A Practical Introduction to College Teaching

All sections of this handbook, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada, are in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged.

For comments, questions, suggestions for improvements, and so on, please contact Ian Johnston.

[Table of Contents]

Section 6: Dealing with Students Inside and Outside the Classroom

One of the most enjoyable (and challenging) aspects of college teaching for instructors is that we are always in the company of students, most of whom, whatever their academic accomplishments or potential, are usually very interesting to talk to and generally ready enough to engage in conversation, both inside and outside the class.  The pleasure of interacting with students is, in fact, the major fringe benefit of the profession.  

Get to Know Students Informally

For that reason, you should make every effort to talk to students informally (before classes start, in the breaks, over coffee in the cafeteria, during chance encounters on campus or in the mall, and so on).  The more you can learn about your students' interests and abilities, the more enjoyable the job becomes (to say nothing of how it will improve your abilities as an instructor).  Taking an active interest in campus activities in which your students are involved can be a real help here and will indicate to your students that you do appreciate their endeavours outside your own classroom (e.g., theatre productions, sports teams, campus publications, music recitals, gym workouts, poetry readings, and so on), quite apart from teaching you a great deal about the range of activities at your institution and providing hours of enjoyment.  Learning about these activities should be an important priority of any new instructor's professional development.

The Importance of Listening

When engaging in informal conversations with students, make sure you concentrate on listening carefully rather than on talking.  A friendly conversation may well provide illuminating insights into the student's world, but only if you give the student a chance to open up or encourage him to do so (focus on asking questions which will encourage him to talk rather than on responding at length to his questions).  You are not in a classroom now, so there is no need for you to take control of the conversation, even though that might be your role inside the class and the student may well be inviting you to do so.  Instructors, by the nature of their work, often have a rather narrow perspective on a particular student (evaluating him exclusively by his work in the course).  Informal conversations are a uniquely interesting (and useful) way of widening one's perspective on what your students are having to cope with and what they are bringing to class from their lives beyond the college, but such insights will come only if you try not to dominate those occasions.

Potential Problem Areas

At the same time, however, interacting with students can be the source of many difficulties, major and minor, and can lead to serious problems if the instructor is insufficiently prudent in what he says or does.

As a general rule, a college instructor should observe some fairly obvious commonsense principles in all her dealings with students, inside the classroom and beyond.

The Importance of Courtesy

Always treat student courteously, even if you have good reason to be annoyed.  That is not to say that you cannot indicate serious displeasure or irritation, but it's important to do so in a controlled, polite manner.  Losing control with a student (e.g., blowing up in a temper, swearing) is something you should, at all costs, avoid (especially in front of other students).  In fact, the more irritated you are, the more polite you should become.  Sometimes it might be appropriate to pretend to lose one's temper (e.g., when an entire class shows up for the third time without having read the material or brought the correct supplies)that can have a powerful effect of shaming students in the class into not repeating themselves (especially if you simply walk about after telling them that there's no point in having this class if they're not prepared to do the appropriate work).  But such a tactic should be used only when you are still in control of yourself, and obviously it is effective only if such outbursts are extremely rare (once per course).  

If a student is acting in a potentially confrontational manner, politely decline to continue and walk away.  Never engage in swearing matches or hostile physical exchanges or heated arguments with students.  The same applies to overly aggressive phone calls or e-mails (make sure you discuss these with your Department Head).

When talking to students in class, you should be careful to curtail any tendency you have to swear or tell potentially offensive jokes or engage in behaviour one of them might find offensive (e.g., do not follow the example of a colleague of mine who, to illustrate a philosophical point, pulled down his pants, and mooned the class, an action which cost him his job).  Don't mistake their apparent sophistication for tolerance or a fully mature attitude to sex or liberal political leanings.  It's probably a bad idea to use the class to offer your own political views, unless that's relevant to what you are discussing as part of the course. If political discussions are part of your class lecture, make sure you give all sides a hearing.  Ideally in such cases, the students should see you as a person deeply interested in political analysis and with political convictions, but have some doubt about where you actually stand (since you are ready to hear competing points of view sympathetically and are prepared to discuss the pros and cons of different positions).

Basic courtesy should extend to any evaluative comment you write on a student's assignments.  These can be stern, even, if necessary, harsh, but they should not be rude or deliberately insulting ("This is bullshit," "Crap," "Utter garbage," "What are you--brain dead?" "Too much BS").  And you should get into the habit of using language free of an obvious gender bias in the work you prepare for a class (and in your own lectures).

