How you teach is how you do everything – part 6: five ways to deal with ‘difficult’ students

‘How you teach is how you do everything’ is the title of a recent blog post written by Jen Louden and Michele Lisenbury Christensen, the queens of TeachNow. The essence of the post is an 8 point outline of what it does and doesn’t mean to teach with heart and soul.

I liked their post so much I’ve written a post for each point. You can read the first five posts here:

Point #6

Some are afraid of the “difficult” students: they don’t quite know how to work with certain people.

Others prize the students who challenge them most as their greatest teachers, and breathe into the scratchy places where needs might not get met.


My take on ‘difficult’ students

In a word (or three).  Bring.  Them.  On.

I love getting into the ring with a so-called difficult student.  It’s a spine-tingly ride to, in the moment, in front of the rest of the group, rise to a challenge that’s been thrown down.  I’ve worked with participants who have been:

  • rude, disrespectful
  • angry
  • disengaged, bored
  • posturing
  • confused, frustrated

Here are 5 things I’ve learned from each of these gifts (I say gifts, because each situation is an opportunity to dig deep, dig in and hunt for a way through to learning).  I’ll use my TeachNow interview with Jen Louden where she pretended to be a disgruntled participant as an example to walk you through each of the 5 methods.

  • don’t ignore the participant, much as your brain might be screaming at you to do so – it’ll only make it worse.  In Jen’s case I thanked her for bringing up her concerns.
  • avoid the temptation to jump in and rescue – take responsibility but only partial responsibility.  In Jen’s case she listed off a wide variety of complaints, more than I could deal with in the moment.  My reaction?  I simply asked her what one thing could I do to help her in that moment, or what one question she had for me that I could address.  It stopped her cold and had the result I’d intended  which was to have her share the responsibility for her learning.
  • meet their ‘energy’ with an equal measure of your own ‘energy’ – I’ve found it helpful to raise or lower my energy and even how much space my body is taking up, to match the participant’s.  In Jen’s case she was speaking relatively loudly, so I did the same.  It’s also helpful to spend some time before you find yourself in front of a group think about how you tend to react to conflict, because when you’re on the spot, in front of a group you’ll default to auto-conflict-pilot.
  • remember the rest of the group is ultimately your priority – I’ve been in workshops where a disgruntled participant took the agenda way off track and the teacher spent way too much time dealing with that one person.  As much as you want to address the individual’s concerns remember the rest of the group.  In Jen’s case, she was speaking for the group, using the term ‘we’.  I jumped in to say that while some of the rest of the group may agree with her, it was possible that not everybody did and I asked her to speak for herself.  This let the group know I was thinking of them.  If Jen had continued to sidetrack the conversation and I wasn’t able to link it to any learning, I would have acknowledged that we weren’t finished and invite her to speak to me more at break.
  • figuring out their motivation will guide your response – when participants react negatively in a workshop it’s helpful to know what their motivation is, which in turns helps to decide how you should react.  For example, a participant who is bored may not be in your workshop by choice, they may only be there because their boss told them to.  I deal with this in my opening, when I welcome folks if they are super keen about the topic … or not, if they are there by choice … or not etc.  If I suspect a participant is bored then I amp up my efforts to make the connection to learning that will benefit them even more clear.

To find out more about the TeachNow series with Jen Louden and Michele Lisenbury Christensen (including an interview with yours truly) click here.


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3 Responses to “How you teach is how you do everything – part 6: five ways to deal with ‘difficult’ students”

  1. How you teach is how you do everything – part 8: heeding the call to teach | Rock.Paper.Scissors.Blog Says:
    April 13th, 2011 at 9:04 am

    […] Five ways to deal with ‘difficult’ students […]

  2. sam crespi Says:
    April 14th, 2011 at 3:13 am

    Loved the points about starting your workshops by finding out why people are there!
    And secondly, when you ask them what one thing you could do to help or asking about one question she needed to have answered!

    In my non-violent (or compassionate communication) classes, it was stressed time and again about not rescuing, but listening deeply so that we could arrive at good questions, ones that propel the speaker to open up. Plus empathy, recognition, but never sympathy. Good post!

  3. Lee-Anne Ragan Says:
    April 20th, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    Hi Sam- so great to hear your voice. It’s amazing how many reasons there can be for someone to come to a workshop – and how very different those reasons can be.

    It’s hard to resist the temptation to rescue (for me anyway) – it’s a sort of reflex – but I know when I fall into that trap I’m not doing anyone any good.

    Thanks so much- as always, love your feedback!

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