The ABC of ELT

How I dealt with two Problem students

classroom in black and white

Every teacher has a problem student at one time or another in their life (and for most of us a lot more than just once!) Of course, a summer school is no exception to the rule. I generally subscribe to the view that a problem student (or class for that matter) usually reflect on the teacher as well as the students (and outside factors that have lead them to be the person they are). As such, although students are responsible for their attitude in class, I believe the teacher is also responsible for helping to create that environment and can change it.

My toughest students yet

Honestly, I’ve encountered a couple of students here at the summer school that have really tested my abilities at classroom management and discipline. I’d like to share my experience here, what I did, and the results before finally asking what you would have done (or have done in the past with similar students). Let’s get on to my students.

Japanese students.

I’m bulking a large group of my students all together here as I have certainly found teaching Japanese students very difficult to teach during my time here. I know I’m not the only one either as I have heard other teachers making comments when I asked for advice. The response I usually got went along the lines of “it’s just the way they are. Let them carry on with that.” Which to be honest, I didn’t buy.

Sure, there is an element where this is true, Japanese students (on the whole) do seam to be shier and quieter. What’s more, there is an element where this is just something we have to deal with it but I was sure it was more than that. So I reached out to the amazing PLN.

I remembered something Kevin Stein wrote a while back about Japanese students and problems with Listening and speaking skills due to their L1 being a Syllable timed language and not Stressed timed (in addition to several other pronunciation features) makes it difficult for students to make out what people are saying to them, and so of course have difficulties responding and talking. Thinking about this made sense when I compared it to my own issues with Spanish where I found the blending of words and sounds much harder to distinguish than I had Russian.

Added on to this I thought about one of my students who had revealed that he had jumped up to Upper-intermediate level after only 3 years! No wonder these skills weren’t as developed.

Speaking to Kevin was great and I got some great advice on how to help Japanese students that I saw immediate results.

  • Focusing on the difference between syllable time and stress timing,
  • Focusing on allusion and slurring of words together
  • Kneeling lower than normal when giving 1-2-1 attention to students, speaking quieter and moving my ear closer to the students so they could speak quietly in my ear.
  • Pictoglosses (mentioned here)

Not everything I tried worked out well. I found the more creative the task I set the harder it was for my Japanese students to do (this may be limited to these particular students though I heard similar comments) but there was certainly an improvement upon the week before.

Why don’t you check out Kevin’s blog (or contact him) for some more information about teaching Japanese students. Alternatively, if you are also well versed in teaching Japanese students, I’d love you to share your comments as well.

The most unresponsive student I have ever met.

Unfortunately, I had a student who really stretched me for other reasons and I can’t honestly say that I wasn’t the most professional in my career with him, I could blame the stress of summer schools but still I should have handled things better with him. I had the fortune to teach this student the previous year where he tested at the lowest level. A year later and he was back in my low pre-intermediate class. At first it was nice to see a familiar face and I was eager to see how much he had improved (as I remember that class being very hard the year before for various reasons). However, after a week or so all the teachers noticed a common problem with this one student.

At first it was repeatedly swearing in his L1 in class (after having taught the other students the word he was using). Unfortunately for him he didn’t realize that one member of our teaching team had been in his country for several years and told him off immediately.

Next, there was the problem of his lack of response and action in class. Several theories were proposed such as “he’s too strong and finds it boring.” (which seamed to be backed up by his impressive homework and conversations outside of class. Next we decided that actually he was very weak and it was too hard for him (as he didn’t seam to understand basic instructions or do any other the activities in class). Maybe they were too tough and we were pitching it above his level. Maybe he needed extra help?

After about half a week of special effort being made, extra graded instructions, etc it was apparent that this wasn’t the problem. The example (for me) came in a class where the students were doing one of these silly chain drills as a bit of fun. You know the ones carry on the conditional sentence “if I won a million pounds i’d buy a new car (student B) if you bought a new car, you’d buy a Ferrari! [etc]” and he just said he didn’t know. I went over and clarified the activity (which all the other students understood), ask the students where they were up to and even brainstormed some extra follow-ons. Again he insisted he didn’t know what to say so I present three options and suggested he choose one, He again said he didn’t know. Finally, one of the students in his group (who had been waiting for five minutes) told him to say one of the options and he still said he didn’t know.

