Six Tips: How To Handle the Problem Student (Part 2)

Yesterday, we covered the Whiner, the Know-it-All, and the Downer. Today we round it out with four more (I added an extra) disruptive characters in your class. We are talking about people who can hijack your class, sink all hopes of learning, and destroy any collegiality that you are working so hard to promote.

Troublemakers, a record by Tony Roots

A note on pronouns: I have used “he” and “she” randomly, by flipping a coin. Disruptive people come in both genders.

1. The Gotcha. This student will ask you impossible to answer questions, ask if you’ve read “definitive” but obscure books on your topic . When you say no, he acts shocked, says that it’s a must-read for anyone in the field. Watch for a tone of kindness just short of condescending.

The solution: Be honest, admit what you don’t know or didn’t read. Don’t bluff–it’s a recipe for disaster. Ask what three things he learned from the book that the class could use immediately. That turns his expertise into your good fortune and keeps a positive vibe. If you don’t know the answer to his questions, let him answer. If he knows, you have more knowledge. If he doesn’t, steer the class back to the topic.  Write down the book title and use break times to search it and vet for mention. If he becomes obnoxious, ask him to hold his questions for break. Without an audience, he’s lost his reason for speaking and most likely, won’t show up.

2. The Passive-Aggressive. A tough customer. Seemingly nice mentions or innocent questions to your face are used as snarky remarks to table mates, just out of earshot. The passive-aggressive student’s friendly exterior hides a seething interior. She may be kind in class and rip you on Facebook or Twitter. Passive-aggressives are wicked gossips, and in today’s culture, gossip is often encouraged.  First: you are not the cause of her anger. Do not try to fix her. Do not give her any extra attention, make her a part of class by giving her assignments with limited authority–the scribe in her group, for example. The class as a whole is your biggest help to keep her online. Keep a cool, professional and slightly distant attitude. Answer questions with facts, not opinions. Be polite, but do not engage. It’s hard, as she appears charming. Promptly cut off gossip or criticism. If you are asking for feedback from some students, skip her. She may well rip into you (or worse, a student) and when asked for a reason, she will back off, cry, or invent an excuse so pitiful that the damaged student is left confused and angry. Another control is to give clear, simple and very definite rules for activities and enforce them equally and cheerfully. One more thing: you cannot control the passive-aggressive outside your class. Do not try to please her or make her a star, she will still say nasty things about you. It’s her nature.

3. The Sulker. A cross between the Downer and the Whiner, the sulker needs a lot of attention and will act damaged or ill to get it. In the worst scenario, the Sulker creates an “emergency” to get attention. This is a tricky situation because you don’t want to ignore health emergencies, but you also want to do what you are paid to do–teach. The Sulker triggers the “fixers” in the class–helpful people who want to console, support, heal, encourage and be around people in distress. You can lose half the class to one person who puts her head on her desk, suddenly leaps up and runs out of class, or wears three sweaters and rocks herself in a stuffy classroom.

Solution: Before class, scan for people who appear to be sick and not engaged. Quietly ask them if they should be in class today. Universally, the sulker will insist on staying. “I have to be here,” is usually followed by, “I have no choice.” Everyone has a choice, and the sulker’s is to stay with no regard for the rest of the class. This is the time for you to say, “If you feel sick, you need to be at home, not in class. You can’t learn when you are ill.” Mention your refund/replace policy and give them a way to come back or switch classes.  As a last resort, ask for their supervisor’s phone number, and offer to call and explain. This solves many Sulker problems immediately.

When class starts, establish a policy for leaving the classroom. “All of you are adults, if you feel ill, need medication, or need to take a phone call,  please leave class. You don’t need my permission to take care of your personal needs.” If the Sulker doesn’t leave and no one cares, you don’t have to do more. If the Sulker  acts to attract attention, you can disperse the fixers by saying, “X is an adult, and is making her own choices for her needs. Let’s trust her to know what’s best for her.” You may want to call the supervisor and express your concern.

Extra: The Fixer. Fixers are people who are compelled to take control of other people’s problems and fix them. Related to Know-It-Alls, Fixers vary widely from the people who respond to a simple “It’s hot today” with a wide variety of natural cures for fevers, to people who insert themselves into every conversation with their own experiences and solutions. There are proliferating because they have less control at work. Many are also honestly concerned helpers.

Solution: I often start with an exercise showing the difference between fixing and witnessing, to show how effective good listening is. This works in classes on many topics. If a person starts fixing, I ask, “What kind of attention is necessary here, listening or fixing?” Many times, it’s a revelation for people to see what they are doing. Sometimes it’s a relief for them to let go of this task.

-Quinn McDonald is an instructor, writer, and workshop leader with 15 years experience.  She knows whereof she speaks.