Classroom Civility

Classroom civility is not something to take lightly. Instructors and students alike should be held to a particular standard when it comes to how they interact with one another in the classroom. Instructors and students come from all walks of life and thus differ and diverge along many lines (e.g., political, cultural, spiritual, sexual, educational and socioeconomic). Given these varied backgrounds and the culture of sharing views that many university classrooms embody, there are certain considerations to keep in mind.

As instructors, we should take a few steps to ensure that our classroom supports respectful interactions and discourages exchanges that are emotionally harmful or offensive to others. You may ask, where do we draw the line? With so many conflicting views among a given student body, we certainly can’t curtail all conversations that stir emotions, but we can ensure that students share a commitment to respect one another, acknowledge that it is OK to ‘agree to disagree’ and that by sharing opposing views, we can come to see things from the perspective of another. The Center for Teaching and Learning at UC Santa Cruz notes that prevention is the best strategy for classroom civility. These tips, from their website, are some ways that you can preemptively address incivility.

Make expectations clear.

    • Write a statement for the syllabus, framed as positively as possible, communicating the civil behavior you expect of students. Be sure to set aside some class time to go over the statement. Click here to see several sample statements of classroom behavior.
    • In smaller classes, particularly those that involve a lot of discussion, you may wish to have students as a group create the “rules of engagement.” Have them brainstorm reasonable discussion and classroom behavior in groups, then get together to create a document that has wide consensus. Be sure to print it and give a copy to each student.

Do your part to create a civil climate.

    • Treat students with respect. Treat them as adults. Respect their ability to learn. Avoid sarcasm, dismissing their abilities, or making assumptions about them based on their age, appearance, etc. Make it clear that you value them as individuals. You can’t expect them to respect you and your classroom, if you don’t treat them with respect.
    • Establish a method for airing grievances. Set up a suggestion box or a comment space on the course web site; gather midterm feedback; ask for student volunteers to act as liaisons; encourage TAs to pass along comments.
    • Reduce anonymity. Even in large classes, you can encourage students to get to know one another and you. Visit section meetings, or schedule time for groups of students to meet with you. Learn as many names as possible. Have students interact with neighbors. Tell them something about yourself.

In addition to clashing worldviews and values, there are student behaviors that can disrupt a class. The Center for Teaching and Learning at UC Santa Cruz also lists the following potentially “annoying, rude and disruptive” student behaviors under classroom incivility:

  • Annoyances, minor disruptions—Arriving late and leaving early, talking on cell phone, reading newspaper, side conversations, packing up noisily before end of class. Together, these offenses can add up to more than just an annoyance.
  • Dominating discussion—The student who won’t let anyone else talk.
  • Aggressive challenges of teacher—The student who takes up class time questioning your authority, expressing anger about grading, or generally undermining your ability to teach.
  • Disputes between students; demeaning comments—When classroom discussion gets out of hand, or a student uses demeaning or stereotyping language.

Visit their page on classroom civility to read suggestions on how to address each of the above student behaviors. In addition to this resource, Lisa Rodriguez PhD of the University of La Verne has compiled a resource with preventative strategies and practical solutions for addressing incivility issues in the classroom. Professor Rodriguez has also created a fabulous complimentary module on Planning for the First Day of Class. Coming prepared and establishing the tone and expectations for your class on day one is a critical step in ensuring that you and your students start on the right foot from the beginning of the semester. You’ll be interacting within this learning community for an entire semester, so take the extra time in the beginning to lay a strong foundation.