among their peers or admitting that they are not sure how to approach their studies. Our non-judgmental ethos is easier to maintain in the one to one; harder to ensure when publically losing face in front of peers is at stake. In a new group of first years or masters students, or in a ‘generic’, cross-university session, not only do they not know us, they may also not know, or trust, each other yet. We need to find a way to make students feel safe.
- We’re often an (optional) extra, factored into the timetable. sometimes at unpopular timetable slots, on top of all the other things they have to do. Not another thing…. we need to make it worthwhile in the students’ eyes.
- We have no teacherly authority over students, real or imagined. Not that lecturers really do either – universities are not in loco parentis any more and even lecturers can’t really ‘punish’ students as teachers (used to) do. Students may however imagine that poor behaviour towards their lecturer might mean poor marks later down the line… Not from us though. No bad references for future employers. Nor will they necessarily ever see us again after the one session – no awkwardness to face for the rest of the term or the degree. The only authority we have is one that students invest in us, due to the value of what we can offer them and how we work with them.
Against this, it’s perhaps natural that students can be confused or unsettled in our sessions, and that this can lead to or exacerbate behaviours that challenge the learning environment. Again, I’m not talking about anything major – overtly inattentive body language (asleep on the desk), using social media, talking and laughing when the facilitator or another student is talking, mildly offensive or disrespectful responses (especially on digital response systems), outright refusal to engage with tasks… all minor things in some ways, but cumulatively can start to affect the dynamic of the whole group in a negative way, both other students’ attitudes and your own confidence.
Dealing with this is difficult. People who don’t teach might suggest things like telling them off, humiliating them, threatening them (with what?!), sending them out. But let’s face it, that’s not actually going to help the disruptive student learn, which is after all what we ultimately want. It might also make things worse. Transactional analysis is useful here- the minute you treat them like a child, with yourself as the stern parent, they may well respond to that role you’ve placed them in and thus your response may exacerbate the problem. Also, how you handle it will affect the dynamic of the whole group.
There will be some – many – a majority of – students who are equally exasperated and frustrated with their disruptive coursemates. It’s easy to forget that they’re there – they won’t necessarily be vocal about it, and their behaviour won’t necessarily stand out to you as it’s the expected ‘norm’ – quietly attentive, doing what they’re supposed to. But they’re there, and they’re on your side.
The key is I think to somehow make disruptive students aware that not only do you disapprove of their behaviour, but so do the majority of the group, their peers. It’s easy to kick off against a perceived authority figure, even if that’s not how you yourself position yourself as a learning developer. It’s less easy to set yourself against your peers, who want to engage and learn. The engaged (enraged!) students won’t necessarily want to be made visible though. And they will want to see that you are dealing with poor behaviour – that’s your job. One good suggestion I’ve heard recently is to say that there ‘have recently been student complaints about X behaviour’, so it’s the student peer voice which is setting the tone, albeit anonymously. And you will almost certainly have come across similar complaints so it wouldn’t be untrue. I recently had a one to one with a student who said they felt ‘lonely’ – not in a social sense, but in the way they felt isolated as one of the few who wanted to learn. It made me very sad for them, but also determined to do better for them and the many others who quietly felt that way, in the way I teach.
On the other hand, the minute the majority of the students start to feel sorry for the disruptive student, if they feel you’re humiliating them (particularly telling them off like a child), or they feel you’re being disproportionate and fear that you might turn on them too next, then you’ve lost the whole group. And if you don’t address disruption, if you don’t care about creating an optimal learning environment for them and value their learning, then they will understandably become disengaged themselves.
Practically, this isn’t easy. Making it clear you’ve noticed and that they aren’t as invisible/inaudible/anonymous as they thought can work. Long, uncomfortable silences can work (I kind of enjoy those…). Looming near offenders as you address the whole group can make them feel uncomfortably visible as all eyes are directed to their part of the room. Gentle humour can work as long as you’re not ‘punching down’ but showing that you too understand the trials of the Monday 9am lecture or the dubious joys of referencing. Showing that you value their participation and learning can make them value it more. And sometimes you do just need to tell students off. Positioning this as adult to adult, however you phrase it, is the key, I think – it’s hard to find the right words in the moment sometimes. I’m still reflecting on managing classroom dynamics and managing disruptive behaviours – as learning developers we are operating within a slightly different set of circumstances than others who teach and don’t always have the same strategies available to us for managing the classroom. I’d love to hear other people’s strategies. Maybe you’re fiercer than me!