Difficult Students: The Online Teachers' Guide
All online teachers will meet a difficult student now and then. We know this comes with the territory. But an unpleasant exchange can still be surprising – and even distressing.
It often happens as you’re working through your emails, replying to students who are making good progress and who appreciate your guidance. Suddenly, you open an email that’s surprisingly brutal. In a matter of seconds, that one message blots out all the positive conversations you’ve just had. It’s like a black cloud over the sun.
And it does more than ruin your mood. An email from a difficult student often takes a large chunk of time to address, and might even make you secretly doubt your competence.
The damage needs to be contained before it affects your state of mind – or your productivity. Messages like these need to be dealt with quickly and professionally.
The 4 Common Behaviors Of Difficult Students
Online teachers will be familiar with many of these student behaviors. Here are some practical strategies for dealing with each of them:
- Lack Of Basic Manners.
Depending on your student demographic, you may find that some students talk to you like they’re texting a teenage friend. They may not use a greeting, capitalization, or even full sentences. This kind of truncated, rushed communication has several causes. Generational communication norms may play a part, and online students are often overcommitted and distracted. And of course, many students are not being deliberately rude. But I still expect to see basic good manners. I don’t wear a set of white gloves as I type, and I’m not expecting to be addressed as “Your Highness”. But civil communication is a sound starting point for a positive teaching and learning relationship.
What you can do:
- Role model polite email etiquette. Often students will follow your lead.
- Make sure your language reflects appropriate online teacher/learner roles.
- Use a semi-formal greeting and sign-off (I always start with “Hello” and end with “Kind regards” – this is warm, but professional).
- Questioning Your Judgment Or Skills.
This student behavior should come with a set of flashing warning lights. It’s a potentially tricky one, because comments that question your professional abilities are provocative. The temptation is to fire off a terse reply which puts the student in her place. But that’s counter-productive. It sours future relations, and makes you look unprofessional.
What you can do:
- If the comment is particularly rude, step away from the keyboard. Cool down, and wait for some perspective to return. A knee-jerk reaction will start a long string of inflammatory emails which will lead nowhere constructive.
- Always assume that other people are going to read your reply. If this turns into a formal complaint, your Program Manager will definitely see it. Your behavior must be exemplary.
- Comments like this are rooted in a lack of respect. Make sure your profile on the Learning Management System states your credentials and experience. Use an email signature which includes your title and qualifications. Make it clear that you do know what you’re doing.
- Demanding Instant, Multiple Responses.
Students can mistakenly assume that online teachers are essentially on-call tutors. Sometimes a student may send several increasingly urgent emails, expecting the immediacy of a face-to-face response. Of course, the student may simply be anxious, and need extra reassurance. Or she may be asserting her right as the customer in an increasingly corporatized education environment. Either way, expecting an instant response is unreasonable.
What you can do:
- Make communication time frames clear. Explain in your Learning Management System (and in emails where necessary) what your usual turnaround for email responses is. Underline that online learning involves asynchronous communication – not real time instant messaging.
- Set up a FAQ page and refer demanding students to that, as a default starting point. Make it a one-stop information shop for common queries.
- Read the latest message in a long email string first. Often the student has answered her own question in the process and you won’t need to address several emails – just the final one.
- Expecting Special Treatment.
There are plenty of perfectly good reasons for online teachers to grant extensions or look at essay drafts. But there’s a big difference between reasonable requests, and demands for special treatment.
What you can do:
- Explain your policy on assignment deadlines and extensions on your Learning Management System. Refer students who are asking for their third extension to that page. This moves the exchange from a personal refusal, to a matter of policy that applies across the board.
- Point out that extensive personal attention is not always possible, especially in large courses. It’s not ethical to give some students special treatment, and you want to maintain a level playing field.
- If you do agree to look at multiple draft essays, for example, explain that you will do that when time permits – this task won’t be bumped to the head of your work queue.
These practical techniques will help you wrangle difficult students with ease. They’re small but significant changes that can help to create the positive working environment that online teachers deserve.
How do you deal with difficult online students?