How to Get the Most Out of a Difficult Class

 | Teaching House Nomads Blog

Even after thirteen years in the wonderful ESL world, I still dread getting an awful class who drains my soul until I consider hanging up my boots.

Last year I thought I had my classroom management sorted. After a strict first month with eight new classes, the students turned out to be pleasant, hard-working and fun to be around. I thought I’d cracked the mystery of the naughty pupils – but I was wrong.

This year, it’s taken me at least four months to get three tricky classes in order, and they still play up. Whether you’re working in the public or private sector, you won’t know what a class will be like until you’ve taught them for a couple of weeks. Plus, students can change throughout a term, so angelic 11 year-olds can turn into monster teens right in front of your eyes. You can never take your foot off the pedal as an ESL teacher and need various ways to handle a class.

So, how can you make the most out of a difficult class?

1. Effective punishments

Setting rules and punishments can be an effective way to maintain a good classroom environment
Use a card system for monitoring student behavior

During my experience of working with terrible classes, I realized that the only real way of controlling and dealing with troublesome students is by implementing effective punishments.

I usually start off the term by telling new classes about my red and yellow card system. Students get a red card for not doing homework, having a bad attitude, speaking too much Spanish or putting dangerous, two-footed tackles on each other or the teacher.

If they get three red cards, I write a note to their parents (or call them in) and tell them what their child has been up to. I dish out yellow cards for minor faults like not paying attention, looking out the window or asking whether they need to use a pen or pencil (a pet peeve of mine).

To manage the class as a whole, I use a line system as warnings. If the students misbehave by speaking too much Spanish, taking ages to get ready for activities or making too much noise, I draw a line in the top left corner of the board. 5 lines results in having double homework while 10 may mean the students have to take an exam, copy a text, or recite lines. This system works better with younger learners in particular because teens don’t tend to respond well as they feel it’s a bit immature.

Setting clear boundaries in a classroom is an effective way to manage a class of young learners
Lines are a great tactic

All classes need to know their boundaries and be aware when they have pushed you too far. Make sure you get your system sorted and established early on in the course.

2. Mr/Mrs Motivate

One way of handling a tricky group is to keep them interested and motivated. By discovering their likes and dislikes with simple questionnaires, you can plan specifically. For example, I’ve recently planned a lesson on video games for a class of teenaged computer fans. I also get a list of students’ favourite songs so we can do song activities.

You can also use methods such as giving out free homework passes or awards and points for best marks and attitude. A popular online gimmick is Class Dojo, which my colleagues use for awarding points (though that’s not really my bag). I spend time telling the class about the importance of learning English, always keeping them on their toes, and challenge them.

3. Tell them about yourself

Getting your students to know about you can be a great way to create a warm classroom environment
Try to have a laugh with them

If you can show a class that you are human and also have a laugh with them or create some banter, then they’ll soon open up to you and the tension should start to ooze away.

I tell anecdotes. Students love a funny story, especially when you’re the one who played the fool. You have to link it to the lesson somehow though.

One of my most useful lessons revolves around showing classes about my trip around the world. They have to guess how many countries I visited and in how many I taught English. As I show the slideshow of photos, they ask me questions about my trip. You suddenly see a closed, rebellious class open up as they realize you actually are human and have done something most want to do: travel.

4. Organize the class

Classes often know each other inside out. If you see groups of students that are too pally and messing about, then just split them up. Sometimes they hate it, but it’s often the best way to obtain full focus.

Two of my classes are placed into assigned seats and they work much better. Changing the seating arrangements around for a class constantly is also a great system. Make sure you come up with a foolproof plan though, as the cheeky monkeys often cheat the system.

5. Ask: Why are you here?

The dynamic of the classroom can improve greatly as students and teacher get familiar with each other
Tears of joy?

This is my last resort, and it works a treat. When you have tried all of the above, then make them do a presentation to the class.

I write ‘Why am I here?’ on the board and they have to write 100 words answering the question. This can either be in the class or at home (the request depends when I snap). They present their essay individually by standing in front of the class, sometimes with the director in the room. This always makes them realize they have pushed me over the limit.

I’m always surprised with the results. When you hear the naughty kids say that they know their parents are working hard to provide them with an education, they want to learn English for the future and they are sorry for being a pain, your heart sort of melts. You feel guilty for a second for making them stand in front of the class, sometimes in tears. In the end, though, it works, and the class is quite never the same again.

With one class this year, I typed up 100 words as to why I was there: to help them, to correct their English, to improve their lives and not to put up with their behaviour and attitude. They really turned around afterwards. I also saved it on my computer, so I flash it up when they are being naughty.

What other ways do you have of getting the most out of a class? Which of the above do you think you might use?

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