I am lucky enough to have taught French language, history, politics and culture at three separate institutions over the past four years in different guises. I am passionate about France, the French and pretty much every aspect of modern French politics and history, and just as passionate about teaching at every level. I like to think that this passion comes out in my teaching: I’ve taught aspects of my research to students from the age of 8 up to final-year undergraduates and I’ve enjoyed every minute. Yet there are times when no matter the enthusiasm or passion of the teacher, there are barriers to student engagement. In each of the three institutions I’ve taught, I’ve experienced a handful, and I must stress a handful, of students who simply do not want to be in that lecture or seminar room at that particular moment.
Sometimes this manifests itself in the form of low-level disruption: you are trying to give a lecture and the individual concerned disrupts your concentration by talking, checking their phone or laughing at inappropriate times. Most recently this happened when I was lecturing about French participation in the Holocaust, which is not generally an appropriate time to laugh. Twice recently I have caught sight of students openly napping in my lectures, an activity which in most polite societies is generally frowned upon when someone else is talking. Occasionally, one comes up against a genuine nemesis who seeks to undermine the teacher at every possible opportunity, which is much harder to deal with for the relatively inexperienced university teacher.
Is it my teaching?
I like to think that I can take a lot of this on the chin. The two students, in two different universities, napping in my lectures represent a fraction of the total number of students I have ever taught. There might also be another explanation to their apparent rudeness: it could well be that they are genuinely sleep-deprived, following a night out. The talking and the laughing are minor inconveniences, but when these incidents are combined with the occasional napping during a particularly busy day, it is vital to have some coping strategies.
Dealing with disruption
Anyone who is vaguely concerned about their teaching at any level will naturally worry about what they can do to stop these minor disruptions. I find a dual approach between reflecting on how to improve my own game and clamping down on indiscipline has worked well for me, but I’d also be really interested to hear from other ECRs about their techniques in such circumstances. Recently, I’ve sought to get some informal feedback from the non-disruptive majority of students about the pace of lectures, the quality of the PowerPoints and handouts, while also finding out if there’s anything else I can do to make the lectures or seminars more engaging. I’ve found that these sorts of disruptions are countered once I begin to learn students’ names, making the whole experience more familiar. However, I’ve recently had to be quite hard on the more disruptive students, including in one instance taking the very unusual step of asking a group to leave a lecture. I thought it would be helpful to suggest the following maxims that I have found useful, but suggestions and comments are very welcome!
- Expectations help. In one recent course, I had time to set out my expectations about students’ attitudes towards the unit and found that their behaviour was markedly better than it was in a different module in which I also taught them.
- Seek advice. I’ve never been afraid to ask for help, and firmly believe that colleagues can either give you some tips about how to develop or just offer a sympathetic hearing, both of which are very helpful.
- Get some informal feedback. Find out if you can do anything in your teaching to prevent this kind of activity in the future. In my experience, the chances are that this will be a very small part in causing student disruption, but at least you can rest easy knowing that you are doing your level best to engage and motivate students.
- Don’t be afraid to take action. This can range from pausing the lecture and asking the concerned parties to cease their disruptions, to approaching students after the lecture and asking them not to do so again.
- Remember that the majority of students are engaged. All too often memories of the handful of disruptive students tend to dominate post-teaching reflections. Don’t forget that the rest of the students, who are not disruptive, are probably really engaged and enjoying the experience.