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How to Respond to Inappropriate Student Comments

Posted on Friday September 14, 2012 by Michael Keathley

When I read Liana Heitin’s post in Education Week, “Responding to Insensitive Student Comments,” it brought back flashes of similar situations I have experienced as an instructor and others some of my colleagues have shared over the years (30 August, 2012). It also brought back the same question: How should teachers handle inappropriate comments from students?

In her post, Heitin shared the story of Heather Wolpert-Gawron who, after explaining she’d be off to celebrate a Jewish holiday, was asked by a student: “”So, if you’re Jewish, does that mean you’re going to hell?”

    Wolpert-Gawron responded, “So I thought about my goal as a teacher to create independent learners and thinkers, and I responded the only way I could. I said, “I’ll let you decide that, Eduardo.” He crossed his arms, nodded at me thoughtfully and … [w]e continued on our merry way” (qtd. in Heitin, L. 30 August, 2012).

The debate Heitin sparked was over how to handle such incidents. Did Wolpert-Gawron do the right thing, or should this have become a teachable moment? Should the student have been reported under the school’s disciplinary policies?

The question of how to handle student’s inappropriate comments should be addressed on an individual basis with a consideration to their cause and intended effect.

Common Causes and Intentions

From the Mouths of Babes
In the scenario above, neither Wolpert-Gawron nor Heitin describe the student as asking the question maliciously. As I read it, I envisioned an innocent elementary student not realizing the full implications of the comment. Blogger Madlon Master even asks in the “Comments” area if it’s possible the boy was just repeating something he had heard or perhaps he had even seen a picture of Michelangelo’s Moses in which he appears to have horns.

Even adult students sometimes make inappropriate or insensitive comments without intent to do harm. As this slideshare presentation explains, we are dealing with the Facebook generation:

Fault lines of the Facebook generation from Cocoon Group

As noted in the video, with the overexposure to social media, talk shows, and reality TV, even adults sometimes have difficulty separating the virtual world from the real world or recognizing the privacy boundaries of the past that afforded people more respect. However, it’s not only pop culture that creates this laxity in social parameters. One can immediately see insensitive communication in other venues, such as the current election season.

Rather than realize their comments may be insensitive, some students assume they are the acceptable norm.

• Trying to Be Funny
Another intent of inappropriate student comments is humor. Many of us are aware of the positive effects an appropriate use of humor can have on student learning (c.f. Garner, R.L., “Humor in Pedagogy: How Ha-Ha can Lead to Aha!” Teaching College. 54.1 2006). We may even strive to set a tone of humor in our classes to help facilitate student learning and a sense of community.

The problem again lies with maintaining respectable boundaries. Sometimes a student wants to share something funny that really isn’t really humorous. For example, I remember during a peer-editing session in a college composition course, a student began reading her paper, and she used an abortion joke as a lead-in. She seemed sincere about following the traditional advice to win the audience over with a humor, but she initially did not understand that most people do not consider abortion a funny topic. Humor can also quickly degenerate into something cruel and vicious. Who can forget this video of bullied bus driver Karen Kline?

While appropriate humor may have its place in learning, inappropriate humor does not.

• Nervousness/Frustration
Another cause of insensitive comments in a classroom derives from students being nervous about the course or frustrated with content. Elizabeth Scott (14 May, 2011) offers a concise list of the reasons K12 students feel anxiety at school, and these are equally valid for adult learners. For example, she mentions disconnects between teaching and learning styles, over- scheduling, a lack of family time and sleep, and other such factors that easily cause most of us to feel agitated. Within this context, it doesn’t take much to accidentally push a student over the edge to provoke an inappropriate comment.

One of my own weak moments as a student came during an Algebra class. I had what felt like a million other stressors eating away at me while I was working with a partner on an assignment. Just as we were making progress, the teacher, certainly with good intentions, interrupted to offer his help. That was all it took for my frustration to go on overload. I remember snapping at him to “shut up!”

Although that incident happened a couple of decades ago, I still remember that feeling and the embarrassment that followed in spite of my repeated apologies to the teacher. I also keep this in mind with my own students who sometimes make insensitive remarks. Are they really asking for help?

• Anonymity
Another cause of students making inappropriate remarks sometimes is the false sense of anonymity or intimacy that online learning fosters. Many students access their virtual courses from a comfortable location like their homes. It feels like they are alone with their computer and thoughts, which seem to flow effortlessly through their fingertips, onto the keyboard, and into the course site. Some of the limitations of the typed word can also lead to misinterpretations that weren’t fully intended. Kristen Betts of Drexel University explained in detail the number of ways intent can be “Lost in Translation” even without a malicious purpose (2009).

• Irrationality
Another cause of inappropriate student comments falls into a smaller category of irrationality. For example, I once had a woman in a college course who was an excellent student. She even participated well in the class. However, for about the first two weeks of class, she would mutter comments under her breath, avoid eye contact with me, and act a bit uncomfortable in class. One day I saw her in the hall on the way to class, so I asked her if there was anything I could help her with as she seemed uncomfortable. With a weird sense of relief, she blurted out: “You remind me of my ex-husband!” I laughed and reassured her that I was the “good twin” so she should relax and focus on the class.

• Just Plain Rude
Perhaps the most difficult cause of inappropriate is students who are just plain rude. I remember once when I taught high school, I bent down to finish stapling some information to a floor-to-ceiling bulletin board. Not seeing me as he entered the room, a student shouted: “Where’s that white mother f—–?” I remember feeling stunned not so much at the verbiage, but more so at the rudeness of the comment because he was part of a class with a healthy sense of community. Until that moment, I had felt like I had a good rapport with him, too.

The appropriate responses to the situations described above are equally variant. Hopefully, taking a step back in such situations to consider the underlying cause of an inappropriate student comment will provide some guidance. Here are some general suggestions for your response as a teacher:

    • Respond as an education professional, and model appropriate communication skills.

    • Redirect the comment as Wolpert-Gawron did, allowing the student the opportunity to reflect on the statement made.

    • Avoid getting defensive and explaining yourself. Faculty do not owe students an explanation about our personal lives, appearance, etc. Do not take such outbursts personally.

    • Vent to colleagues, friends, or family rather than to the students. You may also want to check into free counseling services that may be provided by your school as a way of finding objective guidance and support.

    • Make use of appropriate school resources. If it is a severe issue like my student who uttered the expletive at me, apply the appropriate disciplinary response. If you feel the outburst may reflect a mental health issue or need for assistance with a disability, refer student to or consult with the appropriate support service (e.g., a student assistance program or Disability Services Office).

    • Establish clear communication guidelines in courses with a connection to school policies, especially in virtual classes. Madison College offers a helpful list of problems and solutions.

    • Do respond and address the issue immediately. Ignoring inappropriate student comments only sets the stage for more. Your students will also appreciate the feeling of safety and comfort that comes with an instructor who truly manages his or her classroom.

    • Document all issues of concern and share the information with the appropriate administration or support staff.

Overall, education involves a wide variety of people in a stressful context. Inappropriate comments will happen accidentally or intentionally. Modeling an appropriate response should help alleviate the situation for the benefit of all involved. Perhaps the best teachable moment is for ourselves as we learn to become even better educators.

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