Division of Academic Affairs
We have all experienced uncivil student behavior that gets in the way of learning. Meg offers a number of guidelines to overcome disruptions in the classroom and create conditions that make good learning happen.
Welcome to Teaching and Learning Matters. This is Meg Morgan, Associate Professor of English at the University of North Carolina Charlotte and a Faculty Associate with the University’s Center for Teaching and Learning. Today, I am going to talk about ways to understand and maintain civility in the classroom.
So what exactly is civility? There are many ideas based on this word. For my purposes, its most important meaning is the sense of working within a group of people according to a commonly accepted set of laws or rules. The idea is that people working together this way will improve conditions for everyone. In the classroom, civil behavior on the part of both students and the teacher works within common understandings of the conditions that make good learning happen.
We have all experienced classroom behaviors that impede learning: students talking loudly over the teacher or other students; students interrupting; the teacher coming to class late or giving long and boring lectures. Today’s classrooms have a whole new kind of disruption: cell phones that ring; computers that play music; ear pods that are too loud; Power Points that go on and on and on. For all these behaviors are not only impediments to learning, they may be outright disruptions to learning.
There are many causes of student incivilities in the classroom: anger, stress, alcohol and drug use; distrust of teachers; students’ sense of entitlement. Teacher behavior can provoke student incivility, too: teachers who lack communication skills or the abilities to relate to students; teachers less confident of their own abilities; teachers who inaccurately assess what the students know, and thus presenting information that is too easy or too hard.
So, as a teacher, what can you do about disruptive student behavior? There are several strategies that usually work. First, early in the semester, make it clear orally and in writing what the classroom social rules are. If you do not want students to talk in class, don’t let them. Have the rule and enact consequences if it is broken.
If you expect students to be respectful, to not use profanity, loud voices, or aggressive behaviors, define these behaviors and lay out the consequences. Make all students turn off cell phones, computers, and other devices if you do not want them to be used in the class. The point here is to articulate the behavior you do not think is civil and enact the consequences for being uncivil.
That’s just the first step. What happens if all your preparation is in vain, and your students still do uncivil things? The first thing I try to discover is whether or not I, as the teacher, am aiding and abetting the disruptive behavior. I ask my students and myself some questions: “Is the classroom boring?”; “Is the material too easy or too hard?”; Am I uncommunicative in important ways: do I talk too much and don’t let them speak or am I aloof or defensive?”
Asking students to respond does two things: it lets them know that you know and are aware of the classroom behavior; it gives them a chance to give you input. Your response to raising these questions with them should, if appropriate, cause both of you to modify your behaviors: you can change your behavior to improve theirs
Uncivil behaviors may require more than the reflective responses above: it may require some action. Think of uncivil behavior on a scale of one to five. Behavior at a level one is annoying but does not impede learning or teaching. For example, a student may be eating or drinking in class. A behavior at a level three might be uncivil: the student might be using a computer or talking quietly with another student. A student at a level five might be more than uncivil, might even be disruptive -- interrupting other students, raising his or her voice, asserting an opinion without listening to others.
What you as a teacher do depends on the level. At a level one, I would ask the student to stop eating, to eat quietly, or finish eating quickly. At a three, I might stand by the student and turn off the computer. At a five, I might ask the student to leave the classroom for a few minutes.
I would classify behaviors at a five as “potentially disruptive,” and perhaps even leading to “significant disruption.” If the student escalates disruptive behaviors, you can dismiss the class and call the cops. Really disruptive behavior might require that you file a report on that student.
A short podcast cannot give you all the strategies you can use, but the guidelines governing civil behavior are clear. Let students know what is acceptable and not acceptable and the consequences for their actions. Enact engaging teacher behaviors but also enact consequences for uncivil behaviors from the get-go.
Thank you. And remember: Teaching and Learning Matters.
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte
9201 University City Blvd, Charlotte, NC 28223-0001 · 704-687-8622
Follow UNC Charlotte