What if… I can’t control my class?

copy-of-what-if

You start to sweat, and you’re sure the redness starting at your hairline is beginning to creep up over the rest of your face. Your stomach feels like a whole flight of butterflies are on the loose in there, and you’re not quite sure if you’re going to spend the class twitching with nervous energy, or simply be pinned to the spot in fear. Five years on I don’t remember much of the minutiae of my TEFL course, but I do remember just how terrified I was of actually teaching – my biggest fear being that my students wouldn’t listen to a word I said and the entire lesson would just end up veering off out of control.

I look back now, and all of that seems, well, laughable. But it’s been a long journey, and there have been some hard-won lessons along the way (for me, as well as for my students!). Are you worried you won’t be able to control your class? This is what I wish I’d known starting out.

First thing’s first, let’s dispel some common myths.

You don’t need to speak L1 to be able to control your class. Bellowing ‘Be Quiet!’ at them in their own language isn’t likely to have any better effect than doing it in English, and if anything may even have the opposite to the desired effect – on the couple of occasions I’ve tried to use ‘Quiet!’ or ‘Sit down!’ in L1 my pronunciation has normally ended up reducing my class to howls of laughter.

You don’t need to have a really loud voice to be able to control your class. Although at times shouting over any noise your students make can seem like a good idea, loud often isn’t better – in fact raising your voice can lead your students to raise their voices too, turning the whole thing into a shouting match and turning an otherwise positive atmosphere into something negative. If you’re tempted to raise your voice for any longer than a few seconds, stop, breathe, and consider whether or not the same result could be achieved in a different way.

You don’t need to be a really strict disciplinarian to be able to control your class. There’s a time and a place to be strict (more on that later!), but you don’t need to resemble a Sargent Major to get your students to pay attention and listen to you.

What things will help you to stay in control of your class? Well…

Prepare well.

If you’re worried you’ll completely dry up and forget what you were planning to do next, if you have the kind of students who ask hundreds of questions (most of which are off topic) and you struggle to deal with their queries whilst maintaining the logical flow of your lesson, or if you lack confidence in what you’re saying or in yourself as a teacher, preparation is your best friend.

You don’t need to write a full CELTA style lesson plan every time you teach (you won’t have time anyway and will likely go insane if you try) but having some kind of written plan can really work wonders when it comes to keeping you on track. A hasty glance at your plan can be the difference between a minor blip in an otherwise good lesson, and a complete confidence-shattering dry. Planning grammar presentations means that you can check any uncertainties you have beforehand, and can anticipate potential problems before they occur. If you keep your plans together (for example using an exercise book, with one page per lesson) it also gives you something helpful to refer back to: you can make a note of if students need extra practice, if a particular activity worked well (or the opposite!), and if students asked any questions that you said you’d get back to them on.

TOP TIP: Even if I’m really pushed for time, I always try to make sure that I have a well-planned starter activity. Not only does it start the lesson off on the right foot, but having a clear starter activity in mind gives me the confidence to walk into the classroom knowing exactly what I’m doing (and feeling confident in myself and in my teaching!) even with a new or difficult class.

Find out what your school’s policies are regarding student behaviour/discipline.

Another thing you can do before you even set foot in the classroom (and yet which will really help ease your worries) is to find out exactly how to deal with an uncontrollable student. This information is more likely to apply to young learner classes, however these are also the students you are most likely to need to discipline! Every school is different here, so it’s wise to check with your senior teacher or DOS before making any assumptions. Hopefully you’ll never need to use any ‘last resort’ sanctions, but it’s helpful to know what you can do in the worst case scenario!

To focus briefly on the positives as well, it’s helpful to know if there are any suggested rewards for good work/good behaviour, and if there are opportunities to give parents positive feedback on their child’s progress – often parents only hear if there’s a problem, but it’s lovely for them to find out the positives about their offspring as well!

Make your expectations clear early on.

Just to make it clear, this doesn’t mean that you need to stride into the classroom with a list of demands and lay down the law during your first lesson. However, your students aren’t psychic, and although (with the exception of very young learners) they are likely to have some idea of how to behave in a classroom, they’ve never been in your classroom before. If you don’t want them to speak in L1, or you’d like them to put their hands up before answering a question, tell them!

As with many things in life, in classroom management prevention is generally better than cure. If there’s a problem, don’t let things slide and hope that it won’t happen again.

Be proactive: If you let students know that problem behaviour is unacceptable the first time it happens, you’re one step closer to it not happening again.

Use appropriate strategies for the age group you’re teaching.

Not all EFL classrooms are equal. Treating your class of five-year-olds in the same way as a class of adults is a recipe for disaster (as, indeed, is vice versa).

In the case of adult students interrupting, not paying attention or otherwise disrupting the lesson, a quiet word with the individual at the end of the class might be the order of the day. Remember, although it’s likely that you’ll face more discipline issues when teaching young learners, it’s not unheard of for adult students to be difficult as well (being reluctant to listen to their peers,refusing to speak in English or arguing with the teacher are not uncommon!). With younger classes, using a behaviour chart system might be more appropriate. To help establish discipline with teens or older children, it can be helpful to use one of your early lessons to create a ‘classroom contract’, where the students suggest (and perhaps vote on) their own rules for the class. This could be extended to include potential sanctions for unacceptable behaviour, and could include expectations for the teacher’s behaviour as well!

If you’re uncertain how best to deal with a particular age group, do some research! Ask other teachers, or search online. If you’re teaching kids or teens for the first time, check out my helpful short guides here.

Be firm, be fair, be consistent.

This old adage has stood the test of time when it comes to teaching, largely because it’s true! If a student is behaving unacceptably in the classroom, don’t be afraid to be firm and do something about it! I’ve sometimes found that channeling a really confident person here helps (especially if it’s an adult student who’s being difficult and you’re nervous about ‘telling off’ someone who’s the same age as or older than you!)

Be fair – sometimes cultural differences can influence how students behave in the classroom. Punctuality is a big one here! Bad language is also quite common: students (even quite young ones!) pick up English swear words from TV, film or music, but often have no idea of the relative severity of them, or whether or not they’re at all appropriate to use in the classroom. If a student’s unacceptable behaviour is likely to be culturally linked in some way (as in above examples, or racist comments in some cultures) treat a first offence as an opportunity to educate the whole class as to what you do/do not consider acceptable in your classroom.

Lastly, and most importantly when it comes to any aspect of classroom management, be consistent. It’s fine to shake things up a bit and try something new, but things like rules and classroom routines only work effectively when used regularly and consistently. If something genuinely doesn’t work with your class, don’t be afraid to change it – but also be prepared to give it some time. Using routines and establishing some expectations (for both the students and the teacher!) can make a real difference in your classroom (and can make you feel far more in control), but don’t expect them to work miracles and improve everything overnight.

I know it’s far easier said than done, but even if you’re really struggling with a class, remember that tomorrow is another day. Yes, it can be easier to establish control of the class if you do it right at the very start of the year (or when you first start teaching them), but that doesn’t mean that today (whenever today is) is too late. It’s never too late to start over. 

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