I’m thinking of those annoying things that students do, such as getting to class late, leaving early, sleeping in class, misusing electronic devices, and talking or eating during class. Your list might be different, but what really matters is how we respond to annoyances and what those responses do to or for efforts to learn in the course. While I don’t have a corner on the best way to respond, here are some options to consider.
Start with a quick review. How do you respond to annoyances? Are your responses effective, as in they stop the behavior? How do your responses influence others in the class? How do they make you feel? We don’t need deep psychological analysis here but rather something like a thoughtful review, a quiet taking stock, and not necessarily a mandate for change. Although with some new insights and options, there might be better ways to respond. Either way, here’s the place to end: with a renewed sense that you’re responding consistently with who you are and want to be as a teacher.
Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. There’s a tendency to overreact, to forget that as a teacher you’ve got two concerns. Is the annoying behavior compromising the learning efforts of other students? Is it compromising your efforts to teach? The bigger concern needs to be whether the behavior is getting in the way of learning. Then, I think, we have a responsibility to act, but we shouldn’t base our responses on assumptions. What annoys us doesn’t always annoy students. Yes, how the behavior affects us matters, but sometimes we are so vested in our teaching and so don’t recognize this emotional involvement that we fail to see it clouding our objectivity. That’s when molehills start looking like mountains.
Don’t assume the behavior is an intentional effort to annoy you. Doing so may be evidence of overreacting. Sometimes students fall asleep in class because the presentation is boring. Sometimes they fall asleep because they’re tired—from working extra hours, caring for a sick family member, studying for an exam, partying with friends. Not all their reasons are good ones, but often they have nothing to do with the teacher. Students do challenge teacher authority and purposefully do things to annoy the teacher, but does that happen often enough to justify making it the default assessment of every annoying behavior?
Make behavior in the classroom everybody’s business. Early in the course, get students involved in identifying the behaviors of other students that disrupt efforts to learn. You might be really courageous and ask what teachers do that gets in the way of learning. Let students identify those behaviors anonymously, share the results with the class, and then ask for a collective response to behaviors that disrupt learning. Checking progress every now and then during the course serves as a reminder and reinforces the idea that what happens in the classroom is everybody’s responsibility.
Try a private response before a public one. If a student arrives late, stumbling across other students to find a seat, speak to the student privately. Face-to-face is best, but an email or a text is a good alternative. Find out what the problem was. Maybe the reason was legitimate; maybe the student will make up a reason. But listen first and start with a request for the appropriate behavior. The stakes rise significantly when the rebuke is public.
Identify and occasionally note behaviors that support efforts to learn. Most of us can quickly name student annoyances. But are we as quick to identify and acknowledge behaviors that support learning? Some students regularly listen attentively, provide encouraging nonverbal feedback, ask questions, rephrase what they think we’ve said, provide an example, respond to something another student said, and occasionally offer a bit of humor that sends a ripple of laughter around the room. A regular sprinkle of those behaviors and you’ve got a community of learners.
Give yourself a break. Annoying behaviors happen in real time. You’re teaching, your head filled with the content and your attention directed around the room, and two students in back start quietly chatting with each other. Other students are looking in their direction. It’s a disruption that merits a response, and there’s no time for a thoughtful review of options. You respond. Whatever the result, you’ve taken an action intending to defend of the climate for learning, and for that you deserve credit.
Teaching happens day in and day out. It’s easy to go through the motions, to move quickly from one teaching detail to the next almost without thinking. We end up in ruts and find ourselves relying on well-worn ways. We must remind ourselves that to teach well and with energy, we need to stop and look at what we are doing. We should take that look with candor, thoughtful analysis, and the belief that there just may be a better way—in this case, to respond to annoying student behaviors.