Sharing Gossip or Confidences with Students

You should be very careful not to tell a student or a class anything or do anything with a student or a class or that you wouldn't want to be generally known by other students, your colleagues, or the college administration.  Never assume that a student or a class will or can keep a confidence (unless you are totally sure of the person you are dealing with).  Assume that any college gossip you wish to share with a student will be common knowledge the next day and that your name will be quoted as the source.

This advice is particularly important if you are tempted to get into a romantic entanglement with a student (often a career-ending decision).  Even if there's no danger of your love interest ratting on you (and there's always that risk now or in the future), there's a very real chance that someone else in the class will complain (informally or otherwise).  If your college has explicit policies about such things, learn about them, not that the absence of such policies will be enough to save you if there are formal complaints (the old days when such romantic relationships were widely tolerated has long since disappeared in most places).  The same advice applies to sharing blissful but illegal narcotic experiences or drinking binges with students (no matter what their age).

Be careful of attending any social activities with students where drugs are being passed around or where there is underage drinking, even if there is adult supervision (parents).  Excuse yourself and leave as soon as you can conveniently do so.  If you want to have alcohol at a class party on campus, check with your department  head before proceeding.

Be especially careful of offering negative evaluative comments about your colleagues.  If a student asks you about a particular instructor, wondering whether she should take his course or not, plead ignorance (almost certainly an honest response, because you will have no reliable information about the instructor's classroom teaching or whether that particular student will find him agreeable or not, although you may have formed a strong opinion about him as a colleague and heard some stories).  Recommend that the student talk to others who have taken that instructor's class.  Even positive comments should be carefully phrased: "I've heard that he's a good instructor" or "A number of students have told me they enjoyed his classes."  Don't play a significant role in shaping the student's decision (unless there are important other reasons why she needs to take or to avoid a course with that instructor).

Providing Advice to Students

Never offer to assist a student with things outside your immediate responsibilities as an instructor in your courses.  If the student clearly needs medical, psychological, academic, financial, or legal advice then refer him to the appropriate people.  By all means be sympathetic, give him a decent hearing, and urge him to get help (or even take him where he can get help if the need is urgent), but do not assume responsibility for dealing with the problem (by lending money, recommending medication, offering academic or legal advice, providing temporary shelter, and so on).  Remember that many students will look on you as an expert, no matter how many qualifications you add to your advice.

In addition to the legal and ethical problems of offering such advice, it might be useful to remember that some students can also be shrewdly manipulative, either for fun or from more sinister or bizarre motives.  I know of at least two examples where young female students organized a bet on which one of them would be the first to have sex with an instructor (the winner in one of these cases, by the way, adopted a brilliant strategy: instead of trying to look particularly attractive, she went to class looking like a total wreck, equipped with a story that she had been turfed out of her apartment and had been sleeping in her car.  The instructor offered temporary accommodation at his house until she could find another place, and the rest is history).

Providing References for Students

Students will frequently ask instructors to provide letters of reference in support of their applications for jobs or academic programs.  Normally, such requests present no problems, other than on those occasions where a student may be ill informed about a particular instructor's opinion and knowledge of him.  I generally try to avoid having to provide references for students whom I have not taught fairly recently (within the past three years) and whom I cannot eagerly endorse.  I operate on the tacit understanding that agreeing to provide a reference means that I'm prepared to write a positive one.  If I can't do that, I suggest that the student try someone else.

Student Complaints About Your Course

Treat any student complaint about your own course, no matter how apparently trivial, sympathetically and intelligently and, above all, quickly, as soon as it arises.  Listen carefully to what the student has to say (making sure you give her a complete hearing, without trying to interpret the situation for her or talk her out of her concerns, understand exactly what she's referring to, and don't underestimate her concern).  If there's some substance to her complaint, concede that, apologize (if you bear some responsibility), thank her, and discuss together if there's some way you can resolve it (don't go automatically into defensive mode if the complaint involves you personally).  

If you don't agree with the complaint, indicate that, and discuss with her how she would like it to be addressed (Should you bring in a third party?  Is it something the entire class should discussa very useful procedure if the complaint concerns something that is going on in the classroom and may be shared by others? Is there a relevant procedure in place?).  Convey to the student a sense that you are interested in getting the matter resolved together.  Even if you don't agree with the complaint, it's important the student feels that she has been heard and treated fairly.  Make every effort to resolve the matter informally, because once official institutional procedures begin, positions harden, things get more complicated, a lot more people get involved, and a very long (and potentially stressful) time can go by before there's any solution.  

