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I teach in a small college and one student seems to have an obsessive need to make comments aloud during class. Sometimes those comments are funny (he is the class clown) but sometimes they feel abusive and critical when aimed directly at me. Yesterday when I was reviewing an exam he made it a point to say twice that he learns better from my supervisor, "I want ___________ to teach us; I learn better from him." Last night I also mentioned the wrong date of their next class. I apologized for misspeaking and corrected myself but not before a negative comment was made by him about being wrong.

In the past, I remember distinctly him making a negative comment when I made a mistake, "come on man, get it together" and a few minutes later when he couldn't answer my question in class, I jokingly said, "well, as you said to me, 'come on man, get it together.'" The whole class laughed aloud at my comeback to him.

Last night's comments really stung. When he commented that he wanted to learn from my boss, I agreed that my boss is brilliant and that he should reach out to him, to which he said he already did.

What do you do or say when a student basically tells you that you are not a good teacher, to your face, in front of the entire class?? Thank you!

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    Have you asked your colleagues whether this is common behavior for this student?
    – Buffy
    Dec 18, 2022 at 0:35
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    Country would be important here as cultural norms come into play. Different institutions have different rules as well, so there is quite a bit of context missing. Dec 18, 2022 at 12:39
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    I would like to express my sympathy. Sometimes a professor and a student just have (as the phrase goes) irreconcilable differences. I have had a student in my class who I was sure simply could not handle a college class, who did swimmingly once they transferred to a colleague's class. It really makes one doubt oneself professionally, and you shouldn't. I am sorry that you have to deal with this.
    – LSpice
    Dec 18, 2022 at 16:35
  • @LSpice "t really makes one doubt oneself professionally, and you shouldn't" Why not? are we the perfect entity enlightened by a superior entity? I think there is always room for improvement.
    – EarlGrey
    Dec 20, 2022 at 14:38
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    @EarlGrey, re, certainly it's appropriate to think about whether something like this (while unquestionably inappropriate) can indicate points where a teacher might improve. But I assume that the poster has already done this. Sometimes it's really not the teacher's fault, and not really even the student's (although abuse is inappropriate), just an incompatibility that makes everyone's experience worse.
    – LSpice
    Dec 20, 2022 at 18:03

12 Answers 12

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Before you pursue any of the other suggestions proposed here (return fire, kick him out), talk to him one on one about this at an opportune moment, i.e. after class or during office hours in case he visits them.

Do not focus on how his comments "stung". Do focus on why his comments are inappropriate to make in class. That is, do not pretend that his comments did not hurt you, but do not dwell on it. Rather, make a clear, brief, and defensible argument why his comments are inappropriate.

I would tell him that he can raise concerns about your quality of teaching with you in private, but that class time is not the time to make snide remarks about your teaching, because it disrupts the teaching process. Of course, you should only say this if it is actually true, i.e. if the reason that you want him to stop is because you actually believe that it disrupts the teaching process, rather than because his comments sting.

Example: "Look, judging by your comments in class, I see that you don't seem to have a lot of respect for me as a teacher. That's fine with me, you don't have to respect me personally, but you cannot keep making these kinds of remarks in class."

Then, depending on your teaching philosophy, you can supply a truthful reason why. For instance, because a certain basic level of authority is required for you to run the class smoothly, and what he's doing goes beyond constructive remarks and well into the territory of undermining that basic authority. Students are free to decide whether or not they like your teaching, but they don't need him egging them on.

Be brief and do not engage in discussion about this. State this as a fact and be prepared to back it up.

Decide beforehand how far you are willing to escalate this. If they are unwilling to be reasoned with, decide whether or not you should tell them that you require a certain basic level of respect from your students as a prerequisite of participation in the class.

