How to control classes of difficult teenagers when teaching English


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What is classroom management in the TEFL classroom?

A good definition is «the teacher’s  management of the classroom, the people in it, and the course content » Many teachers say that «classroom management is everything in teaching » Much of what follows can also be used if you are doing a PGCE or similar teacher training course, for schoolteaching.

How important is classroom management in TEFL ?

It can’t be denied that good classroom management is fundamental. You need it before you walk into the classroom – and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The TEFL classroom can be quite different from the school, in that you may be teaching adults, the « rules » and expectations are likely to be different and are still not established when the course begins. The teacher may not even understand the students’ first language to be able to get them across clearly.

Is it just teenagers who need good classroom management?

All levels and groups – even business English students – need your good classroom management. For company directors, you might want to establish on day 1 whether or not they can answer the phone in the middle of a lesson, of if it’s ok to arrive late and not do homework . With 6 year olds it’s more likely to be « raise your hand if you have a question ».

How are teenagers different?


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Teenagers are different because they naturally need to push the boundaries, to find out where they stand. They’re no longer children, but they aren’t adults either, so you need to judge it just right. They love being treated like adults but need boundaries too, a good framework of rules and expectations, set on day 1 of the course. Remembe they’re just not quite old enough to self-impose their own rules, so they need you to impose them.

What happens without good classroom management?

You probably know the answer to this question if you think back to the « student teacher » who came in at school in the spring term. The kids were thowing things, shouting abuse and answering back. Very little learning took place, as lessons became a battle betweeen teacher and group. Some of you may even have witnessed the poor teacher crying !

What are the golden rules of classroom management in the TEFL classroom?


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Here are the top tips:

1- Don't try and be their friend

The kids have their own friends and will just pity you if you come across as needing their friendship. American teacher Kevin Ryan wrote a book in the 70s called « Don’t smile til Xmas », which is an extreme version of what you need to be doing, but you get the idea. Smiling can be misinterpreted as weakness.

2- Get silence at the beginning of lessons..

and use it as your benchmark. You do this by standing still in the middle at the front, in silence yourself. You wait (and that’s the key, you wait..) for them to be start nudging each other and saying « shh, she wants to start ». There’s a kind of law of physics here in that the longer you wait, the more expectation of what you are going to say is, and the more likely they are to stop talking and start listening. Don’t get angry at this point even if you have to wait a whole minute (more on this later). Then when you do start speaking, speak fairly quietly, so that they are all forced to listen. If someone interrupts, then stop dead and look at the person without getting angry. Resume when they have stopped. Now you have your benchmark.

3- Don't be a late guest at their party

be in the room and get it prepared (clean, organised, chairs under tables..) before the lesson starts. If timing is a bit tight see if you can have them wait outside the room so that you can welcome them in. With difficult groups, welcome them in one by one with a little « how are you today » comment, to show you have a personal « contract » with each individual. If you still predict bad behaviour, tell them while they are still lined up outside that there is a worksheet ready on their desks for them to get on with and have finished by 5 minutes into the lesson.

4- Don't talk over the students

As EFL teachers we need to encourage STT (student talking time), so when they speak we stop. Talking over them, at any point during the lesson, gives all the wrong messages, ie that what we have to say is more important than what they have to say, which is not true. TEFL guru Jim Scrivener was once asked in a TV interview what he feels TEFL teachers should change if they could just change one thing, and he replied that we should  listen to our students, and respond accordingly, as we do when talking to friends. It also improves rapport drastically of course, and showing this respect means that the group is much more likely to be co-operative.

5- If you expect chaos you will get it

« Shh ! Shhhhh ! OK ! OK ! Right… So ! Oh hi, don’t worry sit down there, anyway, where was I…. Stop talking, stop talking, right then, RIGHT then ! Everyone, can you – no not you – you work with her…can you, where was I… » Creates an atmosphere of chaos and is not conducive to thinking, study and learning. Did you respect that teacher ? No, you resented them for being so disorganised and having such poor classroom management. Very little teaching or learning got done. The teacher behaved like this because he thought that he had no chance of obtaining a civilised atmosphere. He expected chaos, and helped to create it.

