Dealing With Difficult College Students

You are going to wonder why I am telling you this story!

I recently read The Devil in the White City. This book weaves together the fascinating history of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition with the macabre, heinous acts of one of the world’s worst serial killers.

The killer, Dr. Henry H. Holmes as he was known by most, had a charismatic personality that drew his victims to him. Even in prison, the guards who knew Holmes became found of him and demonstrated compassion toward him. When he stood on the gallows with the noose around his neck, the experienced executioner was so emotionally distraught that he was barely able to carry out his duties. Keep in mind, Holmes was a man who, by some reports, killed over 200 people.

As an aside, I find that most college adjuncts are far less contemptible than Dr. Holmes. That is most certainly the case with all of my blog followers! (You do understand that I am trying to make a joke, right?)

Okay, I admit that I am using a dreadfully tragic bit of history and some ghoulish sarcasm to make a point. However, I predict that you will not forget my point. What is it, you ask? By human nature, when you like a person, you are far more forgiving of any negative aspects of that person’s character. In the case of your students, if they like you, they will be much more apt to forgive any of your shortcomings. At this point, I encourage the majority of you, my followers who have no teaching shortcomings, to stop reading and move on to more productive pursuits, perhaps grading tests.

I will continue for the benefit of any of you who may still be reading. Many bosses, supervisors in virtual every realm of business, are effective because they gain the respect of people who don’t like them. Of course it helps that they can fire the ones who don’t respect them. 😉 If you are of a similar mindset as a college instructor, think again. Your students need to both respect you and like you. I will explain why.

Assume for moment that, in the eyes of your students, you have committed a serious criminal act; you tested them on something you did not cover in class. If your students like you, they will be much more apt to show compassion and confront you directly. Then you will have the opportunity to point out how you made it clear to them what they would be tested on or to admit your faux pas and adjust their grades accordingly.

Guess what happens if they don’t like you? First of all, be aware that they would have already been plotting behind your back. Trust me; mob psychology would have been at work. They will justify in their minds that you deserved to be hanged. However, since your lynch mob lacks the key to the gallows trip lever, they will appeal to the executioner – your dean (or your associate dean or you department chair or whoever you report to in your position). By the way, isn’t it reassuring to know that your college does not give that key to your students? (You might want to check into this just to be sure.)

I cannot tell you how annoying it is to hear complaints from students, no matter how unfounded they may be. My blood pressure is rising as I think about some of those instances. I have had adjuncts who were competent instructors in virtually every way, save one. Some of their students didn’t like them. There will always be students in your class who do poorly, but if they don’t like you these are the ones who will complain about you behind your back. If this happens to you, trust me, you are in jeopardy of putting an end to your own teaching career.


Get them to like you whether you like it or not!


I sometimes read one of my instructor’s evaluations on which a student has indicated that he/she did not believe he/she would receive a good grade in the course. Yet, this same student has given the instructor glowing ratings. My assumption is that the student liked the instructor. When I see such a student evaluation, it is almost always for and instructor about whom students have never complained. Usually, I also find many handwritten compliments from such an instructor’s students.

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

Revised March 18, 2010

About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.

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