The Art of Smile and Nod


I read Joanna Malefaki’s post on Disciplining Adult Learners, and was immediately inspired to write my own thoughts on the topic. You see, we spend a lot of time talking about how to manage challenging behaviour in our young learner classes… but much as we shy away from admitting it, challenging behaviour happens from time to time in adult classes too.

Similar to Joanna’s experience, I’ve had students:

  • Openly text/play on their phones throughout the lesson
  • Answer a phone call, then having a phone conversation in the middle of the lesson
  • Ignore instructions (problematic when those instructions are to start or stop an activity)
  • Argue with and openly criticise the teacher
  • Laugh at, bully or otherwise be unpleasant towards other students
  • Refuse to participate in activities (more often than not communicative tasks) because they are ‘pointless and stupid’
  • Repeatedly arrive late (upwards of half an hour), with no apology or explanation

Normal behaviour for teenagers, you might think. But I’ve encountered all of this with adult students too.

The challenge here is ‘what do I do when my adult student is behaving badly?

definitely don’t have all the answers to this one (if you have any more ideas I’d love to hear in the comments), but here are my thoughts.

Remember that in the classroom, you are the boss.

Personally, one of the reasons I find it difficult to ‘discipline’ adult students is simply because of how I perceive their position in relation to mine. Often my difficult adult students have been older than me, and in the case of in-company classes, may well occupy a very senior position. Meanwhile, I’m someone who is being paid to provide a service – and the first rule of customer service is that the customer is always right.

After several years of teaching, my opinion now is that where teaching is concerned, this way of thinking has to go. Yes, I may be younger than this student, earn less money and be regarded as being less senior, but in the classroom, I am the one in charge.

This means that if a student’s behaviour is disrupting their or other students’ learning, I have the right to say something about it – regardless of that student’s age, gender or position.  

(If you ever doubt that you’re in charge, I strongly recommend asking troublemaking older kids, teens or even extremely disruptive adults to stand up and come and take the lesson instead of you. I’ve never had any takers).

Stay calm.stress-kit

Getting angry (especially in front of the student) is simply not worth it. It jeopardises your
professionalism, can turn a positive classroom atmosphere into something very negative, and is unlikely to have the result that you are looking for. I have a bit of a temper, so definitely don’t find it easy to practice what I preach here – but taking a moment to breathe, remaining calm and not allowing things to get heated (however strongly you feel) is more likely to improve the situation than not.

Decide how much it’s worth fighting over.

This is a tricky one… and a personal one, because I do think it depends largely on the situation.

In terms of things like texting in class, the students are only disrupting their own learning. Yes, it’s disrespectful and impolite, but at the end of the day they are the ones who will suffer. This is something I might address if it becomes a regular occurrence, but if it’s only once or twice I may well let it go.

If a studedifficult-people-quotent refuses to participate in an activity, again, that’s fundamentally their problem. I’ll explain to them my rationale for doing it and why participating would be beneficial for them, but at the end of the day I cannot force them to do something they don’t want to do. In this situation I’d simply devote my attention to the other students and ensure they get the most out of the activity as possible.

I will not tolerate students being rude, disrespectful or bullying towards other students in the class. In these situations I will almost certainly make my views clear to the class immediately, and may well speak to the individuals involved after the lesson as well.

In terms of topics such as racism, homophobia, sexism, and political views, it’s a tough call. I’m well aware that my students come from different cultural backgrounds to myself, and therefore their views, while intolerant and unacceptable in my culture, may well be the norm in theirs. Here I think all you can do is make it clear that their views are not universally accepted. If ideas are expressed that really bother you, simply steer the conversation away and make it clear that you are not willing to participate in that discussion.

Put the students in your shoes.

One thing I have found to work well when working with difficult adult students is to ask them to stand in your shoes for a minute – or equally in the shoes of other class members. While teenagers or kids don’t necessarily have the empathy required in order for this to be effective, adults generally do,  and most adults do agree with the idea of ‘treat others as you would be treated’. If they wouldn’t be happy with their teacher  chewing gum, or texting in the lesson, or arguing with other students, why is it ok for them to do so with you?

One thing that’s worth bearing in mind here: remember that your students are adults. While it’s fine to tell them that their behaviour is unacceptable, don’t make a big show of it or single out one difficult student in front of the class. If one or two students are acting out of line, the rest of the class will have doubtless noticed it too – but they are also likely to be watching to see what you do about it! Wherever possible take a difficult student aside or speak to them after class. Make it clear that you consider their behaviour to be disrespectful or inappropriate, but do this calmly and respectfully.

Ask others for advice.

Several years ago I taught a really difficult adult student. The kind who would argue and tell the teacher that they were wrong, who would roll their eyes and sigh loudly if they didn’t like an activity, who would threaten to complain at the end of every single lesson, and who would from time to time simply refuse to participate, instead sitting there, arms folded, glaring at everyone. After several lessons of this (she joined part way through a course), I was jittery, paranoid, and concerned that I was doing things horribly wrong and was a terrible teacher. Until I spoke to my colleagues.  It turns out that almost all of them had had a similar encounter with that student – she would routinely turn up, sulk and pout her way through six months of lessons, and then disappear until she decided that she needed to improve her English again. I never did figure out exactly what her rationale behind this was – but knowing that I wasn’t alone helped a lot.

Even if your colleagues haven’t taught the student you’re currently having difficulties with, they may well have been in a similar situation with a different student. Ask people for help – they may be able to make suggestions, offer advice, or simply make you feel better.

Get back-up.

If you’re teaching on a free-lance or private tuition basis, this one is harder, and I don’t honestly know what to suggest beyond try some of the above ideas and decide how much you’re willing to tolerate.

If you are working for a school, however, it’s worth speaking to your Senior Teacher or ADOS. Even if they won’t speak to the difficult student on your behalf (and sometimes they will!), it can be worth it just for reassurance. The prospect of students complaining gets a lot less scary when you know that the school management has already heard your side of the situation!

Have you ever had problems dealing with a difficult adult student?

What happened, and what did you do?


4 thoughts on “The Art of Smile and Nod

  1. I am glad my post inspired you to write this post 😊 I enjoyed reading it! Adult sts are tricky. You raise some great points. I think that in my case the fact that the learner was online made it harder!


  2. I appreciate what you have to say here. Coming to the end of an extremely difficult term, I am desperately searching for ways to manage the classroom behavior of my “young adult” students. I teach a unique group of students, aged 18-26, who didn’t pass their secondary school exams in Hong Kong and are given a second chance to complete it. I teach the English portion of their “extra year.”

    I especially resonate with the idea of putting the students in my shoes. Sometimes I am perplexed by how inatentive the students are during a lesson and I think that maybe introducing some sort of a “walk in another’s shoes” lesson in the beginning of a term, and during the term when problems arise, might help mitigate problems that I have. Maybe…we shall see.


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