Managers should tread carefully when students behave badly

2nd February 2007 at 00:00

Two dilemmas discussed by Don Short (FE Focus, January 12) illustrate the need for broader, more socially aware considerations than staff development and management mantras usually offer. Such awareness shows that lecturers can be subject to harassment or bullying by students - as well as by managers.

The first, more simple dilemma shows students comparing a new lecturer unfavourably with their previous teacher. Now, this may be a simple preference, whether for the prior teacher or simply against change.

However, it may be that these students are responding aggressively for other reasons, such as the lecturer's gender or ethnicity.

Although simple interpretations of how to react when such difficulties arise may be appropriate, we need to recognise that other factors may be involved. This is even more important if managers intervene in "problems".

The second dilemma identifies the problems of discipline faced by a group of lecturers (some of whom are qualified teachers). The manager links poor student behaviour with his strongly held view that these lecturers are not planning their lectures well enough and accuses them of complacency and incompetence. Surely this would be libellous in other contexts?

Don Short notes that the link between planning and behaviour is an issue.

Further, he suggests that some development of the curriculum may help.

However, we need to go further. There are serious problems here. It is possible that a manager who has such a complaint against so many staff is not managing them very well.

Rather than seek to apportion blame among colleagues, we need to consider the influence of students who are behaving badly. It is quite possible that a continual barrage of bad behaviour from students has, in the absence of support from managers, led to harassment fatigue among the staff. It is recognised that school pupils can individually or collectively affect the classroom beyond the control of a single teacher. Such recognition needs to be extended to post-compulsory education.

A recent publication, University Students Behaving Badly, by Deborah Lee (Trentham Books), shows that university students can behave in ways that significantly affect lecturers' morale. At times, managers' responses to these situations only make lecturers feel even more aggrieved.

If these factors arise in universities, they are even more likely in colleges. Ms Lee's book offers support for lecturers facing student aggression, partly by showing a number of instances that have affected others. The book also suggests a way forward for managers who, in the context of performance indicators, may respond to issues raised by students without thinking of the needs of their staff.

This book offers the breadth of analysis that may provide a more complete context from which to consider dilemmas such as these; in doing so, it offers hope for lecturers and managers.

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