March 13th, 2013

When a Student’s Comment Feels Like a Personal Attack


I got the idea for this post from the one-page “Teaching Tactics” feature in Teaching Theology and Religion. Faculty author Sara M. Koenig sets the context. “Most of us have had an experience in the classroom of a student saying something so offensive that it feels like a personal attack on us as professors.” (p. 51)

Those of us who’ve taught for a while probably have had more than one of these experiences. “Do you make these exam questions tricky on purpose?” a student once asked me in class. “Making us work in groups when we don’t want to is bad teaching,” a student recently told a colleague. And then there was the student who observed that the textbook was really bad and wondered aloud whether the professor was requiring it because he got a cut of its sales.

Comments like these are tough because, in addition to being personal, they often come at us when we don’t expect them. The student will pop off with the comment and then it just sort of lingers in the air. You can feel the action in the classroom grinding to a halt as everyone redirects their attention to you to see just how you’re going to respond.

As professionals, we recognize that sometimes students aren’t particularly articulate. Their words have sharper edges than often intended. Other times, when they’re having a bad day, students, like other people we know, may take out their anger, frustration, worry, and general malaise on those who happen to be nearby. And sometimes a student makes an intentionally mean-spirited comment because they think the teacher deserves it.

Koenig suggests three ways of responding to these comments. First, she recommends redirecting the comment to the class. “What do the rest of you think about that?” “Does anyone disagree?” “Would anyone state the objection a bit differently?” Soliciting commentary from other students gives the student who made the comment feedback and it gives the teacher an opportunity to gauge the level of discontent. Of course, the risk is that heads all around the room will nod in agreement, which can make the teacher’s position feel all the more precarious.

I think Koenig’s second suggestion is the best. She writes the student’s comment on the board before responding. As she writes, she may ask a question about the words the student used. This often causes the student to clarify what he or she said and perhaps change it. Koenig says that writing down the comment “depersonalizes” it so that she can respond to the comment rather than the individual.

She also suggests responding by asking, “What do we need to know to answer that question or comment?” Asking this question helps the teacher and the student get at the main concern that motivated the comment. In other words, sometimes the student’s comment is the smoke that causes us to cough, choke, and run away. We need to look for the fire, because if we can put that out, there won’t be any more smoke.

I totally endorse the idea of developing a few response strategies beforehand. That short time between when the student makes the comment and the teacher must respond isn’t the best time to come up with clever, creative alternatives. What’s most important is that we don’t let our emotions take over and come back with a defensive retort that only escalates the exchange. After all, we are the professionals in the room and we should work to respond in ways that are professionally appropriate. On the other hand, if the comment is truly mean-spirited, we might also have a professional responsibility to chat privately with the student about the principles of constructive feedback.

Finally, as part of being prepared for those days when a student makes an unwelcome or hurtful comment, it’s a good idea to have tucked away in the corner of your desk one or two of those really wonderful things students have said about your efforts to help them learn.

Reference: Koenig, S. M. (2013). Beyond fight or flight: Responding to stressful student comments in class. Teaching Theology and Religion, 16 (1), 51.

  • Getting Out`

    Teaching in a modern American classroom is as full of these challenges as it is of success. Anyone who doesn't admit that it is wearing is either lying, denying, or clueless. In the college where I've worked for the last 12 years, we've had an exodus of good teachers, all replaced with over-credentialed, under-talented "kids" the students really disrespect. This has degraded our institution and barricaded our administration behind their HR policies and evasive management tactics. It's a for-profit business, so this is obviously heralding the beginning of the end.

    Still, my grandson describes exactly the same scenario in his public high school. The Republican attack on teachers and public education has taken a toll everywhere. The profession is less attractive today than anytime in my lifetime. School administrators are less skilled, less connected to the purpose of the institutions, and less supportive than their degenerate counterparts in business (and this is possibly the low-mark in American management's history). The strategies described in this article are fine, as far as they go, but they are defensive in nature and one more sign that teachers are hiding behind their desks hoping for rescue.

    • Cap

      So what is your suggestion ?

  • Lorena

    Thanks for this article. I certainly appreciate the practical advice. Although I wish not to have to put it in action, it would be absurd to deny that this type of situations may happen at any time. We should always remember that our students are human beings with feelings and emotions ready to be displayed in many ways.

    EFL Teacher in El Salvador, Central America

  • Janice J Hill

    Soliciting honest feedback via informal discussion/survey from students during the course is one way to keep communications open. Using Polleverywhere is a great way to have survey students rate you–this is after the course. Rate My Professor is another method of feedback from students, e-Journals, and other web tools is a way to find out how you are doing. Be open to constructive criticism…

  • Janice J Hill

    I ask my students to tell me what has gone well and what has not gone so well. Honest feedback is the key. Rate 'Your Professor' is another tool teachers can use mid-way through their course to get feedback from students or even 'Poll Anywere"

  • Pingback: Professors: Student Evaluations | My Educational Technology Blog()

  • Debra Vincent, PhD

    I teach online and have discovered that students will make comments in writing that they would not necessarily make in person. Recently, I had a couple of students using curse words in the discussion board posting. When I addressed my concerns (in a personal email) each student saw how unprofessional the comments were. It's truly eye-opening, and I greatly appreciate the article and comments.


  • cognitioneducation

    I have students fill out a survey after each exam, with a variety of questions asking them to rate their level of engagement, the degree to which their skills increased, whether they thought particular in-class exercises/demos/activities were engaging and helpful, and then I ask for open ended requests to the following: (a) if you could change anything about your studying, what would it be; and (b) if you could change anything about the exam what would it be? I then tabulate all the class answers and transcribe their comments and share back with the class. Not only does this exercise help me evaluate what was and wasn't effective, but it also lets those students who are externalizing realize that are in the minority with their opinions. In the four years that's I've been doing this, I've only ever had one class "go south" on me; in all the rest the students have enjoyed getting their results each time.

  • Luciana

    Another alternative response to a student's comment such as "I don´t like this subject" is "why?".

  • CountessOfHope

    Very timely & well written article. Thank you!

  • As a person who fights a continuous battle with herself for taking things way too personally, I can completely understand teachers who have this issue. Even so, it's not a secret that teaching isn't for everybody, so one should really think about taking the job if one's too sensitive and might have the same issue as me.

  • Azar Aftimos

    The article has a lot of useful information .