Dear Feeling Frightened

Dear Ms. Scholar, I’ve been feeling intimidated by a student in my class. This student hasn’t physically attacked me (yet), but I’m feeling frightened and don’t know what to do. Help!

Ms. Scholar at work.

Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Feeling Frightened, It doesn’t really matter whether you’ve been disrespected, verbally or physically abused, or “just” that this student is acting as though everything you say is an imposition. This student can make your classroom feel unsafe for you and your students.

Let’s start by thinking about what might be happening. Perhaps this student — for whatever reason — does not know the rules and current mores of a university, having just come from high school, where it was supposedly “okay” and typical to respond in rude ways in some contexts (Ms. Scholar is thinking of cyberbullying, for example). Perhaps they come from a cultural group where there are other ways of handling anger and responding to authority figures. Ms. Scholar tends to avoid overt expressions of anger, but she knows that is not typical for many working class students, who may be more direct in their expressions.

Some students, instead of talking to their professors, rapidly escalate the conflict by talking to a dean or other administrator. Perhaps they perceive this as the only way to “win,” as the (perceived) power dynamics are such that they don’t expect that they will be heard. These perceptions may stem from their early experiences in families, schools, or communities. Further, if they perceive their professor as only a widget “doling out their education,” it becomes okay to yell, intimidate, etc. It becomes okay to talk to “the boss” rather than attempt to work problems out constructively, as we would prefer. Unfortunately, as a result, it’s not just that we feel intimidated, but that we might also feel that our chair or administrators won’t have our backs.

Ms. Scholar has even heard of an instance where a parent has sued when the student failed the course. This student and family seem “entitled,” believing that they have the right to credits regardless of the quality of the student’s work. This is fodder for another column, but Ms. Scholar believes that we should help students focus their self-evaluations on the quality of their work rather than unearned praise (Niiya, Crocker,& Bartmess, 2004).

In other words, although we may not know what’s happening, we have a number of useful hypotheses that can help us understand this student’s behavior. Regardless, access your support system and ask for help — both someone to discuss the situation with and more overt support if needed (e.g., someone to walk you to your car). If appropriate, talk to your department chair, Public Safety, and members of the Conduct Board, and report the incident and ask for help.

Many people in such situations believe that they have done something wrong: “It must have been me.” “I deserved it.” It is difficult for many people to identify whether they are overreacting. In such situations Ms. Scholar believes it is important to reflect on and learn from the situation (e.g., In what ways might you have unintentionally fanned the situation? What can you do to defuse it?). Perhaps you made some mistakes (and perhaps not): how can you learn from these mistakes and move on? However, learning from your mistakes does not mean that you need to feel guilty or that you should ignore your discomfort or consider it illegitimate.

Moving on may be easier when you are replenishing your emotional resources. When stressed, many of us stop exercising, have more difficulty sleeping, and begin ruminating. Consider what coping strategies best help you short- and long-term. Ms. Scholar talks with friends, exercises, challenges her thinking, remembers the things she’s grateful for, does yoga, etc. She also frames and reframes the situation — as modeled in the early paragraphs of this piece — to identify other, more helpful ways of responding.

There have always been incidents of intimidation in the classroom, but what can we do to decrease these? It seems prudent to pay attention to our relationships with our students.Some research suggests that doctors who build positive relationships with their patients are less likely to be sued — even when they are less competent (Gladwell, 2005). While nothing excuses threatening student behavior, we can work to make it less prevalent by being thoughtful about our interactions with our students. There is also an increasing focus within education on using more collaborative classroom pedagogies, which Ms. Scholar suspects will both build the kinds of interpersonal skills we’d like to see our students develop (e.g., critical thinking, personal responsibility, autonomy, etc.), but also decrease the probability of problems in the classroom. Finally, many of us experience more difficulty handling the inevitable problems well when we are stressed. We are at the end of the semester; make sure that you are doing things to engage in regular self-care. — Ms. Scholar

References

Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Co.

Niiya, Y., Crocker, J., & Bartmess, E. N. (2004). From vulnerability to resilience: Learning orientations buffer contingent self-esteem from failure. Psychological Science, 15 (12), 801-805.


If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o MsScholarCU@gmail.com

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