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JonnyCeltics's avatar

What should I do about my student, who speaks out awkwardly in class, and challenges me on my age, knowledge?

Asked by JonnyCeltics (2716points) September 10th, 2012

I have a class-a media course-of about 20 students, all undergraduates, who are mostly around 18–21. One student, a woman is about 50 years old. I’m 30.

When I was finished reading my attendance list, I asked if there was anybody who hadn’t been called on. She raised her hand. I asked her what her name was, she said: “You can call me Ms. Thompson. You’re younger than me.” I responded by saying, “If that is what you prefer, then I am happy to call you that. She responded a bit later by saying that “Ms. T” was fine.

As class went on, the discussion came to first to the syllabus and eventually music. I plan to have them read a recent New Yorker article about Justin Beiber’s manager, and upon reciting that, she blurted out “why?!” and gave a bothered face/look.

When the class came to watch a few rap videos, to think about “representation/portrayals” (gender, race, sexuality, etc.) she was loud, overtaking others in the class, saying things like “when I was so and so age, rap was about lyrics and a message….do you know who professor griff is? do you know when/why music went from analog to digital?”

I didn’t get angry, as class was finishing and the discussion was becoming heated with other students and needed to manage the class more than her. After class I realized that she was most likely insecure, that being surrounded by kids, and not knowing (or caring much) about someone like Justin Bieber (I care as an educator and the window he provides), and then asserting what she did know…

I need a plan. So I’ve a few details I was hoping to get some help with from the Fluther community:

1) Generally, do you have advice about general classroom management when discussions become multi-person, all across the room, and it’s heated. I’d like to let them discuss, but it is a one at a time thing that I believe I need to enforce. I don’t want to raise my voice, and set that precedent.

2) With regard to this woman—what do I say when

- she challenges me, on my age, or my knowledge?
– she goes off-topic, speaks out.

I would like to assert to her, kindly, and in private, that this is what we are doing in class, and if she has issue with it, to talk about it with me after class, or drop it (and say that I would hate to see that). But that her comments are getting others off track and detracting from the classes in general.

One final detail. When she came to the course, she wasn’t registered. Now she is, so maybe she liked it/me!

Thank you for reading.

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38 Answers

Tachys's avatar

You must set the groundrules for discussions immediately. You must explain that each student needs to listen to others answers and show respect at all times. If it starts to get heated, end the conversation. You can have them raise there hands and not speak until they are called on – until they learn to converse with civility.

As for the elder student, you must take her aside and advise her that her going off topic and speaking out of turn is disruptive, and even enlist her help in making the class go smoothly. Be strong, and advise them all when they are going off track, you will end their time speaking. It’s your job. The rest of the class will appreciate it.

Tachys's avatar

@JonnyCeltics sometimes it’s hard to be king. But in that class, you are.

JonnyCeltics's avatar

I was king, until she caught me off guard. I didn’t want to so much reprimand her in front of the class, but I wish I had, just in a polite way (re: your suggestion).

lifeflame's avatar

It sounds like you and your students are having fun in the class. :) congratulations!

Heated is good, but obviously if everyone is speaking at once there is a chance that certain quieter, shyer students will get overlooked. So that’s when you have to play facilitator and step in to ensure that everyone gets a say! Something on the lines on, “Woah, I’m glad that everyone is so passionate about their point of view. I’m having trouble hearing everyone though. How about we go around the circle and have everyone give their point of view? / How about we raise hands so that we can all hear everyone?”

If it becomes a persistent problem then I would sit down with the class to discuss ground-rules. Give them the task: “how can we ensure everyone gets heard?“and have themcome up with the ground-rules themselves. If they make the rules themselves they are more likely to follow them.

About the older student: well, I think your class is lucky that they have someone who can provide a different perspective, so the question is how to use it as a bonus rather than a distraction. I think the trick is to treat her like anyone else who is going on topic, and staying professional about it. (For example, I think you did great when it came to her name.) If she persistently derails the conversation, then take her aside and do what @Tachys suggests. Also if you think she’s doing this out of insecurity, positively reinforce the good points she makes so that she feels like she is contributing to the discussion.

JonnyCeltics's avatar

@lifeflame thank you for saying I was doing a nice job. My fear is that if she acts out again, or others do, I don’t like to raise my voice. Rather, I don’t mind it, I just know it can become a slippery slope.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

You’re in charge. Don’t let her take over.If she makes the age an issue ask her if she supports age discrimination, either way, older or younger. She’s probably insecure and trying to make up for that. I like heated discussions, as long as everyone repects the others right to express thier opinion.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

Welcome to the classroom environment!

Trust me…I feel your pain. Your role is to not only educate but to facilitate. That includes being referee when the discussions get heated. What I found helpful is to deliver a short opening about a topic and then use a flip chart to list all of the concerns before discussion began. Then the topic was delivered. After that, we took each concern, one at a time, and let the group debate it.