I talked to the other teachers about it after class and they shared similar stories of how even the simplest tasks were met with no or very little response. As such, our teaching team came to the conclusion that this was laziness on his half and that we should be stricter with him and after warning him that he would have detention for not working in class we ended up giving him detention on a couple of occasions (where as it happens he worked very hard at his work!) Now, perhaps it wasn’t laziness and the work was too hard for him (but it didn’t seam to fit in with his homework, detention work or communicativeness outside of class), perhaps he was just not a morning person and that was why he found classes first thing in the morning so hard, or perhaps most likely of all he was a tired hormonal teenager who didn’t want to be doing school work during his summer holiday. The thing that gets me is that I don’t know what should have been done.

  • We tried grading our instructions more, modeling, giving special attention to combat his potential lower level,
  • We tried setting harder tasks to challenge and stimulate him more.
  • We tried setting more interesting topics that he would like to talk about
  • We tried creative tasks to give him a chance to express himself
  • We tried being strict and pointing out he would eventually do the work sometime

But in every case he seamed to take the path that avoided the instant work (I felt very sorry for whomever I would partner with him.) So my big question here is… Did we miss anything? What would you have done in this situation?

One last thing.

We all face problem students at times and it is great to be able to have a wealth of advice both within the physical teacher’s room and in the online teacher’s room. Why not share some of your problem students stories (current or past) and let’s see what we can all learn from each others struggles. After all it’s an amazing feeling to finally have some success with a group that has been causing you trouble.

About Chris Wilson

I'm an English Language teacher based in Krakow, Poland. I enjoy writing, using technology and playing the Ukulele.

5 Replies

  1. Hey Chris!
    Great post! I love the honesty and the potential help for/from other teachers. Awesome. I am often a bit uncomfortable giving advice without knowing the situation fully but I wonder if having a 1:1 chat with the student about what was going on might have helped? Or maybe having him write about it? I was imagining talking to him about things that you have noticed …just simply observations and letting him know that you have noticed these things (trying not to sound like judgments but just simply things that we have seen). I hope this makes sense. I guess the other thing that I would consider would be to just leave him be a bit and let him not be responsive or give him so choice of when he might want to participate in open class situations (or whatever).I am thinking about a card or something that he can flip as a secret signal to the teacher to say “Yes, I am ready to talk in front of the whole room” or something like this. I hope that my scattered thoughts are of some help!

  2. Kevin Stein

    Hi Chris,

    I like Mike’s suggestions. Definitely worth just talking to the student and seeing where he/she is at. And I usually tell my quiet or shy students at the beginning of class that they can just slide their pencil case to the left side of the desk if they don’t feel like talking and slide it over to the right if the think they want to answer a question. This usually ends up lowering anxiety levels and keeps the pencil cases surprisingly right-sided. And when it is on the left side, it saves me all kinds of frustration.

    But these are just general kind of answers and it sounds like Mr. Unresponsive wasn’t a general kind of dude. There was something very specific going on there. It could have been that his girlfriend or boyfriends was placed in a different class than him, it could have been summer time studying resentment, it could have been morning blues. But it was definitely his problem. Which doesn’t mean as teachers we don’t try and help. We do. That’s why we are teachers. But if you do the best you can to create a safe space where the student can let you know what is going on, and the student stull decided not to tell you, well I think we also have to respect that decision as well.


    1. Thanks Kevin (and Mike) I JUST saw both your comments! (can’t believe I missed them).
      I think you’re both right about it being his problem and we should have approached him outside of class to speak to him. Unfortunately, he had left by the time I was writing up the post and I think it was more a sudden realisation that actually mentally thinking “Screw you” might not be the best response to an unresponsive student!
      Thanks for the comments guys, I guess summer school really has made me scatty!

  3. I remember a student several years ago who was in the lowest level class and made no effort whatsoever. No matter what we tried.

    After the end of the course I heard him talking to a couple of other students about a course photograph in fluent English!!! I praised him afterwards and asked him why he hadn’t done it in the class and he said he just didn’t like studying English – Many kids are actually sent to summer school as it is cheaper and/or more convenient for the parents than taking time off work. I have also had students with obvious learning difficulties (Not mentioned on the course application forms either.)

    1. Very true about students being dumped there by their parents. I know we certainly had some who belonged to that category.

      It’s interesting that some students just don’t like studying. I suspect the same students might not want to talk about why they don’t study in class but I don’t have any firm evidence for that.

      Thanks for sharing your experience

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