Disruptive Student Behavior: The Disrespecters

Today’s ProfHacker post will provide scenarios about how the “Disrepecters”—David, Debbie, Donald, and Desiree—can challenge your authority in a classroom and impede learning for others. You’ve certainly had a student or two who have exhibited disrespectful behavior in the classroom. You know the ones: students who ask questions that are supposed to put you in your place? Yes, those students.

Maybe these students don’t realize how disrespectful (and downright rude) they come across. Maybe they do realize this and that’s their aim. Maybe they are asking sincere questions. Then again, maybe they aren’t. In context, however, you understand by tone, inflection, and body language that the students mean disrespect. (Or for the sake of this post, let’s believe they do.)

How do you deal with these questions and with these students when you encounter disrespectful behavior? At the end of this post, we’ll ask you to provide your solutions to the examples of disrespect listed below.

As always, we must recognize a few caveats for this series (and really, for all ProfHacker posts):

  • 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 each and every situational difference. What we are discussing here are behaviors that—no matter the discipline or the institutional culture—impede learning for other students.
  • That said, 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.
  • Please keep in mind ProfHacker’s audience. You may have decades of experience dealing with disrespectful students in the classroom. That’s great. Many of our readers don’t have that level of expertise. Please be respectful of them.
  • Lastly, please don’t focus solely on the examples in each scenario. These are merely examples that we chose to use. We could have chosen to use others. The examples are only important only in that they are common. in that they are controversial and cause the Thwarter to emerge. The point to these scenarios and indeed, this post, is how do we (as faculty) handle the student who expresses such a strong, immovable belief, one that stops discussion and learning from occurring for other students.

If you are unfamiliar with this ProfHacker series, you might take a look at these previous posts and the types of comments that others have left to get the kind of helpful tone we are striving for in this series:

  1. Meet Chatty Cathy and her BFF Conversational Carl
  2. What’s that Smell?
  3. The Case of Know-it-All Nancy
  4. Too Much Skin Edition
  5. T-shirt slogan Edition


The Scenarios:

  • You are a young professor, maybe your first or second year on the tenure-track. On the first day of class, a student asks you, “Are you old enough to teach this class?”
  • On the first day of class, a student asks, “Are you gay” (or a derogatory term for homosexual)?
  • You are teaching a fairly simple concept and a student yells out, “I don’t get this! You are a bad teacher!”
  • You are working with the same fairly simple concept, and a student mutters (loud enough where you can hear her): “Who is he to be telling us about this stuff? What qualifications does he have?”
  • You are new to a geographic area that is predominately one ethnicity and race, and you don’t share this with your new students. In class one day, as you are handing out a test, a student says to her neighbor, “She is just a [insert racial epithet here]. I don’t have to do what she says.]
  • You are teaching in a large lecture hall and you notice that among the 100+ students in the room, a quarter of them are reading the student newspaper or playing with their cell phones.
  • You are teaching the same 100+ student group in the large lecture hall. Twenty-five percent of the students are reading the newspaper and another 25 percent are taking with each other, conversations not related to the course content.
  • You begin to notice a pattern in your class. You are lecturing (this is the typical mode of information dissimination for your discipline) and you recognize that students are leaving the class every 10 minutes. Only a handful of students remain in class at the end of the hour.
  • You have a student who is straight from the Mark Waters Mean Girls film who says, “I don’t have to do your assignment because my dad is on the Board of Regents of this university.”


OK, there are hundreds of these scenarios, but let’s stop with these. How would you handle blatant disrespect like this in your classroom? Please leave suggestions in comments below.

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

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