If need be, I would jump in ask the others to let the one person finish their thought. There were also times where I had to politely tell the person rambling on, “So, essentially, you feel…(recap and ask for agreement)” and move on.

As for the woman challenging your age, I’d blow it off. You are in this position because of your ability. It’s her issue, not yours. Everyone else in the class, and more importantly, who you report to, knows this.

If she veers off-topic, then it is your responsibility to reel her back in. I used to warn participants before each discussion that “This subject might cause some side-tracking discussions. In order to keep the class on topic and on time, I may ask you to make a note of it to bring up at a later time or during a break. Please do not take offense by it.” Then make sure to ask her, or anyone else, to make a note, or make one yourself. Follow up at a later time.

Students who speak out are not an issue for me. I look at it to mean someone is actually paying attention. When this happens, how about trying, “Did everyone hear Ms. T’s comment? What do you think about it?” Let the rest of the class manage her by letting them voice their opinion. And don’t smirk when they do.

If she is completely ruining the environment for everyone else, then it is time to pull her aside for a chat. She may be your elder, but she isn’t in charge. You should also talk to your supervisor first just to loop him/her in. There are times where I have had to pull a participant aside to have that discussion. It usually does the trick, but there were two times it came down to, “This is not the class for you, and you will be refunded.”

Sunny2's avatar

Ask her to stay after class for a moment and tell her what you suggested. If, during the class, before you talk to her, she repeats her inappropriate behavior, you may have to stop her mid sentence. You don’t need to raise your voice unless she tries to talk over you. You need to remind her that you prefer to call on students to speak and she should not just speak out. Then call on her. When she winds down, if you don’t like what she brings up, change the subject and call on someone else. She needs to mind her classroom manners. (I’m an “older” student who went back to school in my 40’s and 50’s)

marinelife's avatar

I would first discuss before it happens again how you want classroom discussion to proceed: one at a time, try not to get heated, etc. Then, if that is not sufficient for her to behave, speak privately with her.

Stick strictly with her classroom demeanor. Tell her that if she has issues with the course of study, you would prefer that she address them to you privately after class.

Do not raise the issue of her challenging your age and/or knowledge. That will make it appear as if you are insecure.

Good luck.

CWOTUS's avatar

If it was a high school class then I’d say that discipline should (probably, usually) trump discussion. But in a college atmosphere I’d say the reverse. Encourage discussion (and don’t stifle it down to the shiest person in the room! rather encourage them to speak up instead), and just try to keep it civil, non-personal and “following Fluther guidelines”.

But you have to be the one to decide what the guidelines are, and then enforce them fairly, even allowing students who challenge you on academic and professional credentials to make the challenge – politely! The whole aim of college, I think, should be “Question Authority.”

Crumpet's avatar

When I was an undergraduate there was a woman in my class who was older than everybody else by about 25 years, and she was very outspoken in class too.
I assume every mid semester you hold one on one tutorials with your class to discuss their progress and goals? If you do it might be a good idea to mention it kindly to her then.
I assume that’s what my tutor did with the woman in my class, because she was nowhere near as brash after our first one.

gailcalled's avatar

This is why I love fluther.

iphigeneia's avatar

I had a similar situation in one of my classes, where one student (unfortunately, another mature-age student contributing to the negative stereotype) dominated conversations, and asked questions during lectures, usually going off-topic to show off how much he knew. Once after class I was the last one left because I had a lot of things to pack up, and the lecturer asked me how I felt about this student. I honestly told him that it was distracting and annoying, and he told me that some other students had been complaining (plus, it was clear to the rest of us that our teacher was also frustrated with this man).

I assume he talked with him privately, because I haven’t seen the student since (the content is put online for the distance students, so coming to class isn’t necessary). I haven’t heard of anywhere having one-on-one sessions like @Crumpet mentioned. You may have to take the initiative. If the other students in your class are suffering because of her, let her know.

As for when discussions become heated, try to break down the issue into smaller questions, or specific examples. Then, when you’ve heard all the main points of view, move it on. That stops people repeating themselves, getting built up, or going off track.

the100thmonkey's avatar

A few well-directed questions would help in this situation.

For example, when she started talking about how “rap used to be about the message”, simply asking her what changed and why would bring the conversation back to issues such as commercial concerns and portrayal of women in media, i.e. more cerebral, message-oriented music doesn’t sell as well as tits’n’ass, etc.

The issue with that approach would be that it can be difficult to predict what comment she’ll make. On the other hand, using the experience she has to put modern media into relief could both motivate and integrate her more into the class, and provide a valuable perspective for the younger students while engaging everyone.

It might, though, perhaps be easier said than done.

