MSS 2018 Panel Discussions

Aggression in the Classroom: Suggestions and Reflections for Challenging Interactions

Saturday • 3:00 PM–4:30 PM Nicollet D1

An Ounce of Prevention . . .

The best place to start with handling challenging teacher-student interactions is by laying the groundwork for being able to handle these encounters in a professional manner. First – and especially if you are new to teaching – establish a network of peers and, preferably, also a mentor. Even established teachers sometimes need to bounce situations off of each other to determine if there is really cause for concern and to consider how to respond. Women and minorities are also more likely to be challenged, especially if they also look young, so if you fall into these categories, having access to peers can give you perspective on the interactions and also remind you that you aren’t alone. Much of what you’ll read below has come from discussions with my community of peers.

Second, know what resources your university has made available to you and to students. Depending on university resources, students may be able to access counseling services, tutoring, writing help, and so on, and teachers may have access to an automated network where they can submit concerns about particular students. This may encompass academic concerns, concerns for the students’ well-being, and reporting inappropriate incidents. If you do have an inappropriate incident, be sure to report it – administrators may see a pattern of behavior that isn’t available to you. Don’t assume that you are the only one. Also, find out if you have the authority to expel a student from your course – this varies from institution to institution. Know the number for campus security.

Students may act out for a variety of reasons. They may be the type that just likes to argue, or wants to prove that they are smarter than the teacher (particularly if you fit the categories I listed above) – or maybe they’ve experienced some kind of personal trauma that they aren’t handling well.

Third, lay the groundwork in your syllabus to avoid confrontations, to discipline, and/or to temporarily or permanently remove a student from the classroom. My syllabi all do the following:

  • Situate Sociology as a science and state that all class discussion will treat it as such (students must present data that can be backed up by scientific research, not opinion or news sites of any type);
  • State that although students may have different viewpoints and may remain unconvinced by the course, they will be tested over their knowledge of the course material;
  • Make mutual respect a key requirement in the classroom;
  • Make a statement on the level of professionalism expected in the classroom;
  • Require that they meet professional standards in email communication (I provide an Email Etiquette document)
  • Lay out a clear procedure for disputing grades (you may want this at two levels: how does a student dispute an assignment grade? (course-level policy), and how does a student dispute a final grade? (university-level policy))

I have found that the majority of the aggression I have experienced in the classroom stems from students who feel that the course material challenges their sense of self or dearly held beliefs. When I create space for them to keep their beliefs, but test them on their ability to handle the material, this emotional response is reduced or eliminated. I tell my students that as a sociologist, I am likely to make each and every one of them mad at some point in the semester – and that as their teacher, my goal is not to change their opinions, but to be able to critically evaluate those opinions. If they walk out of the classroom with the same worldview they had when they walked in, but they have critically evaluated it and chosen it in light of what they’ve learned, then I have done my job. Of course, I hope that my classes do help students learn and grow, but if they think things through, it’s a start.

When I do encounter a student that is genuinely aggressive – for the sake of being aggressive – my syllabus policies allow me to deal with the student using a combination of course and university policies.

Sample statement on professionalism: Students are expected to behave professionally in and out of the classroom. I bring my professional self to the classroom and I expect students to do so as well. The college classroom is not the place to chat while class is in session, to text or play games, to listen to music, to do homework for another class, etc. When students talk or otherwise call attention to themselves instead of class material, they disrupt my teaching and the learning environment for everyone. Lack of professionalism will not be tolerated, and I will warn only once before asking students to leave.


In the Moment

  • Be human and admit when you are wrong or don’t know the answer. Students are less likely to challenge, in my experience, when they encounter some “give” in the teacher rather than a brick wall. A student that wants to argue for the sake of argument is more likely to try to tear down the brick wall – and students see right through people who can never admit fault.
  • Maintain your composure. Practice a “poker face” that doesn’t give an aggressive student the satisfaction of knowing that they are getting to you. Unless the student is being physically aggressive, they only have words to sling at you, even if the situation feels anxiety-provoking.
  • If you have a chronically aggressive student, go in with a plan for managing the classroom, and don’t kick yourself for not being able to handle things perfectly the first time.
  • AFTER the class – if you are very concerned with the student’s behavior, start making dated notes about what happened, and when you feel it is necessary, clue your chair in to the situation via email.


Classroom Management Strategies (in order of escalation)

  • Acknowledge questions that belong to another discipline (“that’s a topic for theology” or “you’re talking about something an economist would be better able to answer”)
  • Ask the student to back up their claim/argument with data that everyone in the class will accept as a reliable source – AFTER class.
  • Ask students to raise their hands to be acknowledged, and tell students that talk frequently/aggressively “let’s hear from someone that hasn’t had a chance to talk yet.”
  • If an aggressive student interrupts another, use a hushing motion in their direction, tell them “another student is talking now,” and then return your gaze to the original student.
  • Your gaze is a powerful tool. Students who are disruptive/aggressive tend to attract our gaze. Make an effort to NOT give them your gaze. In extreme circumstances, this can be used to manage a very difficult student. Don’t shut the student down entirely, but drastically reduce their opportunity to talk.
  • Talk to a student privately and recruit them to leave time for other students to talk, or if necessary, talk to them about the syllabus statements they are violating and explain the potential consequences. Depending on the situation, you may want a colleague to sit in on the meeting with you. Do NOT have this meeting with the door closed.
  • Ask the student to leave. Be prepared to call security if necessary.


DO NOT attempt to out-bully an aggressive student. The situation is likely to escalate and you lose face with your other students.

REMEMBER that you have a class full of students, most of whom are there to learn, not argue. They are looking for you to lead the classroom: you are the authority figure. If you handle the situation well, the other students will help you manage the class.

Teaching Toolkits

Saturday • 4:45 PM–6:15 PM  Nicollet D1

Descriptions and resources available here: Resources for Teaching


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