hindsight

This role play evaluation was written in Fall 2008 for CCE 542 (Classroom Management).

Problematic Scenario: (submitted to Blackboard on October 22, 2008)

Background: This class is Administration of Justice 101 at a local community college.  This course is located primarily online, but it is a “hybrid” course with a mandatory class meeting at the beginning and at the end of the quarter.

There are 18 students in the class.  The students have a range of ages, but most students in this class are between 20 and 25, and most students have a transfer goal.  In general, these students are hoping to be able to get better jobs and increased earnings with every course they complete.  Many of these students are first generation college students, some have no prior college experience and the majority can be considered to have “low income.”

Characters: Two students, both are 21 years old.  Both students started school about a year ago and have taken courses that interest them without a clearly defined plan of study.  Overall, they want to increase their earning potential, but they haven’t decided on a direction to work on. They both work full-time for minimum wage and resent having to take time off from work in order to attend the required class.

Their motivation in the class includes being a “class clown” and “testing” the instructor at the start of the semester.  For the most part, they just want to be funny, but the general idea is to give the teacher a hard time on the first day as a “hazing” to see if the teacher is “cool.”

These students are known generally to the faculty and their disruptive behavior is considered typical for the first day of class, especially in hybrid online courses.  These students have never had any disciplinary or administrative action taken against them for their behavior and are generally considered to be good students.  These students would not usually conduct themselves disrespectfully online, but they see the face-to-face class as an opportunity to speak more “freely” than they otherwise would in an online school environment.

Overview of the Plot: It is the first day of class.  The instructor is reviewing the course expectations and policies. Two students are determined to give the instructor a difficult time at the beginning of class, and will gradually escalate their attempts to disrupt the class and rattle the instructor if they are ignored.

Attempts to rattle the instructor can include questions about the instructor’s qualifications and may include statements related to the instructor’s race, gender and age that are phrased as “jokes” or “compliments.” ** No threats of harm or violence will be included in the statements by the students.  Comments from the students are “all in good fun.”

If one student is confronted directly by the instructor, the other student will rise to their defense.

The students will insist that they were only trying to be funny and gradually become increasingly hostile about what they feel is unfair treatment from the instructor.  They may insist that other instructors did not find their behavior offensive.  They will claim to be offended by the instructor’s behavior.

** removed for Role Play in class

Elements of Student Population Profile:

The students range in age, but most students in this class are between 20 and 25, and most students have a transfer goal. (SBCTC, “Students Served: Demographics” Fall 2003 – 2007 [pdf]).  In general, these students are hoping to be able to get better jobs and increased earnings with every course they complete.  (CCRC, “Building Pathways to Success for Low-Skill Adult Students: Lessons from Community College Policy and Practice from a Statewide Longitudinal Tracking Study” by David Prince & David Jenkins, April 2005 [brief] [abstract]).

Early Reflection:

As we were setting up, I moved to the front of the class and started “going into character,” and in a light-hearted way it was wondered by a member of the group whether we had started the role play scenario yet.  My group partners commented that my instructor persona was ’serious,’ that my voice lowered in tone and in general, my demeanor was different.

At first, I hadn’t developed a clear conception of what an Administration of Justice 101 class would look like and I displayed tension that my group partners noticed.  I tried to write my name on the whiteboard, but the pen had no ink.  Then I turned to face my class that was interrupting what I was talking about by asking questions.  Repeatedly.

I was serious in tone, but used what a group member described as “dry humor.”  The student I responded to commented that they felt “chastised” at first, and “wow. shutdown.” is part of the comments in my notes during the debriefing.  My early response to the repeated questions was an agreement to answer, “due to popular demand,” which is what the student felt was a “shutdown.” During the debriefing, it was suggested that it seemed early in the class (since it was the beginning of the first day of class) to be using that degree of “dry humor,” and that while they understood the humor from a peer standpoint, other people might not.

At the time I made the comment, I was making a reference to the learner-centered principles that I was trying to employ in the class, and I had felt that I was conveying an appreciative response to the student’s questions (I remember that I was smiling), and implying that “popular demand” could potentially shift the course of the class.  Fabiano (2005) would probably suggest that in my attempt to encourage the students to participate, I mistook my “partial view of the world for “THE” view of the world” (Baseball and Roots: Two Perspectives on Standpoint, p.1).

This role play experience highlighted the unintended consequences, especially in the classroom setting, that can develop when there is a lack of awareness about the potential diversity of perception.  The classroom setting seems particularly sensitive to this issue, where as an instructor, I am an authority figure, and the perceptions of my students are going to be as distinct as the positions on the baseball field that Fabiano (2005) uses as a metaphor to understand the concept of standpoint ( p.1).

There was a series of questions and laughter from the students related to my description of the course as an ‘online class’ (I may have even said ‘entirely’ online) since there were two mandatory face-to-face classes.  I admitted that they were right, that this was in fact a “hybrid online” course.  It felt important to acknowledge that the students were correct and I was wrong. My sense is that I would have damaged my credibility if I insisted that I was right when it was obvious that I had misspoken.  It gave me an opportunity to continue on with my explanation of the course, picking up from the now-corrected concept of a hybrid online course.

When the hostility from the students was increasing (after I was asked about my professional experience, mentioned the value of discussing experience for the students as well, and related it to an upcoming 1000-word assignment) and in response to objections that I was assigning the essay as a punishment for classroom misbehavior, my claim that it was not a punishment included the phrase “if you had read the syllabus,” to emphasize that the essay was already an assignment.  It definitely got quiet really quickly.  It felt like it was too harsh, and a lot like some of my more ferocious law school classes.

