In dealing with disagreement, confrontation and inappropriate behavior, you as a new TA should probably seek the advice and guidance of a more experienced TA or faculty member. New TA’s are often afraid to share these kinds of problems because they feel that these problems are their own fault or are a poor reflection of their teaching abilities. Similar problems arise continually, however, regardless of experience, age, capability or gender. In fact, students sometimes sense when you are inexperienced and believe that they can “get away with it” more because of your timidity and lack of experience. For these reasons and because of the reassurance that you will get, it is usually best to discuss any interpersonal problems that you may have with your students with someone who can help you.
There is usually no problem with a student who disagrees politely, calmly and rationally. If you act accordingly, then the two of you are almost certain to reach a reasonable and equitable solution. Students who are openly hostile or rude are the ones that will cause most of the problems. Here are some suggestions for dealing with the latter type of student.
- If the confrontation arises in public, attempt to move it to a more private location, e.g., an office. Often the person who confronts relies on the public nature of the locale and the encouragement (even though tacit) of other students to press the argument.
- Listen carefully, openly and professionally to the criticism or grievance. Do not attempt to interrupt or respond to the criticism made during the narrative. Let the critic express all existing problems. Make notes. Repeat all the salient points of the argument/criticism, as you understand them, to be sure that both of you are talking about the same things.
- Accept any valid criticism. Apologize if an apology is warranted and state what action you will take, if any, to correct the grievance. Show a genuine willingness to compromise where you feel it is appropriate.
- Explain that you see things differently (if that is the case) and would like to express your point of view or your side of the situation. State your opinions without emotion and allow the critic to respond.
- If it appears that the issue cannot be resolved in a mutually satisfying way, indicate regret that this is the case. Restate your position and make clear any action you intend to take (if any). Indicate to your critic what channels he/she may have recourse to.
- Close the conversation in a polite and professional manner.
- If the critic becomes agitated, remain calm. Often, simply remaining calm will return the conversation into a more serene tone.
- It sometimes helps to ask a colleague to join in on a confrontational conversation. Just make sure that the observer can remain neutral and is not involved, even in a tangential way, with the problem at hand. The observer might be able to point out possible routes for an amicable resolution of the problem. The critic may also see the observer as a sign of your good faith, and as a guarantee of the fairness of the proceedings.