Is it just me or does it seem that college students have less respect for their professors than in past decades? Have students become more demanding, less responsible, and deficient in plain old common courtesy? What ever happened to civility in the classroom?
Interestingly enough, Albert Shanker addressed this potential problem back in 1995 at a conference held by the American Federation of Teachers. He stated that public schools suffer from inappropriate behavior from students because the students have been taught that this is acceptable at an early age. A six year old is disruptive and the other students look around to see what will happen, convinced that if a lightening bolt doesn’t come down from the skies, that at the very least the student will be sent to the principal’s office. But as Shanker says, many times nothing happens. There is no punishment. And the rest of the students realize that the teacher is not the leader of the class…the six year old is.
Fast forward twelve years and these same students are now in college. My first introduction to this problem of classroom management occurred several years ago when I experienced the “class from hell.” At the time, I had been teaching for 20 years and was just dumbfounded by the behavior of the students in this class:
- coming to class tardy,
- having their cell phone ring during class,
- leaving in the middle of class to go to the bathroom,
- turning in papers late.
One student even fell asleep during every class period. After whining several times with my colleagues about my students’ behavior, I finally decided I had to do something. Not all my colleagues agree but I decided to return to a “zero tolerance” policy for disruptive behavior.
I went back into that class at mid-term and laid down some new ground rules. First, I apologized. After all, I was teaching them management skills but had not set up my expectations so really I had no right to be angry. So I told them…here are the new rules.
- Turn off your cell phone when you come to class.
- Be in class, seated, and ready to participate at the beginning of the class time.
- Plan to spend the entire period in class unless you have cleared an exception with me beforehand.
- Expect to attend to bathroom and other needs before class.
- Expect to contribute your share of work to your team project and do your best to make the team experience a positive one for all members.
- Keep an open mind and treat members of the class, guest speakers, and me with respect.
I have to admit that even I, a tenured full professor, hesitated before laying down the law with that class. After all, those all-important student evaluations are used in making my pay raise decisions too. However, I began talking to friends and colleagues at other universities and found out that they were experiencing the same problems.
While most “new” teachers are comfortable with the content of what they are teaching, many do not feel that their doctorate-granting institutions have prepared them in “how” to manage their classrooms. Even those of us who have been doing this for a while may not feel that we really know how to discipline our students or even that we should have to. After all, shouldn’t college students know how to conduct themselves in a classroom?
So what advice would I give to others in taking back this control? One of the most important things is to establish the tone of the class on that very first day. Essentially this first class period is exciting and scary for both the student and the professor as both are meeting each other for the first time. Even for students who have had the professor for class before, there is some anxiety as to what this class will involve. Just as many of us tend to make snap judgments when we meet someone new, most students decide that first day how they feel about that particular course, whether they like the subject matter, the other students in the class, and the teacher. Thus it makes sense to make the first day of class a successful one that sets the tone, requirements, and expectations of the class.
And did my students “ding” me on evaluations at the end of that semester? No. In fact they seemed appreciative that I had established some guidelines and let them know my expectations. Perhaps in the long run, they find this new informality in the classroom uncomfortable also.