In the comments section of our most recent "how can we help you?" thread, 'This isn't high school' writes:
How do people handle disrespectful students? I have in mind primarily the sleepers, the constant chatters, and those who refuse to engage even when called upon. I've experimented with different responses, some subtle and some quite strict. But I'm curious how others have handled these sorts of situations.
Great question! I'm not entirely sure why, but I've had fewer disrespectful students the longer I've been teaching. So I haven't had to handle these sorts of issues much recently. But I do have a few thoughts, and am curious to hear from other readers!
A second thought is this: while I regard it as part of my job to teach in ways that do get students involved and engaged with the material--so these sorts of situations tend not to arise--my general attitude nowadays is that it is ultimately up to each student to decide for themselves how much they want to get out of their education. I have a sleeper this semester, and honestly, my position is that if they want to sleep or not respond when called on, then fine: that's their decision. They are paying to attend the class--and as long as they are not disruptive, then I am there to teach, not monitor their level of involvement. Part of the reason I adopt this attitude is that I don't want to make assumptions about why a given student may be tired or not involved. A few semesters ago I learned that one of my students works two jobs while attending here. I have another student heavily involved in social activism outside of the university. These students and others like them may be tired or disinterested on any given day for a variety of reasons--some of which may reflect legitimate priorities, as well as important aspects of their life they have little control over. On that note, I think it's worth remembering: our classrooms are not our students' workplace. They are not salaried workers getting paid to be here. They are paying for the opportunity to attend our classes and be graded for their work. Consequently, my attitude is that as long as they are not disruptive, and as long as I don't have any reason to suspect their physical or psychological safety is in danger--both of which we have formal mechanisms for addressing--I should let my students attend and participate in my classes in whatever way suits them, even if that means sleeping or being quiet (though, again, in my classes this doesn't happen often!). Sure, I may informally approach a student who sleeps or is disengaged--just to try to find out why (including whether they are facing any serious threats to their well-being). Beyond that, though, I tend to think it is best to just let students "be."
Finally, when it comes to addressing explicitly disrespectful behavior--such as distracting chatting in class, or any other kind of inappropriate behavior toward me or other students--one general tip I have learned is that it may be best to handle all such matters by email. While I know there is a school of thought that holds that these kinds of issues are best to deal with face-to-face, I think there are several advantages to email.
First, face-to-face confrontations with students can turn acrimonious and unproductive. I say this from past experience. While some students may respond well to face-to-face discussion of inappropriate behavior, others can get defensive, aggressive, and so on. In situations like that, it may be difficult to maintain one's own composure--and, in the heat of the moment, one could inadvertently end up saying something problematic oneself. One major advantage of email is that enables one to be very clear, cool-headed, and precise about what one wants to say in addressing the student's behavior. It also gives the student an opportunity to process the concerns you raise, rather than putting them on the spot in person.
A second advantage to email--and something I have learned over the years can be very important in general--is that it gets everything in writing. If you simply meet with a student in person and they want to complain about (or even misrepresent) what you said to them to someone else (a Department Chair, Dean, or Administrator), then it can end up being your word against theirs. Conversely, if you address the issues by email, you have in writing exactly what you said, and in turn exactly what your student may say in response. This can not only be helpful for "protecting yourself" (which I hate to say, but can be important). It can be vital for effectively utilizing more formal measures to address the behavior, should they become necessary--such as invoking your university's student disruption policy to remove the student from the course. I've only had to go that route on one occasion (for a very serious issue), but believe you me: having things in writing can make a big difference in substantiating a pattern of inappropriate behavior and justifying institutional action. One final alternative--if one finds email too impersonal--is to hold a meeting with another faculty member present as a witness and note-taker. But again, I still tend to find email the best way to go in most (if not all) cases.
Anyway, these are just a few thoughts of mine. What are yours?