Suppose, for example, that a student has genuine reasons for strongly objecting to something you are requiring the class to read.  Don't simply brush these aside or insist that she has to carry out the reading or suffer a significant penalty.  Listen to the complaint, and assess it carefully (for example, Mormons are not allowed to read Angels in America, many black students will object to Huckleberry Finn or Heart of Darkness, some Muslims will strongly resent having to study The Satanic Verses, and so on).  In some cases, such objections can be taken care of early by recommending to the students making such objections that they transfer to another section.  At other times, you might be able to arrange for alternative readings.

Sometimes a student will come to you with a complaint about another student in the class.  You'll need to hear her out and determine if the complaint is valid and if there's anything you can do about it.  You might try asking the student what she would like you to do about it (not that you have to take her advice).  But whatever you do, don't ever act on the student's behalf or bring her name into discussions with others about the problem without her consent and without having informed her of what you are going to do.  It may well be the case that the student simply wants to draw your attention to the problem but does not want the matter taken any further if it involves publicizing her complaint.  If you think her complaint is valid and if she doesn't want any direct action from you, at least you have been alerted to the problem and may be able to do something indirect about it (without involving her name) during the regular classes.  This principle about never acting on the student's behalf without her consent is extremely important if you are thinking of taking her complaint to other instructors or talking directly to the people she's complaining about.

If the student is seeking your advice about how to deal with a college problem outside your class, tell him the options (only if you know them well) and what will be involved (the procedures), or (better still) direct him to someone who is in a position to help (usually a counselor or a dean). But don't try to persuade him one way or the other about a specific course of action (e.g., initiating a formal complaint against another instructor, writing a letter to the campus newspaper, dropping out of a course, and so on).  Remember that you may be getting a very partial account of the problem from him, so don't evaluate the situation and determine a particular course of action on the basis of his words alone.

If you are faced with a complaint widely shared by students in the class, open the matter up for discussion.  For example, you may have inadvertently scheduled an in-class test on the same day as another major test and the students find the pressure too much.  Perhaps there's a real problem with the deadline for an assignment, or many students in the class are seriously confused about something or find the pace of the course much too fast.  Such complaints can be excellent opportunities for learning.  So listen carefully and, where appropriate, make adjustments or at least explain why things are the way they are.

If you decide an important adjustment to your curriculum is in order, discuss the matter with the class, and, wherever possible, leave the original curriculum in place as an option.  For example, suppose for whatever reason (in response to class complaints or to your own sense of what is happening) you decide you will remove a particular assignment from the course curriculum (e.g., a third essay assignment or the final exam) and redistribute the marks originally allocated to that part of the course.  Most students will welcome the change.  But you should leave the assignment in as an option (with the marks distributed as originally announced) for any student who wants to undertake that work (very few, if any, will exercise that option).  Otherwise, you are inviting a complaint from a student who (truthfully or otherwise) claims that he was counting on that assignment to bolster his mark for the course.  And as a rule, you should not make adjustments to the curriculum in the middle of a semester which involve significantly more work than the assignments described in the Course Outline.

Groundless Complaints

Rarely it happens that a student appears to be making groundless complaints for no reason she can adequately explain or for some ulterior motive.  If you have any reason to suspect that the student is behaving irrationally in such complaints, especially if they are about your conduct, then talk immediately to your departmental chair or the dean.  You might also want to ask other instructors familiar with that student.  And fully document all conversations you have (which from that point might well include a third party).  It might also be important to talk to the appropriate member of your Union Executive (that's essential if the student takes her complaint elsewhere, e.g., to the Dean or the Ombudsman).

Most students are very friendly, and many go out of their way to chat or confer with instructors.  In virtually all cases there is nothing to be concerned about, and I don't mean to be unnecessarily alarmist.  But there have been a number of examples of students who (for whatever reason) instigate complaints about what they claim is harassment or unfair treatment and appeal to policies the institution has in place for redress, merely in order to make life for the instructor difficult or to improve their marks or for some reason no one can figure out.  Such policies came into being to answer a real need (there was, and still is, a good deal of routine harassment and unfair treatment going around), so you should take them seriously and respect them.  But at the same time, you need to be alert to the possibilities that what looks like a routine minor complaint is, in fact, something more problematic.  Never try to deal with such cases by yourself.  Often a student who is acting in a strange way with you has done so before with other instructors.

Miscellaneous Issues 

If you have a complaint you're not sure how to deal with, e.g., a student wearing excessive perfume (something to treat very gingerly since multi-cultural issues may be involved), a student who displays Nazi insignia or racist slogans on his clothing, a student with a disruptive learning disability, unwelcome tensions between different students, a student who regularly comes to class drunk or stoned, and so on, consult other instructors or counselors about how you should proceed.   Once again, don't let the problem persist.