6- Manage everything

Decide where the students will sit. In a circle ? In a U shape ? In semi-circular work groups ? Will you decide who will sit with whom ? Or can they choose ? Will I move them about ? What will I write on the board ? Where does the vocab go ? Where will the grammar rules go ? Will I use 2 colours ? Is the audio / video ready to be played ? You mustn’t be typing things in the YouTube search bar, or looking for the « on » switch on the loudspeakers in real time. What will the students be doing for the first 20 minutes ? The second 20 minutes ? The last 20 minutes ? Have a got a filler activity or two ?

7- Remember that the students want to learn and improve

They may well rather be elsewhere, but as they have to be in class, they want to learn. At the very least, they probably have an exam to pass, and even in a worst case scenario they know that the more they can learn and do in class, the less they have to study at home !

8- Never enter into conflict with the group

Do everything you can to have a private chat with the individual after the class. End the class a couple of minutes early to do this.

9- Keep the parents involved

before things get out of hand.

10- Don't take it personally

Kids WILL push the boundaries and trying to upset you may be one way they do this. It’s not them, its their age talking.

11- Don't make idle threats

You must carry out all threats so be very careful what you say.

12- Don't be afraid to back down

Your job is not to win battles, but to create a good learning environment. If they all say « we need to talk to you, we’re bored with the topic », then first of all establish that they do all feel this way. (« Put your hand up if you agree ») to make sure it’s not just a few of them. Then take 5 minutes, listen carefully to everything they say, note it down, thank them, say that you will go home and talk to the director of studies (if appropriate) and propose how you can change things. This shows that you respect them, want them to be happy and aren’t the weak teacher who « needs to win all the time »

13- Use self deprecating humour, never laugh at them but with them

Don’t try to be cool, dare to do that silly mime to teach « dance » or « skip » and point to your own clothes to check understanding of «fashionable ! (ie probably not!)».

14- Share problems with colleagues

A problem shared is a problem halved. If you share it with the director of studies, then it becomes their job to (help you) find a solution. All good directors of studies want feedback from their teachers about students and how things are going. It shows them you want to do your job well. All directors of studies have had difficult groups, and understand

15- Praise the students

Bear in mind that every time they say something in English, they are already doing something difficult and potentially embarrassing for them. Say things like « that’s a good idea, anyone else ? » and « Good, can you say it in the past tense ? » Avoid « no » as that is tantamount to saying « you shouldn’t have said that », which of course is not true.

16- Remember their names

The best way to do this is to use them. There are several tricks to remembering names. Write their names in seated order on the whiteboard. They can make « name cards » and put them in front of them on the table. You can have fun at the end of the first or second lessons by saying « right, let’s see if I can remember all your names… Ok… Fred, Chr… argh… Christelle ? Sorry Christine… don’t tell me… » But using them « that’s a good point Fred,, do you agree Mohammed ? » is still the best. And of course really helps with classroom management generally « Alice, could you sit with Laurent ? Thank you»

17- Show interest in them

Remembering things about them helps relations « Have you heard the new album by…. ? » to someone who likes a certain type of music, or « what do you think of Mbappe going to Paris St Germain ? » to the one who likes football. This makes them feel like adults, which means they’re more likely to behave like them.

18- Keep a free space in the front row of the class

in case you need to move anyone who is messing about, in case you need to diffuse a situation quickly. You can be honest here « I don’t know who it was, but I need to separate you , sorry ». If they refuse, then again back down and have a good word with both at the end of the lesson, not just for 30 seconds but for a good few minutes, and explain the seriousness of refusing to cooperate.

19- Know the school's system

Where do they go if you need to remove them from the class? Can they sit and work with the secretary? Who contacts the parents? You or the secretary?

