Classroom Management: Discipline Pitfalls in the College Classroom

Although endless volumes about classroom discipline proliferate in the professional libraries of K–12 instructors, as college professors we seldom think we need advice on the issue. After all, our students choose to be in classes at our institutions. Many, if not most, are placing themselves and their families in huge financial debt to attend. Besides, we’ll just kick them out of class if they display behaviors not tolerated in civilized societies.

It is true that we don’t need threats of detention, or other tricks to coerce good behavior from college students. Nonetheless, classroom discipline is an issue for us. My colleagues and I routinely exchange stories about students who talk in class inappropriately, sleep through most of the period, attend infrequently, refuse to complete work, do assignments haphazardly, and answer cell phones in class. Some of these behaviors are carryovers from high school; some are the direct result of students reveling in their newfound sense of freedom. Regrettably, some of these bad behaviors develop in “good” students when they are provoked by our responses to these less than mature behaviors. That makes me think of the “Wizard of Oz.”

We all know the story. When Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion seek advice and wisdom from the Wizard, they are instead confronted by a giant head and pyrotechnics. When challenged, slightly, by Dorothy, the Great and Powerful Oz sets an impossible task to perform. When, against all odds, the group achieves this task and the Wizard is unmasked, they discover that behind the bluster of the giant head is really just a goofy-looking man in a bad suit.
In some college classrooms professors attempt to employ a similar godlike authority. Haven’t we studied our field for years? Aren’t we experts? Shouldn’t students respect both our knowledge and authority? Of course. However, empowered by these beliefs, some professors adapt and cultivate an appearance of authority and expertise that looks too much like the charlatan Oz. Needless to say, this strategy rarely garners the respect intended.

I have succumbed to the appeal of the Great and Powerful Oz persona in my own classrooms. Why don’t my students readily jump to do their assignment without question? I knew what I was doing when I put it together. If the task seems impossible, it is the students’ job to figure it out. However, after a few hundred times of being exposed when my curtain was pulled aside, I have learned to avoid this model.

By showing students the goofy-looking man in the bad suit from the beginning of class, I believe we can solve many of these discipline problems before they develop. No matter how well read and intelligent the giant head is, no one wants to take orders from it in order to gain knowledge. We need to let students behind the curtain, asking rather than telling them to share in our expertise.

Amy Getty is a Professor of English at Grand View University.

Excerpted from Not Just for Kicks: Discipline Pitfalls in the College Classroom, The Teaching Professor, December, 2006.