I did not have a good experience when I TA'ed the first time. I faced a hostile student who refused to accept that he was wrong and didn't give me a good reason why he should deserve more marks. He showed a propensity for violence, shouted at me loudly, punched the table and gave me an extremely evil look. I was very afraid and shocked then.

I know I should have stopped the meeting and called the security. But I was at a loss then. I don't like that I was so easily frightened by a bad student. Though I haven't met such a student later, one never knows when the next time will be. Can anyone advise how to become tougher when facing such "evil" badly behaving students?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – StrongBad
    Nov 30, 2017 at 17:10

6 Answers 6


Your responsibilities as a TA do not include being verbally abused or physically threatened by irate students. At the first indication of abusive behavior, immediately stop arguing or doing anything else that might further provoke him. Instead, in as calm a voice as you can muster, inform the student that you understand his concern but that you don't have authority to grant his request but that the course instructor does and that you propose to set up a meeting for him with the instructor. Immediately afterward, send email to the instructor explaining the problem and let the instructor deal with it.

If it's already gone past that point, and he's pounding the table, shouting and exhibiting threatening behavior, get away from him as quickly as possible. Tell him you need to go to bathroom or whatever it takes to get away without being followed. Do not return. Call campus security.

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    Note that the concept of campus security does not exist all over the world.
    – yupsi
    Nov 29, 2017 at 7:53
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    @yupsi A student as described in the question would be reason enough to call the police, if the campus had no own security.
    – Dirk
    Nov 29, 2017 at 9:52
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    @yupsi The OP refers to calling security so apparently it does exist on their campus. Nov 29, 2017 at 13:09
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    At my school, a student acting like that would be subject to expulsion in pretty short order.
    – Tristan
    Nov 29, 2017 at 14:12
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    +1. Additional suggestions to OP: please report this student to your professor or your department -- otherwise, you'll be inadvertently training the student to behave disrespectfully to TAs. For your peace of mind in the future, schedule your office hours at a time when your office mate will be in and out or you know there is plenty of traffic in your hallway; create at least one buddy relationship with a fellow TA, who is aware of your experience, and out of solidarity, would like to be in a relationship of mutual support re office hours; develop an awareness of what ... Nov 29, 2017 at 15:19

This will be a partial answer, intended to supplement what Nicole wrote. I will focus primarily on the "how to toughen up" aspect of the question. My suggestions will apply both to men and women, although I acknowledge that this is an issue that may come up more frequently for women than men.

First, please report this student to your professor or your department -- otherwise, you'll be inadvertently training the student to behave disrespectfully to TAs.

As you gain experience as a TA, your self-confidence should grow, both in the academic (intellectual) realm and in behavior management. But how does one get from Point A (fear and uncertainty) to Point B (confident assertiveness)? The key is to allow your department to support you. Your department can't support you if you don't report incidents that make you feel uncomfortable.

See also https://academia.stackexchange.com/a/99629/32436.

For your peace of mind in the future:

  • Schedule your office hours at a time when your officemate will be in and out or you know there is plenty of traffic in your hallway.

  • Create at least one buddy relationship with a fellow TA, who is aware of your experience, and out of solidarity, would like to be in a relationship of mutual support re office hours.

  • If you are female: develop an awareness of what times of day are safer than others in your building and nearby streets; do not hesitate to call campus security for an escort while leaving your building at night, or to ask a fellow student to walk you to your car.

  • If English is not a language you're super comfortable in: improve your English, but in some fun, low-stress way, such as a workshop for international students, or a language pairing relationship, or a club.

  • If assertiveness is not your strong suit in general, ask at the university counseling center if they have any workshops or groups intended for this topic.

  • One fun way to build up self-confidence, that is often overlooked, is to work on one's physical fitness. You don't have to run a marathon to make small improvements. Just make sure the form of exercise you choose gives you pleasure -- perhaps you would like to go for a walk in an area dog park, if you like interacting with dogs. Perhaps you'd like to develop a hobby of getting to know all the parks in your area. Perhaps you'd like to join the Sierra Club or some other hiking club. Invite some fellow students to go bowling or play ping pong. Or just go for a twilight walk in a place where the bare tree branches make a beautiful tracery against the darkening sky.


Here is what Step One should be. Please disregard the Step One I wrote in a comment.

Step One: If you are ever in a situation on campus where you fear for your safety, immediately phone campus security and give your location. Use a calm voice but make sure your language clearly conveys the immediacy of the threat.

Note that it is often helpful, after conveying the necessary basic information to the dispatcher, to offer the phone to the hostile party. This can work wonders with defusing their anger.

