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Ever had a Bad Apple in Class?

Raise your hand if this sounds familiar … I had a guy in class a couple of year’s back who said in his introduction:
“I am retiring at the end of this week. I don’t want to be here. I was told by my *(!&@^ boss to attend.”

Of course it didn’t take long to understand why the boss didn’t want this guy around. Very toxic individual.

There have been others that have tried to hijack my course from time to time, but that guy took the cake.



If – or when! – you get that type of toxic person in your course, here are some solutions that come to mind. Hopefully one or more will be helpful:

  • The important thing to remember is that “we can’t control attitudes, only behavior.” If someone has a bad attitude, it’s on them. Trying to change their attitude will only rob the rest of the class of your time and energy.
  • Most template courses tend to just spell out class rules, etc. but – especially when you get a mixed bag of attendees with unknown origin – setting expectations and objectives early on is critical. Including class behavior.
  • Establish your credibility, leadership and authority early by starting on time, calling roll, setting expectations, etc. Bad apples tend to look for signs of weakness before attacking so exhibit confidence and strength early and they will seek another target.
  • Create an “out” where the toxic person can leave the course without looking like a quitter or have their precious ego threatened. “This course is X, we will be doing X, your role will be X, positive participation is required, this course is not for everyone so no shame in leaving in order to find a better fit elsewhere, etc.”

Remember: “behavior that is reinforced will increase in duration and intensity.”

If the bad apple is focused on the negative and detracting or distracting us, the more we engage him/her with conversation or argument will only encourage more of the same.

Occasionally, behavior that is ignored may extinguish on its own. Occasionally.

Unfortunately, at some point undesired behavior should be punished (i.e. negative consequence). Be cautious and mindful before applying this solution.

  • If they are with other people from the same organization, engage them (the good apples) with the appropriate reinforcement so it isolates the the bad apple’s behavior. This will subtly and effectively get the rest of the class participants on your side. A supportive group dynamic like that may be enough to inspire the bad apples to cease and desist on their own.
  • Unfortunately, we may be forced to call someone out in class, during class. It’s important to point out that if you have clearly spelled out the expected conduct, and someone behaves contrary to that, then they are NOT students anymore … they’re thieves of the instruction you are there to provide to the students who ARE playing by the rules. They’ve lost the right to be treated like a student and have earned the themselves the right to be treated like an enemy combatant. 🙂

I had a knucklehead like that once who tried to run his side business by phone during class, in the classroom, without even leaving his chair.
He was a big wheel in his fire department and got away with being selfish like that regularly so I initially just glared at him, hoping he would get the message.

He didn’t.

So I restated the course expectations to everyone, stood next to him to instruct while he was on the phone.

He just kept yapping away.

I eventually stopped all instruction and addressed him directly. I told him what I told you above: “YOU will not be allowed to stay in my class if you interrupt again. You will not receive a certificate, your chief will be notified and you will not be invited back. If you care about the rest of the class having a productive experience here, stay off your phone or go outside”.

You’ve gotta be prepared to back it up but when the line in the sand is drawn, they either win or lose based on THEIR choice, not yours. It also sends a message to the bad apple’s compatriots that supporting the bad apple makes them one too.

Again, actively and assertively reduce anything that keeps you from focusing on the needs of the people that want to be there.



Mike McKenna

About the author

Mike McKenna is the founder and president of TEAM Solutions. He helps public and private sector leaders improve their outcomes before, during and after a planned event or unplanned crisis.

Please contact Mike via the Contact page.

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