Civility in the Classroom: Practical Advice for Faculty Members

(The following text has been reprinted with permission from SYNTHESIS: Law and Policy in Higher Education, Spring 1997.)

Faculty members are responsible for management of the classroom environment. Teachers can be compared to judges: both focus on relevant issues, set reasonable time limits, assess the quality of ideas and expression, and make sure participants are heard in an orderly manner. While their ultimate goals may be different, both judges and teachers need to exercise authority with a sense of fairness.

Both students and faculty members have some measure of academic freedom. University policies on classroom disruption cannot be used to punish lawful classroom dissent. The lawful expression of a disagreement with the teacher or other students is not in itself "disruptive" behavior.

Rudeness, incivility, and disruption are often distinguishable, even though they may intersect. In most instances, it’s better to respond to rudeness by example (e.g. advising a student in private that he or she appears to have a habit of interrupting others). Rudeness can become disruption when it is repetitive, especially after a warning has been given.

Strategies to prevent and respond to disruptive behavior include:

  • Clarify standards for the conduct of your class. For example, if you want students to raise their hands for permission to speak, say so.

  • Serve as a role model for the conduct you expect from your students.

  • If you believe inappropriate behavior is occurring, consider a general word of caution, rather than warning a particular student (e.g. "We have too many contemporary conversations at the moment; lets all focus on the same topic").

  • If the behavior is irritating, but not disruptive, try speaking with the student after class. Most students are unaware of distracting habits or mannerisms, and have no intent to be offensive or disruptive.

  • There may be rare circumstances when it is necessary to speak to a student during class about his or her behavior. Do so in a firm and friendly manner, indicating that further discussion can occur after class.

  • A student who persists in disrupting a class may be directed by the faculty member to leave the classroom for the remainder of the class period. The student should be told the reason(s) for such action, and given an opportunity to discuss the matter with the faculty member as soon as practicable. Prompt consultation should be undertaken with the Department Chair. Suspension for more than one class period requires appropriate disciplinary action.

  • If disruption is serious, and other reasonable measures have failed, the class may be adjourned, and the campus police summoned.