20- Accept that sometimes « whole classes » will get difficult, and expect this

Always have « somewhere to go » regardless of what is happening. No matter what is happening at the early part of the lesson (eg people throwing things about), begin with a polite comment. « Ok guys, could we start now please » Then use your waiting for silence (see point 2). Hopefully you can see that you can now relax into the lesson, knowing you still have 10 stages to resort to!

  • Polite remark
  • More serious remark
  • Very serious remark
  • Threaten to move to front seat
  • Move to front seat
  • Threaten to work with secretary
  • Work with secretary
  • Threaten to contact parents
  • Contact parents
  • Threaten to eject from school
  • Eject from school

21- Keep good records. This is crucial

The moment that the students know that you are aware of their exact performance, a lot of potential problems melt away. You can then give them and their parents meaningful feedback. It looks like a lot of extra work but really isn’t, because you just do it as you go along. All you need is some blank grids to fill in with a pen during the lesson. Here’s an example:

12/04/22 19/04/22 26/04/22 3/5/22 10/05/22
Julie Late 10 min
Stéphanie No h/w Late 10 no h/w still Note ok
Jean-Claude X X Note needed Contact parents OK note given
Alexandre X Note OK
Pierre No books No books Contact parents Chat to Director of studies

* You can see that Pierre didn’t bring his books. Be careful, as this not only means he probably didn’t do his homework, but will be bothering his neighbour and messing about today. « no books » is worse than « no homework »  and really needs to be addressed as such.

22- Have low expectations with genuinely difficult groups, ie those from difficult backgrounds

Not all groups will progress well and some groups will misbehave constantly, regardless of what you do with them.
With these groups just decide that you will be happy if they do a good roleplay at the end, or do a gap-fill exercise fairly quietly.

23- Try different approaches with very difficult groups

Do they need a teacher who gets them sitting quietly ? Or do they need a teacher who allows them to move about and let off steam ?

24- Isolate the behaviour from the student

Eg « that was dangerous, come on, you aren’t stupid so that must never happen again » is good. « You idiot, why do you always do that ? » is not good, insulting, and means you expect the student to do it again.

25- Have a few tricks up your sleeve

You shouldn’t get angry with students, although if you actually aren’t angry then once a term you can try it to see how it works « I’m really angry about this class, please come on time. It makes things very difficult »). Other tricks if you are feeling bad « I’ve lost my voice / I’m feeling a bit sick , sorry, I’ll do my best»… students can be remarkably understanding and tend to improve their behaviour.

26- Set the rules on day 1. Eg

  • When the teacher is talking, listen
  • Always bring a pen, some paper and your books to the lesson
  • Arrive on time. If you have a problem, get a note from your parents
  • Keep the classroom clean and tidy
  • Never eat in class
  • Bring a note if you are absent or haven’t done your homework, or don’t have your books
  • Never throw anything
  • Never shout
  • Speak in English when you can
  • Put your hand up if you have a question

If these rules are broken we will need to speak to your parents.

27- Nip everything in the bud

By having a quiet chat with someone who arrived just 2 minutes late, eg « is everything OK ? Did you miss your bus ? » The whole group quickly realises that you are serious about your task and have high expectations.

28- Perhaps the most important rule of all

Keep everyone busy all the time. It’s not true that they want to mess around. Teenagers just do this when there’s nothing else going on, and when there is a « hole » in the lesson, even if that hole is 30 seconds long ! So keep everyone busy, all the time. This involves giving them lots to do (much of it should be enjoyable remember), and limit as much as possible the time that you are standing at the front explaining things. It’s often the « lecturing » that the students consider to be dead time. Keeping them busy also means you can say « no time that that Mario » if he starts being silly, which is nicely non-confrontational.

Hopefully this article will help solve any class managment problems before they start, and allow you to actually teach and for the students to practice in a civilised environment.

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