Confrontations in the Classroom

Nobody likes confrontation, but confrontations happen.

Anytime that someone feels like they aren’t being heard, are being misunderstood or mistreated, or are feeling anger (righteous or otherwise) they may end up having words.   Students get stressed out from time to time, and will act out.   It doesn’t make it right, but it can be expected from time to time.

That much is understandable.

And…  confrontations can suck beyond the telling of it.  I’m a fairly together guy.  But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have triggers, and last quarter a student pulled one of mine.  The sad thing is he wasn’t even my student, he just kept barging into my class while we were still in session.   Trying to verbally denigrate me in front of my class doesn’t sit well.   I have had students escalate violently before.  Yes, I have been assaulted in my classroom (during a final exam, no less).

My adrenaline gland is a big jerk.   It reacts much faster than my conscious mind can act.

Which means that (in this instance) I got to teach my next class while trying to manage an anxiety attack.   Not my best teaching experience ever.

Intellectually, it is easy to remember how to deal with confrontations:   stay calm,  listen,  and try appealing to reason (or even emotion) before resorting to authority.   That being said, when your brain starts reacting, you need to give yourself a moment to assess the situation and recognize your own state before proceeding.   Don’t ignore your instincts, because they have kept the species alive!   But those instincts don’t care about false positives (most classroom arguments are not, thankfully, life threatening).

There are also people like to work in the world confrontationally.   They come off as aggressive, but they don’t mean to be assholes.  Believe it or not, these people can be some of your best students – if you can handle them right.   Here is what can work:   (1) Do NOT meet them head on, this will only make them blow up and it gets uncomfortable in a hurry.   If you move closer and turn down your personal volume, they are forced to lower their own in response, and spend a bit more effort in listening.  (2)  Once they are done with a diatribe, use Socratic questions.   They are unlikely to respond to information or reason from outside themselves.  So ask them questions that will lead their thinking into challenging themselves.  And finally (3) these folks are rarely “all attack, all the time” so you may want to have a chat with them about how to behave in a classroom,  or how to choose their language more carefully.

These students will often come back and apologize when they realize they have been disrespectful or disruptive.    Some things are harder to teach than others, as much as I hope that people will learn to be thoughtful and reasonable.

I just can’t fix stupid.

(But I will make fun of it)

Tipping Points

Things don’t always go as planned in a classroom.   It happens when students miss some key piece of understanding and end up falling farther and farther behind.   The atmosphere in the classroom can become tense:  the instructor tries to keep things on track, but the students who are behind feel bad that they aren’t up to speed and the students who are ahead end up resenting them because the instructors need to slow down.

So how can students get back to a happy medium?

I admit, I like to play games with the way people think.   I experiment with different ways of explaining, and different ways of getting people to behave differently.  I rely a great deal on my understanding (and remembering) emotional cycles when I was a student.

Procrastination, Shame and Blame

The beginning can be something innocent.   A late night, a bad lecture, or missing class for some reason.

Whatever the reason, the student finds themselves with a gap:  their work isn’t done and their understanding isn’t up to the task either.    To fill the gap, it will take an extraordinary effort, and being a little behind doesn’t seem that bad.

The gap in skills starts to affect other work.   The other students seem to get the material, but it doesn’t click for the student.   They feel bad, but it is hard to pinpoint where they lost control or how to get it back.    The instructor is ahead and new material doesn’t make sense.   People who try to help may come off as condescending, or frustrated with their slow progress.   The person blames themselves for the problem, or starts to feel like they aren’t “smart enough.”

As frustration mounts, the person tries to make sense out of the situation.    They rationalize that they must not be smart enough to get the concept, or that the instructor isn’t very good.  They start to feel powerless.  They will blame others for their failures, at the same time that they justify their own insecurities.

When someone feels resentful, hurt, ashamed, or angry, it is easy to put off work in lieu of other distractions.  Which reinforces the skill gaps, which reinforces the negative self-image/sense of inadequacy, which ultimately leads to a sense of futility.

