Let’s face it. No one likes a confrontation. Often, confrontations come out of the blue, and we can find ourselves in a very uncomfortable position where we need to quickly find the right words to defend ourselves. I’ve been a teacher since 1977, and I have experienced my fair share of unpleasant confrontations with students, parents, teachers, and even administrators. But the most difficult confrontations to deal with are those that occur in front of your class. These confrontations are not taking place out in the hallway between just the student and you as the teacher. They occur in plain view of every student in the room, and your students become an audience watching a drama unfold that has the potential to damage your future ability to teach in that classroom.
Here is a typical scenario where a confrontation is occurring in the classroom between you as a teacher and one of your students. You are in the middle of teaching a lesson at the high school level. One of your students walks in 15 minutes late. You say to the student, “Why are you late?” The student answers, “Don’t worry about it. It’s none of your business.” You quickly become angry and say, “It is my business because you are interrupting my class, and I don’t even want you here right now. Go get a pass from the office and then come back.” The student answers, “I’m not going anywhere.” The student then plops down at a desk.
At this point, you are in a catch 22 situation. If you let the student just stay in the room, you, by default, will communicate to that student and every other student in the class that they can get away with coming in late to the class. You will also lose the respect of your students because you put yourself on the battlefield and you couldn’t get off gracefully. On the other hand, if you continue demanding that the student leave, you will lose because the student has already made the decision to stay. You end up looking foolish either way.
The appropriate response in this scenario is the following. The student walks into the class 15 minutes late. The entire class is watching and looking at you to see your reaction. You let the student walk to his/her seat and sit down. You look at the student and then at the rest of the class and say, “I know he/she walked in late. And you’re all probably wondering what I’m going to do about it. The truth is I haven’t decided yet what I’m going to do about it. I’ll talk to him/her later and let him/her know the consequence. Right now, let’s get back to the lesson.” Using this technique will work, but it still is not the ideal way to avoid a confrontation in front of your class because you are really operating out of a crisis mode, and that becomes very tricky.
A much better approach is for you to learn techniques and strategies to prevent confrontations from occurring in the first place. This requires a proactive rather than a reactive approach to classroom management. Early in the school year you will identify the students that have the potential to be confrontational and cause disruptions in the classroom. Once you have identified potentially confrontational students, you must take proactive steps to avoid future misery.
A very effective strategy you can use to avoid confrontations is to develop positive relationships with these students. There are many ways to accomplish this. You must commit to making the time to have positive conversations with these students either before class starts, in the cafeteria, during passing time in the hallway, or even during school events that take place after regular school hours. But positive relationships are not built through one conversation. Here are some steps you can take. First, make a commitment to spend 3 uninterrupted minutes of your time each day for 8 to 10 days in a conversation with that student where you are talking about the student’s interests outside of academics. Show a sincere interest in any extracurricular activities the student is involved in. Ask the student about plans for college or job opportunities. You may want to share you own interests with the student as well to allow the student to view you as a whole person with many facets rather than just as a teacher. During this time, do not correct the student or try to persuade the student to change classroom behavior. This daily conversation must go on for a minimum of 8 to 10 days in a row, so that the student begins to develop a trust in the relationship.
There are other proactive strategies you as the teacher can use everyday to help you avoid confrontations in the classroom. You should stand at the entrance to your room and smile and say hello, good morning, or good afternoon to each and every student as he/she enters the room. You need to become more aware of keeping your facial expressions as well as the tone of your voice neutral. Learn not to roll your eyes, groan or sigh. Students who are confrontational have a sixth sense and can pick up negative energy from their teachers.
Another effective strategy you should use to avoid confrontations is to ignore some of the negative comments students make. You need to understand that when a student makes negative comments, the goal of that student is probably to start a confrontation with you. Therefore, the best approach is for you not to take the bait. When a student says in front of the whole class, “This class sucks,” you could say, “It might, but I still have to teach it to you.” When a student says, “I hate this class, you are the most boring teacher in the world,” you might respond, “You know, you may hate it, but other students may like it, so I have to keep teaching.” When a student yells out, “Whoever told you that you can teach,” you could answer, “That’s an interesting opinion. I’ll talk to you about that after class.”
Probably the most powerful tool a teacher can use to prevent confrontations is to be a fair person in the classroom. Many teachers develop the habit of showing favoritism in their classroom. When particular students are very well-behaved, it can become very difficult for teachers who like these students so much to mete out the same consequences to them that they impose on their most difficult and confrontational students. Students who are confrontational are always looking for a reason to start trouble with a teacher. Once they detect that a fellow student was let off the hook by a teacher for the same behavior that he/she was held accountable for, they will believe they have been treated unfairly and
then their behavior will become even more unmanageable and confrontational. Therefore, teachers must discipline their best behaved students in the same manner that they discipline their most difficult students. When everyone in the classroom observes the teacher being fair and not using favoritism, they will all develop greater trust and respect for the teacher, and that will result in fewer confrontations.