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I am a young teacher at college. I have to go way too long, I know but I have the following problem.

In one of my classes, I have this guy who pecks at me for everything I say. He is surely conceited, but it hurts like hell when he makes fun of me in front of the whole class.

However, I take no note of it in class, but later I feel very sad. This makes me frightened to go to that class at all.

He is overconfident and imposing and seems to have got a big gang behind him. He is a threat and he disturbs me. Please help me tackle this situation.

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Can you provide some specific (anonymized) examples of the kind of thing that this student does/says? –  ff524 Aug 6 at 10:13
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Is this not heckling? (A milder offense.) –  Raphael Aug 6 at 15:20
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Many schools have teacher-training courses for new professors and for TAs/RAs. Can you attend one of them? There are also professional coaching services. You could also watch a lot of military films and look for what is called "command presence." –  RoboKaren Aug 6 at 16:44
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I'm not a teacher, so take this for what it's worth. When I've seen this sort of thing happen before, usually the teacher takes the student aside after class and lets him know that he's disrupting the class and asks him to save his comments for after class. If they have merit, you'll bring them up next time. If the student does not listen to this, the teacher will announce this in class that they are being disruptive and ask them to stop. If it continues after that, the student is asked to leave the classroom for being disruptive. Only when that fails to work do they get someone else involved. –  trlkly Aug 7 at 3:58
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Step 1. Warn him. Step 2. Threaten him with exclusion from the class. Step 3. Kick him out. Problem solved. –  TheMathemagician Aug 7 at 18:20

12 Answers 12

As a first step you could ask one of your more experienced colleagues to observe your teaching. Let the students know the colleague is there to evaluate your teaching. While it is obviously not a formal evaluation, it is an evaluation of how you handle a difficult teaching situation. You want to tell the students that you are being evaluated so that the trouble makers feel like they can sabotage you. If they do not know why they are being observed, the trouble makers may behave better. The goal is not to "catch" the student behaving badly, it is to have an example of bad behaviour so you and the evaluator can work through possible responses after the class.

Hopefully the trouble makers will try and "undermine" you and act out. With first hand knowledge the colleague may have specific suggestions of how to deal with the student. If the student does not act out you can then discuss the types of behaviour the student shows with the colleague.

Ideally the observer would be from your department, but if it is difficult to find someone, the observer does not need to be from your department nor understand the material you are teaching. They do not need to commit to the entire lecture, 15-30 minutes is often enough. The key thing is they need to be experienced enough to be able to provide suggestions and someone you respect enough to take the suggestions on board. If they understand the material even better, but you want someone that you respect with the needed experience.

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I think this is really good advice in general. Two points: (i) if the desired goal is to get a witness to the behavior, perhaps do not announce the purpose of the visitor. (Also, honesty check: is the visitor really there to "evaluate your teaching"? Better to say nothing than to mislead, IMO.) –  Pete L. Clark Aug 6 at 15:38
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(ii) I see no advantage in having the visitor be from another department and/or not understand the material being taught. In fact, I think it would be hard to evaluate the situation without being able to evaluate the intellectual merit / relevance of the comments being made. Which is not to imply that the behavior is acceptable if the comments are correct, but it may well make a difference in the approach taken. –  Pete L. Clark Aug 6 at 15:39
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The likelihood is that the problematic student will alter his behaviour when there is an observer in the classroom. Partly because he is unsure of the reaction of the observer, and partly because his motivation for being disruptive is that he wants his peers to think his is the "cool guy" - but that does not extend to being so disruptive that the teacher is disciplined or fired. –  bain Aug 6 at 16:00
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@eykanal: An external visitor need not be on an even footing with the students. If the OP is teaching, say, real analysis and the external visitor is a random college professor, then she will probably be totally lost. I find your suggestion that teaching can be better evaluated by outsiders to the discipline a bit alarming: that is not in fact how faculty-evaluating-faculty-teaching works, in all my experience. If you want to know how students are responding to your teaching, you get evaluations from the students. You don't try to find the most student-equivalent faculty....do you? –  Pete L. Clark Aug 6 at 19:26
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@StrongBad: in my experience, the correctness of the lecture is usually at least part of the issue with an interrupting student. Although the given question is really rather vague, I get the impression that's part of the issue in this case. As always, I cannot claim universality of my own experiences... –  Pete L. Clark Aug 7 at 18:56

To be honest, sometimes you just get a dick. However, I have seen more often that the students merely thrive on the attention and have little regard to how you perceive it.

