5 Tips for Dealing with Difficult Students for Online Faculty

Teach online? Here’s some useful hacks.

If you teach online, you’ve no doubt experienced challenging students. You know the ones I am talking about, right? Learners who like to monopolize discussions, become overly defensive and are prone to lashing out.

Like you, I am an educator. I’ve been teaching college courses online for over 15-years. But I’m also a counselor. Yep, that’s right. When I’m not working with students, I’m helping adults overcome various life challenges, including depression and anxiety.

In this way, I feel fortunate because both areas of work have allowed me to assist people in their pursuit of life goals.

But the work has also exposed me to folks who struggle with forming relationships with others, thereby making them a challenge to work with.

According to Dr. Greg Harms, a psychologist and online faculty member I spoke to for this piece who works at a web-based college, “It’s important for educators who work remote to develop strategies for challenging learners. Because they are isolated, they don’t always have the same supports that instructors do on a ground-based campus,” said Harms.

What follows are five tips for coping with difficult students I’ve learned over the years. Hopefully, you can use one or more of these tips in your work as an educator. FYI: Some of these can be adapted for professors who instruct courses in traditional settings.

Check it out:

teaching online strategies

1. Employ the 24-hour rule

The most important tip I can impart is don’t lose control. For example, if a student lashes out at you in anger, don’t respond in kind.

Instead, take a deep breath, get up from your computer and walk away. Personally, I employ the 24-hour rule. And here is how I do it.

If a student says something ugly, I immediately respond with the following. Dear [fill in blank]. This is just a quick note to share that I got your note. I will respond to what you have shared shortly but I want to do it in a meaningful way. At present, I am pressed for time. I’ll write you back sometime in the next 24-hours.

By employing this strategy, you give yourself a chance to cool off. Additionally, it allows you time to formulate a non-emotional response.

2. Don’t hold a grudge

When a student acts out, it’s easy to get upset. I know it’s happened to me. But what you don’t want to do is hold a grudge. Not only will it make a difficult situation worse, it also causes you to hold onto toxic energy.

Instead, look at each interaction with the learner as a new beginning. This means letting go of the past and recognizing all of us are human.

You’d be surprised how freeing this is. Moreover, the student is likely to follow your lead.

I’m not saying this will always be the case. But in many situations, that’s exactly what happens.

3. Lean into your support systems

I’ve learned as a counselor and educator it is important to have strong support systems. By this, I mean people who are in the field and are doing the same kind of work as you.

When you run into a challenging student who is making your life miserable, it’s critical to get in touch with someone you trust so that you can vent. Let’s be real – sometimes we need to discharge our feelings as a way of working through.

This is why I encourage faculty members to create relationships with colleagues. This allows you a place for safe sharing. Additionally, you become a support system for others.

Think of these relationships as sacred. Ones that are built on understanding and trust.

4. Request a phone call

For all the plusses online teaching offers, there can be minuses. A biggie is not having face to face interaction. This dynamic can cause educators and learners to experience something called depersonalization.

That’s a $10.00 word used to describe the phenomenon of forgetting someone is human.

When a student lashes out at me or engages in undesirable behaviors, I have found that by requesting a phone call, it helps to personalize the relationship.

Not only does this technique lower emotional temperatures, it also provides an opportunity for real-time dialogue. When a learner experiences his/her teacher in this way, they are less likely to continue acting out.

5. Remember, it’s not you

When students arrive in our classrooms, its important remember they bring with them all of their life challenges.

Unfortunately, this can sometimes mean they direct their frustrations out electronically – on you.

As a tribe, teachers are feelers. It’s what allows us to connect with students and help them learn new things. But it’s that very same trait that makes us vulnerable to self-blame.

This is why you want to remember you and the student are human. As such, their behaviors are often a reflection of what’s going on with them and not you.

Wrap Up

Hopefully, the suggestions offered here will help you work through difficult situations involving students. I’ve always thought of the work I do with learners as a gift because I’m afforded the ability to interact with people from diverse backgrounds and experiences.

Do you teach online and struggle with challenging students? What strategies do you employ to help work through? Feel free to share your comments below.

About John D. Moore 312 Articles
Dr. John Moore is a journalist and blogger who writes about a variety of topics. His interests include technology, outdoor activities, science, and men's health. Follow him on LinkedIn