Difficult students can make you want to tear your hair out when you are a teacher. It is truly amazing how one student, just one, can derail an entire class. From this observation, springs sayings like “One rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel.”
Difficult students come in all different flavors. There is the “class clown” whose sole purpose in life seems to be to get everyone to laugh and is so distracting you sometimes even find yourself laughing and not paying attention to your own lesson.
There is the “unhappy brooder” who sits in the back of class glaring at you and making you nervous. Try as you will, you just keep looking at him/her and obsessing about why they hate you and/or your class.
There is the one who likes to pick fights with the other students and deliberately says and does offensive things just to set everyone off. You are tempted to send this one out to the principal’s office but when you do, he/she just keeps coming back.
There is the too cool for school student who just can’t be bothered with your boring and irrelevant curriculum.
The list goes on and often those troublemaking students can bounce from one kind of difficult to another creating strange and unique situations for you, the teacher, to deal with. You might find yourself laying in bed at night getting madder and madder at this student and more and more upset that this one person is destroying what would otherwise be a wonderful class.
So having said all of this, I love the troublemakers for so many reasons!
First of all, the troublemakers challenge me. I can’t rest on my laurels and just go through the motions, they won’t let me. If my teaching is boring, at the wrong level, irrelevant, badly planned or executed, they let me know. They are often the most honest of my students; they refuse to let standards of politeness keep them from giving me feedback. This feedback often manifests itself in unpleasant behaviors but when I learn to see it for what it is, a learning opportunity, I am grateful to them.
Because troublemakers require so much attention, I often get to know them pretty well. We spend time together, time that I use to try to figure out what makes them tick, what they enjoy doing, and how they think. I was kind of a goody two-shoes student way back in the day, rarely inclined to disrupt the class, but I find disrupters fascinating. They are fearless in ways I never was and I respect that.
Recommendations on how to relate to difficult students.
1. Don’t think you know what students are thinking, or take it personally
I used to get all upset when students behaved badly because I thought they were doing it specifically to spite me or they were so selfish that they just didn’t care about how their behavior was affecting me (and my class). Taking a good honest look at myself and how I was behaving towards the students is a good place to start. If, after thinking about my interactions with the student, I can’t find any reason they would be upset with me, I take myself out of the equation. Then, I can start working on what is actually causing the problem.
Case Study: Several years ago I had a student who would sit in the back of the class, cross her arms and spend most of the class period glaring at me. The first few days were a bit of a whirlwind getting everyone familiar with class and class expectations so I didn’t really notice, but pretty soon, her face was the only one I could see. Again and again, my eyes would scan over a couple of dozen happy, engaged students and land on her, quietly sitting there, not smiling. I was about to ask her to stay after class to talk to me when, to my surprise, she waited until after everyone left and came to talk to me herself. I was expecting to have a conversation about how dissatisfied she was but instead, she became a bit nervous. She told me how much she loved class and how she really wanted to learn more about what we were discussing. Her serious expression wasn’t dislike at all, it was just how she looked when she was focusing intensely to understand a language she wasn’t completely comfortable in yet. To this day, I try to avoid jumping to conclusions and imagining that I know what students are thinking. Talking to students is the only way to find out what they are thinking and often I have to build a relationship with “difficult” students in order for them to trust me enough to open up. This is especially true for students who come from different cultures than you do. Often behaviors that one culture finds acceptable in the classroom are completely unacceptable in another. Here is a short, by no means complete list of things that may differ from culture to culture and cause teachers and students to misunderstand each other.
2. Work together to find ways to help the student find better (for you) ways to express themselves
I used to think that it was all up to me to figure out how to make a student behave the way I wanted him/her too. I was the teacher after all and it was my responsibility, wasn’t it? Well, just like in any relationship, the only person I can truly control is myself (and even that is iffy sometimes). It works so much better to collaborate with the student who is causing you headaches and figure out how to help him/her not do that.
Case Study: I once had a student who loved to participate in class discussions, he really, really loved it. The first few minutes I was grateful to him because he saved me from having any awkward silences when I threw a question out. It didn’t matter what question I asked, if I asked it to the whole class or during small/large group work, he was ready with an answer or an opinion. This got old really fast though, as other students began to get resentful that he monopolized all the speaking time. After the end of the second day, I asked him to stay after to talk to me. I told him how much I liked his ideas and opinions and how impressed I was with his English abilities, but I needed to be able to hear other voices too. I expected him to be offended but instead, he laughed. He said that he loved to get the most out of every class so he took every opportunity to practice speaking which in most classes is fairly limited. I assured him that he would have lots of opportunities to speak in class each and every day but I didn’t want him to blurt out an answer or reaction every time. He suggested that I flash him a subtle physical signal when he should wait for other people to talk. We practiced a few times and it worked. When I wanted him to stop talking, I flashed the signal and he stopped. Did he still have a tendency to dominate class? Yes, but he was aware of it, and we worked as a team to help mitigate how disruptive it was.