Without examples of what this student does it's hard to give great advice but here are some of my suggestions based off of observing both confident and in control teachers and those who are timid and meek.

I'm assuming this student asks questions designed to throw you off or tries to contradict you/ correct you at every turn. To this I ask "does it throw you off and is what he says accurate and you were wrong?"

If he's trying to throw you off just tell him that his question isn't applicable to the lesson. If he wants to talk about it later on in more depth, then invite him to discuss it further after class or during office hours (they 99% of the time never do). This can keep you on task and not battling the everlasting "but what if" questions.

If he's correcting you, is he right or wrong? If he's wrong then don't be afraid to tell him so (or that both answers are correct). If he's right, well, to be honest, that hurts your credibility a lot. No teacher that I've ever seen who is consistently wrong has the respect of their students. You really need to evaluate how/ why you're teaching and perhaps need to brush up more on concepts you don't know.

If he simply disrupts class, then you need to take charge and be the leader of the room. When you have someone interrupt you and let it continue happening without saying anything, obviously that sets a precedent. The teachers that I've seen where this happens are quiet and meek and usually try to laugh it off while feebly getting the class back under control. Does this sound like you? Once this precedent is set, it is very hard to go back. I would advise working on that for the next term (assuming you are closer to being done and can just wait it out until this class is gone).

Bottom line, it's your job to be in charge. Some students will walk all over you if you let them. Don't give them that chance. You can be respected and in charge without being a jerk or overly strict. The best teachers are the ones who are confident in their subject and respect their students, which, in turn, reciprocate with respect for the teacher. It's like the old saying goes "Those who have to say they're in charge are clearly not".

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Telling "it is your job to be in charge" to someone ho clearly struggles to be does not seem particularly helpful and specific to me. –  Dmitry Savostyanov Aug 6 at 15:00
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Like I said, without specific examples to the OP's case, I can't exactly be more helpful. Some go in to teaching thinking that the students will just naturally respect them and behave. You can't go in that way, you need to go in knowing you are in charge and that you're supposed to be. Usually those who don't feel like have a hard time telling people no or being firm because they don't in any other aspect of their life or feel like they will come across as being mean. –  Jen Aug 6 at 15:04
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I agree with Jen: the OP has framed the problem in very general terms, so at the moment can only get general advice. I also think that "Bottom line, it's your job to be in charge" is helpful: it reminds the OP that he is both empowered and obligated to take control of the situation. –  Pete L. Clark Aug 6 at 15:46
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This is clearly the best answer on this thread. If the student is constantly proving the teacher wrong, then it's the teacher's job to get better at what he/she does. If not, then the student should be told to shut up, or leave the classroom. –  Jigg Aug 6 at 18:04
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Exactly. If the situation gets out of hand, a firm invitation to leave the room can go a long way. –  Davidmh Aug 6 at 20:50

The following are slightly generic remarks. They may not help much in this particular case (first impressions being so persistent, you may have lost this particular charmer), but might be helpful in future.

Remember we all of us are apes, and have ape-like notions of territory. He is acting as if the classroom is his territory, whereas it is in fact your territory. But how do you establish that?

  • Often inexperienced teachers stand right up at the blackboard, apparently as far away from the students as they can possibly get. Move forwards.

  • If you can get into the class before them, welcome them in – nothing fancy, just generic "good, good, come in, hurry up... hello..." You're giving them permission to be in the room.

  • Look into their faces as you talk; you're the authority figure, and you get to choose who you look at. Apes really react to being seen.

  • I generally start a lecture by deliberately and obviously moving to the front of a class, just in front of the front-most rows, and just stand waiting expectantly but alertly. The students I'm looming over shut up promptly, and a wave of silence spreads outwards. If people are still talking, look right at them; others will follow your gaze, and there's nothing apes notice more quickly than people looking at them. If they keep talking, keep on looking, in a "you're wasting all these people's time" way. It takes real aggression for someone to blatantly keep talking in those circumstances. If you just keep standing, impassive, repeating in your head "you are a stupid little dick, boy; you are a stupid little dick, ..." you'll freak out the class and they will probably suppress misbehaviour themselves.

