How I handled a student’s toxic behaviour

Reading Time:  minutes remaining

Teaching Snack #8

Your struggle

Sometimes students resist when you try to introduce them to a method, process, or technique that they are not used to. Sometimes this resistance is disrespectful. It can be hard to stand up for yourself under pressure and take charge of your business, your method, and your reputation.

An interesting thing happened at class last night that I think would serve as a learning experience for you teachers, so I thought I would share. This story involves dealing with a student who complains and tries to get his way. Does this happen to you? Read on to find out how I handled it.

The background

We don’t teach weekly group classes in Vancouver any more due to our travel schedule. But once a year, we teach a 1-month mini-series called LevelUp. It is very well promoted and explained on our website and Facebook event page.

LevelUp is restricted to students who have any competition points or have passed our 5-min Basic Skills Assessment (the same one we recommend in the TDP). As you can imagine, this ensures that everyone in the class already understands their FMS’s and the language we use to describe them so we don’t have to waste time explaining them and can keep a faster pace with deeper details.

We explicitly say on the website and FB event page that "assessments must be done in advance and will not be offered on site". What potential students (both locals and Vancouver visitors) have done is email us in advance to schedule an assessment, or asked us in person at the local social dance parties. For example, last week, an Intermediate dancer was visiting from California and respectfully emailed us in advance. We welcomed him and he was a great addition to our group even just for the night.

The incident

Last night (week 2) I was setting up and trying to eat a little dinner when an older gentleman showed up about 10 minutes early who I did not recognize. He said he was here to take our class. We’ll call him Andy. 

I said, “Oh, did you already take your assessment with one of our teachers?” and got ready to open my assessment record file. “Andy" replied, “What assessment?”. I explained that this is a restricted class, only open to those who have passed their BSA. He immediately said, “Well, just assess me now then.” 

I thought, strike two, buddy - first you don’t even bother to read the very clear instructions (that are actually listed above the location & time), and then you demand that I make a concession for you without minding your manners or respecting my time.

I started to explain to Andy that as it states on the website and FB event page, we don’t have time to offer assessments on site. He whined, “I drove an hour in to town just to take your class”. I asked, “Oh really? From where?” trying to be conversational and disarming. He said "Burnaby.” 

Strike three. I knew that was stretching the truth. I said, “Oh really? That’s where we live and we just made it here in 25 minutes”.

On the off chance that Andy might be some awesome dancer from out of town that just doesn’t know the city or how to navigate online promotion, I decided to give him a quick assessment to make sure my instincts were correct.

As we started dancing I asked him where he learned to dance, and he said he was from Denver but spends half his year here. He has taken lessons in Denver for almost a year. After dancing with Andy, I confirmed that while he wasn’t terrible, he did not meet our minimum requirements for this class. He was shuffling his feet, armleading, and missing elasticity and pressure connection skills. Strike 4.

I showed him the assessment form so I could have concrete backup. Sometimes people know more than they can perform so I asked him to tell me what he knows about "foot rolling, stretch, and frame.” He literally stuttered and could not string enough words together to describe any of them, gave up trying, and looked at me expectantly.

Strike 5. This not only confirmed that Andy would not be able to keep up in the class, but gave me the distinct impression that he resented being asked and therefore did not respect our process.

I explained to him that all of the students in the class have passed their assessment, meaning they understand and can perform these skills. Since he is missing these skills, he does not yet qualify for this class. My recommendation is that he take a private lesson (from or one of our certified teachers) to catch up on these missing skills so that he can join in when he’s ready.

At this point he realized I was not going to let him take the class. He got upset. He tried convincing me by throwing out all the reasons why I should let him in: “I’ve been taking lessons for a whole year! My other teachers tell me I can already do all those things! I drove an hour just for this class! You can tell I’m not a beginner! You’re seriously going to turn me away?”

Strike 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.

