When a student is angry pull them closer to you. Embrace their critique and thank them for it. Show them that you really hear what they are saying and ask them to keep talking. If right now you think I’m crazy, that’s okay. This is a counterintuitive approach and that’s what makes it both disarming and pedagogically rich.
To understand why this approach works, first we have to examine how teachers commonly frame a student’s vehement challenge.
Student “Attacks” & “Defending” Our Selves
When a student challenges you, how do you respond? Or let’s take a step back, what are the adjectives you use inside your head when thinking about a student assertively challenging you or the ideas and research you are presenting them? It’s not uncommon for teachers (myself included) to frame a student’s challenge as “an attack” or frame their posture as “willful ignorance.” We might tell our colleagues afterwards that we had to “defend ourselves” from students who were “not willing to learn” or “blinded by their [insert perceived culprit].” The crucial self-reflexive question that we should ask ourselves is, what are we defending and how does that affect our teaching?
Most of the time we are protecting our identities as teachers. We have spent years in graduate school and in our careers developing our identity as a competent teacher and content expert. But every teacher, no matter how developed their teacher identity, has a voice in their head that questions their competency and wonders if their identity is built upon a foundation of self-deception.
You might be tempted to think that this is an issue for only new teachers or sub-par teachers. To the contrary, the more reinforced our identity as a teacher is, the more egregious a student’s challenge can feel. That is, our internal monologue can tell us, “I am a full professor who’s won teaching awards and has published on this topic for decades. Who is this student to think they can pull my card!”
The point I’m making here is that it is perilous to conceptualize a student as your adversary. But if this conceptualization still rings true for you, then my suggestion is you employ an Aikido like approach to your students. In Aikido, you are trained to redirect the energy of your attacker. In this case, you take a student’s powerful energy and redirect it toward your learning goals.
How to Handle Student Challenges
Imagine a student has come up to you after class with a red face and explains all the ways that you, your class, and sociology in general have “got it all wrong” in a tone of voice teetering on the edge of incivility. How would this interaction go if you said something like this:
“Thank you for sharing this with me. I know that it’s not easy to challenge a professor or what’s written in a textbook. We are always talking about how important it is to think critically about things, so I absolutely appreciate the fact that you are thinking critically about our class. I hear you saying… , is that right?”
This is a classic deescalation technique. You are showing the student that you are hearing them, you are affirming their point of view, and most importantly you are role modeling civility and inviting them to join you. This is a powerful, mature, and authoritative response that projects confidence and compassion.
From here, encourage your students to continue talking. Often their outrage is based upon a misunderstanding of the course material, an error in logic, or the fact that they have privileged their anecdotal experiences above the empirical evidence you showed them. Ask questions that will direct the conversation to these mistakes. You will often find that the student’s own inner teacher will emerge and teach the students to better understand the material, acknowledge their logic errors, and accept that their anecdotal evidence and the empirical evidence can both be accurate.
There are numerous examples in society of how we adjust our expectations and tact when working with novices. For instance, when we deal with children, or a “new hire” at work, or the server at the restaurant who is “in training” (Goffman 1961/2013). I’m not suggesting that we “coddle entitled students”, rather I’m suggesting that we reframe student challenges as a passionate request for help.