  • Move into the class. This is your territory and not theirs, remember, and so you can walk into the middle of it and they can't. If the layout permits, teach from the centre of the class occasionally. If you're explaining something on the board/screen, perhaps do so from half-way up the side of the class, facing in the same direction as them (apart from anything else, this provides variety and stops them or you getting bored!).

This doesn't have to be some massive mind-game, and it doesn't have to be and shouldn't be some sort of contest (which is the sort of game where social aggression wins). And I'm not suggesting you spray on the walls! But teachers often forget that physical presence and movement, and where you choose to stand, can send very powerful signals to creatures of all shapes and forms.

Building confidence is hard; moving a couple of metres forward is less so.

An exercise: assemble four or five friends in a row of chairs in front of you, looking straight at you. Stand in front of them, looking back into their faces in turn, in a nice friendly way but saying nothing. It's weird how difficult it is to keep this up for even one minute. Part of what's initially challenging about teaching is the discomfort of having a room-ful of people looking straight at you, and if you can get used to this (in this context, without the distraction of having to teach at the same time), and if you remember the feeling of being looked at, you'll become more able to deploy the gaze in your territory.

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This is very good advice! You've put into words some of the things that I've experienced and witnessed, but that I didn't know how to explain. –  Stephan Branczyk Aug 8 at 7:22
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The way you refer to students as apes makes me uncomfortable, to say the least. +1 anyways. –  Thomas Aug 8 at 15:01
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Ah, but the thing is that we're apes, too, which is why we have our own territorial anxieties about moving into the middle of the class, and our own acute sense of where we and others are looking, and at whom. I'm not suggesting we run around the classroom hooting and scratching ourselves (entertaining though that might be, on occasion), but there's a subtle but powerful back-channel here, which we can gently exploit to surprising effect if we're aware of it. Saying 'be in charge' or 'be confident' is one thing (and true); but 'stand in the middle of your classroom' is immediately actionable. –  Norman Gray Aug 8 at 16:33
    
Also, to be honest, who wouldn't prefer A to B as a teacher? Oook! –  Norman Gray Aug 8 at 16:49
    
Good advice (for any presentation situation, not just a teaching lecture). I do many of the things mentioned. I don't remember if I learned this somewhere, or if it's instinctive. If the latter, I guess my ape is showing. –  bubba Aug 10 at 9:14

The problem is one of basic psychology. In a classroom environment, an effective teacher needs to be respected as the leader - either respect for the authority of the position itself, or respect for the knowledge, or just basic good manners. By being disrespectful and undermining you and your authority, the student is implicitly challenging you in an attempt to elevate his social standing within the group.

it hurts like hell when he makes fun of me in front of the whole class. However, I take no note of it in class, but later I feel very sad. This makes me frightened to go that class at all. He is overconfident and imposing and seems to have got a big gang behind him.

Your main problem is that you are under-confident, and your authority has been challenged by someone who is more confident, more imposing, and better able to "work the crowd". You need to regain the respect of the students. How you do this is up to you, but I would note:

  • Be confident. Act confident. Act like you are actually in control. When you begin to act like you are in control, you will begin to appear like you are in control, and, eventually, you will be in control.

  • Stop being scared. This person can not physically hurt you. If he can mentally hurt you, then that is because you allow that hurt to happen. You need to find a technique to reduce your fear. Some people do this through contemplation, some through repetition of phrases like "I am a tiger", some through more physical techniques like study of martial arts. Do whatever works for you.

  • Play to your strengths. You are the one who is an expert in the subject that you teach. The student is not. In this domain, you are the more powerful one. If you choose to engage him, do not engage in bickering, because that is his domain. Engage him in the domain where you will win - in the exercise of academic and technical excellence.

    One option is to ask him if he knows the answer to a particular question, and ask him to explain it to the rest of the class on the board. This does not require singling him out - you can ask other students to also answer questions - but what it does is put him on the defensive. Either he admits that he does not know the answer, or he has to get up in front of the class and explain it.

    If the latter, then you have turned the focus of attention towards his knowledge and his teaching ability. It might help him to realise that he does not really want to be the leader in the domain where the leader has to stand and teach everyone else. He will probably get parts of the answer wrong, or have an incomplete answer, and afterwards you can probe this, and ask the other students to explain where he went wrong. This re-establishes you as being in control, and turns the focus of the class to subject knowledge and academic ability. You do not need to undermine him, just encourage him to demonstrate his lack of knowledge, and then let the other students demonstrate their own ability. This is enough.