To be clear:  it sucks to watch, it sucks to go through, and its hard to clean up after.   But it is a cycle that can be broken.

Breaking the Cycle

The good news is that people can be brought out of a spiral like this, but there is no easy fix.   The hardest thing to combat is the sense of powerlessness that can accompany falling behind.    As students, it is imperative to recognize that it will take sustained effort.   As instructors, we need to recognize that students don’t always have this self-knowledge.

So here is what I find works as a teacher:   (1) Prioritize skills, and cut lossesEnforce deadlines rather than pile on more work.     This basically comes down to identifying the key things that a student needs to work on rather than the complete past assignments.   Nobody likes to lose grades, but the boundaries helps students break out of looking backward and into looking forward.   (2) Praise and patience.  Acknowledging even the smallest of steps as progress is helpful, and helps relieve the sense of shame.   It also helps to acknowledge that struggle is part of the process, but making mistakes is not failure.    (3) Set out a plan with incremental steps.   The hardest part of breaking out of a procrastination cycle is the sense of being overwhelmed, so having simple (minimal) work is a good way of getting going.   Having a few things to do means that once one thing is done, then the next tier or goal can be reached.   Then the next goal will seem easier to reach.

Finally, momentum can carry the day.

…. and the horse you rode in on!

The funny thing about this is that this applies equally to teachers as it does to students.    Teachers get frustrated and will feel like they have lost touch with their class just as much as students may feel lost in the class.    It is easy for teachers to blame lazy students for not doing their work, but there is shared responsibility:  students need to be encouraged if they are going to get engaged.   It is okay to have a bad day teaching from time to time,  and sometimes you won’t be able to give it everything you want.   Focus on the successes, and it will be easier to be patient.

So:   keep up the good work.

Never give up.

I’ll have to put off procrastinating for another day.

No Cell Phones, Calculators, or Shankings in Class

Winter term has finally begun!Weapons of mass instruction

The first day of a class is always interesting.  You hand out your syllabus, and try to get a feel for your students.   I know students shop around for their instructors, but I sometimes wonder what attracts these particular students to my classes.   Inevitably some students will show up for the first day, and I will never see them again that term.     Whether they just found that my classes demanded too much work (possible) or whether they discovered they have important business for the next 11 weeks,  I always wonder what becomes of these students.

Then there are the students who want to negotiate.  This week, one particular student complained that I was asking them to do so much work that it was equivalent to a part-time job.  My response was “Welcome to college.   If you don’t like this amount of work you need to do, imagine needing to do it again next quarter.”   He didn’t look pleased.

Most of the work in the first week of class is getting the students used to the class.   Things in the first week that I think help:

  1.  Establish your position.  Basically, let the students know that you are in charge but they are not powerless.   I’m more apt to be authoritarian in the first week just so people don’t try to push back later in the quarter.
  2. Let them convince themselves that they need the class.  It is impossible to force people to want to learn, but they are already halfway there when they show up in your classroom.    In my class, I have them introduce themselves and tell me what their dream jobs are.   Then I try to link that dream to passing the class later.
  3.  Give structure and tools.  Some classes benefit from being free-form, but I find that most students need to have a clear idea of what is expected of them.   So,  I give it to them:   everything from classroom expectations,  how much work they should expect to put in, to how they can earn the various pieces of their grades.   After that, I give them the extras:  where to find tutoring, counseling, and financial help on campus if they need it.     My syllabus is a dense document.
  4.  Start building class culture.   A classroom culture is something that will come about on it’s own from the personalities inside it, but as the teacher they will follow your lead.   I let people know that the things that are valued are patience with their own process, and hard work.   It isn’t just about work, though.   I also get excited about math (letting them geek out too), as well as being patient with them to encourage them to ask questions.   Having some inside jokes help too.
  5. Get them thinking about excelling, not just passing.  Extra credit is one of the things that is controversial in some classes, because it can artificially elevate mediocre or failing grades.   I do like to offer things to the class to get them thinking about not just how to pass, but how to excel.  If they expect to excel (by doing extra) then they start to value themselves as good students, and become good students in the process.      (Ah it is fun to play with people’s’ brains)


I’m pretty happy with how my classes look this term.    I’ll know more about them next term.

