By Carmen Joy Imes

Pursuing Tough Conversations with Students

He came into the classroom and slumped into the chair closest to the door, his baseball cap pulled down low to hide his eyes. His body language didn’t improve over our first several class periods. Twice in the first two weeks of class he raised his hand to challenge me rather abrasively. It was clear that he thought my assignments were a joke. In spite of my classroom policy banning cell phone use in the classroom, he was on his phone repeatedly.

What should I do?

I find conflict very draining. However, I’m discovering that in some cases being proactive about potential conflict is far less draining than avoiding it. Some of my favorite conversations with students have resulted from taking the initiative to address difficult issues. I’m no expert when it comes to tough conversations, but I’ve learned a few things that may be helpful to someone else like me — a professor who wants to establish and maintain a positive relationship with my students — whether on campus or online. 

After four years of teaching, I’ve shifted in my approach to address difficult situations more directly.

I decided to email the student who was slumped in the back row in my classroom, disengaged except when he was challenging my authority. I said something like this:

“I’ve worked hard to design this course to be engaging, but you still seem uninterested. Do you have ideas for how I could capture your attention in class?” 

I then reminded him of the classroom policy banning cell phone use:

“I find it very distracting when you are on your phone in class. Please keep it turned off and out of sight during class. If I see it again, I’ll have to ask you to leave and mark you absent.”

I was quite nervous. I don’t like confrontation and I wasn’t sure how he would respond. Two days later, he asked to meet with me. Though I feared the worst, to my surprise he came to apologize. We had a heartfelt conversation in which he told me the backstory to his resistance in class. As I suspected, he had reacted to me based on unresolved issues with high school teachers. He cried. I prayed for him. And the rest of the semester went so well! Not every tough conversation ends this well, but when it does, we can celebrate! 

I want to offer a word of encouragement (in the true sense of en-courage, giving you courage to tackle these hard conversations): You do not have to be liked. Your job is to know your subject matter and to teach your students, maintaining a classroom environment that is conducive to learning. It’s a bonus if your students like you, but it’s okay if they don’t.

Approaching Tough Conversations

Here are some tips I’ve identified for building rapport with your students:

  • Make yourself accessible to students. Let them know your office hours and how to contact you. If your classes are online, invite students to meet you for a video chat.
  • Show up to campus events. Make time to eat lunch with them. Some students will find you far more approachable outside the office or the classroom. Let them know you’re on their team and you want them to win. Recognize their contributions to campus life. Acknowledge their stress. If you’re at a Christian school, pray aloud for their success before a test. 
  • Always affirm the dignity of students. Each one is made in the image of God. Their mistakes do not define them. Remind them that their worth is not tied to their classroom performance. Never shame a student or question their potential.
  • Be mindful of the effects of personal or national trauma on classroom performance. I’ve written previously on how to make your classroom trauma-informed. The effects of the coronavirus pandemic and its resulting disruption to campus life, police brutality toward minorities and the resulting protests will be different for each student. Anxiety over the health and safety of family members or over pressing social issues can make it hard to focus.
  • Remind them of resources available to them. This may include writing help, tutoring, counseling, accommodations for learning disabilities, online resources, etc. Know how to access these resources, so you can pass on relevant information.
  • Know your school’s policies on absences, late work, plagiarism, changing exam dates, etc. You don’t have to be the bad guy. The policies are there to help you.
  • Ask the student to tell you their side of the story. Don’t rescue students from taking responsibility. Give them space to articulate what happened. Ask them to help you understand. Be careful not to assume that you have the full story.
  • Set out clear consequences for a violation of school or classroom policy or expectations. Call it what it is. Do it kindly in a way that affirms their dignity. But don’t try to protect students from the consequences of their actions.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. In the midst of difficult conversations, give students space to think about how to respond. 
  • Remember the power differential. You may not feel powerful, but as a faculty member, to a certain extent a student’s fate is in your hands. You are more intimidating than you think.
  • Treat tough conversations as opportunities for mentoring. Rather than dreading these encounters, reframe them as opportunities for transformation. Your conversation could be a turning point in a student’s life.

