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How Do You Handle Difficult Situations with Students?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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"So do you have a problem with me?" the student asked.

"Yes I do." I testily answered. "You need to be quiet and listen to the teacher!"

"What do you care? Just keep fixing that computer!" replied the student.

Unfortunately, I was only a visitor in the classroom that day (there to fix the computer). The above exchange occurred when I just couldn't stand it any longer and turned and looked for the student who was making all that noise while the teacher was trying to teach high school biology.

I must have had an angry look on my face when I turned to look, and that single look got a nasty reaction. It didn't get any better between that student and me. But it did get me thinking: What would I have done differently to diffuse the situation if I were the teacher?

I'm not going to talk about the sad state of society where students can feel comfortable being rude to adults, nor will I discuss any specifics about the student. I am also not going to address that the teacher seemed oblivious to what was going on between the student and this visitor. (My reason for not tackling any of those topics? If we are to fix education, we have to stop blaming and making excuses. We just need to fix it starting with ourselves!)

As I mentioned above, my facial expression may have cued the response. Perhaps when I looked in a perturbed fashion at this student it was viewed as a challenge. I wonder if it would have been any different if I had kept my face passive. Probably. But, after all, I communicated what I really wanted to communicate. With just my look, I told this student that I was displeased.

Then I thought, what could I have said that would have made things better? I know that humor is the best thing to deflect angry situations, but I was peeved. I wish I had recalled in that moment all the research that shows when you are irritated, your brain basically shuts off.

Maybe I should have said with a wry smile, "I'm sorry, the teacher is speaking so loudly that I cannot hear what you are saying." Or perhaps I could have stated, "Nope, I am just sitting here listening to you enjoying the Kreb cycle." If I had had my wits about me I could have -- and probably should have -- stood up and introduced myself to that student: "Oh, I'm sorry, we have not been properly introduced. I am the all powerful and wise adult. And you are?" All of these would have either made the student laugh or at least embarrassed the student enough to keep the student quiet. They would have had a more desirous outcome than what I did say.

Although I'm in classrooms daily, I typically do not have the pressure of getting students to do what they do not want to do. However, something I do know for certain: By allowing negative student behaviors to continue, teachers are not doing anyone a favor. We have to do something.

That is why I felt compelled to do something, so I gave the student "the look," and my authority as an adult was then challenged. Then, wisely or not, I decided to assert that authority. Both of us lost our dignity that day. And I admit I played my part in this.

I am curious to know: What would you have done in this situation? Please also share successful strategies for diffusing unnecessary conflicts. We are all in this together. I look forward to your suggestions and ideas.

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Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


Thank you so much for starting things out the right way in your post. No amount of complaining about students and the way things are will change it. But what I can change and control is myself. I saw myself to blame in this situation 1) for losing control of my emotions 2) for not engaging my brain and calling on the experience of 22 years, and perhaps most damningly 3) for falling into the trap that I have counseled hundreds of students to not fall into- reaction.

Was this student innocent. By no means. Was the acting teacher innocent? By no means. But in that instance, there was something I could do and I failed to do it.--There was no guarantee that it would work, but I did not even try.

On another note-- I agree with you-- in general, teachers talk too much and we bore the students because we think that is what teaching is all about--talking to the students. Any way, thanks for the comment.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]I love posts that get me to do a bit of reflection. I teach kindergarten children and at any given time during a whole group lesson, I will have children off task and not listening. Here are some of the reasons:

1. I'm boring them with too much talk

2. Someone at their table is talking and they are distracted then asking that person to be quiet

3. The dynamic of certain groups of students causes them to be uncontrollably silly just by looking at each other

4. Emotional challenges of individual students including ADHA must be accounted for

5. School structure, parents, administration, and support services are not helping the teacher to meet all student needs with the necessary backup. (Where is the para support if this student regularly disrupts everyone's teaching/learning time?)

6. And there's no denying that some teachers don't have the skill or interest (any more) to try and change the situation.

Too many schools pass students along to new classes year after year because the System doesn't give the students the real support that's needed. Environments like that are like captaining a ship through a storm. Your were cruising by that day and happened to see the challenge that teacher faces every day. That's when classroom teachers jump ship and find jobs that are less stressful and more satisfying.

You were distracted by the student. Some of the kids around him were distracted as well. I guess my advice to you would be to have a gentle and understanding conversation with the teacher at some point to fill you in on how the situation got to that point.[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


Of course you are right. I should not have said anything in deference to the teacher. The student was a high school student and the teacher was droning on in front of the class and gave no indication of knowing that this student was chatting loudly with another student. In defense of the teacher, the school is an alternative education school and most likely what you said is true- the teacher's method of handling the issue was to ignore it-- either that or the teacher was so abused by this student that, rather than get in a verbal altercation again, the teacher chose to let it slide. I disagree with either one of those strategies and believe they are ultimately damaging to the student and all the other students in the class.

