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Handling Students’ Complaints and Not-so-sincere Questions: 5 Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

Handling Students’ Complaints and Not-So-Sincere Questions: 5 Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

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“But I wasn’t talking!” “Why do we have to take notes?” “How come I got in trouble and Daniel didn’t?” These types of questions came at me hard and fast my first year teaching, and to be honest, I really didn’t know how to handle them.

As a rookie teacher, I made the mistake of entertaining way too many of these types of complaints. I consistently allowed a few middle schoolers to stay after class and question why I hadn’t reprimanded another student, why I had certain rules, or why I was supposedly was picking on them.  I thought that I was being sympathetic by listening to their concern when, in reality, my bumbling attempts to defend my actions were actually undermining my own authority.

I came to dread that period. Each day I would struggle to control the class and then remain to hear a critique of my routines and disciplinary measures.

I don’t know what I was thinking.

But that’s one of the challenges of being a first-year teacher. There’s only so much you can learn in college, professional development days, and staff trainings. Some lessons you end up learning the hard way.

Here are a few of the lessons I learned bout how to handle students who complain or question my actions.

  1. Stay calm. If a student is angry or complaining about a situation, the worst thing we can do is to become angry or argumentative in return. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath.” When we give a calm yet firm response to our students, we help diffuse the situation and are much more likely to produce lasting change in the student. If additional consequences need to be given to the student, give them calmly. This will be much more effective than yelling at them and will also model Christian character.

  2. Be confident in your authority and realize that you do not owe the students an explanation. If you feel an explanation will be helpful, then by all means, give one; but if you feel the student is merely complaining or testing your authority you can simply tell them that you don’t need to explain yourself. A principle to keep in mind here is that the younger the students, the less explanation they need. You don’t have to explain your reasons to a first grader at all, but a senior in high school may benefit from hearing the thought process behind your decisions.

  3. Use the magic phrase “because you chose to break the rule.” This phrase is gem from The First Days of School. In my classroom, the rule is no communication without permission. Sometimes when I correct a student, he will respond with an excuse such as, “But I was just asking Alan for help. Why am I in trouble?” I learned to answer with something like, “I understand, but the rule is no communication, and you chose to break the rule. If you need help, raise your hand and I will help you.” Seek to respond with a simple answer that quickly and effectively debunks the excuse.

  4. Ask God for wisdom. We need wisdom to discern between genuine concerns and unnecessary complaints. In our effort to curb complaints and back talk, we must be careful not to shut off all avenues of student appeal. Since we as teachers make mistakes, students need to feel that they can come to us with genuine concerns and that we will listen with respect. Ask God to give you wisdom to know when to hear an appeal and when to shut down a complaint.

  5. Seek first to understand. If it appears the student may have a genuine concern, listen carefully to his appeal before you respond. Put yourself in his shoes and honestly consider his request. Few things are more frustrating to a student than when he feels that he has been treated unfairly by his teacher. (Remember how you felt as a student?) If you find you’ve made a mistake, make it right, and you will gain his respect. If, however, you must deny his request, take the time to speak with him respectfully and disciple him through the process.

How do you handle complaints, excuses, and back talking? Share your insight by leaving a comment.

For strategies on handling other common classroom issues, check out our full Classroom Management 101 course. It covers every aspect of classroom management and helps you create a successful plan.

Find out more about Classroom Management 101 here. 

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Image attribution flickr user Andrew Walsh


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  • Loved, loved, loved your comment on Sheila’s blog. Oh, if only women believed the power of love and forgiveness it would save so many marriages. You are one wise woman. You should also have a marriage blog!!!

  • Thank you for this! I just found this article and it was just what I needed as a first year teacher! I’m not perfect and that’s so hard for me to deal with.

  • These blogs, podcasts, and articles are a God-sent answer and help to me. I have found practical ideas and sometimes just the simple and important reminder to pray about the different challenges I encounter. I a paraprofessional who often steps in and has the same responsibilities as a lead teacher would have, but don’t always have access to the same training. Thank you, Linda.

  • I’m newly graduated and just became certified to teach a few months ago. I’m hoping I land a teaching job for this upcoming school year.

    I am so, so glad that I stumbled on this post because explaining myself to students in this way sounds EXACTLY like a mistake that I would make. Now, hopefully I won’t make that mistake. Thank you!

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