Reasons for Tough Conversations

Here are some of the common situations in which a faculty member may need to initiate a difficult conversation with a student. What other situations would you add to the list? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

A student is dominating class discussion. 

Approach the student outside of class (either in person or by email or video chat), asking for their help in balancing class discussion. Remind students in class that you’d like to hear from everyone. Set a guideline for how often someone may speak.

A student acted inappropriately in class. 

Treat every student with respect, even when they do not return the favor. Let the student know that disagreement is okay, but that their particular behavior is not permitted (e.g., hijacking class discussion, attacking you or another student, etc.). 

A student broke classroom rules. 

Contact the student to remind them of the classroom policy and what the consequence will be for a repeat violation. Let them know how it affects classroom dynamics. On rare occasions, I call out the behavior during class, which elicits an immediate response (but usually “throws” me for a while).

A student seems apathetic. 

Recognize that a student may be facing challenges that you cannot see. Don’t assume that they don’t like you or your class. Don’t be threatened by their apparent lack of interest. Reach out to see if there is some way you can help them engage the material.

A student disregards office hours. 

Kindly inform them that you are currently busy and let them know when you are available for conversation. Clearly communicate your schedule on your closed door and in the syllabus. This is great training for life after college.

A student may have plagiarized. 

For this I recommend a face-to-face conversation, either in person or via video chat. Show them the assignment. Ask them about their writing process. This gives them an opportunity to confess. Explain how it is plagiarism so that they understand how to avoid plagiarism in the future. Clearly explain the consequences, according to your school policy. Plagiarism is often motivated by a student’s fear that they are not good enough or undue pressure from an overburdened schedule. They may have felt that they had no choice. Use the opportunity to help them think through their stress level and how they can avoid this situation in the future.

A student may have cheated on your exam. 

Don’t assume that what you or others saw is the final word. Ask to meet with the student. Tell them what you know (e.g., “I’m told you were on your phone during the exam”). Explain that even if they were not cheating, it appeared that way to other students, which is a distraction. Before a test, remind students that phones should be on airplane mode and kept out of sight. If anyone has a reason to need their phone on, they must talk to me in advance. At the end of last year, I caught a student on his phone during an online test and messaged him privately to deal with it.

A student failed your exam. 

I discovered a couple of years ago that students who knew that I cared about their success in the class performed better on the exam. Now I issue a mandatory “invitation” to every student who fails the midterm to meet with me. We look over their exam together and talk about how they can prepare more effectively for the next exam.

A student failed your class.    

It may be awkward for a student who fails your class to see you again on campus. If you see them, cross the bridge with a friendly hello and ask how they are doing. Prove by your actions that their worth is not tied to their classroom performance. Let them know that you were glad to have them in class.

An unqualified student wants you to write a reference letter. 

Be gentle, but honest. Here are some examples:

  • “I would love to be able to write a strong reference letter for you, but if I’m honest I will need to tell your future employer that you cheated in my class. That probably won’t help you get the job.”
  • A student who had been open with me about her struggle with chronic depression came to see me about her desire to go to graduate school. Her mental health had significantly affected her class attendance and performance. I told her, “I can see that you are passionate about this subject area. I have no doubt that you are capable, but your grades are simply not strong enough to qualify for a graduate program. I suggest that you take some time off to work on time management and mental health. When you’re in a more stable place, we can talk about it again."

Tough conversations are not my favorite part of teaching, but I’ve learned that they can play a key role in student success. Above all, let students know that you are on their team, and you want them to win!

Photo by Mikil Narayani from Pixabay.

About the Author

Carmen Joy Imes (PhD, Wheaton) is associate professor of Old Testament in the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. A graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, she is the author of Bearing YHWH's Name at Sinai, Bearing God's Name: Why Sinai Still Matters, Being God's Image: Why Creation Still Matters, and the editor of Praying the Psalms with Augustine and Friends.

Imes has written for a variety of websites, including Christianity Today, The Well, and the Politics of Scripture blog. She is a fellow of Every Voice, a member of the Evangelical Theological Society, the Institute for Biblical Research, and the Society of Biblical Literature. Imes and her husband, Daniel, have followed God's call around the globe together for over 25 years.

Read Carmen's article on being God's image as a woman in the academy and the church.

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