Hecklers are those disruptive students who distract the class and challenge the teacher’s authority in front of the class. They don’t appear often, but it’s good to have a game plan for when they show up so that you don’t get flustered. Here are some suggestions for how to handle a classroom heckler.
The first line of defense against a heckler is prevention. There are three very good ways to prevent heckling from ever occurring in the first place. The first thing is to have good policies. Good policies let the students know what to expect from being in class. They cover basic things like class meeting times, payment procedure, cancellations, dress, and classroom behavior. If your intake procedure includes providing students with written policies that they read, agree to, and signed, you are less likely to have any disruptions.
Policy enforcement is the second line of defense in prevention. Creating policies is one thing. Enforcing them fairly is another. You can avoid the problems that come along with not enforcing your own policies altogether by only creating policies that you believe in. If you think you should make everyone pay in advance, but you know that some people have extenuating circumstances that should be taken into consideration, include a provision for that. Otherwise you may find yourself violating your own policy because it’s not in line with your values. If you don’t uphold your own policies, you can’t expect your students to do it.
The third prevention strategy is to model the behavior you expect from your students. You can’t expect students to be on time, respectful of others, or present a professional demeanor if you are late, talk about other teachers and show up at performances in a wrinkled costume with no back up music. Your behavior shows them what is acceptable, not your words.
If you are doing these three things, your encounters with hecklers should be few and far between. (I have had two in 14 years). However, this doesn’t mean you will avoid them altogether. It’s still possible that it may occur.
Before you decide how to handle heckling, you have to understand that heckling is a way of saying, “I have a problem and don’t have the appropriate coping skills to handle it.” So searching for the problem is the first step to handling the situation. Once you have an identified problem, you can offer a solution.
Example 1: Debbie is making sexual jokes about a new movement. Her comments are making it difficult for others to concentrate. They may make others feel self-conscious about following along.
Possible meaning: Debbie is uncomfortable with the movement.
Possible solution: Say in front of the class, “If this movement makes anyone uncomfortable, it’s perfectly okay skip it and wait for the next one. You don’t ever have to do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. This validates Debbie’s feelings and gives her and others permission to honor her discomfort. If Debbie stops making jokes, you will know that you have addressed her problem adequately.
Example 2: Kira stops following along and says, “Why do we have to do it this way?”
Possible meaning: Kira learns better with a different mode of teaching.
Possible solution: Encourage Kira to stick with it and tell her that it will make sense to her if she gives it a chance. Then alter your teaching style to help her get it. Consider visual, auditory and kinesthetic ways of learning. Consider drawing diagrams, providing notes, more context, more breakdown or other ideas that you haven’t used. This shows her that you are listening and allows you to keep control of your classroom.
Example 3: Dawn rolls her eyes as she is following along with the class. She stops, leans up against the wall, and breathes with an audible, heavy sigh.
Possible meaning: Dawn is bored. Dawn can’t keep up.
Possible solution: Encourage Dawn to rejoin the class. Tell her that it’s obvious that she has some concerns and offer to talk with her after class about what is bothering her. This let’s Dawn know that you have noticed her frustration and that you will address it later when it won’t take time away from the rest of the class. Once you and Dawn are alone, you can let her know that she can come to you with frustrations, questions and suggestions. This gives her permission to address her problems directly so that she doesn’t have to act out to get attention.
Heckling can be a very disturbing event when it happens to you. If you handle it well, no one will remember it, and it won’t be a big deal. If you handle it poorly, it could open the door for others to handle their issues in a negative way. So, regularly practice prevention strategies. If it happens to you anyway, keep in mind that all this is saying is, “I have a problem that I don’t know how to address.” This will keep you from taking it personally so that you can focus on dealing with the underlying problem.