The game is afoot!



Image from Fark.comI’m subtle like a tarantula on a piece of angel food cake is subtle.    In my element, I’m expressive, friendly, snarky, an oddball, a data-omnivore, helpful and imaginative.    My sense of humor gets the better of me sometimes.    I have a lot of personality, and I’m not afraid to use it.

Every teacher comes to their teaching persona in one way or another.   Before becoming a teacher, I slummed around the world of business.   Let me tell you:   the (conservative) business world doesn’t care for employees with “character”.   Mostly, they want you to keep your head down, do your work and not steal all of the office supplies.   Learning to blend in is a survival technique.

I like working in a job where having a personality is an asset rather than a drawback.

As a student, my two favorite types of teacher were those I characterized as “a genius from another dimension” and “scary as hell”.   Which is to say, I liked to be entertained, engaged, and to have my assumptions challenged.   I learned a few very important lessons listening to those instructors.   People will rise to the level of expectations, so setting a low expectations isn’t a good idea.   I also learned that there are multiple approaches to problems, and innovation can sometimes be messy.   Also, I learned that colorblind instructors can dress REALLY funny sometimes.

A big piece of teaching is engaging the students.   Whether this is accomplished with entertainment, with fear or respect (like my “scary” teachers) or with activating a person’s self-interest, engagement is a necessary before we can convey any information to a student.   Knowing which way you can engage with your students before hand is helpful.

It is a good idea to develop your teaching persona.   And don’t be afraid to be yourself.

Me?  I’ll wear my Darth Vader tie and write offbeat story problems.

Teaching with Narratives

Let me tell you a story…

Everyone enjoys a good story.    Stories fire up the imagination, they engage our attention and help us make sense of our world.   And not telling stories may be why so many people have a hard time understanding math, science, or even things like history.     The funny thing is, as teachers we know the stories that are interesting – that is part of what being an expert in the subject matter entails – CONTEXT!

In a classroom a lot of emphasis is put on methods and facts, and not always about creating a framework for understanding.    Many teachers use scaffolding techniques.   These are a variety of things that support learning, varying from classroom organization to how feedback is given.    A teaching narrative gives student’s additional tools for recall and for when it is appropriate to use certain skills.

For example, a story I tell in class when teaching about solving story problems:

“One time I was taking an astronomy test.   Now the question was to determine how long the sun would continue to fuse hydrogen, given certain facts.   Now I worked for about 20 minutes, then came up with the answer:   5 MINUTES.   Not 4.5 billion years, but 5 minutes.    I looked outside and since the sky wasn’t dark, I knew I had made a mistake somewhere in my calculations.”

I tell this because I want my students to think about the reasonableness of their answers.   My students usually remember to include units in their answer,  as well as writing “my answer doesn’t make sense” when they come up with something weird.      I LIKE that story.

I’ve fallen prey to looking at the question “why do I need to know this?” as a question that is challenging the authority of the teacher or the validity of the field of knowledge.    This may in fact be the intent of the questioner.   It is also an excellent opportunity to tell a story and provide reasons and to fire up the imaginations of those people who don’t have a framework for understanding yet.   The only wrong answer I can think of is “because I said so.”    I don’t want to play into someones anti-authoritarian bias.    Give them a reason, even if they wouldn’t like it.   I’ve told students before “You know, you probably won’t use this directly.   But this does show you how to categorize, how to use a formula, and how to think critically.   All of which you will need to use.”

In short, being a good storyteller is a helpful skill for a teacher.

Now go out there and change some minds.

