Silhouettes of heads with speech bubbles.

Introduction

Conflict in the classroom can take many forms. Sometimes it’s welcomed: a discussion on a controversial subject, a disagreement about interpretation of a text or data. But other sorts are less welcome, because they disrupt student learning and/or make it hard to teach effectively. These sorts of conflicts include behaviour that:

  • Distracts, disturbs, annoys, wastes time
  • Goes against the stated/unstated codes of appropriate behaviour in the learning environment
  • Shows disrespect, hostility, prejudice or bias toward the instructor and/or other students

This resource describes possible disruptive behaviours in teaching and learning contexts, and allows you to explore your own beliefs and values in order to develop teaching practices for a variety of responses.

What is disruptive behaviour?

Social behaviours are learned, both within cultures and within specific environments. University classrooms bring together people from diverse cultures and backgrounds in a diversity of spaces and places, and it is almost a guarantee that there will be differences of opinion about what behaviours are acceptable. What is acceptable in one learning environment may not be acceptable in another, and what is acceptable to one person (whether instructor or learner) may not be acceptable to another. Yet despite this diversity, often social behaviours and norms are unstated.

To explore this further, consider this list of some potentially disruptive behaviours. Which ones do you find disruptive, and which ones would you be alright with? Would your answer change if you imagine different teaching settings (e.g. lecture hall, lab, meeting with 1-2 students, design studio, clinic…)?

  • using a laptop/tablet/smart phone for non-class purposes during class
  • coming to class unprepared
  • cell phone going off in class
  • making sarcastic remarks/gestures
  • challenging the instructor’s knowledge
  • sleeping in class
  • asking repetitive questions
  • interrupting others who are speaking

At the same time as there is room for individual interpretation, there are some types of behaviours that are clearly unacceptable, and these often have university policies and municipal/provincial/federal laws prohibiting them. These include:

  • making harassing, hostile, or offensive comments or physical gestures to the instructor and/or students
  • bullying
  • intimidation
  • stalking
  • harrassment
  • threats of violence against the instructor and/or students

The role of the instructor

In many educational resources, the instructor is framed as a manager of behaviour in the classroom. It is true that the instructor holds power and control over their course and its delivery, and also holds a responsibility to create, to the best of their abilities, an environment where all students can learn to their full potential. But it is equally important to keep in mind the nature of that authority: scholars have argued that terms such as “classroom management” imply a racist and neoliberal attitude where instructors police student bodies in an oppressive and problematic way (Kumashiro, 2009; Casey, Lozenski, & McManimon, 2013). Consider what your position is on the role of the instructor in this regard.

The University of Manitoba also has policies that inform instructor and student behaviours. The most important of these is the Respectful Work and Learning Environment Policy (RWLE). Under the RWLE, academic staff “must encourage a respectful environment within the work and learning environments for which they are primarily responsible. They are expected to identify and address issues of concern in a timely manner, recognizing the value of early intervention.” (2.6)

In addition, part of the role of instructors is to educate students regarding the RWLE policy and procedures, and to help them understand the ways in which their behaviours both inside and outside the classroom are impacted by the policy and procedure requirements. (2.11)

Proactive strategies

Nothing will prevent conflict from arising in life, but there are some evidence-based proactive strategies that can help to minimize it within teaching and learning spaces.

  1. Model desired behaviour

This could include behaviours like punctuality, preparedness, focus, organization, enthusiasm, active listening, and respectful engagement with students.

  1. Use active and engaging learning strategies

Engage students in what they are learning through activities, discussion, surveys, quick check-ins, polls, writing or drawing activities, etc. Consider this list of active learning strategies as a starting point.

  1. Set ground rules and expectations

Being clear about expectations by sharing them in the syllabus and during class time helps to make standards of behaviour more transparent for instructor and students alike. Involving students in creating shared expectations rebalances unequal power dynamics and creates a classroom environment where everyone feels they can contribute and remind others of classroom rules and guidelines. A few sample statements are included at the end of this resource.

  1. Consider your mannerisims and body language

Find mannerisms and body language that are authentic to you, but that also project a sense of leadership and confidence, without distracting students. Consider your vocal tone and volume, use of gestures and facial expressions, and use of supporting materials (e.g., slideshow presentations, visual/audio aids) to enhace rather than distract from the learning.

  1. Demonstrate leadership

Many different leadership styles exist, and students and instructors alike also hold biases (both explicit and implicit) about what leadership style is expected from a university instructor. Similar to the previous point, consider how norms of relate to your own leadership style in terms of body language, mode of address, and attire. Learn students’ names and express care and concern as appropriate.

Reactive strategies

Dealing with conflict is often difficult. Some basic strategies include:

  • use techniques to stay calm and respectful (e.g., breathing deeply, counting to 5 before responding)
  • reframe the situation with curiosity and compassion (e.g., “I wonder what’s going on for that student” rather than “That student is so rude!”)
  • remind students of previously-communicated expectations and guidelines (e.g., “Let’s all remember that we have a classroom guideline of waiting for others to finish speaking before the next person speaks.”)
  • follow up with out-of-class meetings and other communications as appropriate
  • use active listening strategies and open-ended questions to allow students to share their perspectives and allow you to fully understand the problem
  • when taking a decision, consult with all parties involved as much as possible, communicate clearly, and document your response in writing

For more serious instances of racism, sexism, harrassment, and other forms of aggression, or for times when situations are escalating quickly, it’s even more important to take action. Four basic options are:

  • Pause the discussion by asking students to write or draw how they’re feeling for about 5 minutes. This allows heated emotions to cool somewhat, and also gives you time to decide what to do next.
  • Acknowledge what has happened, and, if you’re not ready to take next steps, tell students you need a little more time to respond appropriately. Give a specific time when you’ll return to the conversation (at the next class, by email within 24 hours, etc.).
  • You can ask to speak to specific students outside of class, but also consider the impact of a public statement: often, a mix of public and private is an effective response strategy.

