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Heavy Meddle: How Do I Shut Up The Class Loudmouths?

Seeking words of wisdom about shutting up some trash talking fellow students. (Hilde Skjølberg/flickr)
Seeking words of wisdom about shutting up some trash talking fellow students. (Hilde Skjølberg/flickr)
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Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

A friend invited me to participate with her in a small class with several people I do not know but who are acquaintances of hers. I agreed to join, and I am quite enjoying learning new things and exercising my "right brain" one night a week in a creative activity. Unfortunately, there a couple of individuals in the class who talk trash non-stop, much of it about other people (who I don't know) and about conflicts they are having.

Their strident chatter is not only rude and distracting, it interferes with being able to hear the teacher at times and to focus on her lecture and project instructions. I'm reluctant to speak up at the moment, because I feel like a guest. I also hate to put my friend on the spot, and I don't want to embarrass the teacher. A script for shutting these troublemakers down would be great, but realizing that that might not be the most effective way to handle the situation, I'd really appreciate any words of wisdom you might have.

Thanks!

A Devoted Maine Reader

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Dear Devoted Maine Reader,

First, let me say, in the spirit of advice columnar pandering, that I love your state. Seriously. I’ve eaten most of the great meals of my life in Maine, had a few brief and beautiful love affairs, and spent a lot of time marveling at your coastlines. To this Masshole, Maine is like a lost continent of natural beauty, libertine pursuits and irascible older gentlemen named Bill.

But enough about Maine. Let’s move on to your question. The answer here is quite basic: The person in charge of making sure a particular classroom is conducive to learning is …the teacher. Period. That’s pretty much the definition of a teacher. That is why they are getting paid. And I say this as someone who’s been teaching, in various capacities, for two decades.

The teacher’s job is to foster learning for those who showed up to, you know, learn.

It’s simply not your job as a student — whether you’re auditing or formally enrolled — to police other students. You could take it upon yourself to do this, but I wouldn’t. I would speak to the teacher and let her talk to the students in question. All you should have to say is that their chatter is interfering with your learning. Case closed.

What I sense from your letter, though, is a tendency to worry about other people’s feelings, to the exclusion of your own. You worry that your friend, or the teacher, will be embarrassed. From where I’m sitting, the teacher should be embarrassed. If these folks are talking loud enough to prevent you from hearing her, I suspect the teacher can hear them, as well. If that’s the case, she should be (respectfully, but firmly) shutting them down. Maybe it’s a more casual, adult-ed type setting where it feels odd to discipline students. But it’s still a classroom. The teacher’s job is to foster learning for those who showed up to, you know, learn, and to weed out people who would rather “talk trash.”

Honestly, I don’t get why these folks enrolled in the class if they just want to gossip. But ultimately, that’s not your business. You’re just there to pursue a new form of creativity. They’re making that difficult. It’s really nothing personal, in the end. Just a different agenda. Go tell teach. That’s not tattling. It’s defending your right as a student to learn.

Hereby empowering you,

Steve

Hey teachers! And students! Can you tell that I was kind of worked up over this question? Well, I was. This stems from having visited so many poorly run classrooms, where entitled students ran the show, while teachers, fearing bad “student evaluations,” or simply tired of the hassle, did nothing to discipline them. Thus, my answer. But maybe you see it differently? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don’t have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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