Sunday, May 21, 2023

Should an adult student's bad behavior be accepted just because that's "the way they are"?

Should we excuse bad behavior from someone simply because that is “the way they are”? That question arrived from a longtime reader from the Midwest we’re calling Maggie.

Several months ago, Maggie was asked to fill in as a substitute instructor in an adult education class. “I still teach that class on occasion when the regular instructor is not able to do it,” wrote Maggie. “I’m the only person who will cover for her … because of one person in particular.”

That person “finds a way to correct me … every single class,” wrote Maggie. “More often than not it is said in a very angry way.”

Maggie made it clear to me that she does not fill in as a substitute because she needs the money. “I am doing it only to be kind to the other instructor,” she wrote, and to be kind to those taking the class.

After speaking to the people running the classes, Maggie wrote that she was told “not to worry about it, that is just the way she is.”

But Maggie wants to know if it is really ethical to excuse bad behavior from people just because that is “the way they are.”

“Is it right that we should all have to be careful around someone who is mean to others just because they are always cranky and mean?” Maggie asked. “At what point do they have to take responsibility for their bad behavior?”

Maggie wondered if it was reasonable to talk to the challenging student and try to get her to behave better. “Or is this a lost cause because ‘that is just the way she is’”?

“It really does make it hard to have a good attitude while teaching,” Maggie wrote.

While I agree with the observation that some students can just be negative, I do not agree that Maggie should accept such behavior in her class if she believes it is affecting the rest of the students’ ability to learn and her own ability to teach.

Teaching can be challenging, and as Maggie has discovered, there’s no guarantee that every student will be positive and receptive to learning. If Maggie gets no joy from substituting as a teacher for this class and she doesn’t need the money to live on, she would not be wrong to walk away. While the rest of the students may be terrific, it only takes one negative voice or disruptive student to affect the entire class.

But if Maggie would like to continue to teach, I believe the right thing is to talk to the negative student in as frank a manner possible. Not to scold her or to tell her to keep her mouth shut, but to let her know that her comments make it challenging for Maggie to engage the rest of the students. Maggie could encourage the student to speak with her after the class and go over any “suggestions” or “observations” she cares to make. It could be that the disruptive student partly just wants to make her presence known. Giving her another way of doing this might help.

If talking with the student doesn’t improve her behavior, then it might be time for Maggie to decide she will not substitute for this particular class. That might not be the preferred result, but there are times when walking away is the best option.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin


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