Clue by Four

I am currently at week 8 of a 10 week quarter.   Some of my students are really feeling the strain.    And of course, as teachers we are also feeling the burn.   Our students are stressing out, we have a lot of material left to cover, and grading and projects are piling up.

Momentum feels like your friend.   It isn’t always.

So, take a moment for reflection in your class.    Thank the students for working hard, and for caring enough to do this for themselves.   And remind them what they are doing things for.   At the beginning of the quarter, I try to get my students talking about their dream jobs.    Reconnect them with their dreams and goals, and get them ready for their final push.   I will also remind them of something I tell them in the first week:

Two things will happen if you study math for a while:   you will hit a wall at some point, and you will blow your mind.

The other day in my classroom I was a bit early.   I had a few extra minutes, so I asked some my early students “You wanna see something fun?”  They were at just the right moment, so I just randomly showed them how to derive the Pythagorean theorem.   Most of them had heard of it, and had vague notion of what it was used for… but when I showed them how to figure it out, they were blown away.

It’s good to be a rockstar.   🙂

One of the greatest compliments I ever received was when a student said to me “I don’t know what happens… it is like my brain explodes on the paper, and it’s right.”    I love it when I hear the clue-by-four connect with my students.   When I can SEE them making the connections.   Which is what I need periodically for my motivation.

… and now, I am going to take break for some well deserved self-care.


Ever been in one of those classes where everything seems to have gone off the rails?  One person just talks and talks, and ends up monopolizing the conversation.   This is something that happens in a lot of classes, when you have one student who likes to dominate the classroom.    They will talk to the instructor incessantly:   sometimes asking questions, sometimes answering questions, sometimes just trying to be a class clown.   Whatever the exact form of their verbal diarrhea,  they will disrupt the flow of your class.

Most of the time the people who are doing this don’t realize that they are missing social cues.    If you talk to other students in class, the overparticipator will likely be near the top of the list for “class annoyances”.      Here is the thing though:   these people are still part of the class, and are as deserving of your attention as anyone else.   Different people need different things to be able to learn.

Generally:   be positive and patient, and try to talk to privately talk to the student about being considerate to their classmates.

So here is what I do, depending on their specific type.

The know it all/bored student

Some students just want to let you know that they are ahead.   They get (or mostly get) what you are saying during your discussions, and they will try to dominate the conversation with their own interpretations of things.   Of course, these people aren’t teachers (most of the time) so their explanations may vary from spot on to confusing to other students in class.

These students are often motivated by either trying to stay engaged in the class (“See, I’m participating!   I’ve answered all of the rhetorical questions you’ve asked!”) to trying to boost up their own sense of self (“I’m so smart, I can answer *all* of the questions”).     One of my colleagues even reported a person who would interrupt her answering another student’s question with the comment, “I’ve got this!”.   (Note:   It didn’t go well for him…)

Probably the first approach should be one-on-one.   They are much more delicate than you may think:   but they crave acknowledgement.   Let them know that you see that they know the material.   But also that you want the other students to be able to ask questions too… and one useful offer is to give them some more challenging material if they are interested.    Their natural desire to prove themselves will probably win you an ally in class, and they may be more responsive to non-verbal cues to keep their comments to themselves, at least until the end of a discussion.

The desperate

On the other end of the spectrum is the student who is just trying to make sense of something difficult.   They may ask about things that are off topic, or ask about things that you finished explaining only minutes before.   This is one of the behaviors that I tend to associate with ADD, or even some types of Asperger’s students:   quite simply, they can’t take notes on what you are doing and process through it simultaneously.   A quick recap will usually be enough, but over time is consistently delays the progress of the class.

When this starts to happen, I approach it with a couple different tools.   First,   I slow down lectures a bit.   It is not something that it easy to do, but leaving some long pauses for people to write (and more importantly, to think and process) and organize information.   Often times, the people can answer their own questions if they have half a chance.   Next, I will ask folks to follow some rules of participation.   And lastly, see if you can direct the students to some resources outside of class to help them get on track.   Since the goal is often to get students to independently learn, this is sometimes a tough sell.