  • Be interesting. Boredom is a driver of problematic behaviour. The fact that other students are following your problem student indicates that they perhaps are not being challenged by the lessons. If you see the eyes of your students glazing over as you begin to speak, then change direction, and structure your lessions to directly engage the students. One technique is to have them work on problems in pairs, and then randomly choose one of them to present the solution to the rest of the class. This forces them to work, and forces them to come up with an answer that they not only understand, but understand in a way that they can explain to everyone else. Nobody wants to stand up in front of the class and look like an idiot. It takes the focus off you and your teaching and knowledge, and puts it back on the class, which helps to make the lessons more social and interesting.

  • Take control. Changing the structure of the class and engaging the students in a way that allows you to demonstrate your leadership may encourage your problem student to back off. He is a part of the class, and if you have control of the class, it is likely that he will defer to that. But if he does not, you may consider a more direct approach:

    • The warning. Confront the student outside (or at the end) of class. Tell the student that his constant undermining is disruptive to the class and you are not going to stand for it any more. Tell him that if he can not be respectful, and does not value your teaching, then you do not want to see him in your class. Do not be angry or scared or emotional - just be straight - you are done, this is not a negotiation, this is the way it is.
    • The appeal to authority. Tell the student that you are not going to stand for his behaviour any more, and if it continues you will report him to the disciplinary authorities. All institutions have formal mechanisms for dealing with discipline. The threat of this may help him to temper his behaviour.
    • Remove the student from your class. Not always possible, but, either officially or unofficially, get rid of him. Officially, you can request a formal transfer. Unofficially, you can tell him that you will keep his name on the register but you do not want to see him in your class again.
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I physically cringe when terms like "alpha leader" get thrown around (bonus cringe points for "alpha male"). Also, telling a scared and under-confident person to stop being scared and start being more confident seems ... relatively useless. –  xLeitix Aug 6 at 14:31
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@xLeitix Then call it something else - call it whatever you feel comfortable with. The terminology is not particularly important. What is important is the recognition that this problem is fundamentally that of a young man asserting his dominant personality and influence in a social group of his peers. I will only note that the question states "He is overconfident and imposing and seems to have got a big gang behind him" - which is pretty much the definition of an alpha in any species. But if you do not like the term, just substitute it for another. "A rose by any other name.." –  bain Aug 6 at 15:15
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@xLeitix Whether advice is of use or not ultimately depends on the response of the person asking for the advice. Fear and under-confidence are psychological issues, and the answer is to become more confident and less fearful. How that can be done by an individual person is another topic. I did suggest some techniques that are successfully used by some people, but ultimately each person has to figure out what works for them. –  bain Aug 6 at 15:27
    
How can a teacher assign a grade to a student they unofficially kicked out of the class? My school would not allow me to do that. Are there schools that give teachers the option to remove any student? –  Village Aug 7 at 9:26
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It's dangerous to become obsessed with confidence in front of a classroom. What if you make a mistake, or you don't know the answer to a question? A good teacher should admit this immediately, and involve the class in the process of correcting the mistake and finding out the correct answer. If you feel that losing your authority will turn the class into a bunch of heckling jackals, it might lead to these kinds of things: xkcd.com/803 Real confidence comes from being very honest and very much yourself. These kinds of confidence-building techniques tend to have the opposite effect. –  Peter Aug 8 at 9:49

I think you have a potential ally in the rest of the students, if you treat them correctly. You are in a university, not in a troubled high school from a bad film: most of the students are mature persons, that are there because they want to learn.

When I was an undergrad, I had a few friends in class, but most of the people were from completely strangers to no more than acquaintances towards the end of the degree. This means that I don't have any kind of loyalty or tolerance towards them: if you are annoying me, I am not going to like you.

What do you think would happen if an outsider interrupted the class saying that the Apocalypse was going to happen in four months and you are all going to be abducted by UFOs? And what if this happened every week? Do you think your students would like it?

It is important that you don't turn them against him, but instead give them the chance to do it. Put them on your side by engaging in a good interesting lesson. If you are teaching one of these subjects that nobody likes, try to make it more appealing by doing an experimental demonstration every now and then.

If you try to actively turn them against this annoying subject, he will get angry, and things will get worse. And the students may misinterpret what you are trying, not like it, and things got even worse. Instead, you have to bring them in your boat because they want to learn and you are there to teach them. That guy is the enemy just because he is getting in the way, but you are a magnificent god, and he is welcome if he stops acting the way he is.