It has been my general opinion that law school classes imposed high standards and included harsh interactions with professors as part of the preparation for a legal system that imposes high standards and includes far more difficult interactions with judges, with far higher stakes than a grade point average.  Given my respect for my law school experience, I’m not that surprised that I employed such a sharp approach, but it also was not something I had planned in advance.  When we debriefed after the role play, I commented that I didn’t want students to run out of class to the registrar’s office and end up with few students enrolled in the course.

My group members agreed that I relaxed as we went on, and that it “worked” to tailor my introduction to student questions.  A comment from one group partner was that I “got in the groove” and that it was effective when I related a question to ‘one of the most important concepts we will cover in this class – the duty of confidentiality.’  Once I had a mental model of what an Administration of Justice 101 class could look like, I was able to start tying student questions to the material in a substantive way, and praise the students for their insightful questions.  We ended the role play soon after that and my immediate impression was that I had gotten through the conflict with a positive outcome.  It was suggested that I make attempts early on in the class to gauge the background knowledge of the students and make connections to their experiences.  And perhaps I could pace back and forth a little slower.  Perhaps more excitement about the first day of class, as a way to increase student engagement.

Overall Reflections:

1.  I have a new appreciation for how an instructor’s conduct can influence a course.  In a mostly-online course, I was setting a tone that I don’t think would work well online.  When I had thought through this role play, I had considered trying to use the student disruption as a way to talk about online conduct.  The original plan had been to model patience and respect.  I had followed Amada’s (1999) advice about how the instructor should ask themselves about what kind of classroom behavior they expect, and “if it is not acceptable, at what point is academic or disciplinary action warranted?” (Coping with Misconduct in the College Classroom: A Practical Model, p. 23).

The role play I implemented during class was designed to fly below the academic or disciplinary radar. I changed the scenario slightly before the role play began to focus on that aspect (I asked my partners to avoid disruptive comments about race, gender and age, in part to make the scenario more of a “benign” disruption in Amada’s (2002) sense of the term (p.9), but also because I did not feel comfortable pretending to possibly violate the code of conduct like that).  The potential ramifications of my conduct as an instructor during the role play could have set the stage for the exact opposite of the respectful, welcoming and productive environment I would want to have in an online classroom.

2. I have a teaching persona. I think that it had an impact on my management of the scenario and was one of the factors that contributed to my overall sense of a positive outcome.  During my practice as an attorney, I had friends notice that after a day of court, I would still be in a “lawyer mode,” and it became something of a joke about the persona I had when I was wearing a suit jacket.  That I end up in a “professional” and “serious” demeanor isn’t a surprise to me, although it isn’t something that I plan in advance. I speculate that in a more relaxed classroom atmosphere, I will adapt to the environment similarly to how I adapted to the courtroom.

3. When I was unfamiliar with the subject matter of what I was teaching, I was nervous and defensive.  Once I mentally engaged with the subject matter, I started to relax more, began to praise the students and used their questions as the basis of what became a conversation (instead of a constantly-interrupted lecture). It started to become the kind of class that I would like to teach.

My previous experiences with adult education include teaching a required class for pro se litigants in the Family Court, using an outline to lecture for about an hour and take questions.  I knew the material well and I was energetic and friendly in my presentation. The class in my role play, however, had a different profile of goals, motivation and other factors which translated into different needs as learners, and the way I managed to resolve the conflict had a lot to do with responding to their needs.

It was interesting to see myself shift into a less-friendly persona under different circumstances – I was anticipating conflict because it was built into the role play scenario, hadn’t thought through or researched Administration of Justice enough to have confidence in my understanding of the material, and I hadn’t developed a clear vision of the tone I wanted to facilitate for the class.  I can see ways that I could have prepared more and my conduct would have been more consonant with my goals as an instructor.

I think that if I had a thorough understanding of the course material, it would help me maintain a positive attitude as an instructor.  It was a major source of professional pride for me to be a “nice” attorney, and I think that my preparation for my cases helped remove the need to bluster.  In my practice as an attorney, I felt it was critically important to remain civil, respectful and calm, not only out of a sense of duty to ethical standards of practice, but also as a method for the safe and successful resolution of high conflict cases.  I agree with Weimer’s approach, that an instructor needs to “put the fire out, not fuel it.” (2002, p. 157)

4.  “Mean” never has worked well for me and it does not appear to be effective at all with the students that I have been researching in my student population profile.  I have been reading some of Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, (2. ed.) by Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill, and I like the advice to “[m]ake sure you begin each discussion with the reminder that in your class there are no stupid questions.” (2005, p.184).  If my goal is to promote a collaborative learning experience for my students, it is clear to me that the ferocious law school mode is not appropriate. However, I think there are valuable principles of professional conduct that I have developed from my practice as an attorney that are useful for managing conflict in the classroom.

References:

Amada, G. (1999). Coping with Misconduct in the College Classroom: A Practical Model. St. Johns, Florida: College Administration Publications, Inc.

Brookfield S., Preskill, S. (2005) Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, (2. ed.)

CCRC, “Building Pathways to Success for Low-Skill Adult Students: Lessons from Community College Policy and Practice from a Statewide Longitudinal Tracking Study” by David Prince & David Jenkins, April 2005 [brief] [abstract]

Fabiano, P. (2005). Baseball and Roots: Two Perspectives on Standpoint

SBCTC, “Students Served: Demographics” Fall 2003 – 2007 [pdf]

Weimer, M. (2002) Learner Centered Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Wiley, John & Sons, Inc.

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