It was only a couple of days into the semester of my community college freshman English class that I began to notice something a little off.
On the face it, it was a typical community college class for California: diverse students from a variety of cultural and economic backgrounds and a variety of ages, from traditional freshman age to mature students who were homemakers, displaced workers, and veterans returning to college. There was nothing particularly strange about the class on face value. What was odd, however, was student behavior. Although the students were mostly very bright and engaged in the learning process, there were a number of class concerns, most noticeably the tendency of some students to come up to me, sometimes while I was in the middle of a lecture, to say, “I need to talk to you now!” and insist I step out of the class to discuss something personal with them. It was strange behavior, something I’d rarely experienced in many years of teaching, but I was able to quickly determine the reason: I was dealing with the very novice student. For such students, who might be under considerable financial/work/family pressures, talking to me now might indeed seem to take precedence over any course curricula. Although very difficult to address--as the instructor is coming directly up against the student conviction her immediate pressing personal concern trumps class instruction--there are several ways to address such student issues:
Deal with Students’ Concerns Expertly
Lay Out Expectations in the Course Syllabus
One of the most important steps in acclimating students to the classroom (I prefer the phrase “acclimating to the classroom/academic norms” to “classroom control”) is to be proactive, from the first day. If the norms for an academic environment are laid from the beginning, then students can be expected to understand the norms, and the teacher will be able to refer to the expectations in the event they are not met, as in “My contact information and office hours are clearly stated in the syllabus. Please see me outside of class to address any personal concerns.” Keeping the conversation calm and impersonal in simply stating or restating the expectation helps keep emotion out the equation and prevents further problems.
Enforce/Remind Students of Norms Immediately on Violation
To avoid confusion, the norms and conventions you’ve laid out have to be enforced. I was really bothered by, and the educational process was interrupted by, the student who got up and left early without saying anything (or even worse, would ask “I’m all done with my work. May I go home now?”) I reminded the student that she had to stay the entire time, whether she felt she was finished or not, and it was not fair for the rest of the class if she left early and missed out on the learning process that we’d have to help her catch up with later. A couple of other students later also had to be reminded but eventually got that it was inappropriate to come to or leave class according to personal desire and schedule. Enforcing the expectations is important in developing a sense of those expectations in students.
Be Firm but Flexible
Yes, there is a firm attendance policy, but… For the strong student who emailed me because he was in the hospital having had an emergency appendectomy (and very worried about the absence’s effect on his grade), of course flexibility is called for. There are strict due dates and expectations for attendance that can be flexible as well for such contingencies.
Teach by Example
Be the model of academic life you want your students to be. This involves arriving on time, staying throughout the class, actively listening to students, respecting all viewpoints, and participating in the discussion. Students begin to see the importance of this behavior in the engaged course atmosphere it creates and begin to emulate the behavior.
Put Leadership and Responsibility on the Student
The teacher should not do all of the work or take all of the responsibility. This is too hard on the instructor and defeats the goal of teaching students leadership and community. Halfway through the semester, several students decided that they’d like to participate in a campus-wide food drive and in the process earn some extra class participation points. I agreed to award the points to students who participated and then handed the responsibility over to them of researching the policies of the drive and setting up the team to collect and disperse the canned goods and finally getting a list of participants to me. They came through on the task with minimal supervision from me and in the process learned something about teamwork in an academic/professional setting.
Show the Value of Living an Academic/Professional life
I find independent research projects, based on student topics of interest, to be one of the most valuable classroom activities in teaching research and writing skills and showing students the value of academic work, of informing themselves on and then teaching others about a topic they really value. In the process, a real learning community is developed. Students worked toward a final position paper on a topic of choice (e.g., vegetarianism as a diet/lifestyle choice), developed a position on the topic, found research to support their position, and presented it to the class by both posting it in online in the course discussion threads and giving a live presentation to the class. Students became involved in each other’s topics--for example, one student’s research on the value of a traditional, four-year liberal arts college education drew a lot of interest. In the process, a learning community formed in which students were actively discussing relevant topics, and they were learning skills in research, writing, and presentation they will use throughout their academic/professional lives.
Did the class continue to have acculturation/ management concerns?
Of course. The acclimation issues were ingrained behaviors in students just learning to be students. Into the last week of class, I still had students who hadn’t quite “gotten” it, still had trouble with attendance and completing work and respecting instructional time. However, the classroom climate and community vastly improved, and while most were not yet model and mature students, the majority of the class had completed its introduction to college life and was launching a successful academic career.