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    I disagree with this part: "Example: "Look, judging by your comments in class, I see that you don't seem to have a lot of respect for me as a teacher. That's fine with me, you don't have to respect me personally, but you cannot keep making these kinds of remarks in class." I don't think explicitly affirming the right of this disruptive student to continue disrespecting the teacher is appropriate. A teacher is owed a measure of respect by the student. At the very least the student must act outwardly as if he fully respects the authority of the teacher. The remainder of your advice is good.
    – Deepak
    Dec 18, 2022 at 14:34
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    Disagree with anything to do with the need to justify yourself or explain how things work. He is disrupting your class. Let him know that further disruption is actionable, and may result in his being removed.
    – Dúthomhas
    Dec 18, 2022 at 16:18
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    Re @Deepak's comment, I don't think a teacher is automatically owed respect any more than a student is; that is a good baseline and starting point, but some teachers, and some students, simply lose that respect. I agree, however, with your minimum requirement that both teachers and students are owed respectful behaviour from one another (that is, teachers from students, students from teachers, teachers from teachers, and students from students) while in the professional environment.
    – LSpice
    Dec 18, 2022 at 16:26
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    I agree with most of this, but you don't have to make up a seemingly impersonal reason like "your comments disrupt the class". The comments are impolite to say the least and that's as good a reason as any to ask/demand that the student stops. Something like: "Your comments X and Y were very impolite. I will not accept this in my class. Do you understand?" Dec 18, 2022 at 20:31
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    @Deepak Very strong disagree on the first part of your comment. Teachers are not owed a measure of respect from students merely by dint of being teachers, especially not in third-level education. Teachers and students both deserve respectful behaviour as part of social etiquette, but actual respect is earned, not preordained. It is perfectly valid for a university instructor to tell a student they have a right to feel however they feel about them, but that their behaviour needs to change. Dec 20, 2022 at 13:40
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This is the adult world, not school.

What do you do or say when a student basically tells you that you are not a good teacher, to your face, in front of the entire class??

At the third level you tell them to be quiet or leave.

You might tell the entire class that this is the adult world and here they are expected to listen and learn, not behave like children.

This student is behaving like some secondary school kids do, and I would be surprised if they did not behave just as badly in high school. But the third level is the adult world and the adult world does not tolerate this behavior. Neither do you.

The remarks they are making are designed to annoy you. They're gaslighting you. Do not engage in tit for tat exchanges — that is what they want. That's what entertains them.

Check with your academic office (or supervisor) what the allowed punitive actions are. There will be a formal approach to this, usually with increasing levels of severity.

Typically I'd expect you to be required to do something like email a formal warning to the student that they must behave or could be subject to formal punishment, including suspension or expulsion from lectures or even the school.

But the bottom line is that this is the adult world and you hold all the cards. Do not play their game. Play the game as set out by the institute's rules for behavior and conduct. These give you power. Use it.

Last night's comments really stung. When he commented that he wanted to learn from my boss, I agreed that my boss is brilliant and that he should reach out to him, to which he said he already did.

This was a mistake. You engaged with them using their rules. Don't do this again.

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    I'm a bit puzzled by this answer because you start by stating "this is the adult world, not a school" but then your advice is to deliver a school punishment. I teach classes at university and it's crystal clear to me that the university rules of conduct give me absolutely no power at all. If I ever would expel a student, the consequences would be worse for me than for the student. But I never need to resort to that, specifically because this is "the adult world" and I don't need the threat of school punishments to have authority on students.
    – Stef
    Dec 18, 2022 at 16:20
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    I disagree with the last paragraph. Of the stated responses, I think saying back to the student "come on, man, get it together" was less than desireable at best, and wrong at worst. But I think saying "if you prefer another instructor's methodology, then feel free to reach out to them" both shows (or at least puts on the appearance) that the instructor does not have a vain need to be the best to all students, and shows a desire to respond constructively even to inappropriate comments. I think it was a great response to a very poor and inappropriate situation.
    – LSpice
    Dec 18, 2022 at 16:37
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    @Stef "I teach classes at university and it's crystal clear to me that the university rules of conduct give me absolutely no power at all." - I'm astounded by that. I once had a student who would repeatedly disrupt lectures, and my manager's advice to me was to tell them to leave, and call security if they refused. It's not fair on the other students who are there to learn if the disruptive student is allowed to stay and keep preventing the lecture from continuing.
    – kaya3
    Dec 19, 2022 at 4:12
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    @Stef Regarding the effect this has on how students view you, I think with the rise of what I'd called the internet generation there are more and more who learn to abuse other people. I think most students are, nonetheless, quite happy to see troublemakers removed and I don't think it undermines authority at all. Most students respond to a verbal warning, but the real troublemakers need a formal procedure and I think most students accept this and are quite happy to have peaceful lectures. It is for many their first real experience of the rules of the adult world. Dec 19, 2022 at 13:33
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    In my case the rest of the students were relieved that we could get on with the lectures. I don't think the student was expelled, they were just not allowed to attend lectures for that module any more. Either way, I definitely had power in that situation to do various things in order to ensure a good learning environment for students who were there in good faith, whether or not that power included things that would have been an overreaction, and I'm surprised if there are universities where the lecturer doesn't have some kind of power to address disruptive behaviour.
    – kaya3
    Dec 19, 2022 at 15:57
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You should check the rules and regulations of the college to see if he violated any rule. If he continues doing this, kick him out of the class. If he does it again, you need to take it further.

