I am a teaching assistant for undergraduate engineering classes. I will be in charge of running lab sessions, helping students, and assigning grades. I have an extreme and insurmountable personal problem with one of the students in one of my lab sections scheduled for next semester and am concerned with my ability to grade them fairly. I will be talking to the Professor of the course about the issue and would like to approach them with different options that would be beneficial for both myself and the student in question. Ultimately the question is:

What can I do if I have a massive personal problem with a student in one of my lab sections?

edit: the nature of the problem is that the student violently assaulted my girlfriend, I retroactively see why the nature of the problem is important to the answers for the question. Charges were filed and I stand by the seriousness of the accusation.


6 Answers 6


As mentioned by other answers, the first thing you absolutely must do is speak with your professor about this.

However, you also asked for options to present to your professor. These options depend on exactly how much you feel you will be able to do fairly. For example, if you feel you will be unable to interact with this student in a fair and appropriate manner (which, by the way, is understandable), you may need to recuse yourself entirely from your current position (as you'd be unable to do any of the required responsibilities).

Here are a few options, however, which may help avoid a complete recusal:

  • Anonymous grading. This will only work if you believe you can act appropriately in regards to the other responsibilities required. And, of course, your professor's willingness/ability to implement this. Keep in mind that such a system is often not trivial (it depends heavily on the subject matter, etc.). If all assignments are handed in on paper, perhaps suggest that each student uses their university ID number. I had a class where we all chose monikers (which we reported only to the professor) to use throughout the year to use on assignments.

  • Ask for or supply your own co-instructor. Keep in mind that this should NOT be a friend of yours who could similarly be biased, nor at any time should you inform the co-instructor of the circumstances. Your professor may not be interested in paying for two instructors for one section, but perhaps you could work something out with another lab instructor to split the pay 75/25 (or something similar) for the hours required, as s/he will not actually be required to do anything.

  • Your university undoubtedly has a legal/HR department to whom you can speak about this. I highly recommend checking in with them, as they would potentially be more likely to step in and swap your teaching times with another lab instructor without simply letting you go (as the professor may be wont to do).

  • Through a mediator, ask the student to switch to a different section. As you noted, it's important to recognize that as much as the student in question is the scumbag, you're the one with the conflict of interest here. As such, should he choose to refuse, it's ultimately your responsibility to resolve the situation.

Kudos to you for recognizing such a situation and taking the appropriate steps to avoid it. I think many would have a harder time not punishing the student for his behavior while feigning innocence.

  • 1
    This is the first answer that really laid out the options that I have, thanks!
    – Joe S
    Jun 23, 2017 at 11:16

the nature of the problem is that the student violently assaulted my girlfriend [...] Charges were filed and I stand by the seriousness of the accusation.

The fact that there is a criminal case involved makes this situation much more serious than just disliking someone. It doesn't matter whether you think you could behave impartially or not, the appearance of a conflict of interest is what is important, and that is most certainly present here. If the student is doing poorly, the student could accuse you of unfair treatment regardless of your behavior, and there would most likely be an investigation. It's better to avoid that possibility entirely.

You need to talk to your professor immediately. Depending on the status of the case, tell your professor that your girlfriend and the student are on opposite sides of a criminal case. This should convey the seriousness of the conflict without disclosing too many personal details. Keep in mind that there are privacy issues with saying too much about your student's personal life, in particular when it comes to criminal charges.

Work with your professor to figure out what the best solution is, whether that means switching sections with another TA, switching the student to another section, or putting in place defined procedures to prevent bias on your part (such as anonymous grading). It may be a good idea for your professor to involve an ethics adviser from the university, since the conflict of interest is so clear. Regardless of the outcome, by officially reporting this potential issue ahead of time, this will reflect positively on you in the event that the student does make any complaints.

  • I would start by talking to the professor, and from there probably the department head and maybe even the University general counsel. They may have or wish to have specific actions taken here to protect everyone.
    – Zachary K
    Jun 22, 2017 at 7:48


With the edit of the OPs Question I have to update my answer as the content of that edit changes the situation completely.

There only option you have here is to contact the appropriate staff (most likely HR) Get your conflict of interest documents taken care of and to work out with HR what you should do next.

The fact that there is a legal situation already in play make it that much more important to get the COI documents taken care of.

  • This question goes beyond a bad attitude and into the realm of a legal conflict of interest. The submitter cannot simply act professionally in such a situation- there needs to be a documented conflict of interest along with mitigation plan that the school and the student involved both consent to.
    – David
    Jun 22, 2017 at 21:06
  • @David: If you believe a conflict of interest is unavoidable then speak with the appropriate staff members who can assist you with conflict of interest documentation and procedures Jun 22, 2017 at 21:08
  • The first half of your answer is about acting professionally towards students you don't like. You can't "avoid" a conflict of interest with a student by acting professionally. Conflicts are created by a combination of circumstances, not by your actions as an instructor.
    – David
    Jun 22, 2017 at 21:49
  • @David: Actions are part of the variables that factor into the Conflict of interest. Seeing that the OP never described the actually reason they do not like the student there is not a way to know what the actual issue is. So my answer reflects the different levels of actions one can take depending on the situation. I have never needed to deal with a "Conflict of interest" situation thus far even if there was a student or teach that I disliked. If the issue is in fact a conflict of interest then the OP can take necessary steps. Jun 22, 2017 at 21:56
  • Actions can resolve a conflict of interest, such as avoiding grading that student's work. That doesn't eliminate the conflict though, it's just been mitigated. Also- maybe you missed the edit, but OP states that the conflict of interest comes from an ongoing criminal investigation that he's connected to. That's a definite conflict of interest regardless of anyone's actions, and 100% needs to be reported to school administration ASAP.
    – David
    Jun 22, 2017 at 22:00

The crux of this is if you are able to stay professional and leave your personal bias out of it. Don't feel like a bad person or unprofessional if you aren't able to in this case, that is what disclosure of conflict of interest is all about. Research your facility's conflict of interest policies and procedures. Follow the procedure to the letter. On the off chance that a professional academic organization does not have a conflict of interest policy, ask your professor how conflicts of interest are registered and handled.