It was hard to keep my composure, because I was conflicted between "wanting to please/avoiding conflict” and not wanting this underqualified student with negative energy in our class. But I stood my ground. I said, “These are the terms of this series. This is not an open class. Everyone else in the class has these qualifications. Our standards and requirements are different from your other teachers. All of the posted information about this series explains the expectations and registration procedures.”

Andy's final words were “You’re never going to see me again”. He was threatening taking his business away in order to manipulate me into getting what he wanted. My heart was racing, but he didn't scare me, for a few reasons: 1. He had already discredited his opinions through his behaviour, so any potential affinity had been lost.  2. The value of keeping our class integrity and positive energy was greater to us than the revenue value of his patronage.

I said “I’m sorry you feel that way, but this class isn’t for you yet.” He walked out. I was shaken, but I shook it off and Myles assured me that I handled it well and good riddance.

Identifying the problem 

Let’s define exactly what was going on here. This man was trying to bully me.

As a strong personality with “celebrity status” in WCS, this doesn't happen to me with students anymore, so it was fascinating for me to remember what it's like for newer teachers as they are earning respect and street credit in their communities. In that moment, I really felt your struggle, and I applaud you for taking leadership in your community despite this obstacle.

I wasn't always so self-confident. Experience has given me wisdom and confidence in expressing myself and standing up for myself. I’ve also done a lot of work on communication skills, which has transformed the way I interact under pressure. Even 10 years ago, I think I would have responded differently. I would have struggled to find the right words to stand my ground, I would have taken this much more personally, and I might have even antagonized him in an effort to defend myself, which of course would have backfired. I realize other common teachers' reactions could have included backing down, letting him have his way, or getting another teacher to handle it instead.

We also need to address the gender issue here. While I didn’t feel any overt sexism from Andy, the interaction made me wonder if Andy would have treated me differently if I was a man. I think he would have controlled his communication more, using more respectful tone and deference.

I am sure that many female teachers out there struggle with sexist treatment like this - a man speaking down to them, using a condescending tone, disregarding their advice, bullying them, talking over them, trying to prove he knows more than them, and questioning their decisions. 

While these bullying behaviours do seem generically toxic - things that any gender could be a victim of, if you’re not sure if it's sexist, I encourage you to test them like this: try framing them differently by asking this question: "would this man behave this way to another man?” If the answer is yes, he’s just lacking in interpersonal skills. But if the answer is no, the problem is actually sexism, maybe even misogyny.

How this applies to your teaching

Some of you teachers, especially women, might not even recognize these behaviours as toxic, because you are used to being bossed around from your parents, siblings, boyfriends, supervisors, bosses, etc. Remember, as a WCS teacher in a WCS class, you are in charge. You are the boss. You are the one who sets the rules and expectations.

But you don’t need to be a tyrant to confront toxic behaviours. You will earn more respect by standing your ground, communicating calmly and clearly, and being consistent in your positive energy and behaviour.

You won't be able to change someone's misogyny - they need professional counselling for that. But in the face of toxic behaviour, you can express your boundaries - what behaviours you will and will not accept.

For example, if a toxic male student is demanding of your time in class, you can say, "I am not able to discuss this with you right now, but I would be more than willing to spend 5 minutes to answer your question after class, with your partner present."

You always have the right to refuse service. You don’t need every potential student. Even when your class is imbalanced and you are desperate to pay the studio fees, the cost of having this toxic student in your class might outweigh the benefits:

Short term: your students will feel better and improve better in your class without him.

Long term: Since you’re trying to build a community, you need to hand-pick the members of your tribe. A quality tribe will attract more dancers to your community. If you have too many rotten apples, you’ll dilute the quality of the tribe and repel potential new members. So saying no to your Andy will leave the door open for more amazing new students to thrive.

The end result

A few students observed from a distance and empathized with me for having to endure that exchange. They were very happy to see Andy and his negative energy leave. They get that we are ultimately protecting them and their investment in their dance progress. We had a great class, full of content that Andy would have drowned in, but the students were super happy with our pace and the chemistry in the room. I consider this a teaching win!

Do you have a story like this you can share that will help other teachers by example? Post it in the comments below!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}