What to do When College Students Don’t Show Respect

I have often said that anyone can teach at a research university, but you have to be good to teach at a community college. This case study supports my contention.  Problems with college students are … well … a real problem

This is the first part of a two-part article. It is a case study of a lose/lose/lose situation that really occurred. In the end, the college instructor lost, her students lost, and the Department Chair lost. But as Dragnet’s Joe Friday used to say, the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

The Case of the Out-of-Control Students

Single mother, Sarah, holds a master’s degree in chemical engineering from a highly regarded university. She works at a local refinery, but it has been tough making ends meet. When her twins started high school she found a part-time teaching assignment at a Jesuit university where she had earned her bachelor’s degree. She taught engineering courses, and she enjoyed it. But that opportunity ended when the professor she replaced returned from a yearlong sabbatical.

She found a position at the local community college teaching basic technical math courses, but soon the problems began. One of her students, a 24 year old female graphic design major named Cassie, annoyed Sarah. Cassie would slouch back in her seat, her arms defiantly folded in front of her. She would roll her eyes and shake her head from side to side as a display of disapproval of something Sarah said or did. Not to be deterred, Sarah attempted to ignore Cassie’s behavior and go right on teaching.

Sarah became increasingly frustrated by Cassie’s behavior. Ignoring Cassie seemed to be making matters worse, so Sarah called on her to answer a problem. Cassie, arms defiantly crossed, sat motionless for a few seconds. Then came a snide smirk followed by an expression of disgust that she obviously wanted all the class to see. What Sarah said next is unclear, but what was clear was the message Cassie sent. She slammed her book closed, got up out of her seat, grabbed her things, and stormed out of the classroom, but not without first giving Sarah a piece of her mind. In an aggressive and agitated voice she shouted, “Solve your own damn problem, you %#@ing @#*$%!”

Sarah approached the Department Chair for advice, but Cassie got to him first. Cassie complained that Sarah picked on her, and belittled her with sarcasm. She claimed that Sarah chastised her in front of the rest of the class saying, “Well, maybe if you studied a little bit instead of spending so much time on your makeup, you might be able to answer this problem. Most 5th graders I know can solve this one.” Cassie said she didn’t say anything, but Sarah started yelling at her. She added that Sarah can’t explain anything, gets confused, continuously changes her mind regarding assignments, and never answers students’ questions. The Department Chair listened to Cassie, took notes, and obtained her permission to talk to Sarah.

When Sarah came to the Chair’s office, he listened and took notes. Sarah talked about Cassie without mentioning her name. The Chair acknowledged that the behavior Sarah described was not acceptable, and he gave her some advice for dealing with it. Then he shared that one of her students had come to see him and reiterated her side of that very same story. Sarah took exception with most of Cassie’s story but admitted she did raise her voice. Sarah went on to complain about her students in general. Several were failing, and Cassie wasn’t the only one who displayed unacceptable behavior.

That was in the spring semester. In the fall the Chair hired Sarah back to teach another basic technical math class. He assumed she had learned how to deal with such inappropriate student behaviors. But midway through the term she came back to him to complain that students in this class were even worse. Every class period, a group of four young men would talk amongst themselves while she was lecturing. On Monday, when she tried to stop them, they got up and walked out of the room. It got worse on Wednesday. One of those young men yelled at her. He even threatened her by demanding, “You better pass me or else!”

How to Avoid College Classroom Calamities

I will address this issue in part two of this article. But first I want you to think about this. Ask yourself:

  • What really went wrong?
  • Who was at fault?
  • How can situations like Sarah’s be avoided?


© 2012 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

March 31, 2012


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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