One of the many issues that new teachers most fear is that of how to deal with conflict in the classroom. It is the instructor’s responsibility to strive to create a mutually respectful learning environment. At times, however, situations arise which make this ideal state of affairs impossible. What should be done if a student becomes aggressive, either verbally or physically, or bullies other students or even the instructor? How can such a volatile situation be dealt with in a professional, cool-headed manner? While each episode of this nature will of course be unique, there are many resources available as to how one should best approach such an unpleasant turn of events, and satisfactorily resolve it.

Tips for Conflict Resolution

  • Be sure to clearly lay out the conduct guidelines on the first day of class, and to remind students of these rules at other points throughout the semester. If your school has their own police force, it's a good idea to remind students that they can and would intervene if necessary. Conflicts can easily escalate into more dangerous situations, so it’s not unreasonable to make it clear to the class that incidents of this type, however small, are not matters to be taken lightly.
  • In attempting to reign in hostile students, be civil but firm. Remind them that they are in a university classroom, and that threatening behavior of any type – again, whether verbal, physical, or even merely implied – is unacceptable. There have been too many horrific incidents on college campuses over the years, to simply ignore any potential threat. Again, make it clear that, just as in our post-9/11 world, where we are subject to greater levels of scrutiny when we travel, so too, in the wake of incidents such as the shootings at Virginia Tech, must students be aware that a higher level of vigilance with regard to any potentially violent behavior in the classroom is required.
  • If you have not been successful in preventing unwanted behavior through these kinds of cautionary statements, and a student begins to act in a threatening manner, escalate the situation to a superior. If this happens, don’t panic! Dismiss your class, and exit quietly. Do not provoke an altercation with the offending student.
  • Document the incident thoroughly. Be sure that when you report it to your superior, you give a detailed account of what transpired.

What the Experts say— Patrick Morrissette, author of “Reducing Incivility in the University/College Classroom,” states that “uncivil student behavior against faculty in higher education has gained increased media attention. According to recent reports, such behavior may be increasing, thus jeopardizing the welfare of faculty, students, and the overall educational process.” He defines incivility as “the intentional behavior of students to disrupt and interfere with the teaching and learning process of others. This behavior can range from students who dominate and foster tension in the classroom to students who attend classes unprepared, are passively rude, or unwilling to participate in the learning process” (1). This type of behavior “disrupts the learning process” and “is a blatant violation of student rights.” It is “a form of bullying” because “disruptive students purposefully interrupt the teaching process and interfere with student learning” (2). So, what is an instructor to do? Morrissette believes that “uncivil student conduct in the college/university classroom can be reduced and/or eliminated when faculty assume a proactive stance, reflect on their contributions to hostile interactions, and employ practical prevention strategies” (3). Clearly, an uncivil classroom environment cannot be tolerated. While it’s unfortunately true that “such situations will arise despite [the] best efforts to create a respectful learning environment,” here are some strategies which can help (6-10):

  • Use Effective Communication Skills
  • Spell Out Academic and Behavioral Expectations in the Syllabus
  • Arrange for Mid-term Teaching Feedback
  • Arrange for Peer Observations and Reviews
  • Establish a Collaborative, Rather than Competitive, Learning Environment
  • Set a Good Example
  • Reframe Potential Conflicts
  • Re-engage Students
  • Establish a Student Grievance Process

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