You cannot let him (or anyone) pushing you around like that. Once students know they can do it without any consequence other than hurting you, they will always do it.

I don't think "lecturing" him is a good idea. It is something that you cannot fix easily. A student with such a behavior will not listen to you. He probably needs to fail a few times (because of his behavior) to become a better man.

Years ago, I was such a student. I mocked teachers for their academic "incompetence" because I thought I knew way more than them. Years later, I regretted doing that so much. Such an attitude could not take one so far.

Furthermore, it could also be a general problem of many students studying at that small college. Probably, you will need to learn how to deal with it as well.

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    Definitely don't do this before talking to the student first. Whether or not we may hypothesize that "a student with such behavior will not listen to you" is irrelevant. Dec 18, 2022 at 1:34
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    Agreed with @AdamPřenosil's comment. The first thing any disciplinary hearing convened in response to a student complaint will want to know is—what did you try to resolve this with the student? Protesting that it was clear in advance that nothing would work will not, and should not, be a defence.
    – LSpice
    Dec 18, 2022 at 16:27
  • So you think you would personally have benefitted from being thrown out? Did you fail a few times and learn from it?
    – DonQuiKong
    Dec 18, 2022 at 20:35
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You describe the student as being somehow evil or bad. Instead, they might have a neurological disorder such as something like autism spectrum disorder that they have never overcome. Some of the symptoms listed at the above link sound similar to what you are seeing.

If this student generally behaves like this in other classes than yours then this might be the explanation. You can (probably) explore this with your colleagues who have had interactions with the student.

How you deal with it depends on rules and regulations. You might be able to refer them to a counsellor. You might, yourself, get advice from a counsellor in how to deal with such people.

Among other things, people on the spectrum tend to have poor social interaction skills. This is just what you are seeing. Punishment, then, isn't what is called for, but professional help may be. If this is the actual explanation you won't be able to correct it on your own.

Note that the privacy of such folks needs to be respected.

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    Many students, if not most, will test the teachers and the boundaries, even unconsciously. Even great students can behave horribly if the teacher can't hold a minimum of authority. There is no need for a psychological disorder to explain this fact.
    – Stef
    Dec 18, 2022 at 16:15
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    If the student has behavioral problems that is something that the school should have already notified you about, along with an action plan that all parties (school, student, teacher) are expected to follow. Sans that, student can expect himself to be held to the same social standards as all the other students who paid to be there for your instruction.
    – Dúthomhas
    Dec 18, 2022 at 16:23
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    @Dúthomhas, re, I do not think that it is automatic that teachers will be formally notified of students' behavioural issues. At least, I am not aware of any such policy at my (private, US) university. At most, I am formally notified if there is an accommodation due the student, and I might be informally notified "oh, watch out for that student."
    – LSpice
    Dec 18, 2022 at 16:29
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    At the university level “accommodation” is the correct word for this. Unfortunately, I did speak more absolutely than correct — colleges and universities are notoriously uneven about this kind of stuff.
    – Dúthomhas
    Dec 18, 2022 at 16:32
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    -1. I don't think armchair diagnosing a student with autism and then blaming rude behaviour on this assumption is the way forward here. Autism is also not something to be "overcome", in the same way that wheelchair users don't just need to "overcome" their inability to walk. Dec 18, 2022 at 20:28
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I feel that none of these answers are adequate, because none of them direct OP to take ownership of their role in this.