Your mindset has to be that you are there to teach the class, and you have to take whatever means are necessary for it. If someone comes in late, making a lot of noise, and disturbing everybody, you have to show them you don't accept it and even tell them off. If someone consistently asks stupid questions, you can tell him to shut up. If someone is derailing off topic, you should kindly invite them to discuss after class. If someone starts to make political interpretations of Matrix Algebra, tell them that is not the place or the moment to discuss it. If someone is willingly hurting you, you may consider telling them that it is not nice and they should stop it. If you firmly invite an offending person to leave the room, they would either do it, or chicken out and apologise. If he just refuses, or decides not to acknowledge your request, or attack you verbally, his peers will see it as childish behaviour.

Any confrontation you have with a student, is it not you, Name Surname; it is the lecturer of Your Subject. Once you step out of the building, you don't personally hold any grudge against them. This is where your power comes from, and also your shield: it is not you, it is the lecturer.

You need confidence before getting in that class, and the best you can get is with passion for your subject and teaching. Prepare and rehearse your class beforehand, make sure you know everything you want to say, prepare the questions they may have; and when the day comes, go into that room knowing that you are going to nail the lesson, no matter what.

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I didn't know this was in a university, are you sure about that? –  Mehrdad Aug 7 at 8:21
    
@Mehrdad per the first line of the question, "I am a young teacher at college." –  Davidmh Aug 7 at 9:40
    
Wow, really sorry, I'm not sure how I totally missed that. Thanks. –  Mehrdad Aug 7 at 10:16
    
Offtopic, but I'm curious, how can anybody make "political interpretations of Matrix Algebra"; I mean, it seems that it is as objective as it gets ? –  Dangelov Aug 8 at 6:33
    
@Dangelov it was an impossible example, but you can find people making political claims about nearly everything. The point is, unless you are in a politics class, it is not the place. –  Davidmh Aug 8 at 7:56

Maybe you have been out of luck and got the 'bad' class (my teacher friends always have one from time to time) but if this problem is recurring, there is probably something you can do to improve yourself.

I also think @StrongBad answer is a good way to find help to solve your problem with this guy in particular.

As student, I have observed some attitudes were much more prone to gain the respect of the class.

  • Confidence (really the most important): Of course it was more present with older teachers who commend their course content and have a lot of teaching hours behind. This is cruel, but this is played in the first 30second you meet your new class. The way you speak and hold yourself in this period can go a long way...

  • Ask questions: when you know the teacher might ask a tough question at any time, you follow much more and it usually avoid too much discussion. As student, often you don't want the teacher to see you and ask you to answer a hard question in front of every one. If really one guy is bothering you why not call him in front of the class and ask him to do a tough demonstration?

  • It is sad to say, but the harder/more important courses will always be more quiet than the easy one even if the teacher is bad.

  • Make it interesting: if the content is interested and well presented most student listen.

Again this is only my observation from the bench point of view...

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@Lynda “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.” –  bain Aug 6 at 12:07
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I agree that confidence is key. Ultimately it is a battle of dominance and currently the student has the dominant personality. Once you are more confident with your teaching (NOT your mastery of the material but rather your ability to present it) things should get easier. I used to dread teaching too, but after a semester or two I found my confidence and now enjoy it –  rotard Aug 6 at 15:41
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Asking questions is good, but be careful, no one should be scared in your class. Some students have issues with their personality and confidence, if you force a random student (not one that is outrageously annoying) to speak up in front of the class, he may feel embarrassed and not go back to your class. –  Davidmh Aug 6 at 20:41

As @bain said, do not engage in bickering. I would like to pick up on this and amplify it a bit.

My suggestion is: whatever the student says, take it seriously - even if he clearly does not mean it seriously. Do not take it as an attack on you - even if he clearly means it as such. (Or, if you can't help taking it as an attack on you, at least try not to show that in front of the class.)

When I say "take it seriously", I mean something like this: if you express an opinion and he says "that's a really stupid comment" - don't retaliate, but ask him politely, "Why do you think it's stupid? What is your opinion on the question?" If he replies with evasion or further abuse, quietly but firmly repeat the question. If he tries to get out of it by saying "well the whole question is a waste of time" you can ask "What do you think are the important questions, and why do you believe they are important?" Make him commit himself: let the whole class see that he is the one being unreasonable, not you.

