Teaching Challenges

An instructor manages a conflict with two students.

Teaching Challenges Overview

Even the most carefully prepared instructor cannot anticipate all of the unique consequences of every instructor/student interaction. We begin by discussing the most serious of these teaching challenges—conflicts with students—and then discuss some common classroom challenges.

Preventing Conflict

A sensitive approach to your work with students can save you from many problems.

  • By phrasing questions and criticism carefully, you can generally avoid defensive or hostile responses.
  • If you are supportive, encouraging, and respectful of student ideas in class, you can correct wrong answers or point out weaknesses without discouraging your students.
  • Always show students the courtesy of listening to and responding to their answers when they offer an idea.
  • Rather than dismissing a weak or inaccurate idea immediately, ask the student to clarify it using class material. Often, students can talk their way into a more thoughtful response.
  • You will also want to be careful about teasing or sarcastic humor, since these are all too often easily misinterpreted.

You are also less likely to run into conflict with your students if you resolve any mixed feelings you have about your authority as a teacher. Students are often confused by and alienated from a teacher who acts first as a friend or peer and then as a stern authority figure. Students expect you to set clear boundaries and to hold them to their academic responsibilities.

Managing Conflict

Sometimes serious conflicts do arise between teacher and student—charges of poor instruction, irregular or unfair grading, deviation from announced procedures about course requirements, and the use of nonacademic criteria in computing grades. Although you may assume such problems are rare, in fact they are not. Concerns about academic performance (including grade disputes, Honor Code violations, credit and registration issues, and concerns about faculty conduct) are among the most frequently registered student complaints to the ombudsperson’s office. Ideally, such problems can be avoided by carefully formulating, communicating, and following classroom policies, especially regarding grading. However, if a problem does arise, there are steps you can take to resolve the conflict.

  • First try to resolve the conflict through discussion with the student. If you are a TA, involve the professor early on. Most conflicts can be worked out cooperatively at this stage. If you anticipate the discussion being particularly difficult or confrontational, you may want to invite (with the student’s permission) a colleague (e.g., the department’s student services officer) or another member of your teaching team (e.g., the student’s TA) to ensure that the meeting serves everyone’s interest.
  • For those conflicts that cannot be addressed through informal discussion, the university has a formal grievance procedure, outlined in the Stanford Bulletin.
  • An alternative to the formal grievance procedure is to go to, or refer the student to, the ombudsperson’s office. As a mediator, the ombudsperson can talk with all the parties involved to try to find a mutually satisfying resolution. The ombudsperson can only offer advice; he or she does not have the authority to impose solutions. 

Conflicts can also arise when teachers are attracted to their students or vice versa. To avoid such potential clashes, the university very strongly discourages such relationships. Stanford has an explicit policy on sexual harassment and has committed itself to creating an atmosphere “free of sexual harassment and all forms of sexual intimidation and exploitation.” Visit Stanford's website http://harass.stanford.edu/.