HANDLING CONFLICT IN THE CLASSROOM

Prepared by Troy Lescher
Teaching, Learning, and Professional Development Center
Texas Tech University

 

Let’s face it:  conflict in the classroom is not a pleasurable topic.  Conflict can be very uncomfortable when it occurs and, sadly, educators are rarely trained on how to handle tense situations in the classroom.  Additionally, instructors sometimes feel that whenever conflict occurs in the classroom that it is a reflection of their shortcomings as teachers (Morrissette, 2001). 
The purpose of this paper is to examine some of the realities of conflict in the classroom and to provide some strategies for minimizing the likeliness of it occurring and for dealing with it when it does occur.
Keep in mind, however, that every time conflict occurs in the classroom, it will have a very different set of circumstances (such as the severity, frequency etc.).  Thus, the suggestions that are provided in this paper are just that:  suggestions.

What is conflict in the classroom?  Why does it occur?

Conflict, in its simplest terms, is the clash of two forces often times due to differing beliefs, needs, or expectations.  Within the confines of the classroom, conflict is considered to be a form of incivility, which Patrick Morrissette defines as “the intentional behavior of students to disrupt and interfere with the teaching and learning process of others” (2001, n.p.).  Thus, conflict can manifest itself among various parties (“student versus teacher” or “student versus student” or even “class versus teacher”) and in a myriad of ways.  Some of these may include:

Again, these are just a few examples of student incivility but it is clear to see how conflict can put a strain on everyone’s experience in the classroom.  

There are several theories as to why conflict in the classroom is so common today including:  a greater diversity among the student body, a larger number of students with emotional issues on campus, students being pressured to succeed, and the common perception by many students that college is a business transaction and that they are paying for higher grades (Morrissette, 2001).   

However, it is a myth that students are solely to blame for conflict in the classroom.  On the contrary, instructors are usually the primary contributing factors to student incivility (Managing Classroom Conflict, 2004).  For example, an instructor who fails to communicate effectively with his or her students is likely to encounter heated disagreements or even disputes during the semester.  Or an instructor who overlooks the importance of establishing a positive learning environment may actually be encouraging students to display resistance during class meetings.  An article by Kevin M. Johnston (2010b) includes many professor habits that students find particularly annoying:  arriving late to class and/or keeping students past the scheduled class period, giving busy and/or ungraded assignments, being unprepared or unorganized, neglecting student emails, missing office hours among others.  Thus, it is crucial that instructors always ask themselves what they may be doing to potentially enable student incivility (Morrissette, 2001).

How do I prevent conflict from even happening in my class? 

There are many things that you can do in order to decrease the chances of conflict occurring in your classroom.  Here are some suggestions:   

What should I do when conflict actually happens?

Even though you have taken steps to reduce the likeliness of it occurring, there is always a chance that conflict may materialize in the classroom.  Here are some suggestions for dealing with conflict:

One, you will be giving yourself the opportunity to better understand the source of the student’s frustration which is crucial when looking for a solution.  By expressing the student’s primary concern back to him or her, you may be able to simply reframe the entire situation and solve the problem (Morrisette, 2001).  For example, “It sounds like you are rather upset with your test grade.  Is that right?  If so, please remember that this is only 5 % of your final grade.  You will still have many more opportunities to do great in this class…”. 

Two, repeating back what you are hearing may help calm particularly agitated students because not only will they feel like they are actually being heard (by the instructor), but they will also be switching from an emotional activity to a cognitive activity (as they check for accuracy in what you repeat to them).  In other words, the students will have to start thinking about what the instructor is saying, rather than simply focusing on any anger they may be experiencing. 

Conclusion

Handling conflict in the classroom does not have to be as uncomfortable as it is often imagined.  By taking preemptive steps to decrease student incivility and by being prepared for it when it occurs, an instructor can remain empowered rather than fall powerless to the strife.

Online Resources
Do you experience common classroom management issues such as sleeping students, tardy students, excessive side conversations, dominators of class discussions etc.?  Visit Lisa Rodriguez’s “Classroom Management” to take a closer look at these typical situations as well as specific solutions for resolving them:

Do you teach sensitive content or controversial issues?  The following websites offer tips for navigating through some of these difficult terrains:   

Do you experience difficult interactions with your students (before and after class) over grading issues, student frustration or requests for turning in late work etc.?  The University of Minnesota’s Center for Teaching and Learning has created a series of short videos of these potentially challenging encounters and provides advice for handling them: 

As the instructor, what particular things are you doing that may be vexing your students?  Take a look at Michigan State University’s Teaching Thoughts #10 to find out how you may be contributing to the probability of student incivility:

Are you interested in learning more about student incivility?  The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching website at University of Michigan has additional resources for managing student behavior:

 

Additional References 

Johnston, K.M. (2010a).  Teaching Thought #7 Handling Classroom Conflict.  Teaching Assistant Program Teaching Thoughts –Michigan State University, (18-21).  Retrieved from http://tap.msu.edu/teachingthoughts/docs/TT2011.pdf

Johnston, K.M. (2010b).  Teaching Thought #10 What Undergraduates Say are the Most Irritating Faculty Behaviors.  Teaching Assistant Program Teaching Thoughts –Michigan State University, (28-29). Retrieved from http://tap.msu.edu/teachingthoughts/docs/TT2011.pdf

Managing Classroom Conflict (2004). Center for Faculty Excellence – University of North Carolina, 22.  Retrieved from http://cfe.unc.edu/pdfs/FYC22.pdf

Morrissette, P.J. (2001). Reducing Incivility in the University/College Classroom. International Electronic Journal for Leadership in Learning – University of Calgary Press, 5 (4).  Retrieved from http://www.ucalgary.ca/iejll/morrissette