If, as stated in the original question, this has been going on for some time, then you have established for your students that this classroom environment is informal and that snarky "class clown" comments from the students are allowed. Had you established from the outset that they were not allowed - as I can assure you many other instructors do - this would not be happening.

After allowing "funny" comments from the class for an extended period of time, it is not appropriate to suddenly try to seek out a way to punish the student because you didn't like one of the comments. You made this bed - probably in a misguided attempt to seem easy-going and likeable. This is how that bed is, sometimes, and is one big reason why other instructors enforce more restrained environments.

The best thing for you to do is to meet with the student privately and frankly tell them that although you have allowed "quips" from the class in the past, going forward they will not be allowed. In the course of doing this, specifically acknowledge that you realize that your role in setting the previous behavior boundaries, and explain that you have decided to make a change. There is no need to talk about your personal feelings about any particular comment, and in fact doing so undermines your position.

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This depends on where you are. In the UK some universities have personal tutors for students. In my first year teaching here, my English accent was funny and two students kept laughing at me the entire session. A quick email to the lecturer, with the implicit next step of talking to their personal tutors, quickly corrected the situation. Also, if the student has some particular condition, some unis let you know via email.

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  • Good promptness in taking that action, using the internal system effectively. Sadly, not many universities in UK would deal with this as efficaciously: some in fact would have staff joining in in the laughter at foreign accents - even if Welsh, Scottish or Irish.
    – Trunk
    Dec 19, 2022 at 23:07
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Your only option is to flash a brief smile when he does that, spend as few words as you can on any responses (basically, his measure of succes is how much he can distract and unsettle you). Think of phrases such as: "Good point. Anyone else?"

Your responsibility is to the learning experience of everyone in the room, and while they may find him amusing, ultimately they will feel he detracts from the value they get out of an expensive education. So most others will appreciate your firmness, even if they do not speak up.

Also (and there is some evidence of this in your question) this kind of student will always try to ingratiate themselves with your boss, their boss, and their boss. The basic mechanism is this: at some point the student underperforms and you have no choice but to give a poor assessment, which they have now ensured is pre-tainted. "He have me a C because he had it in for me." (I know cases of guys [it is usually guys] who played this game with several supervisors all the way to a PhD. In a way, it is better if you've dealt with them as undergrads or master's students, because it is so much worse with a PhD/grad student.)

Do not be drawn into this game.

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I find none of your examples to be an insult (as you called it in your subject). Not constructive, but far from being an insult.

Probably nobody likes to hear things like "I want ___________ to teach us; I learn better from him.", but it might even be true. Tell him that he's not going to choose his teachers, case closed.

"Come on man, get it together" is not constructive either, but you should learn to ignore such things.

So, in my humble opinion: Take a step back and rethink how bad his remarks actually are. Do not shoot back. It's a fight one doesn't want to get into, and I'm not sure you would win it.

And... teaching is not about winning against your students in the first place.

1

The boat may have sailed with this particular student or even class, but for the future (in new/fresh settings), I would advise this:

  • If you are generally a humorous character yourself, joking around, being very jovial, dial it back in class. You can still be that way before and after, but make it a habit to be formal or maybe even a little stiff in class. The class room is not entertainment - you are working there, and some of the students are as well. (This is assuming from your SE handle that you're teaching a "hard", technical subject, anyways.) Your teaching should be clearly visible as an earnest affair, making the misbehaviour of the student even more obvious.
  • Do not feel alone in this. The troublemaker is not only disrespectful to you, but also to the other students, and disrupting them as much as you. You can be sure that a good portion of your other students are quite annoyed as well, assuming most of them are there out of their free will and not due to compulsory education.
  • Do not engage with silly comments. Treat them as ugly presents handed to you - you do not need to accept them. You can observe them and decline to accept, if that makes sense.
  • If at all, try to be compassionate. Have pity with the student who has to behave like that, and will very likely at some point in their life run into problems due to that because they maybe won't work too well in work or private settings.
  • Hurtful comments take up only a second of the time of the troublemaker, but can work on you for days or months. You have spent time thinking about it; you spent time writing this question; you are spending time reading the answers, and so on and so forth, while the troublemaker has very little investment, and probably a modicum of joy. Be aware of this imbalance and use it to lessen the impact of the comments in your own mind.
  • There is no need whatsoever for you to take the "advice" or a comment from someone to heart, unless you respect them. They are just moving their vocal cords and pushing air molecules around. They could be ill or a bad person, but certainly not a leading figure for you. Reserve that for people you look up to.

