Dear Fingernails on Chalkboard

Dear Ms. Scholar, Have you ever known someone whose presence in a room makes you feel the same way as when you hear nails scraping on a chalkboard? I have one in class this semester and am having a rough time. This student is frequently rude and lacks normally-expected tact and social skills. What have you done to handle this sort of problem well?


Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Fingernails on Chalkboard, Unfortunately, we’ve all been there, but there are more effective and less effective responses in such situations.

More and more, I look at addressing these kinds of problem behaviors – absences, tardiness, rudeness in class, poor interpersonal skills – as central to my overall class goals and my students’ personal success. In my field – yours, too, I suspect – it matters if one has a phone out for personal reasons during work, if one is repeatedly late or absent, or if one cannot work effectively with others. We may give our students a “by” on these behaviors, but they won’t receive one on the job.

We could pass these problems downstream to employers or graduate programs, but is that fair? It is easier to intervene with problems early rather than after students have created a pattern of poor relationships with others, developed problems for themselves, and built a negative reputation for their home department or university with an employer or graduate program who may only see a small number of our graduates. I treasure those graduate programs and employers that tell me whenever they see me that they love accepting/hiring our graduates.

Our students’ “bad behavior” reflects back on us.

In Ms. Scholar’s field, it is easy to identify Fingernails’ rude behavior and poor social skills as an ethical problem in competence – Fingernails needs to be able to handle stress well and work effectively with others. However, when Ms. Scholar discussed a similar problem with colleagues, they convincingly argued that the professor/supervisor was also behaving unethically by allowing an atmosphere to develop that had the potential to harm the student, that student’s classmates and, by extension, the program.

Ms. Scholar’s colleagues argued that professors at their best would identify problems early and intervene with them rapidly rather than allow such problems to build. Such a professor would help a student recognize problems and consider other ways of responding. While we can’t always be at our best, this should still be our goal.

However, professors are human, too.

Many of us find intervening with students like Fingernails difficult. One of the first things Ms. Scholar needs to do is stop and consider whether the problem is with the student or with herself. Is she more stressed and irritable? Are there interpersonal or cultural biases affecting her reactions? Are these reactions reasonable and appropriate (or not)? It takes significant confidence to consider whether the problem is primarily with the other person or something about you.

In this last contentious political election,  Ms. Scholar has been irritated by students who she perceives as behaving in racist or anti-intellectual manners. In some cases, on reflection, she has concluded that her reactions have been justified, but in others, her reactions have come from her own stress and discomfort with other political viewpoints.

Most professors Ms. Scholar knows want their classrooms to be safe places – for students they agree with and those they don’t. We also want our students to listen to and respect students with other viewpoints, support their assertions with evidence, and evaluate that evidence. When students – holding whatever viewpoint – fail to meet these ideals, it is our responsibility to challenge them (respectfully).

It takes a certain level of assertiveness to intervene well with such problems in the moment, particularly for those of us who are somewhat conflict-avoidant.The fact that we are uncomfortable with conflict does not excuse us from such conversations, however.

So what can we do? Early in the semester, we can outline rules describing our expectations about our classroom. This is Ms. Scholar’s statement in one syllabus:

We’re a community: your presence matters to the success of this course and to the experience of your fellow students. Your active involvement enriches your learning and that of your classmates. As a result, your fellow students and I expect you will come to class regularly, read the material carefully before class, actively help your classmates learn, and listen to their views of their world. I’ll do the same. If you are having difficulties in class, please come talk to me!

Better yet, we can develop these rules with our students. Rather than only being a statement in a syllabus, however, this should be part of an ongoing conversation throughout the semester. What does it mean to listen well to someone else? What does it mean to challenge someone respectfully?

When we notice students violating our classroom rules – or handling them especially well – we should talk about it: “Malia, I know you have something you want to say. Can you wait for D’Ja to finish her argument?” “Malcolm, you did a great job summarizing Alicia’s argument and challenging her assumptions respectfully.”

Your question is an important one, but it sets up a false dichotomy. In every course we need to focus on creating a climate promoting open discussion. In every class period, we need to recognize both positive communication and problems and address them.

Addressing the nature of classroom discussions, behaviors, and skills on an ongoing basis requires a fair amount of vigilance and assertiveness. It is easier to be vigilant and assertive, however, when one starts from the semester’s very beginning.

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


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2 Responses to Dear Fingernails on Chalkboard

  1. drolivas says:

    In my syllabi, I include “Participation and collegiality” as a graded item. My description reads: “Students with perfect attendance and collegial interaction with fellow students and Instructor will receive 100 pts. Those not attending class, or whose minds are elsewhere, show poor quality in their interactions (e.g., use mean-spirited sarcasm, lack of civility or respect) should expect less.” And, of course, I try to model those expectations by keeping the classroom as constructive as possible (I agree it’s not an easy thing to do sometimes!)…


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