Seek advice and guidance from colleagues, supervisors, the Centre, and other service units and supports listed below.

Responding to disrespectful behaviour

  • Begin by assessing the behaviour. What is the degree of risk and the severity of the behaviour? Is it simply annoying or would you categorize it as disruptive or even dangerous or hurtful?
  • Consider what may be the underlying cause of the behaviour.
  • Depending on the situation, you may wish to speak with the student individually, make a referral, consider disciplinary action, or report the incident to the department head or dean.

Academic staff resources and supports

The Centre for Advancement of Teaching and Learning

The Centre provides individual consultations, workshops, and resources on teaching and learning for graduate students, staff, and faculty.

Office of Human Rights & Conflict Management

The OHRCM promotes a respectful working and learning environment in which individuals are treated equitably and diversity is valued. If you have a concern regarding harassment, discrimination, sexual violence, or conflict, we can help.

University of Manitoba Faculty Association

UMFA provides resources for its members.

Student Advocacy

Student Advocacy helps UM students navigate university processes and advocate for their rights as a student.

Engaging in Respectful Conduct

This website explains what respectful conduct is (both in-person and online) in a student-friendly way.

Student Support Case Manager

The Case Management Office helps students find the right resources when they are facing a crisis.

Student Counselling Centre

The Student Counselling Centre (SCC) provides free counselling and mental health support to University of Manitoba, English Language Centre, and International College of Manitoba (ICM) students.

Sexual Violence Support and Education

The Sexual Violence Resource Centre provides support, resources, information and referral services for any student, faculty or staff member who has been affected by sexual violence.

STATIS

STATIS, or Student/Staff Threat Assessment Triage, Intervention, and Support, is a diverse team of professionals commited to promoting a safe and respectful work and learning environment for the campus community.

Security Services

This department ensures a safe environment in which members of the UM community can live, work, study, and enjoy life.

Employee Family Assistance Plan

Supports for current UM staff. Additional information can be found in the UM Intranet.

University policies and procedures

All governing documents at the UM can be found here.

Resources and references

Casey, Z. A., Lozenski, B. D., & McManimon, S. K. (2013). From neoliberal policy to neoliberal pedagogy: Racializing and historicizing classroom management. Journal of Pedagogy – Pedagogicky Časopis, 4(1), 36–58.

Kumashiro, K. K. (2009). Against common sense: Teaching and learning toward social justice. New York: Routledge.

Marini, Z. (2013, November 6). Reduce confrontation in your classroom. How to cultivate civility. University Affairs. Retrieved from http://www.universityaffairs.ca/career-advice/career-advice-article/reduce-confrontation-in-your-classroom/

Nordstrom, C. R., Bartels, L. K., & Bucy, J. (2009). Predicting and curbing classroom incivility in higher education. College Student Journal, 43, 74-85.

Responding to disruptions in the classroom. Center for Teaching and Learning (University of Washington). Retrieved from: https://teaching.washington.edu/topics/engaging-students-in-learning/responding-to-disruptions-in-the-classroom/

Sample statements: expectations and guidelines

Statement 1:

We are co-creators of our learning environment.  It is our collective responsibility to develop a supportive learning environment for everyone.  Listening with respect and an open mind, striving to understand others’ views, and articulating your own point of view will help foster the creation of this environment.  We engage our differences with the intent to build community, not to put down the other and distance our self from the other.  Being mindful to not monopolize discussion and/or interrupt others will also help foster a dialogic environment.

(shared with permission by Gino Aisenberg, Associate Dean, Diversity and Student Affairs, The Graduate School; and Associate Professor, School of Social Work, University of Washington)

Statement 2:

We are a learning community.  As such, we are expected to engage with difference.  Part of functioning as a learning community is to engage in dialogue in respectful ways that supports learning for all of us and that holds us accountable to each other.  Our learning community asks us to trust and take risks in being vulnerable.

(shared with permission by Adaurennaya C. Onyewuenyi, Predoctoral Lecturer, The Graduate School, University of Washington)

Possible guidelines:

We assume that persons are always doing the best that they can, including the persons in this learning environment.

We acknowledge that systematic oppression exists based on privileged positions and specific to race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, and other social variables and identities.

We posit that assigning blame to persons in socially marginal positions is counter-productive to our practice. We can learn much about the dominant culture by looking at how it constructs the lives of those on its social margins.

While we may question or take issue with another class member’s ideology, we will not demean, devalue, or attempt to humiliate another person based on her/his experiences, value system, or construction of meaning.

We have a professional obligation to actively challenge myths and stereotypes about our own groups and other groups so we can break down the walls that prohibit group cooperation and growth.

[Adapted by the University of Washington Center for Teaching and Learning from Lynn Weber Cannon (1990). Fostering positive race, class and gender dynamics in the classroom. Women Studies Quarterly, 1 & 2, 126-134.]