But what I was most frustrated about was my reaction to the student. I know how to deflect direct frontal verbal attacks, but because I was upset- my brain turned off- I did not even try. Instead I fell flat into the trap and it was bad for everyone. My only consolation is that I learned a valuable lesson.

Thanks for the comments

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]Hi Ben,

As you said many issues were taking place to make this situation uncomfortable, and in the end an arguement. First of all, I would suggest that as to your role that day is not to enter into a verbal confrentation without background knowledge of the child or teacher. There are many scenarios I could list where the teacher was allowing this to happen, and where you could have gotten in even deeper than you did. As a student, this may be exactly what he wanted. I would suggest without this prior knowledge, try to do your job without stepping outside your role. If this is difficult, then wait till after class and approach the teacher about what happenned and find out the circumstances that way. I would be offended if a visitor of my classroom just started disciplining my students without permission to take on that role.[/quote]

Cathy Hardy's picture

I, too, have felt that uncomfortable feeling after a confrontation when I know I could have handled it differently. Being a visitor does put you at a disadvantage because you don't know the student's situation. I think I might have tried a "help me" approach in this situation. If I could catch his eye, gesture or ask if he could come over for a minute. (I am assuming that him coming over wouldn't be any more of a problem to the teacher than his behavior was.) Ask, could you do me a favor? or, I could really use your help. If his response was less than confrontational, then explain how the noise was making it difficult for me to get my job done. Since it was clear he was a leader of that group, could he help quiet them down so I can get done & out of there. Or something along those lines. The trick is to not sound sarcastic but genuinely interested in getting his help.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


I like your idea. Had I been in my right mind, I could have signaled to the teacher that there was a situation that required her attention. All around it was a bad situation. Part of the problem was that since I am an educator, it just rubbed me the wrong way to see a student behave that way to a teacher. If I was just a tech person, I might have been able to ignore it better.

Thanks for the comment.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Teri's picture

I'm a teacher, but I also observe other teachers quite a bit so I have been in a position to observe students behavingly "badly" when the teacher wasn't aware.

I think most of us (adults included) do not react well to be chastised--verbally or nonverbally--by strangers. Criticism typically requires a more trusting relationship between the two parties in order for it to be well received.

I think my reaction to your situation would have been along the lines of trying guiding the student back to positive behavior while supporting the teacher's instruction. Maybe something like a whispered, "Wow. This is getting interesting." (Implying that you had been listening to the teacher and were being drawn in yourself.) Or perhaps, "This sound like something you'll need to know" (as your head motions encouragingly toward the teacher's instruction).

It is difficult to surpress our indignation or displeasure when we see people behaving badly, but expressing these negative reactions rarely gets us the response we hope for.

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

As has been noted, you were the visitor. I would suggrst more observation first. Were there othets not paying attention? Did the student try to disrupt the class?
Also, how much experience does the teacher have - in general and with teaching biology?
After the class, a conversation with the teacher, beginning with "You really have your hands full with that class ..." or "Wow, that one student really wants to cause problems ...." seems more appropriate.
Hopefully teacher-to-teacher dialogue is encouraged in the school system. Honest discussion with the teacher at this point would identify issues with the student or the teacher or both.
Knowing the issues, options can be considered / discussed.
Without any doubt however, you should never "overlook" the situation, doing nothing.

Maud McBride's picture

We need to let them know we care before they will care about what we say. They are, after all, children.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


That's a tall order considering there is so much discussion (argument) about what is "proper". I heard later that this student has parents that behave the same way and see nothing wrong with it. For them, that is proper. I can see that to a certain extent, a function of school is to culturalize, socialize and some would say civilize students. I went into a science classroom of 4th graders and they were bouncing off the walls. The teacher had absolutely no control over them, even when she shouted. She would ask them to stop doing something and they would outright ignore her (well, pretend to obey and then go right back to doing what they were doing as soon as she left). Of course, she did nothing about it either, which was the problem. That same day, I went to the English class, and was shocked to find the same student, or were they the same? They were listening to the teacher, they were productive, and even excited about what they were learning. The teacher never had to shout and her slightest wishes were obeyed immediately. These were the same students, but this time I saw the Dr. Jekyll good side of them. As I pointed out in my blog, most of the time it is not the students causing the problem (they are just responding or taking advantage of the situation) it is the teacher who is responsible for allowing unproductive student behaviors. This brings us about full circle. A teacher needs to do as you suggested for behaviors in the classroom. A parent ultimately has the responsibility of showing the student correct models of behavior. We can encourage parents to do their parts but the only thing we really have control over is what happens in our own classrooms.

Thanks for the comment.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]i say, proper orientation and guidance for the children.[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


Perhaps if the child had known me and we had some sort of a friendly relationship, I would have behaved differently or the child would have responded differently. You are right, If I had responded, "Because you are too smart to miss opportunities to learn." or "Your teacher cares enough to present this information to you, and has high hopes that you will benefit from it.", it would have gone a long way towards not only changing the student's behavior, but also the attitude.


Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX
[quote]We need to let them know we care before they will care about what we say. They are, after all, children.[/quote]

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