Conflict may be unrelated to many characteristics of courses or instructors; it may be more in line with a teacher’s methods, their response to students, and how they respond to issues in the classroom (Meyers et al., 2006).
What thoughts, feelings, or actions come to mind when you think of conflict in the classroom? These may range from passive responses, such as a student who refuses to engage with learning activities, to active responses, such as a student who talks over a teacher or uses inappropriate language. Conflict in the classroom often occurs as a result of forces outside of our control. When conflict does occur, it is our responsibility as Graduate Assistants (GAs) and Teaching Assistants (TAs) to ensure positive outcomes for all individuals, including ourselves.
Rounds (2017) outlines four types of challenges which may be precursors to conflict in the classroom, these include: 1) procedural challenges, such as issues around rules; 2) practicality challenges, such as a student questioning directions; 3) power plays, when a student (or a group of students) try to challenge, directly or indirectly, to take over the learning environment; and 4) evaluation challenges, when students are upset or disagree with outcomes of assessments.
Challenges + Pressures = Emotions
To understand conflict in the classroom we need to recognize the forces outside our control. Everyone in the classroom experiences outside pressures that are constantly shifting and changing the environment around them (McLinden, 2017). From the student’s perspective, this system includes how they see themselves, what is going on in their personal lives, the influences of the University and its policies, as well as what is happening in society. Within each of these levels, students experience pressures. Personal, socio-emotional, cognitive, motivational, and systemic pressures may be experienced by students simultaneously or at various times (Järvenoja et al., 2019; Naykki et al., 2014). For example, students may be coping with mental health concerns, difficulties related to loved ones, an inability to understand course material, lacking time-management skills, or stability issues around housing and finances. Add to these pressures the additional injustices and inequities many students experience such as a racism, discrimination, genderism, or ableism (Rounds, 2017).
When students face pressures, they respond with emotions. Emotions are experienced on a continuum; they may shift slowly or quickly. These shifts may occur within a class or throughout a semester. Students may become bored, disappointed, feel misunderstood, have anxiety, become overwhelmed, frustrated, or experience fear (Wass et al., 2020). As a GA/TA, you will also feel a continuum of emotions; how you respond to your own, and students’ pressures and emotions will enable productive or unproductive responses to conflict (Kilmann & Thomas, 1977).
Productive vs. Unproductive Conflict
When pressures and emotions collide, there is an opportunity for conflict. Conflict does not have to be an adverse event. Supporting students to participate in productive conflict can provide an opportunity for higher order learning opportunities. One example of a productive conflict is shifting a verbal disagreement into a constructive debate where all students are encouraged to participate (Aïmeur et al., 2001). By taking the lead, role-modelling professional behaviour, and including the entire class, you are providing an opportunity for students to apply critical thinking skills, as well as normalize emotions that occur with the pressures or challenges they experience. Productive responses to conflict in the classroom enhance creativity, learning, and empathy; there is an opportunity for authentic skill-building as respectful debates and the normalization of differences are key to professional behaviour (Godbold et al. 2021).
In order to promote productive conflict, we need to be self-aware (Murphy, 2010). What does your body language say? What about the tone of your voice? Presenting with empathy, humility, respect, and understanding is imperative as this will (hopefully) shift the focus from power struggles to engagement in meaningful conversation about the issue (Meyers et al., 2006).
Being prepared means ensuring a transparent environment, which can be established by defining group norms and expected learning outcomes, as this may reduce anxiety in students (Holton, 1999). The use of self, such as reflecting on your own experiences as a student and modelling appropriate responses to engage with challenges or emotions in the classroom may prevent conflict (Gruber, 2015). It is also important to be critically aware of events that are happening on and off campus (Turner & Stough, 2020). If students bring up concerns that impact them – things that are happening in the media or on campus – do not ignore it. Having established a safe classroom through transparency may allow for having difficult conversations which may ease tension as students are able to talk about the challenges or pressures they face.
Yet, Things Will Go Wrong.
As a GA/TA you are a leader and thus need to take a leadership role. Though we cannot control our students’ responses, we can hold students’ accountable. Remind students of classroom expectations and rules, and when you are feeling that you are not capable of handling the issue or heightening conflict, put the conversation on hold (Gruber, 2015). You have a supervisor (i.e., course instructor) and other supports available from the University; you are not alone in this experience.
Importantly, there is a difference between dangerous and disruptive versus challenging behaviours/issues or disruptions. It is imperative to understand the difference to ensure the safety and well-being of students. Dangerous behaviours include threats, prolonged passive aggressiveness and/or the deliberate hurting of others, whereas disruption may include practice, procedural, power, or evaluation challenges (Rounds, 2017).
The university does not tolerate racism, discrimination, or harmful behaviour. If this occurs, you may ask this student to leave or end your teaching session early and seek assistance. Report the concerns to your supervisor immediately. If the situation is urgent, do not hesitate to contact campus security.
Remember, the University has supports to aid in dealing with conflict as a GA/TA; these supports include your supervisor, the administrator of your program, campus security, student mental health services, or a union representative. You are never alone in dealing with conflict as a GA/TA.
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Godbold, N., Tsai-Yu, A. H., & Matthews, K. E. (2021). Exploring the role of conflict in co-creation of curriculum through engaging students as partners in the classroom. Higher Education Research & Development. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2021.1887095
Gruber, S. (2015). Ideologies in online learning environments: The need for multiple stories. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 13(4), 39-53. http://www.ncolr.org/jiol/issues/pdf/13.4.3.pdf
Holton, S. A. (1999). After the eruption: Managing conflict in the classroom. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 77, 59-68. https://doi.org/10.1002/tl.7706
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Murphy, K. (2010). Is my teaching disturbing you? Strategies for addressing disruptive behaviors in the college classroom. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 81(6), 33-44. https://doi.org/10.1080/07303084.2010.10598489
Näykki, P., Järvelä, S., Kirschner, P. A., & Järvenoja, H. (2014). Socio-emotional conflict in collaborative learning – A process-oriented case study in a higher education context. International Journal of Educational Research, 68, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2014.07.001
Rounds, T. (2017). Mitigating disruptive behavior in the college classroom. Arizona State University: University Senate. https://www.bemidjistate.edu/services/public-safety/wp-content/uploads/sites/92/2020/01/Classroom-Security-3.pdf
Turner, K., & Stough, C. (2020). Pre-service teachers and emotional intelligence: A scoping review. The Australian Educational Researcher, 47, 283-305. https://doi.org/10.1007//s13384-019-00352-0
Wass, R., Timmermans, J., Harland, T., & McLean, A. (2020). Annoyance and frustration: Emotional responses to being assessed in higher education. Active Learning in Higher Education, 21(3), 189-201. DOI: 10.1177/1469787418762462
Natalie Beltrano spent 15 years in child welfare before returning to higher education to obtain her Master of Social Work with a specialization in Leadership in Human Service Organizations from the University of Calgary. She entered the PhD program at the University of Windsor in the faculty of social work in 2019. Her dissertation research is focused on child welfare worker decision-making and the impact of anti-Black racism.
She is in the process of obtaining her University Teaching Certificate from the CTL and has worked as a Graduate Assistant over the last 3 years. She has had the privilege of facilitating lectures for the GATAcademy, and teaches as a sessional for the University of Windsor’s Master of Social Work Working Professionals and Durham College’s Social Service Worker programs. She is a fur-mum to a St. Berdoodle, Abby, and Labradoodle, Zoey, as well as a black cat named Dum Dum.