What's the problem?
It's self-explanatory. Just one or a small number of students disrupt the class.
For novice teachers, an early experience with a disruptive student can get them out of the profession. For those with more experience, such students can be the bane of their lives. For the other students, of course, they can jeopardise the whole learning experience.
What does it mean?
(Don't skip this bit. I know you want answers and not sterile theorising, but the tactics which are most likely [no guarantees] to work depend on appropriate strategy. There is no "one size fits all" solution.)
- Phenomenologically (sorry!), it means you are personally challenged, your competence is threatened and compromised, and you feel as if your credibility is on the line with the whole class. That is very important, but if you let it govern your responses, you are on a hiding to nothing. (Isn't it nice that such a viscerally gut-wrenching experience can have such a posh intellectual label? It means, roughly, "In your experience".)
- At this level, there is also an issue of perception: the label of "disruptive student" is problematic, and likely to be overwhelming. It may well be better to think of events and behaviours rather than personal labels.
- We are not talking about therapy here: we are talking about management which will at least enable the rest of the class to get on with their learning. That is your responsibility: the rest falls to other professionals.
- Systemically, it means that there is a "wild card" in the class. Assuming the rest of your classSee "The Law of Requisite Variety" for a theoretical systems perspective. management skills are good-enough, they don't work for this person's behaviour.
- We may be considering:
- A student who represents—willingly or unwillingly—some undercurrent within the whole class group. See the page on "Projection" to understand how this might happen.
- A student who is acting "in order to" affect the class.
- A student who is driven to being disruptive "because of" something else . (Or a combination of these two.)
- A "one-off" occasional problem, or a "persistent" offender.
How can I handle it, so I can learn from it?
- Calm down.
- Reflect and diagnose.
- Itemise the problematic behaviour(s)
- Develop strategies to handle them.
- Implement them.
- Reflect and evaluate, but only change them in the light of clear and consistent contrary evidence.
I know—I'm still not telling you what the strategies are, but there is no single "killer app." here.
Bottom line at the time
First and always: give the disruptive student(s) the minimum attention necessary.
- Time spent on this issue is time lost from real teaching, and it may increase disaffection in the rest of the class.
- If the student is seeking attention (which may be legitimate in his eyes) the more you give—however negative—the more you are reinforcing the behaviour. You can't ignore it, and attempts to do so may lead to escalation, but don't fuel it.
- There are always others in the class hovering on the fringes of being disruptive, for whatever reason: if one student is seen to succeed in rattling your cage, they are more likely to join in, especially if the actual teaching is disrupted by the time you spend with him.
- Don't go straight for the nuclear option. You have a range of sanctions from the meaningful glance to exclusion. Work your way through them slowly.
- Don't give negative commands, such as "stop talking!" They invite a response. It's usually "I wasn't" or "I was only..." But you do not want to get into a conversation because it is a distraction from the main business. So give positive instructions which amount to the same thing; "Please get on with your work quietly."
Be familiar with the sanctions available to you: the last thing you want to do is to be out of order and in trouble yourself, but equally you need to be confident that the institution will back your decisions.
- The simplest and cleanest sanction is often to exclude the student. As long as you are polite but authoritative and positive about it: "We can't resolve this now. Please leave the class, and come to see me at the staff room at 3.30, when we can discuss it properly." —you will probably get the student out (although whether you will get the desired discussion at 3.30 is less probable).
- It is unrealistic to pretend that you can exclude or sanction a student and not be distracted by the experience. The other students will be similarly distracted. If it is possible to move into an exercise or similar activity in the aftermath, do so. It enables everyone to regain an even keel, or at the very least to vent their grumbles without further whole-class disruption.
Do nothing to make the situation worse.
If you do get into potentially fraught "discussions" with a disruptive student, make sure that you have a colleague present.