How to Avoid Being a Jerk in the Classroom

jerkClasses start this week for many universities and colleges across the country. We are materially ready: we have written syllabi and assignments, created lesson plans, written lectures or podcasts, and psyched ourselves up (or out) to start teaching again. We are ready for any potential student-produced shenanigans: we have read all the ProfHacker posts on the “disruptive student” (all six of them are available). And we have readied our technology for the term: Doodle or Tungle, iPad, or Blog as CMS. We are ready to start the academic year.

Or are we? Have we tweaked and modified our own professorial professionalism? Do we know which behaviors we exhibit that confound and anger students? Do we know how to avoid being “Professor Jerk” in the classroom?

What constitutes professional behavior in a university or college classroom is, of course, dependent upon context: geographic location, professor’s age or gender, the discipline, and the campus culture. And of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but we typically know jerky behavior when we see it. It’s just that sometimes we don’t see it in ourselves. To others, though, the jerky behavior is blatant. It’s mean spirited. It’s meant to demean students (in the examples that follow).

For fun, I conducted a very informal poll of my Facebook pals: “How do you avoid being a jerk in the classroom.” Here are some responses plus a few more that are legendary “Professor Jerk” behaviors:

  1. Having a bad day? Car didn’t start this morning? You spilled your Starbucks on the way to work? Your spouse is divorcing you? Your dog died? Your life is not your students’ problem. Don’t be a jerk and take your frustrations out on them.
  2. Do you have course policies for your students (attendance, tardiness)? Then abide by the same rules. Don’t be a jerk and saunter into class at five minutes after the hour (when classes start on the hour) because, after all, “they will wait for you.”
  3. Do you have a policy that you don’t accept late work from students? Don’t ask students to do anything you can’t do, then get mad at them for being unable to do what you asked. “The worst are professors who go nuts about due dates but who themselves are continually asking for extensions from editors and colleagues,” via Doug Hesse.
  4. Do you have a Ph.D. (or other terminal degree)? It probably got you the job you now hold, but it’s not something to wield over innocent undergrads (or graduate students, for that matter). The Ph.D. means that you know things. OK, move along. Don’t be an insufferable jerk and tell students that your degree allows you to treat them any way you wish.
  5. Remember when you were a student? You haven’t always had that Ph.D.; try to remember what it was like not to know something. (via Seth Kahn)
  6. Do you have a rockin’ personal life? (“Member of the glitterati” is what your friends call you!) Then keep it to yourself. Sharing a little of our personal lives can be a good thing in the classroom. Over sharing, on the other hand, breeds resentment. Do students really need to know that you are late with your car payment, that you need a medical procedure (again), or that at the club last night you hooked-up with Ms./Mr. Right Now? Don’t be a jerk.
  7. Do you use humor in your classes? Great! (Check out this post [and comments] if you do, or think you do.) Don’t let your students be the butt of your jokes. Ever. (via Annie Bullock)
  8. Do you ever make mistakes in your classes? Admit it, apologize (especially if the mistake was aimed at students), and move on graciously. Don’t be a jerk; learn to laugh at yourself. (via Risa Gorelick-Odom)
  9. Do you assign work for students to do outside of class? Then return it in a reasonable amount of time, says Barbara L’Eplattenier. Students work hard (usually) and they want to know how they did. Don’t be a jerk and make them wait weeks and weeks for feedback because you “just can’t bear to read that crap” (emphasis mine).
  10. Do you say things like “I can’t bear to read that crap” about student effort? Maybe another line of work would suit you better? “Don’t talk shit about your students outside of the classroom. That attitude is harder to switch off than some teachers seem to think. And the rest of us don’t want to hear it anyhow,” via Mike Garcia.

So, how do you avoid being a jerk in the classroom? It’s really quite simple, and it’s something we all learned in grade school: the golden rule, or the ethic of reciprocity. Remembering the four tenets of the ethic of reciprocity (kindness, compassion, understanding, and respect) go a long, long way in keeping us from exhibiting jerky behaviors. Treat students with kindness. Understand that they are often young and inexperienced in your discipline. Know that they will make mistakes and that’s how they will learn. Remember what it was like when you were a student. Did your professors make you suffer through boorish behaviors? There’s no reason to continue that tradition. Respect what the students bring to the classroom, as it’s rich and interesting. Remember, they are looking to you to be the model of professional behavior. Or, to put it simply: students look to you to be the grownup

What are some other jerky behaviors we want to avoid in the classroom? Clearly, there are more than the 10 ill-advised behaviors listed above. Please leave your suggestions of jerk-like behaviors from faculty in comments below. Additionally, let us know how we might avoid those potential problems.

[Image by Flickr user Frogmuseum2 and used under the Creative Commons license.]

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