Managing Conflict in the Classroom

Handling conflict and tension can be a challenge for even the most seasoned teaching assistant. Although you can do your best to establish and maintain a positive classroom space for all of your students, conflicts may arise. Here are some behaviours to be aware of and some suggestions for how to deal with the behaviour.

Adapted from Davidson & Ambrose (1994) ‘The New Professor’s Handbook’

Wisecracks and Insults

Techniques to deal with nasty insults and abusive or disruptive jokes include challenging the speaker, in a non-threatening manner, on the substance of the joke. What makes it funny? Why was the comment made? It is important not to devote too much time, space, and attention to such behaviour; however, ignoring insults and wisecracks rarely diminishes their presence and will instead create an atmosphere of unresolved and ongoing tension in the classroom.

Disagreement and Confrontation

In dealing with disagreement, confrontation, and inappropriate behaviour, seek guidance from a more experienced person, i.e., department heads and coordinators, for they have dealt with similar problems and can advise you on appropriate steps. Students sometimes sense an inexperience and believe they can “get away with it”. For these reasons, and for the reassurance it gives, it is usually best to discuss your interpersonal problems with someone who can help you.

Strategies for Dealing with a Student who is Angry

  •  Remain calm and polite; keep your own temper in check.
  • Maintain eye contact; speak clearly without raising your voice.
  • Defuse the situation by offering to talk privately during a break or in a quiet place, if you feel it is safe to do so.
  • Acknowledge the student’s anger and frustration; allow him/her to vent and tell you what is upsetting him/her.
  • Listen and try to understand the real issues that the student is concerned about.
  • Summarize and clarify your understanding of the student’s concerns.
  • Avoid disagreeing; rather, build on or around what has been said.
  • Look for ways that will give the student a way to gracefully retreat from the confrontation.
  • Encourage the student to generate solutions to the problem being addressed.

What if I detect signs that the anger might be getting out of control?

The following suggestions may assist you if you are faced with a student who has become overtly disruptive, threatening or violent:

  •  Quickly and calmly acknowledge the intensity of the situation and actively listen and make sure you understand the student’s concerns.
  • Explain clearly and directly what behaviours are and are not acceptable.
  • If, after indicating to the student that his/her behaviour is disruptive and the student has had a chance to conform to expected standards, the behaviour continues you may ask the student to leave the classroom.

Additional Tips

  1. Clearly state course objectives and grading criteria.
  2. Give students fair warning and do follow through if warning is not sufficient.
  3. Create a united front (with other Course Directors, and TAs in the course, etc).
  4. Be confident!
  5. Don’t take it personally.
  6. Be firm in your approach.
  7. Be direct with the student(s) whose behaviour is inappropriate.