I happen to think that every class needs a few good lines of witty banter.   It gets people engaged before class, can act as transition material in between topics, and can be something that becomes part of the class culture.   (For one of my classes, one of the important steps in solving is to  “apply more coffee” to the problem)   But some people get caught up in the banter, and let it take over.     I’ve had it happen where students have started to derail the class with discussions about what type of zombies/ninjas/dinosaurs in the story problem, and has anyone ever seen X movie?

My best technique:   ignore it and keep teaching.   People often want something to re-engage them in the class.    If they are asking these questions,  you have obviously ignited some interest, and as soon as they pause then they will change gears back to learning mode.

There are also students who want to either challenge the usefulness of the material, or the validity of your class rules.   These people are often just venting frustration – and your class (or your material) may or may not be the root cause.   Publicly, I answer with the reasons why either the material is useful or the rules are in place.     This has the effect of disarming the student’s reasoning, and hopefully will put some social pressure on the student to stop acting out in class.   But I find that you should also follow up with the student.    The goal isn’t to alienate them from the class, and talking with them hopefully will let them feel empowered in ways that they may not need in their life.    They may not become allies in your class, but these people can become incredible distractions if they are allowed to fester.


Thick Skin Paradox

Beneath my steely exterior beats a heart of molten concrete.

Let me start over… I have a confession to make.

I’m human. Which sucks, really, because it would be nice to be an inhuman monster more often.

One of the things that is necessary as a teacher is a thick skin. Teachers walk into a classroom full of people and are immediately outnumbered. Then we take a group of students, and IF EVERYTHING GOES ACCORDING TO PLAN, we will push their boundaries, test them, challenge their beliefs and change how their minds work. Teachers will give them work and more work, and often answer questions with questions. So it is not surprising that they get a little frustrated sometimes.

People have all sorts of coping mechanisms for stress, and anger/attack/fight/flight is a hardwired leftover from being cavemen who periodically needed to contend with Smilodon. And of course now our brains can’t always navigate the difference between dealing with a math test and being confronted with a saber-toothed-tiger. I have been shouted at, called a “dream killer”, physically intimidated, and been accused of being everything from “too nice” to a Nazi.

I signed up for this job.

And let me be clear: I love this job. Stress is often the price that people pay for making breakthroughs. I know that when students get angry or stressed, it is a symptom and not the problem itself. And you can only sit back and watch as they discover themselves what sort of people they are. My reactions to others outbursts are focused primarily on how it impacts others.

But here is the paradox: stoicism is not necessarily the best course. Being able to navigate the needs, the apathy, the wheedling and whining or the rage of a crowd of students can be physically and emotionally taxing. You develop a thick skin to cope, and you lose some of the fire a good teacher needs.

So here is the hard truth: it is okay to be hurt sometimes. It is part of life. In fact, it is an essential part of learning… which as teachers we need to keep doing too. (Incidentally: humor is my outlet. Not deep, but I can take something horrible and scary, disarm it and laugh it to death.)

So being human sucks. Sometimes.

… And I will never quit growing …

P.S. To the student who accused me of being “too nice,” I am laughing at you. I know how I spend my weekends.

P.P.S. Okay, I may be growing slowly.

Culture of Pretending

My apologies for the late post:   I was seriously delayed by a blinding migraine on Friday.   Then a D&D game on Saturday.   Then kittens on Sunday.    Funny how life keeps happening.  Now back to your regularly scheduled post.

Which hurts you more?   Being embarrassed, or being ignorant?

Recently I was listening to a podcast, which had a very interesting interview with a Peter Boghossian.   I tend to listen to such things for the comedy value involved and not for watertight argumentation… but something they said just stuck with me.   At the end of the show, they started to talk about the very prevalent “culture of pretending” that exists in academia and the US (and, I suspect, the world).

