When a Student’s Comment Feels Like a Personal Attack

I got the idea for this post from the one-page “Teaching Tactics” feature in Teaching Theology and Religion. Faculty author Sara M. Koenig sets the context. “Most of us have had an experience in the classroom of a student saying something so offensive that it feels like a personal attack on us as professors.” (p. 51)

Those of us who’ve taught for a while probably have had more than one of these experiences. “Do you make these exam questions tricky on purpose?” a student once asked me in class. “Making us work in groups when we don’t want to is bad teaching,” a student recently told a colleague. And then there was the student who observed that the textbook was really bad and wondered aloud whether the professor was requiring it because he got a cut of its sales.

Comments like these are tough because, in addition to being personal, they often come at us when we don’t expect them. The student will pop off with the comment and then it just sort of lingers in the air. You can feel the action in the classroom grinding to a halt as everyone redirects their attention to you to see just how you’re going to respond.

As professionals, we recognize that sometimes students aren’t particularly articulate. Their words have sharper edges than often intended. Other times, when they’re having a bad day, students, like other people we know, may take out their anger, frustration, worry, and general malaise on those who happen to be nearby. And sometimes a student makes an intentionally mean-spirited comment because they think the teacher deserves it.

Koenig suggests three ways of responding to these comments. First, she recommends redirecting the comment to the class. “What do the rest of you think about that?” “Does anyone disagree?” “Would anyone state the objection a bit differently?” Soliciting commentary from other students gives the student who made the comment feedback and it gives the teacher an opportunity to gauge the level of discontent. Of course, the risk is that heads all around the room will nod in agreement, which can make the teacher’s position feel all the more precarious.

I think Koenig’s second suggestion is the best. She writes the student’s comment on the board before responding. As she writes, she may ask a question about the words the student used. This often causes the student to clarify what he or she said and perhaps change it. Koenig says that writing down the comment “depersonalizes” it so that she can respond to the comment rather than the individual.

She also suggests responding by asking, “What do we need to know to answer that question or comment?” Asking this question helps the teacher and the student get at the main concern that motivated the comment. In other words, sometimes the student’s comment is the smoke that causes us to cough, choke, and run away. We need to look for the fire, because if we can put that out, there won’t be any more smoke.

I totally endorse the idea of developing a few response strategies beforehand. That short time between when the student makes the comment and the teacher must respond isn’t the best time to come up with clever, creative alternatives. What’s most important is that we don’t let our emotions take over and come back with a defensive retort that only escalates the exchange. After all, we are the professionals in the room and we should work to respond in ways that are professionally appropriate. On the other hand, if the comment is truly mean-spirited, we might also have a professional responsibility to chat privately with the student about the principles of constructive feedback.

Finally, as part of being prepared for those days when a student makes an unwelcome or hurtful comment, it’s a good idea to have tucked away in the corner of your desk one or two of those really wonderful things students have said about your efforts to help them learn.

Reference: Koenig, S. M. (2013). Beyond fight or flight: Responding to stressful student comments in class. Teaching Theology and Religion, 16 (1), 51.

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