If you suspect a student may have a learning disability, ask him to confer with you privately.  If he says he doesn't but admits he does have great difficulty with certain requirements, you might want to ask him if he's willing to take a diagnostic test in the counseling centre (or wherever such tests occur).  Most institutions recognize dyslexia, for example, as a common problem and have ways to diagnose and assist students.  Obviously, you cannot require that he undergo such testing.  Remember that he may not be aware of his problem.  If a counselor informs you that you have a Special Needs student in one of your classes, make sure you understand just what that means (by discussing the matter with the counselor). 

Dealing with Problems in Class

Discipline in college classes is not normally a problem unless the instructor allows certain minor problems to become entrenched and grow.  The key principle here is this: Deal immediately with any minor problem by politely but firmly informing the student that such conduct is not appropriate.  If anything, no matter how apparently trivial, is irritating you and the other students, then act on it quickly the first time it happens.

For instance, if some students are talking together at the back of the room in which you are lecturing, interrupt what you are saying and ask them politely to stop.  If they do it again, then repeat the process.  If they continue, then ask them to leave and to see you later.  Make sure you do that the very first time it occurs.  If a particular student is always arriving late and disturbing the class, ask her to talk to you; see if there's a reason for the tardiness and some way of correcting it (don't get angry with her in public without first asking in private what the problem is).  If another student brings food to class and disturbs you and the others with the smell and the noise, then put an end to it (by talking to him in private).  Never let such minor irritations persist and pretend you don't mind.  Anything that's upsetting you is probably upsetting others and affecting the quality of what's going on in the class.

If a significant number of students are creating difficulties because they show up late, don't bring the proper books or equipment, fail to hand in work on time, and so on, you might want to discuss the matter with the entire class.  What's the problem?  See if there's some reason you don't know about (there may well be).  Inform them of why this makes things difficult for you.  Never simply swallow your frustration and just soldier on, hoping the situation will improve (it will almost always get worse) or just get angry or petulant.  Present the issue as a common problem: If the work is not done regularly, then we cannot get through this course in the proper way.  Students react much more favourably to such appeals than they do to being browbeaten or summarily punished.

Sometimes one student's behaviour (especially his responses to other students) may be the source of a problem (e.g., he's always putting other students down, his responses are extremely sexist or racist, he laughs inappropriately at other students' attempts to participate, he uses the class as a bully pulpit, and so on).  Give the other students a chance to deal with him (in many cases they will do so very effectively, especially in classes where the students all know each other well), but if they're doing nothing and the problems persist, then you will have to have a private word with that student, once again explaining what the issue is from your perspective and listening to his response.  You may well be able to work something out.  If that doesn't resolve the matter, make sure you check any policies your institution has for dealing with disruptive students, and talk to a student counselor or your department head.  You might also want to discuss the matter with the student's other instructors (Are they having the same problem?  How are they dealing with it?).  Do not proceed to discipline the student in any way (e.g., by banning him from class), without consulting others about the options available.  But make sure you exercise an effective option if the student continues to disrupt your classes.

Any distracting physical problems in class you should deal with immediately.  If there's a flickering light, turn it off, and later alert someone who can deal with it.  If there's too much noise coming from the class next door or from the corridor, stop what you are doing and fix the problem.  If your class is routinely interrupted by noise from outside (e.g., a motorcycle firing up or maintenance machines passing by) see if you can stop the disturbance recurring.  If your classroom is frequently freezing cold or excessively hot, find out who can fix that.  Don't ever let distractions and interruptions continue.  If you are ever in a situation where continuing with the class is impossible (e.g., because of construction noise or an electricity failure) end the class and find out what's happening.

If there's an unexpected event which prevents many students from showing up (e.g., a snowstorm), you might want to abandon any idea of teaching the class you were planning, because all students need to be there.  However, in most cases you should not simply cancel the class immediately (unless there's an official announcement of a college closure).  After all, the students who did show up deserve to have a chance to learn something and they may be irked at having made the effort to get there only to find that nothing will be going on.  In such cases, using the time for an informal discussion or review or question-and-answer session can often be extremely useful, even if it does not go on for the full class time.

If you are sick and cannot come to class, the best thing to do is to get someone else to take the class.  If that's not possible, inform the appropriate person at the college immediately, so that the students get as much advance notice as possible that the class is cancelled.  If you have an e-mail distribution list for your classes or a class newsgroup, then use that to tell the students (such notification is particularly effective if you have encouraged students always to consult the newsgroup for announcements on the day of the class).  Students often get upset at coming to college only to find there's no class that day (especially when such events recur).  Remember that for some of them, your class may well be the only reason they made the effort to get to the campus and that, in some cases, they have traveled some distance.  This advice is particularly important if you are teaching a three-hour night class.



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