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:
- A student who consistently challenges the instructor’s authority or knowledge (such as excessive questioning or making inappropriate comments about the instructor’s abilities)
- A student who deliberately disrupts the classroom (such as dominating class discussions, engaging in leisure conversations, being chronically late to class, being unprepared, or causing a scene)
- A student who is impolite to others in the classroom (such as competing with fellow students or insulting others’ opinions)
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:
- Complete a Class Inventory and Self-Assessment. Prior to the start of the semester, ask yourself the following questions:
- What specific aspects of this particular class are most likely to be a source of conflict or tension in the classroom? For example, will you be teaching sensitive material that may challenge some of your student’s strongly held beliefs? Are the students likely to take issue with any of your class expectations? Will the students deem your grading policies unfair or too harsh? Or, will the size of the class itself make students feel undervalued or unappreciated in any way?
- How do you usually react to conflict (in general)? Spend some time considering your natural reaction to tense situations (Johnston, 2010a). For example, do you prefer to avoid it altogether? Do you always look for a compromise when resolving friction? Do you have a tendency to escalate a disagreement because you enjoy competing with others? After discovering your typical style of conflict management, consider its effectiveness within the classroom. If necessary, consider exploring other styles of conflict management for the sake of keeping harmony in the classroom.
If you are interested in learning more about conflict management styles, consider reading the Thomas Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument (2007). This resource not only examines the different ways to deal with difficult situations, it also gives the reader an individualized assessment of his/her abilities for handling conflict.
- What strategies will you employ if a difficult situation arises in this particular class? (Johnston, 2010a) Obviously, every class and situation will be different, but having a plan on how to deal with conflict before it occurs is much easier than making it up on the spot. See the “What should I do when conflict actually happens?” section below.
- Conduct a Classroom Discussion. On the first day of class, be sure to spend time discussing your policies (attendance, grading, in-class behavior etc.) and your expectations of your students (commitment, workload, assessments etc.). Even though you should include all of these in your syllabus, have an honest and transparent conversation with your students to ensure that everyone is on the same page with you (Morrissette, 2001).
- Build a Community. In the first week of class, spend time cultivating a professional relationship with your students (Managing Classroom Conflict, 2004). Build rapport and trust with your students through various ice-breaker activities. Learn your students’ names and get to know a little about their lives and interests. Similarly, exercise some self-disclosure about your life, background and your interest in the subject that you are teaching. By doing so, students will feel more welcome, acknowledged, respected, and perhaps motivated which will contribute to a positive tone and learning environment for the class. Additionally, by establishing a “group” feeling to the class, students will often conform to the unwritten social rules and behavior of the group.
- Model Behavior. It is crucial that you model appropriate in-class (and out-of-class!) behavior to your students at all times. Students are more likely to follow your lead, such as good communication skills (speaking, listening, body language etc.), if you regularly demonstrate it to them (Morrissette, 2001).
- Exercise Empathy. Recall some of the challenges that you may have faced as an undergraduate and be willing to remind yourself of these throughout the semester. Students (and instructors!) encounter various challenges and stress on a daily and weekly basis. For example, many students continue to face pressure to earn good grades while still juggling school, work, and family responsibilities. By remembering some of the common struggles that our students face, we can more easily understand their point of view that may potentially lead to a confrontational situation.
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:
- Do Not Ignore It. Whenever student incivility occurs in the classroom, it needs to be addressed. If an instructor fails to acknowledge it or take any action to stifle it, this can often lead to the behavior being repeated in the future. This will not only poison the classroom atmosphere but can also affect the morale of the instructor.
- Remain Calm. Even though it is likely to irk you in one way or another, avoid reacting in a defensive manner because a poor reaction will only escalate the situation. Obviously, if an instructor reacts with anger, the student will probably follow suit. Instead, try to display patience, respect and kindness as much as possible in order to diffuse the situation. By remaining calm, you will also ease the angst of the other students in the classroom (Managing Classroom Conflict, 2004).
- Listen and Repeat. Whenever you are addressing student incivility, whether it is in front of others, at the conclusion of class, or during your office hours, always be sure to listen closely to what the student is saying. Then, carefully repeat back to the student what you believe you are hearing (Managing Classroom Conflict, 2004). This active-listening strategy can be very helpful for a couple of reasons.
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.
- Take Action. Attempt to resolve the situation in the best possible way. Depending on the circumstances, you may want to address the issue at that very moment (during class), or you may want to request that the individual meet with you at the conclusion of class (Johnston, 2010a). (Note: If the student continues to be problematic even after you have taken action to resolve the situation, consider taking a short recess so that you can still maintain a positive classroom environment and address the issue in private). Again, whatever action that you decide to take will depend on the circumstances (see the “Online Resources” section below), but always ensure that it de-escalates the situation and sustains a sense of normalcy in the classroom. By the way, be sure to always reflect on the situation afterwards in order to determine if you handled it the most appropriate and effective way (in the event it happens again in the future!) (Managing Classroom Conflict, 2004).
- Consult Others. Depending on the type and pattern of the student incivility (such as disrupting other students), you may want to seek advice from fellow faculty members. Teaching styles will vary, but experienced instructors may be able to offer some helpful tips for dealing with certain types of conflict in the classroom. If necessary, invite faculty members to attend your class in order to give them a clearer idea about the situation.
- Contact the Department Chair. Depending on the severity of the situation, you may want to report it to the chair of your department (Morrissette, 2001). He or she will always want to be informed of the larger instances of conflict in the classroom in the event a student decides to take any outside-of-class action (such as approaching university administration) in retaliation against the instructor.
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.
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:
- Retta Poe’s “Hitting a Nerve: When Touchy Subjects Come Up in Class” http://www.psychologicalscience.org/teaching/tips/tips_1100.cfm
- Lee Warren’s “Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom” http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/html/icb.topic58474/hotmoments.html
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:
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