Did you hear about the recent-ish story about the white professor who called the cops into his classroom to exert power over a black student in his class? By all reports, midway through a lecture, the professor commanded his student to move to a seat at the front of the class. And when the student explained that he was well situated in his seat and was sitting near a plug so he could charge his laptop, the professor decided that his request was an ultimatum, and he unwisely escalated the situation.
How can an incident like this happen? Of course, let’s be clear, it’s racism. The actions of this professor are symptomatic of deep problems in higher education and our country.
From a pedagogical perspective, how is it that a highly experienced professor could make such a poor decision?
In this situation, the professor presumably felt as if he didn’t have control over his own classroom, and tried to claim this control in a most unwise manner. Professors already have astounding levels of authority and independence in the classroom environment, and yet this professor “mishandled” the situation, as he later wrote in an apology to his students. The phone call to the police was an outlier, but on the other hand, the professorial effort to control the bodies and devices of students is all too common.
I fully can place myself in the mindset of a professor who has used levied their powerful position to control student behavior to run a classroom, because I’ve been there. I have yet to call the cops on anybody, but as I was learning the ropes, I have been overly heavy handed about student behavior in a way that undermined trust and the quality of the learning environment. A professor can push around their students with any combination of straight up commands, unnecessarily rigid policies, and passive aggressive remarks. I’m sure those who use these tactics wouldn’t characterize it as “pushing around their students,” but instead, as maintaining an orderly classroom environment that promotes student learning. Nonetheless, when we boss students around, students will recognize that they don’t have the respect of their professors. This lack of mutual respect ultimately constitutes a net harm to the learning environment, even if the professor’s command of the room creates a room so quiet you can hear the fart of a duckling.
I would sometime use my authority in a counterproductive manner because, simply, I picked it up from my environment. While I was surrounded by plenty of colleagues who were excellent teachers, I also worked with a lot of untrained professors who didn’t know how to develop an environment of mutual respect. When you’re in the classroom and you discover that your class isn’t going the way you want it to, it’s all too easy to resort to bossy tactics. I don’t think fessing up to this behavior on my part is a grand confessional, because frankly, I think it’s all too common. It just shows that I’m not so different than everybody else.
It’s not easy to run a classroom. Like many science professors, I started teaching as a grad student, when I taught my own laboratory sections for introductory courses. The university ran the labs like factories, in four adjacent labs through four days per week, without a pause between 8 in the morning to 8 in the evening, putting a phalanx of unprepared grad students in charge. I had little idea what I was doing. I had done some small-group tutoring and been an assistant in the labs an undergraduate, but I had zero preparation for running my own class. It showed.
While it might come as a surprise to many of our undergraduate students, those of working in academe are fully aware that very few faculty have received substantive training in how to teach. When I was in grad school, I did participate in the voluntary Graduate Teacher Certificate Program, which helped a bit. Nevertheless, most of the professors who taught me when I was a student, like most of my peers, only started to receive a little professional development well after they were unleashed into college classrooms. So, then, it should come as no surprise when we hear of professors teaching in an unprofessional manner. They were never trained!
It was far too late in my career when I was first exposed to a phrase that is well among teachers: “classroom management.” This is foundational for effective teaching. Yet, it was terminology and practice that I had not been exposed to in my first seven years as a professor.
I eventually learned about classroom management when I helped run an NSF Master Teacher Fellows program that provided support to expert K-12 teachers. (I supported the program with science content knowledge.) Like nearly all of us, I spent plenty of time around K-12 teaching, but primarily as a child in a classroom. I wasn’t taking notes on what made the good teachers effective at their jobs. The opportunity to work alongside professionally trained expert teachers provided something of an epiphany. Whereas I taught these master teachers about photosynthesis and animal behavior, I gained more valuable lessons about running a professional and respectful classroom. By that point in my career, I was teaching pretty well. Nevertheless, I learned the value of intentionally adopting classroom management practices. I also saw firsthand how some of the approaches that high school teachers use to engage students and run a tight ship can also be highly effective in a classroom full of adults.
Whenever we see a story about a professor who loses their cool and winds up on CNN, I’m willing to bet that their problems are rooted, at least in part, in poor classroom management. Running a classroom well and maintaining mutual respect of students is particularly difficult when students have had prior experiences with professors who treat them as adversaries. A professor who is good at classroom management can overcome that baggage and make sure that classroom time is spent on learning, rather than the enforcement of rules. If a professor has genuine control over their classroom — not through fear but through mutual understanding — I doubt they’ll end up creating a fire that needs to be put out by the university media relations office.
How many universities offer their professors training and support in classroom management, and how often to professors receive this training? I don’t know, but a cursory survey of the higher education landscape makes it clear that we have to do a lot better. In the meantime, if you find yourself in a position where you feel like you have trouble wielding your authority in the classroom in a manner that respects your students, a little bit of studying up on classroom management can go a long way. It starts with respecting the agency of your students. Not only will things go more smoothly in the classroom for you, students will also have a better opportunity to learn.