These tips are not meant to reframe the situation, but to give you tools how to lessen the impact in your own mind. I assume the student in question is not running around drawing a bleak image of you with your supervisors, or anything like that, and thus really hurting your career.

It is generally hard to impossible to change other people; it is much easier to change yourself. If indeed you feel a need to change the situation outwardly, instead, the proper measures would depend heavily on your local culture and regulations - best discussed with your own supervisor or support structures of your uni.

-1

Student continuously makes insulting comments during my lecture - how do I handle him?

After reading the actual descriptions of the "insults" the first thing that came to mind was neurodiversity which is discussed in @buffy's answer.

It doesn't sound like Tourettes necessarily, but that's certainly something that one does not warrant "handling" the individual.

To me it sounds more like just being honest, speaking the first thing that pops into one's mind without the socially appropriateness filter keeping it from moving from thoughts to vocalization.

"Get it together" sounds to me like someone trying to fit in, be more social, but in a way that seems inappropriate to most of us.

If there's room to allow a bit of this from this student, without it seriously impacting other students, it might be worth considering just ignoring it, especially if their participation and progress is otherwise within an acceptable range.

Perhaps "handling" the student in some specific way isn't really necessary, and working on not letting it bother you, or even trying to see the humor and honesty in it might be a better approach. That's based on the question as written, there could be extenuating circumstances of course.

-3

I get the feeling that you have not been a lecturer that long.

The best plan here is for you to meet that student a.s.a.p. in your office and talk through your - reasonable - expectations for all those students during a lecture. Make it clear that a lecture is education primarily - any humor is incidental. Tell him you don't want to continue with him commenting - negatively or positively - on your teaching capability. If he has an issue with your teaching he really must decide to study the course independently; you are quite happy for him to be returned his fees towards your module.

Tell him to think about this and come back to you with a decision before the next scheduled lecture in your module.

Say all this in a calm matter-of-fact manner, no hint of personal slight.

If he shows up to the next lecture without responding to your decision point first, then ask him to leave pending a discussion with you. If he refuses to leave, address the class saying that when Mr X finally decides on whether my lecturing is up to his standard or not, I will continue. Then postpone that lecture to a later period and just before you leave invite the class representatives to meet you in your office to elaborate on this matter.

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    I was with you up to "Tell him you don't want to continue with him commenting - negatively or positively - on your teaching capability. If he has an issue with your teaching he really must decide to study the course independently; you are quite happy for him to be returned his fees towards your module." In a college setting, the teacher is almost certainly not in a position to make this offer. I think it is also quite extreme to suggest that differences can be addressed only by the affected student's withdrawal. Rather, I would say, differences can be discussed, but only outside of class.
    – LSpice
    Dec 18, 2022 at 22:11
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    @Trunk “you are not lecturing that long” means that your sessions are short. For what you mean, you have to use “have been”.
    – user354948
    Dec 19, 2022 at 20:00
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    @user354948 Do not accept any appointment in France. You may spend too much time interpreting verb tenses and connotations.
    – Trunk
    Dec 19, 2022 at 20:49
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    Local students infer the meaning from (1) colloquial use, (2) context and (3) intonation. Foreign students may not interpret it correctly - especially if they make little attempt to practice colloquial English with local people - but they still have the reactions of those classmates around them. In any case I think substituting "have been" for "are" makes little extra precision here for foreigners. Maybe saying "have not been a lecturer that long" is better. What do you think ? I've edited the phrase. But feel free to re-edit it.
    – Trunk
    Dec 19, 2022 at 23:01
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    @Trunk Much better! It’s not about precision, it’s two completely different meanings. I’ve noticed that not-super-fluent Spanish-, Portuguese- and other European language speakers tend to make this mistake (saying I am x for x time instead of I’ve been) and it sounds super wrong.
    – user354948
    Dec 20, 2022 at 6:14
-4