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    Is it OK for a TA to turn aggressive when confronting such a student? Some people would just not restrain themselves if you talk to them peacefully. Nov 30, 2017 at 20:34
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    @Rapidturtle - I personally think it's better to walk away and seek support. Can you be more specific about what sort of aggressive behavior you are considering? Nov 30, 2017 at 21:56
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    Like telling the student that I cannot help you and we just stop here firmly and loudly. I was alone when facing the student so I was worried he would stop me from leaving. Nov 30, 2017 at 22:03
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    @Rapidturtle - In a situation like that, Step One is to use an innocuous excuse to leave the room, such as "Excuse me, I have to get a tissue, I'll be right back," or "I'm sorry, I promised to return this book to my study partner before 5:00, give me one minute." Say it as you are walking out the room. But Turtle, I can't stress enough: you should not be holding office hours at a time and place where there are no other students who will come to your aid if you have to shout for help. And if you are in your office studying late, please keep the door to your office locked. Nov 30, 2017 at 22:24
  • That is not I am able to control. My instructor told me that if students had marking issues then marker should arrange to meet with them asap, and most of the students don't clarify their issues in email. Nov 30, 2017 at 22:38

Given the escalating violence on campus, I think you need to treat all such cases very seriously. In my opinion only - in the immediate, hold your ground unless you feel physically threatened. If you have a perceived threat, you should direct your students to leave immediately (as yourself) and contact authorities. Even if you perceive no immediate threat, you should report the incident. You just witnessed an unstable individual acting out, and its likely to happen again. In your role as a TA, you represent your school and have a duty to protect your students.

  • I like what you wrote for the most part. There's just one part I disagree with. In the case that a TA perceives an actual threat, and there aren't other people around, directing the student to leave immediately could have the inadvertent effect that the hostile behavior escalates. (However, I didn't cast the negative vote.) Dec 1, 2017 at 14:08
  • @aparente001 This is also something I am uncertain about what to do. Some people will only refrain themselves if others take actions. Dec 1, 2017 at 23:49
  • @Rapidturtle - Your responsibility is to protect yourself, not to find the magic formula that will help the person who's invading your space recover his self-control. And anyway, how can you take such a responsibility on? You hardly know this person. I really think it would be worthwhile to take a workshop or join a support group where you can do some roleplay and get face to face feedback on how to speak assertively, without getting aggressive. Also, I hope you'll consider my other suggestion, of polishing your English, to reduce the risk of misunderstandings. Dec 2, 2017 at 2:01
  • @aparente001 The student came to meet not to tell how his answer should get more marks but to push me to give a satisfying reason for his low marks instead. If this happened, should I just stop the meeting? Dec 29, 2017 at 19:58
  • @Rapidturtle - I depends on whether you feel safe or unsafe, and whether you feel able to answer the question or not. You should be working in collaboration with the instructor and your other supervisors and colleagues in your department. Dec 29, 2017 at 22:13

To me it sounds like you want to work on your personality and your confidence. And you have taken the first and most important step already: to identify the problem. Your question is about how to not let the aggression affect you, not about how to deal with the particular situation, for which excellent answers already exist:

  • make sure the problem is not based on a misunderstanding
  • always remain calm, polite and professional
  • do not tolerate abuse but call security and report it to the dean

So what can you do to "become tougher" and stop being frightened?

May I recommend practicing a martial art, in particular Aikido? Besides the fun and relaxation that any sport gives you (which by itself could be enough to not let the problems at work get to you), it will help you to build confidence and, interestingly, deal with conflict. And by that I do not mean throwing them on the floor, but by "accepting" the attack instead of blocking it, while not letting it affect you (both in a physical and psychological sense). In other words: you cannot fight against someone who does not want to fight. This is the best way to deal with conflict.

Seriously, give it a go and see if it helps. It did for me.

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    Yes, indeed, aikido is great for conflict resolution of the verbal and physical kind, good point Nov 29, 2017 at 15:36
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    OP just clarified his question in a comment below my answer; as it turns out, your reading of what he wants to know was spot on. +1. Dec 1, 2017 at 14:10

I will share my experience with you as an answer here.

I am a Ph.D. student working in Netherlands, and I am from India. Past line intends to say I don't understand Dutch and I can communicate with students only in English. There is always a communication hurdle partly because of my accent and partly from students reluctance to speak a foreign language.

Communication gap always creates misunderstanding.

Once there was a student, who misunderstood that I am going to fail him for not doing his homework. My exact sentence to him was, "Can you complete the homework problem before the practical ends? It might reflect on your grades if I do not mark you 'completed' in homework sheet."

The student seemed depressed for a long time. I went back and asked him if he is doing okay. That is when I understood he misunderstood me. Finally, we agreed that he doesn't have to do the homework if he was able to explain verbally the calculation procedures and logical reasons to why use such procedures. He was smart and was able to do it.

The moral is most of this short story is we can avoid miscommunication oriented troubles, and hostile behavior if we don't threaten the students. Fear gives rise to hostile behavior in most cases.

But in some special cases where the student is intentionally hostile and mean and evil, I still believe a teacher has to understand the reason for such hostility and help the student. Psychologically, such troubles mostly arise from the environment and society. I have seen all throughout my academic career a dozen of teachers who do that.

  • The student came to meet me not to explain how his answer should deserve more marks but to push me to give a satisfying reason for his low marks instead. If this happened, should I just stop the meeting? Dec 29, 2017 at 20:10

Being a TA you have to be presentable and professional. I have never faced a situation aggressive like what you described , but if I were you I would assess the situation quickly. Is it personal or not?

If it is personal and disrespecting, you have to act immediately. Don't try to be nice, but remember to stay professional. Find if your university set some rules for situation like this, if not you find a way to punish him some how. Trust me all of your mates and professors will collaborate in the punishment game.

If you find the student is just nervous of the grades but you know he is not a bully, then try to STAY FIRM, but don't aggravate him. Tell him you don't know anything about the exam or the grading. Stay firm and strong and tell him to go to the main instructor as that is not your responsibility and you can't help.

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