It is important, however hard it may be, to stay calm and polite. You may at present feel that the situation is you against him, but I can assure you that many students in your class will want to learn the subject and will be on your side, even if this guy and his gang have scared them into not admitting it. If he is abusive and you are polite, the class will be even more on your side - nobody really likes this kind of behaviour.

Sometimes (I don't know how it is in your subject) the line between robust discussion and personal attacks can be fuzzy. If, however, he engages in definite personal abuse (of your race, gender, appearance, manner of speech and so on) then he has clearly crossed the line and has forfeited his right to be in your class. Get the authorities to remove him. And if it results in his being tossed out of his course, don't even think of being sorry for him.

Another thing: if the situation is seriously making you sad and frightened to go into class, then this could be turning into an occupational health and safety issue. Those who are in charge of such things in your institution may be able to help you.

Finally I would like to support what others have said - if you could give more specific examples of what this student is doing, then you will probably get some more useful advice. I am sure that many people on this site have been in the position you describe and would love to be able to help you.

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I think this is the best answer yet. Almost every other answer emphasizes on confidence and (dominant) body language, but a teacher shouldn't have to be a natural brute to be able to teach. –  Lacoppidan Aug 9 at 13:18

Read When I Say No, I feel Guilty by Manuel J. Smith.

I realize that this book sounds like it has nothing to do with your situation, but before you dismiss it out of hand, I implore you to read some of its customer reviews on Amazon.

Note that it's a book that is best read backwards, from the back of the book, where the examples begin, to the front of the book, where the theory is actually discussed.

On that note, someone else mentioned using sarcasm, but the book and I would advise against that. It's important that you do not throw verbal stones back at him and it's important that you do not scold him and make him lose face in front of his classmates. If or when that student crosses the line, ask to speak to him privately. Once alone with him, assuming you feel safe enough to meet him privately of course, he won't have an audience to play for, so he's much less likely to act out if you can be assertive about what you want from him.

Next, I'd suggest that you take up some kind of combative sport, like martial arts, or boxing, or even a sport like rugby. This is not to encourage you to fight, please do not misrepresent my intent, this is just to teach you how to carry yourself with confidence and to mitigate some of the fear of a physical confrontation.

Next, I'd suggest that you practice public speaking in a safe environment. The best place for that is http://www.toastmasters.org/ (it's a non-profit club, so it's a cheap way to practice public speaking and to bring up some of the problems you've been having in class and discuss possible ways to address them).

Just one warning thought. Not all Toastmasters clubs are equal. If you don't like the vibe in one, try another one, and if you don't like that second one, try a third one. They're basically everywhere and there are many to choose from. The key is to keep on going, and to participate, even if you don't feel comfortable at first. If you go frequently enough, you'll feel comfortable enough and it can become like a second home to you.

Next, and this is the most difficult challenge I can give you, so I don't really expect that you'll do it. But once that you've done all those three things I've suggested, I'd encourage you to take it up a notch higher, and that's to join a comics class sponsored by a night club, or to participate in poetry slams, or even to sing at Karaoke clubs, all the while staying completely sober. I'm not saying any of these things are going to be easy, especially not for the type of personality I envision you to have, but if you can do any of these things (without the help of alcohol), handling a single heckler in your class will seem like a real walk in the park after that.

Please note that these things are worth doing, even if that guy ends up dropping your class. Our society tends to reward confident and extroverted people. And aside from the book I've suggested, which is one in a million, nothing beats practicing frequently and sharpening yourself against the brunt force of a real live audience.

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There are some good tips in the existing answers, but I would give the following advice as a crucial first step: be very careful with your iterpretation of the situation.

You've already branded this guy as "out to get you". That means you've made it personal, which is a bad place to get to. Not only because it leads to nasty behaviours and escalations on both sides, but also because that's what allows him to get at you confidence.

Being in front of a classroom enhances certain signals and dulls others and can make you very paranoid. I've had situations where I couldn't figure out what was going on and why people were laughing and as soon as the class was over I suddenly realized that someone was making a simple joke. Not at my expense, nothing to do with me, just a normal joke. And of course, to make it worse, the students have no idea how blind you are to social cues up there (at least when you're starting out) so they think you're a total dork.

A lot of things that feel like heckling can actually stem from other reasons. It may be that he's just a little socially awkward, and asking real questions. It may be that he's actually nervous and it's coming out in a strange way, and it may well be that he disagrees with something, but doesn't yet have the academic skill to show it in a civil manner.

