Dear Bully in the Classroom

Dear Ms. Scholar, How do you deal with difficult, confrontational students who blame you for everything and get angry when you (very politely, and in the most tactful manner) give them negative feedback on their work? I have such a student, and I am at the end of my rope with her. This student, nothing short of a bully, was difficult during the first two or three weeks of the semester, but things got better. And now this.

Her teammate commented that she was very difficult to deal with – and she is her friend! I just don’t want to finish the semester on a sour note.


Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Bully in the Classroom, I wish that there was an easy answer. Bullying clearly impacts you and often impacts your students. It can interfere with both teaching and learning by spoiling classroom climate and creating maladaptive group norms.

When do people bully? Most people are more “difficult” when they are frustrated and feel a situation is unfair (because they aren’t doing as well as they believe they should be doing, for example). We are often more difficult in one situation when we are having difficulties in other settings – her behavior may have nothing to do with you or your course! Your student may be having a bad day or be someone who holds the belief that aggression is necessary to get ahead in life (Grant, 2019).

At the same time, it seems helpful to think about what you can do to de-escalate problems and increase the frequency of better times. When we pay attention to our contributions to problems, we can put our best foot forward and recognize what part of the problem is ours and what is our student’s. This may prevent overreacting or responding  inappropriately to her behavior.

To what degree, for example, do her concerns make sense? Have you, for example, fallen into a negative feedback cycle, where it is much easier to focus on her “misbehaviors” (e.g., texting despite classroom rules)? To what degree have negative communication patterns become normative? Are you remembering to give her positive feedback for the things that are working? Effective communicators cool down before responding and help the “bully” cool down, too (Grant, 2019).

Let me repeat: recognizing your control doesn’t mean that problems are your fault, but Ms. Scholar does believe you can identify the control possible in this clearly difficult situation.

Ms. Scholar has a “bullying” student this semester. This student does not accept No for an answer and repeatedly asks the same question until he gets what he wants. He has turned in most assignments late. After failing the first two of three exams, he asked if it was still possible to earn a B! Listening helps in our interactions, but the only thing that really seems to settle him down is when I give in – which I only want to do when he’s right.

But Ms. Scholar’s student is sometimes right. She was irritated one class when he was holding his phone up and texting in class. When she challenged him about this, he said that his computer was broken and that he needed to take notes on his phone. Ah! Ms. Scholar calmed down and class went smoothly from that point on.

Ms. Scholar’s best efforts do not always work, however.

Ms. Scholar has had students post things in discussion boards that appeared quite rude. Open texting in class feels rude, but Ms. Scholar’s students typically don’t see this as a problem. She is fascinated by rules of courtesy and tone, so wonders how much classroom incivility is intentional bullying and how much is a student taking on the cultural (bullying) tone of, say, the comments section of social media. Perhaps our students do not intend to be bullying and a reminder of good Netiquette would be sufficient.

Ms. Scholar finds that she is most likely to be reactive to rudeness and bullying of any sort when she is tired, stressed, and overworked; the end of the semester can be an especially dangerous time. To the degree possible, make sure that you are sleeping and engaging in regular self-care so that you can be your best self, so that you can respond toward your student in the way that you want to respond. 

Regardless, talk to your chair (and others) to make sure that you have people who know what’s happening, people who you trust who can give you support and advice. They can also help you obtain other perspectives on her behavior and your responses. – Ms. Scholar.


Grant, A. (2019). How to deal with a jerk without becoming a jerk. New York Times. Retrieved from

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

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