How to deal with 'difficult students'

Teacher's counsellor comes to the rescue

Marian Joseph. Foto: Marian Joseph
Photo: Marian Joseph

“Let me start by saying that, as a confidential advisor, I’m here for both students and teachers,” emphasises Marian Joseph, a lecturer at the Faculty of Law. “It’s important to mention that. Everyone who knocks on my door gets my full attention, be they students or staff.” Joseph has been occupying one of the two roles of confidential advisor at Utrecht University for two and a half years now. However, a year and a half ago, she also took on the role of teachers’ counsellor for the Law department. Although these two positions don’t conflict with each other, wrong assumptions can lead to confusion. Looking to prevent that, she usually doesn’t give interviews but she decided to make an exception for DUB. 

It all started a few years ago. More and more law teachers started complaining about feeling unsafe. The situations that made them feel this way varied, but inappropriate behaviour from students was one of them. This led the department to start a workgroup to dive into the matter. Joseph, who already worked as a confidential advisor at the time, joined it. “One of the cases we looked into was a student who wasn’t satisfied with their grade and used an intimidating tone when complaining to the lecturer,” she recollects. “The lecturer felt unsafe as a result but they weren't sure what to do about that.”

Bad experiences in the workplace
That lecturer wasn’t alone. The workgroup’s conclusion was that teachers — especially young and less experienced ones — tend to walk on eggshells when it comes to nasty experiences at work. In addition, many teachers are not familiar with the university's regulations, which means they don't know who to turn to for support. “When a student is unhappy about their grade, they can go to the exam board, which will start working right away to support the student, not the lecturer. As a result, the teachers involved often don’t feel heard, which could be partially fixed through expectation management,” she explains. “Telling the lecturer that it isn’t personal and that these things can happen, for example. But some of them feel as though a complaint harms their integrity. They see it as an attack on their professionalism, or they feel that the complaint is unjustified. In those cases, it’s important to listen to them and be clear about the procedures.”

As a result of the workgroup’s report, the department's board decided to appoint someone to whom lecturers could talk about their experiences. That's when Joseph was invited to become a teachers’ counsellor. “As a confidential advisor, I’m available to both students and staff, as is my colleague Diederik Gussekloo. If a lecturer is the victim of inappropriate behaviour, they can come to us,” Joseph says. “The role of teachers’ counsellor is more elaborate and goes further than that of confidential advisor.”

Lower threshold
A teachers’ counsellor helps with cases of inappropriate behaviour, but can also negotiate between parties. “This is more accessible as well, because, as a counsellor, I’m connected to the Law department. The distinction between both roles may not always be clear but that’s okay. Sometimes I ask lecturers: ‘are you here for the confidential advisor or for the teachers’ counsellor?’ It’s not that our conversation would change because of that but, as a counsellor, I can do more as I have a broader set of tasks.”

The position of teachers’ counsellor is new at Utrecht University but the issues faced by lecturers are not. There have always been students and colleagues acting inappropriately. The thing is, these days, students are getting more vocal. "In itself, that's a good thing,” ponders Joseph, “but it can go wrong when a student crosses the line verbally.”

Thanks to social media and e-mails, students can now voice their grievances easily and quickly. Joseph herself has been on the receiving end of this. “In most cases, we know who sent the aggressive message. Then, the educational director is called in to discuss the issue with the student in question. Sometimes students blame lecturers to the point of mobilising to take action against them, which can make the lecturer feel insecure. What to do? How to respond? Teachers don’t want to sacrifice their credibility or look bad in front of their boss, so they need support.”

Colleagues can be a problem too
Students aren't the only ones who can stress teachers out. Heavy workloads, work pressure, development opportunities (or the lack thereof), obtaining a PhD, and conflicts with colleagues or managers are but a few of the issues faced by many UU teachers. Joseph explains that these are common problems but they are not talked about often enough. “It’s so hard to end up in a procedure or to fear consequences for your employment,” she says. “After all, numerous teachers have temporary positions. It’s nice to be able to talk to someone who’s there for them. Someone who can listen and help.”

Joseph thinks it would be a good idea for all departments to offer similar support to their lecturers, although she doesn’t know whether they have any such plans. “This is really something the Law department came up with, so perhaps we need to gain some more experience before this can be copied elsewhere at the university. But I can imagine that a new lecturer might prefer to talk to a teachers’ counsellor than to their manager.”

The consultations Joseph has with lecturers generally consist of short conversations in the hallways or chats in the teachers’ room. Once in a while, she’ll talk to them about more complicated matters. “That's a shame but, thankfully, there aren’t many of those cases. The most important thing is that people know where to go — and it doesn’t have to be me, as long as they find someone. Accessibility and trust are key. In both my role as a confidential advisor for students and staff from all faculties, and in the role of teachers’ counsellor for the Law department, I’m always on the side of the person reporting. They’re the ones in charge.” That can’t be said enough.