However, even if he is just out to bully you, and you see no point in trying to understand where he's coming from, it's best to hold on to your detachment. Don't let him him drag you down to his level. If he is heckling, he's basically brought high-school level behaviour to a university. I would prefer to act with almost astonishment. Let him explain himself, and really act like you'd never expect anyone to behave this way. Don't be indignant, or in any way affected, just act as if he's just sat the wrong way around in his chair or drawn on the table with crayons. Convey in your attitude and body language, as much as you can, that he's behaving very out of place and very childish. Ask him to explain (in a gentle tone, like you genuinely don't understand and want to find out) and don't be afraid to leave long pauses.

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I think the best way you can react is not to take personally his "attacks". Act like the guy does absolutely not touch you, that his questioning comments and remarks are useless and uninteresting. But for that, you should trust yourself and abilities. Don't let him spread doubt in you.

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But for that, you should trust yourself and abilities. Don't let him spread doubt in you. ... Easier said than done ... –  Charles Morisset Aug 7 at 20:47

Giving authority to problematic students often helps as delegating responsibility will put him under pressure and divert his mind from generating devilish ideas towards escaping / fulfilling the responsibility that you have just burdened onto him. Example: Make him a Class Representative or a leader of the course.

OR

Reverse Psychology - Applaud his comments, Use sarcasm, intelligent phrases or sheer innocence to mess up his "efforts".

This will not only eliminate the problem but also set an example for other students.

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A class representative exists to fulfil a role, and he may be needed at some point, and when that occasion arrives, I wouldn't want him to be there. Also, the example you are setting is "be a $#%& and get promoted!" –  Davidmh Aug 7 at 0:17
    
@Davidmh I'm not sure this is promoting a $#%&. It really depends on the details which are missing. It could be the student is quite advanced and sincere but does not know well how to ask questions delicately and the OP might be a little more sensitive than others might be. If the student is advanced (if he is often more right than the teacher) then having him use his knowledge and energy can be beneficial to all, including the other students. More details from the OP would help. –  earthling Aug 7 at 1:00
    
@earthling just tactless advanced students can be annoying, but leaving the lecturer in the verge of crying takes more than that. I am all for re-conducting behaviour, but there seems to be an underlying problem that should be tackled before. If I am brilliant and I want to show off, I can do it without making fun of the lecturer. –  Davidmh Aug 7 at 1:09
    
@Davidmh I agree. However, just because you can do it does not mean everyone else has those same social skills. In my undergraduate days I was sincerely confused why the lecturer was doing something (programming) in a way which was clearly not ideal. From his looks, I could see quickly he was not happy with my questions. So, I stopped asking after my 2nd question. But I can imagine students who would not stop (being less sensitive) because they wanted better information. Is the student wanting an ego boost or wanting deeper information? If only the OP gave us that information. –  earthling Aug 7 at 1:22
    
Can a TA make somebody a class representative? In all the universities I have worked, the students elect their class represenative. Apart of that, I don't think it is a good idea to promote for bad behaviour. –  greenfingers Aug 7 at 8:12

That can be brutal. Two possibilities:

  1. You have just stumbled upon a "worthy opponent" which offers you the best opportunity for your academic life: a chance to master the skill of dialectic in a war for nothing less than your intellectual integrity. This requires building the skills of ruthlessness and patience. Take care not to let ruthlessness devolve into cruelty. And you'll have to master timing for it not to blow up in your face. Forewarning: this could take months. Time it for the end of the semester. :)
  2. Don't fight him in the slightest, but humor him. But do talk to your Dean. Try to engage him/her on the problem since they are responsible for assisting you in exactly these issues by position of their office. If they can't help you, you can be sure that they don't deserve the office, because this is one of the most important issues for building the integrity of a university program and it is their job to help their faculty.
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I am pretty sure a dean is at least a couple of levels to high to go to about a problem student with peers, teaching mentor, director of teaching, director of undergraduate/graduate studies, and department chair all coming first. –  StrongBad Aug 8 at 6:03
    
No. The dean is supposed to be mentoring their wards. The positions you mentioned (except dept. chair) are all BS positions. Apparently you look up to it all as if it's reached it`s perfection. You clearly don't know how messed up academia is. –  Mark J Sep 14 at 3:32

protected by Charles Morisset Aug 7 at 9:37

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