Following this path provides the student with a fairer chance to education and protects you from allegations of unprofessional behavior. It is not worth risking your career on failing to disclose anything that may introduce bias.

  • 2
    It seems that there is an assumption in there somewhere...
    – Joshua Drake
    Jun 20, 2017 at 17:43
  • @JoshuaDrake Does that resolve it or should we play some sort of guessing game?
    – Myles
    Jun 20, 2017 at 17:47
  • The assumption seems to be that an actual conflict of interest exists. Sometime people simply don't like each other, sometimes they are involved in legal proceedings, it could go either way. Maybe a comment asking the OP to clarify would be helpful.
    – Joshua Drake
    Jun 20, 2017 at 17:52
  • From Wikipedia A widely used definition is "A conflict of interest is a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgement or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest." If the OP is unable to leave personal dislike out of assessing the work of this student that lands pretty much smack dab on the definition of conflict of interest.
    – Myles
    Jun 20, 2017 at 18:01
  • 2
    If people don't like each other, scrupulously following conflict of interest rules is a good thing to do even if there is no current legal need. It protects both of you.
    – HLGEM
    Jun 20, 2017 at 18:26

Not knowing the nature of the personal problems makes it more difficult to answer, but in general this is what I would do.

First, try to swap with another teaching assistant so that you are not in the same section as the person you have a problem with. Do not tell them the name of the student when you ask if they can swap with you.

Next discuss with the professor and see if he or she can arrange a switch or use someone else. This may result in less income for you if they have to hire someone else in your place. This may be the best choice though if the relationship is truly bad such as an ex-husband who abused you.

If the situation is such that the person is someone you intensely dislike but are not afraid of, consider behaving like a professional and leaving your personal feelings at the door. You could look at things like making the projects/tests/quizzes be submitted with only a number (someone else can keep the key until you have to submit grades), so that you don't know who submitted which ones until after all the projects are graded. You could ask someone else (like the professor) to review this particular person's grade to ensure you were being fair. That could help keep the grades fair.

You will also have to help this person if help is requested. Stay at a safe distance if need be, but answer the question exactly as you would handle it for other people. The perception of being fair is increased if you can say things like, "good question" when the person asks, so that you are not the one appearing negative even if the other person behaves in a hostile manner. A little praise can go surprisingly far when trying to defuse a personality conflict.

If the person dislikes you as well, then he or she might try to make you look bad by asking difficult questions. If you dig in and learn the subject far beyond the level that is covered in the class, then you can answer these questions easily and thus look knowledgeable when the initial plan was to make you look stupid.

If the difference is political or religious, don't bring up those subjects at all unless the course material requires it (hard not to discuss religion in a course on comparative religion). If the other person brings up those subjects, deflect by pointing out those are not appropriate topics for this class.

  • The nature of the problem is that the student is violent but I am not necessarily afraid. I like the idea of asking the Professor to grade this particular student's work. Thanks for the help!
    – Joe S
    Jun 20, 2017 at 18:55

Create objective criteria and not subjective. The grading part should never be "subjective" as that creates personal bias instead of true academia. If you have objective criteria for grading then there isn't an issue. Naturally the subject will depend on the approach, but there should always be a way to create a purely objective criteria grading approach.

As far as personal situation, that is personal development and emotional maturity development in dealing with difficult people and circumstances. Look at it as an opportunity to grow in emotional and inter-personal maturity so that you are able to handle the extremely difficult situations and not be concurred by them.

Edit based on clarification in question: Under the circumstances mentioned I would go for a restraining order approach and make it legally impossible for the person and me to be in the same location like that. The school would need to make special accommodations and since the charges are against the student then the penalty should be there and not on you.

  • This cannot work for most humanities classes, which are essay based. For math or science classes it is more mixed, as the student's ability to write a clear proof should be improving, and the student may receive an open-ended project.
    – user18072
    Jun 21, 2017 at 13:44
  • Academics submit works to peer-reviewed journals, the objectivity does certainly end somewhere.
    – user18072
    Jun 21, 2017 at 13:45
  • @djechlin Essays should have points to address as well. If it's truly opinion based it's basically just getting a degree based on 1 persons opinion and not actually an objective degree. Any school that I was getting a grade based on how a teacher thought/felt about my work instead of on accuracy in learning material/skills for real life is not worth the money or accreditation. If I want an expert opinion I can frankly post on many stack overflow blogs and get a real expert to advise me, if I want a degree then I want to be sure I'm obtaining actual knowledge/skills that I can master.
    – mutt
    Jun 21, 2017 at 19:46
  • 2
    "Under the circumstances mentioned I would go for a restraining order approach" - seems unlikely the OP would have standing to get a restraining order himself.
    – Joe Strazzere
    Jun 22, 2017 at 14:59
  • 1
    Possibly, depends on the nature, since it was a violent act usually family and close people could be included. It just depends on how violent and how the judge ruled on the case.
    – mutt
    Jun 22, 2017 at 15:01

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