Keep things open but feel free to return fire

As a preliminary matter before giving advice, I'll just point out that the ideal of academia is generally pretty open about what you can say in class, both as a teacher and as a student. In particular, the ideal of "academic freedom" generally includes the freedom of academic staff and students to give their opinions and beliefs in relation to the subjects of study (which arguably would include the quality of teaching or resources for those subjects). This is valuable because it allows students to learn to remain calm and learn in contexts where they encounter unpleasant ideas or discussions. In view of that, so long as comments remain somewhat on topic to the lecture/subject area it is usually best to allow that commentary. The idea is to try to create an environment where everyone is an adult and is able to behave as an adult.

In the present case, I would counsel you to allow this student to make his adverse remarks about the quality of your teaching, etc. However, this could also be an opportunity to teach this young man that academic freedom and the resultant freedom of speech is a two-way street --- if he wishes to make negative commentary about his lecturer in front of other students during that lecture, he should be prepared for critical commentary to be returned in kind. Therefore, I would say that you are doing exactly what you should be doing --- let him make his comments but return fire with your own zingers. Try to keep things light-hearted to make everyone laugh and avoid escalating the conflict, but feel free to "put him in his place". You are probably not the best lecturer on campus and he is probably not the best student, so if he wishes to draw attention to the former fact, feel free to likewise draw attention to the latter. If this student insults you publicly, feel free to insult him right back (in a proportionate manner), ideally in a light-hearted way that will entertain the other students and keep things from escalating. Next time he tells you that he would much rather be taught be your supervisor, tell him "I'd rather be on a beach sipping margaritas with [insert beautiful movie-star], but it looks like we're both stuck with each other". If you are concerned that your return fire might escalate things, you might also consider having a short conversation with this student (or even with your entire class) just letting them know that you wish to allow an open dialogue in class, and treat them as adults, but that this is also a two-way street.

From what you have described, it sounds to me like this student has poor social skills and is not good at gauging when a comment is a legitimate observation on a topic and when a comment is crossing the line into being an insult. Given his lack of ability in this area, being on the receiving end of some of your own responsive barbs might actually allow him to see what it is like when someone publicly draws attention to your shortcomings, and it might teach him some humility.

Finally, it is worth noting that some of what you're encountering may become easier as you develop your own teaching competency and become more self-assured in your own teaching. You will get better and better at teaching as you practice it more and remarks like this won't sting at all. If I were to make a mistake in a lecture and get teased by a student it would just make me laugh at myself along with the other students and then I would probably see if I can get them back with a (light-hearted) zinger later.

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    @Ben "Treatment as an adult means that if another adult insults you then you are free to return fire." I don't think this is how it works if one of the adults is in a position of authority over the other. Your boss should never insult you, even though you're both adults. But they are well within their rights to demand not to be insulted, and to back up that demand with potential consequences for the other party. Dec 18, 2022 at 1:02
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    @Ben if another adult insults you then you are free to return fire – no, this is not how a civilized society works. Dec 18, 2022 at 1:39
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    It is hard enough for professional comedians to handle hecklers tactfully. I don’t think we should be asking instructors to carry that same burden. A better answer would defuse and redirect, not reinforce the behavior.
    – Eric
    Dec 18, 2022 at 2:08
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    Answering abusive behavior with more abusive behavior creates as abusive environment. This will get us nowhere good. Dec 18, 2022 at 10:23
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    All personal ethical issues aside, I would expect a documented or admitted behaviour of two-sided disrespect to make it harder later to pursue any disciplinary remedy against the student, and might (and should!) open the teacher up to disciplinary remedy taken against them. At my (private, US) university, I would expect at least a stern talking-to from the chair if I said something even just perceived as unpleasant, much less actively nasty, to a student — especially if I improperly referenced private information such as their class standing.
    – LSpice
    Dec 18, 2022 at 16:32

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