Bellatrix's avatar

You have had some really good tips here. I would emphasise the point about making your expectations for the class in terms of discussion/interaction/behaviour clear at the start. Reinforce with your group the importance of listening, being respectful and providing evidence to support their ideas. Speak to the group not her.

As to the age thing, I would ignore that from both her comments to you and in terms of her age. You are facilitating that class. You are qualified to run the class.

As to her age, you are teaching in an adult environment. Her age is irrelevant. Treat her as you would any other adult in the class. Don’t let her undermine you by trying to make you feel she has some special right to take over the class because she is the oldest adult. If she plays up, treat her as you would anyone else if they weren’t being disrespecful or troublesome. I agree with @the100thmonkey, a few well placed questions is a good approach to take. Take this approach with all your students though.

rooeytoo's avatar

I am 67 I am always taking some sort of class and inevitably everyone else is a lot younger, including the teacher. It doesn’t make me feel insecure but I don’t hesitate to add my 2 cents worth if I think it would add something. So I wonder if it is her age or her personality that prompts her to act as you describe. And how would you deal with someone younger if they projected a similar attitude. You are being ageist by assuming she is behaving in this manner because of her age and your age. Maybe she is just a knowitall and always was! And manners and classroom courtesy apply to all regardless of age. Treat her the same as you would any student.

wundayatta's avatar

As a curious person who occasionally audits university courses, I sometimes wonder what my best contribution is. I have lots of questions and am not afraid to ask them. Sometimes young people seem either to not have questions, or to just want to get out of class as fast as possible. It is not always clear if they want to be there, or are there just because they have to be.

So I have to decide to allow myself to ask questions, and usually I ask about half the questions I have so as not to take up too much time. The professors have never spoken to me about asking too many questions. Usually it’s the opposite. They thank me for my participation. So I guess I’m not being like the older people described here.

Generally, it’s always like that. I have more questions than most people. Although not so much lately here. But I haven’t lost my touch in other areas of my life. I should be an interviewer.

I think that the older you are, the more extraneous knowledge you have, and the more likely you are to digress. It is the professor’s responsibility to keep things on course. But students, too, can ask questions and try to move things back, on course. As a professor, there are any number of things one can do, but perhaps the easiest is just to say that you need to get back to the lecture for the day, and the older student should see you after to discuss his or her questions.

El_Cadejo's avatar

@wundayatta I hate having to filter half my questions for the sake of time and avoid being “that guy” especially when no one else in the class seems to even care what the prof is talking about

gottamakeart's avatar

I have to wonder just how contrary and disruptive a student has to be before facing expulsion from a course?

I endured students like this – (who were NOT working towards a degree or paying off tuition working 2 part-time jobs while going to school full-time like me.) They would basically take over and monopolize attention and instruction from the professor needed by the rest of the class….. often in a loud and rude manner.

To me , it is insubordination for the sake of some kind of ego trip- and needs to be discouraged for the sake of all the other people involved in the class who are actually there to learn.

Perhaps a sort of “Rules of Conduct” needs to be included in the syllabus for classes to guide those who fail to recognize there are other people around them who are also important regardless of their age or experience.

JonnyCeltics's avatar

Class is tomorrow, so I will do my best to keep y’all updated. These are very thoughtful, honest responses and I appreciate the time each of you have taken to help my cause, give me insight, share experiences.

Some more info: the head of the department, the man who hired me, is on my side with this issue. He is even of the ilk that thinks I ought to assert myself, and if she continues, so suggest that the class might not be for her. In any case, I do feel supported.

A follow-up question: In taking attendance, I finally have her first name. It feels rude to address everyone by their first names, and then continue to call her Mrs. T or Mrs. Thompson, especially if I am simply running down a list. Maybe this is me wanting to fight back, but if I am to treat everyone the same….?

gailcalled's avatar

Let the “Mrs. Thompson” stand, or treat “Mrs. T” as her first name. That’s a minor issue. She made a reasonable request; she herself may find it awkward after a while and give you a mini-victory.

Keep in your bag of tricks the concept of “with age comes responsibility.” She wants respect…she needs to behave better. have the authority and the skills and the power, invested in you by the university.

I love this thread.

JonnyCeltics's avatar


Class could not have gone any better.

I ended up making a document of the pointers, advice listed in this conversation, and studied it as I took the train to class. The morning view up the Hudson River, my iPod on shuffle and that document (and your support) was an inspiring combination.

There felt to be a tension when I got to class, and as some students trickled in late, a seat to the left of Mrs. T remained empty, until I asked a student to sick there (as she was off in no man’s land). Right from the start, I was challenged by her. She spoke over me as I tried to give my two cents, and was interrupting others. I had no choice other than to ask her to let others speak, while reassuring her that her comments were valuable, but we needed her to wrap it up. She felt that I had cut her off. I rebutted by saying that if I had, I apologize, but that it was my job to make sure we stay on topic, and that we had a lot to get to that day.