3. Learn about learning differences and how to help kids who think differently
So many times disruptive students are disruptive because they are struggling. Sometimes they are struggling because they have a learning difference like ADHD, autism, dyslexia, personal trauma or something else. It is well worth your time to learn more about these learning differences and strategies to help all kinds of students.
Case Study: When I was a child I had a really difficult time learning how to read. Sounding words out was a kind of torture and it made me feel stupid. I used to be able to write things backwards so you could hold it up to a mirror and read it. I wasn’t doing it on purpose, sometimes my writing just came out that way. I am sure my teachers were frustrated with me and how slowly I was learning especially since I tested into the gifted and talented program so I kept getting pulled out of class to go to special, more advanced classes. It must have seemed as if I wasn’t trying. I remember crying when I got home because I couldn’t read and everyone else could. Looking back on it, I probably have dyslexia or some sort of processing issue but since I remained undiagnosed, I don’t know. I pushed on and eventually figured out how to read and write but to this day, sounding out words is difficult.
Here are some resources to get you started thinking about how to teach all kinds of learners.
As ESL and EFL teachers it is important to learn strategies that work for students with as Temple Grandin says in her TED Talk “all kinds of minds”.
Click on this line to find a great free on-line class about teaching languages to people with dyslexia. I took it a few years ago and found it really helpful.
This article entitled "Teaching English to Autistic Learners" offers really practical advice.
I also found this free course "Good Practice in Autism Education". I haven't taken it yet, but I look forward to enrolling as soon as it is open.
4. Be consistent in enforcing rules
One of my daughter’s constant complaints is “It’s not fair!” to which I often reply, “Life isn’t fair!” While I do believe it is true that life is not fair most of the time, as a teacher, part of my job is to make sure it is as “fair” as I can possibly make it. This means that I can’t enforce the rules one day and then fail to do so the next. I don’t have to be brutal about enforcing rules, I can take circumstances into account, but I can’t just let some students get away with a light admonition not to do it again while I come down on another like a ton of bricks just because one of them seems generally “better behaved”.
Case Study: When I was teaching a 10th grade class in Brooklyn I had a student who had matured physically much faster than his classmates. He was much bigger and had started to grow facial hair while the rest of the class hadn’t. Because he looked so mature, I usually expected him to act more mature too and when he didn’t, I often found myself wanting to correct his behaviors more forcefully than I did his classmates. This was of course terribly unfair and I had to check myself consciously every day to make sure I didn’t treat him differently than the other students. The same goes for all kinds of other conscious and unconscious biases we have such as how we treat female vs. male students, shy vs. outgoing students, students who have fashion choices or hairstyles we either approve or disapprove of or any other of a myriad of other things that could cause us to view their behavior through a distorted lens. Becoming conscious of our own biases is imperative to creating a class in which students feel respected, and students who feel respected, behave better.
5. Appreciate what difficult students are contributing to the class and don’t squash it
“Difficult” students bring a lot more to class with them than their negative behavior, they might also bring with them a strong sense of what is right and wrong, a rebellious nature and an incredible honesty. As I said before, I admire the bravery of students who incur the wrath of authority figures in order to stand up for themselves and what they believe in. Many of the charactaristics that frustrate teachers are actually things that help people succeed in life and help society as a whole. Society needs people who question authority, without them, our leaders would have unchecked power. We need people who will tell us the truth even when we don’t like it. We also need people who crack other people up, even at inappropriate times. Next time a student is driving you crazy, take a step back and think about what he or she is really doing and why they are doing it. Is there any way you could work with the student to help them reach their goals, and your goals for the class, while at the same time encouraging them to stay true to themselves?
Have you ever struggled to teach one particular student or a group of students? What did you do? Please share your experiences in the comments; I would love to hear them!
Looking for more ideas for your ESL and EFL classes? Check out these posts.
Hi, I'm Kia.
Teaching is my passion, I have been teaching for over 20 years in 4 different continents. One of the things I have learned over the years is that I am never done learning about teaching. Both teaching and learning should be fun and inspiring.
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