Teaching Tips: How to Deal With Unruly Students
How often has this happened to you? You are excited about your first day of class, thrilled to be meeting your new students, eager to pass on your hard-earned knowledge. Right away you notice that something is amiss. There is a student who is not tuned in, who is on another wavelength – or perhaps it's two, or even a small group. Or maybe you don't notice it that first day. Sometimes students hold back at first, checking out you, the teacher. Maybe it's the second or third or fourth class when your heart sinks and you realize what a struggle this semester is going to be. To be honest, having taught for many years, I can tell you that there are very few ideal classes, very few classes in which all the students are bright and they all want to learn. You almost always get a mix of the good, the bad, and the indifferent. However, they are all your responsibility, at least while they are there in the classroom with you, and you want to do your best for them. How can you accomplish this?
First of all, respect them, no matter who they are and how they act. We always expect them to respect us, and we should return the favor. They come with the same standard equipment; in other words, they are emotionally put together just like you. Genetics and circumstances have dealt them a different hand, but they are immature human beings looking for the same things all humans look for: love, respect, security, acknowledgement, and so on. Never demean them; never insult them. And here's one of the hardest things not to do when you are up against the most obnoxious and stubborn cases: never yell at them. Never. It never accomplishes anything positive. I have done it. I have yelled at kids, and once or twice I have even tossed their books out the door and told them to follow them. But I have always regretted it afterwards, and I have always apologized. Sometimes it's impossible to avoid yelling. It just gets to be too much. But do realize your error, apologize, and talk about it afterwards with the class. They will respect you more if you confess your mistake, and you will prove that you respect them.
Don't try to ignore the errant student, but at the same time don't spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on them. Keep a balance. Try to be fair. When I have underachievers in the class, whether due to intelligence or disciplinary issues, I find there is always a temptation to brush by them, to ask them the shortest, easiest questions in oral work, to get it over with as quickly as possible. That won't work. You have to call them out. You have to focus on them, give them your full attention from time to time. They have to understand that they are a part of the class even if they don't want to be.
Stay Calm and Quiet
Not only should you not ignore such a student academically, but you should not ignore bad behavior. When a student disrupts the class you have to call them on it right away. You have to look them in the eye and clearly delineate what has displeased you, what rule they have broken, how they have caused a breach of the peace. I have found that the opposite of shouting is most effective. Go closer. Approach them. Speak in a calm, quiet voice but be very clear about what went wrong and what you expect and the consequences if a change doesn't occur.
This brings us to the next point. Never make empty threats. If you threaten consequences be sure you carry them out, whether it means a visit to the principal, a call to parents, extra homework, detention, or simple ejection from the class. On the other hand, you can have mercy and suspend the sentence if you sense sincere repentance – but only once. If you threaten punishment and never carry it out, the students will learn to ignore all such threats, and you will have lessened their respect for you in the process.
Watch for Exceptions
Sometimes students get bored and misbehave or tune out in class not because they are too dull to handle the material but because they are very bright and the subject bores them. This is not always easy to spot, as such students have learned to hide or cover up their inquiring minds at home or with their friends in order to fit in. Watch for certain telltale signs. If you notice that a student is bored and lackadaisical or overly distracting but then suddenly perks up when you introduce a certain subject, it may be that that student just needs to be challenged in that area of interest. This happened to me recently when I came across a student who was always late, answered in monosyllables, and even laid his head down on his desk and tried to take a nap in class; then I found out he became almost another person when we discussed "Star Wars" or "Star Trek" or any other topic related to fantasy and science fiction. I had found his key, and used it whenever I could, and he improved radically and his grades began to soar.
I'm not saying that it's not possible to find a student who is beyond help, who is a real rotten apple, but I haven't found one yet. I have found, however, that some of the most difficult cases come from broken homes, or homes in which the parents either ignore them completely or actively undermine what they have learned in class – and by that I don't mean the academic but the social aspects of their education. Still, even these students can be helped, day by day, class by class – it is just a longer process.
So never give up. Never lose patience. And never believe that any student is beyond help.