Basically, people will smile and nod, pretending to understand you rather than risk asking a question.   This is real.   This isn’t helpful.  And this is dangerous, especially in a classroom.   I’m sorry to say, I’ve done the same thing… and when I catch myself doing it I try to do something about it.   The really tough part is when you ask someone who you think knows the answers, and find out that that person is pretending to know the answers too.

Being ignorant is correctable.   Being stupid is not.

I will admit, I love data.  One of the worst feelings in the world for me is not knowing something, so I end up doing a surprising amount of reading and research.    I am a data omnivore, there are few (broad) areas that I don’t know something about.   And I still have vast areas of ignorance.

I also fact-check the memes that people spread on Facebook, or the news, or just the “everybody knows _____”  things that people say.   You would be amazed how much misinformation people post, and others just accept at face value.   I cringe any time our political leaders open their mouth and demonstrate not just ignorance but downright stupidity.    The things that people believe is often biased, or based on half-understood studies, or bogus studies that don’t get reviewed or repeated.

Everybody is a novice at least once.

I think one of the hallmarks of intelligence is curiosity.   This brings me to two of my favorite questions I love to hear in a classroom:   how and why?    “How” for me shows the short term clarification that students need for method, and “why” looks at the broader understanding and structure of things.   And I have had to tell students that I don’t know the answer to their questions before… and they have been startled.   Especially when I offer to find the answers and get back to them.

Example from tutoring:  when a student asked me how the trigonometric concepts of tangent and secant related to the algebraic concepts of tangent and secant lines.    (Short answer:   they don’t.  They are related mostly by name, not necessarily by concept.)   A few days later when I reported this back to the student,  they weren’t completely happy with my answer… but they accepted it.

I love it when a student isn’t satisfied.

I have only one desire if that happens:

Scratch.   That.   Itch.

We have ways of making you talk

One of my dearest friends used to refer to quiet classes as: “Teaching a classroom of potted plants.”

Sometimes classes just don’t want to talk. Up to a certain point, this is okay. It certainly is easier to manage a classroom if the students aren’t chatting with each other or interrupting the rest of the class. The problem is that a quiet classroom isn’t necessarily a healthy classroom.

Participation is one of those necessary ingredients for most students. It gives them a sense of control, it keeps them (and their fellows) alert, and it builds a positive classroom community. Students who are quiet even when it would be appropriate and welcome to participate in class usually fall into one of three categories: shy, confused, or bored.

Dealing with the shy:

Shy students often have a lot to say, but they are afraid to say it. The fears that keep them quiet are simple: they are afraid of their fellow students judging them, or they are afraid you might play “gotcha!” and jump on them for not knowing. One thing I like to emphasize is that everyone has questions sometimes, and that asking questions adds value to the whole class. The other comes back to maintaining a sense of patience with the students.

Dealing with the confused:
This brings us to when students just don’t get it. One technique that I’ve had good results with is by picking a student who looks confused, asking them to explain if they can, or to describe where they start to feel lost. I’ll go back to the beginning of the process, and walk through things a step at a time to get them to break down the problems.

One thing to keep in mind: it doesn’t matter if you have explained it before, or if it was in the reading… somehow the student (or students) didn’t connect with the material, and they will need to go over it again. Getting impatient it just going to alienate the class, so keep cool.

Dealing with the Bored:

Sometimes the class is really quiet, and it is because they are ahead. If it is just a few people who are ahead, see if you can either give them juicy projects or get them to help out some folks who are further behind. If the entire class is ahead, don’t hesitate to take things up a few notches. And… TELL THEM. You may be one of the only people who expresses pride in their academic work! That can really bring them together as a class, and get them to expect excellence from themselves.

So… there are my recipes for student participation. I admit, I sometimes dream about cattle prods for the non-participators, and gags for the overparticipators, but… I will use my powers for good and not evil.

Today, anyway.