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Disruptive Student Behavior: The Bullies

Evidence of bullying behavior is all around us.  Last year, three incidents of this type of behavior happened in one week, and they all made national headlines:  Kanye West charged the stage, stole the microphone at the VMA awards, and proceeded to tell the audience why he felt Beyonce should have won the award instead of the usurped Taylor Swift.  Tennis player Serena Williams berated and threatened a line judge at the U. S. Open because of what she felt was a bad call.  Lastly, and while not bullying in the strictest sense, South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson shouted out “You lie!” during a speech President Barack Obama gave to the joint session of Congress.

Other cases of bullying behavior are not quite as public, but they are, perhaps, more common.  On the sidelines of an Under-6 boys and girls’ soccer game (kindergartners), parents yell and scream obscenities at the teenage referees about missed calls.  At a local restaurant, patrons demean and criticize the server for not bringing them exactly what they want when they want it.  In schools, children seem to be emulating their parents’ examples.  If they don’t get what they want when they want it—even from their teachers—the children yell and scream, demean and criticize.

In Missouri, Lori Drews, a grown woman, used technology to bully Megan Meier, a teenage girl, and Meier committed suicide.  Recently, a number of young people—teenagers—committed suicide after being bullied about their sexual orientation.  Even in higher education, as reported in The Chronicle, workplace bullying appears to have caused one man’s death.

Bullying and abusive behavior is becoming all too common in our society, and it’s trickling down to our classrooms.  ProfHacker’s “Disruptive Student” series takes on the bullies.  We ask that you observe a few caveats, however:

  • The first caveat: In this series, we will present a few scenarios, and it’s clear that how we handle these scenarios depends upon the discipline, the class size, and the culture of an institution.  We try to include as many of these variables as we can, while understanding that we can’t account for every situational difference.  What we are discussing here are behaviors that—no matter the discipline or the institutional culture—impede learning for other students.
  • The second caveat: ProfHacker is not a place to complain about students.  That is not what this series of posts attempts.  Instead, we want to focus on what we can do, positively and professionally, to handle the sometimes-difficult situations we can have with students.
  • Lastly, please don’t focus solely on the examples in each scenario.  These are merely examples that I chose to use.  I could have chosen to use others.  The examples are only important in that they are controversial and cause the bully to emerge.

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Scenario #1: You are new professor, just a year or so out of graduate school, at a small liberal arts college with a diverse student population.  You teach a small course (15-20 students) that is discussion-based.  You assess student learning by quizzes, essays, and journal submissions.  One of these students is a retired police officer, Bill, who “encourages” his classmates to give him their study notes so, as he puts it, “we can all be on the same page.”  You sense he intimidates the other students—by his former profession, which he speaks about frequently, but also his size and demeanor—but they hand over their notes.  You ask your department chair how to handle the situation.  Your chair says to ignore the case, as the “students need to learn to handle these situations.”  You feel conflicted.  What do you do?

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Scenario #2: You are an experienced educator at a regional state university where the student population is not very diverse.  You are teaching a large class (over 50 students).  You expect a lot of conversation, movement, and collaboration among all students, as this is a hands-on course.  In fact, you strive to group and regroup students at each class session, so they are frequently working with new people.  However, you notice that a small group of men and women—the Busy Bees—dominate class-wide discussion and they refuse to participate in collaborative work that is not conducted with their friends.  Additionally, when students outside this group are speaking to the entire class, those inside the group will interrupt the speakers, laugh loudly at something not relevant to the on-going conversation, or they will talk to one another, thereby ignoring the speaker completely.  Several students have complained about the intimidation and the lack of respect they feel around the “inside group.”  You ask the “Busy Bees” to recognize how they are coming across to their peers, and how they might consider modifying their behavior.  The Busy Bees demand that you provide them with names and exact complaints so they can corroborate your assessment, as they feel they have been “giving” to those who are not as fortunate as they are.  What do you do?

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Scenario #3: You are an untenured faculty member in a mid-sized department that is, for the most part, very collegial and polite.  Your university has a solid reputation, but it is not a ranked, nationally known institution.  You are proud of where you work.  Your colleagues like you, and you like them.  Recently, however, you have noticed a trend in hallway conversations and in social gatherings.  Your colleagues criticize a faculty member who is not like them in many ways.  This criticism ranges from comments about this person’s terminal degree (as it’s not from a top-ranked institution), the types of research this person does (it’s not like the research done by others in the department), and your colleagues even criticize the types of clothing this person wears.  You want to ignore the criticism as it seems petty, but then you realize that your colleagues are “circling the tenure wagons.”  Your criticized colleague is not involved in department decisions, is not included in department social events, and is, in some ways, being held to a much higher standard than the tenured faculty were held to.  You think your criticized colleague is a wonderful teacher and scholar, and is being treated unfairly by the rest of the department.  However, you don’t have tenure.  What do you do?

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OK.  Now it’s your turn.  What would you do about the bullying in the above scenarios? What other suggestions do you have?  Please leave comments below.

[Image by Flickr user Bill Dolak and used under the Creative Commons license.]

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