I kept my cool, which was huge. There was more tension and then, it was like the room was just let loose. Class took off from there. Other’s seemed less scared and Mrs. T spoke less. perhaps she was hurt, or contemplating. I set ground rules for class discussion, saying that the ultimate goal would to have them regulate themselves, but that for the time being, let’s raise out hands to make sure things go smoothly.

The class was centered on a few communication models, and applying it to two examples of media I had chosen. They were both 9/11-themed. It went over well. It was emotional. It was share-y. It felt great. I continued to ask Mrs. T questions even when she was quiet, to make sure she knew it wasn’t anything personal, or at least that was what I was trying to convey.

During class I thought to myself, asked myself, whether or not I should ask her to stay after class to talk it over, get on the same page. I decided, to myself, against it. I felt good about it and that I didn’t need to say much more.

Here’s the icing on the cake. She stayed after to talk with me. We cleared the air. She said that she felt that she had been slighted, and I said to her that, again, I’m sorry if she felt that way, but she does tend to go off topic at times and it’s my job to keep her on topic. I told her that if I say that, it’s nothing personal, that I love her participation and passion, and to write it down and we will get back to it if we can, have time. I told her that the class has a lot to learn from her, and that she has a lot to learn from the class as well. She admitted that she can like to heat her own voice at times, and said she would try better to quell it. I repeated that I want to hear her voice, but that other’s need a chance as well. (Another detail is that I had a new student that week, and he was a joker, but added to the class dynamic and I, overall, enjoyed it.)

When she first approached me after class, she asked me how many letters in my name – “9, right? I thought so” and told me about numerology and zodiac signs and asked me to visit her friend’s website, and told me to tell her friend that (another nickname for her) sent me there. So now she gave her a personal nickname. Then she took out this hand cleanser that she makes herself and adds herbs to it and poured it all over my hands (when im in the zone in class i rarely use an actual eraser (white board)) and was like, ‘here, now they’ll smell nice.’ And then she left to catch a ride.

So there :)

Thanks everyone again!

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

@JonnyCeltics Thank you so much for the update. You may have taught this student a valuable life lesson that she didn’t pay for. Plus, it sounds as if you learned something from it yourself. Congratulations on this success story.

wundayatta's avatar

That’s great that it worked out so well. Good job!

gailcalled's avatar

That’s a wonderful story @JonnyCeltics. Props to you and your teaching techniques.

However, I would be cautious, if I were you, about her need after the class to get more attention from you.

I would nix the familiarity with numerology and her friend’s webs tie and absolutely no hand massaging. No student should be rubbing his or her teacher’s hands with lotion, before, during or after class.

This is another form of boundary issue, isn’t it? And it does cause you do pay extra attention to her. Keep your guard up, please.

wundayatta's avatar

Thanks for saying that, @gailcalled. I had some instinctive disquiet about that, but didn’t realize why until you pointed it out. The hand massaging and cream and all would be much too intimate for me in that situation. Indeed, in most situations.

gailcalled's avatar

And absolutely wrong for any teacher with any student; for anyone with anyone, if it comes to that…unless one person is a cosmetics salesman, nurse, massage therapist, parent, child or lover.

gailcalled's avatar

Curse spell check-

Edit; web site.

Tachys's avatar

Great job! Now give them a pop quiz first thing next class.

1. What do you remember most about last class?
2. What did you enjoy most from last class?
3. What is the airspeed of an unladen swallow?

Total time should be 5 minutes. Collect the answers. Use them during class for insight if needed. So much fun to teach!

lifeflame's avatar

Thanks for the update. Glad it worked out well. Kept your cool, stayed professional. Props to that! :)

JonnyCeltics's avatar

She didn’t rub hand cream on me, she just gave me some to wash my hands.

But I’m totally with y’all on that. Still need to keep up boundaries for sure.

gailcalled's avatar

Then she took out this hand cleanser… and poured it all over my hands. That is still an odd thing to do even if actual flesh did not touch flesh.

JonnyCeltics's avatar

I guess I hadn’t thought about it that way. At the time it was awkward but I chalked it up to her just being kind and it happened so fast. It’s good to have this perspective though, on it.

vernon42's avatar

Your first mistake was not checking her on the name. You are the one with the education and creditals in that class not her! she is a student. You should have told her to address you by your sir name signaling the respect you deserve. She’s trying to get to where you are not the other way around. She is using you. She feels like a loser because she is embarrased and her fragle ego is bruised about being in a class with younger people so she’s making you suffer for it.

JonnyCeltics's avatar

@vernon42 it wasn’t about my address, it was about her name….

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