ESL Teacher drawing on a white board and turning around to conduct classroom management.

Classroom Management For ESL Teachers

It is inevitable that things are going to go wrong during your time as an online or classroom TEFL teacher. Understanding exactly what can go wrong and then having an effective classroom management plan in place to deal with the issues is a major step towards taking control. You want to make sure that no matter what happens in your class you are dealing with issues rather than reacting to them as they occur. This will go a long way in not only keeping your classroom under control but also, in helping you to better manage your stress levels as you will know exactly what to do in already stressful situations.

What are some things to take into consideration?

The most important thing to take into consideration when you are creating your classroom management plan is that you need to understand the policy or guidelines in place at the school or online company you are working for. The last thing you want is to create a plan for dealing with troubles in your classroom only to then get into trouble yourself for dealing with an issue in a way that violates policy.

Different schools are going to have different ways of dealing with problems in the classroom. One school may have no problems with you sending students out into the hall if they are acting up whereas another may request that you call in an administrator to deal with any issues directly, for example. In an online class, you may be just fine muting a disruptive student under one companies guidelines whereas another company will ask that you contact their support.

These differences will also be amplified by the differences in cultures between each country. What is considered appropriate classroom management in mainland China, for example, would get you into trouble in a classroom in Germany. You will always need to make sure that you are covering your bases so that you never run afoul of your schools or companies guidelines.

What problems could come up in the classroom?

Issues that can arise in the classroom are many and varied. They will also depend on whether you are teaching online or in the classroom, with some crossover. If you teach long enough, you will eventually see just about anything and everything, from the run of the mill disciplinary issues to things too shocking and head scratching to even dream about. However, there are some issues that are going to be more common than others.

Classroom Teachers

General Disciplinary Issues

No matter what or where you teach you are going to come across general disciplinary issues. Nothing is truer in this world than the statement “kids will be kids”. Even the most well-behaved children in the world are going to have issues at some point. This is part of growing up. Especially if you are working with younger children, you have to always remember that their brains are still developing as is their understanding of what is and is not socially acceptable.

Most of the issues you will come across will be minor and can be easily dealt with. These include students talking during class, class clowns, minor disrespectful behavior, distracted students, and so on. These are all issues that you are guaranteed to experience at some point during your time as a classroom teacher. Most likely you will experience some of these during your first year and even during your first months as a teacher. So be prepared.

Students at the Wrong Level

In a perfect world, all of your students are going to be exactly where they need to be. The material they are learning will be a little challenging but they will be able to get through all of it with your guidance. None of the students will find it too hard and none of the students will find it too easy.

Perfect worlds, as we all know, don’t exist. The reality that you are guaranteed to face is that some students in your class are at the wrong level for one reason or another. Maybe the school wanted to combine classes in order to save money so they put two student levels into one. Maybe a parent wants to “push their child” so they requested their child be put at a higher level and the school, looking to keep the money coming in, happily obliged. Or, maybe you are at a smaller school and there are simply not enough students to keep them all in their own classes.

Whatever the reason, you will find out quickly that some of your students are mismatched for the class level they are in. You will have some students that are extremely bored and should be at a higher level and some that are totally lost and don’t understand anything for one reason or another. Most likely, your requests to have students moved to more appropriate levels are going to fall on deaf ears so this will be something you need to get used to and learn how to work around.

Issues With Course Material or School Conditions 

Continuing with the above theme of the imperfect world, not all schools and not all teaching materials are created equal. You might find yourself working in a world-class facility that is newly built and stock full of cutting-edge equipment. Or, you can just as easily find yourself in a school that looks like it was used on the set of Apocalypse Now.

What’s more, you may not be in complete control of the materials you are using to teach. Oftentimes, you will be responsible for coming up with your own lessons and, as long as they are approved by the administration, everything will be fine. But, there will also be many times and situations where you are teaching or creating lesson plans based on someone else’s materials or course books. This could be material written by an extremely knowledgeable and well-qualified teacher with decades of experience or, just as easily, by a local teacher with an incomplete grasp of the language and a few years of experience.  

Whatever the situation, you are going to have to learn to adapt to the environment and work with what you are given. It is very likely that any complaints or recommendations that you make are going to be ignored or just not feasible to implement.

Cultural Issues

This is going to be a big one for many teachers. Not all cultures are the same and the attitude towards teaching and education is radically different in various parts of the world. This can be anything from minor differences in teaching philosophy to extreme differences in the way discipline is handled.

In some countries throughout the world, it will be criminal to hit a student. Other countries may have this as the go-to standard for dealing with disciplinary issues both minor and major. For some regions of the world, especially those where many native teachers come from, the emphasis is on creativity and abstract thinking. In many other regions around the world memorization and standardization is much more important.

No matter what, you as a foreign teacher will be expected to adapt to the local environment and will also be expected to go along with things. So, even if you would view something like a teacher hitting a student as completely abhorrent, if it is the way things are in the country you are teaching in and the local teachers are doing it there is very little you are going to be able to do about this.

Online Teachers

Technical Issues

The most obvious hurdle that online teachers are going to face is technical problems that can arise in the classroom. Some of these are going to be within your control as a teacher, like choosing the best internet service provider or making sure your equipment is suitable, other issues are going to be unavoidable, such as dealing with the Great Firewall when trying to teach Chinese students.

You will come across technical issues at some point during your online teaching career. This is unavoidable. It doesn’t matter what the company policy is or what other teachers say, you absolutely will not go to every class without something happening on either your part or the part of the students.

So, since you are guaranteed to come across the occasional tech issue, your next course of action is to make sure you are dealing with it correctly.

Company Specific Issues

As the online ESL industry is relatively new in terms of the mainstream market, the companies in this market are still evolving. As such, you are bound to face issues while teaching English online that are specific to the company you are working for.

These issues can range from the minor, a company changing their policy that affects the way you are scheduled classes, to the major, a company missing a payment for the month. It is important to understand that these issues exist and that they exist to different degrees at different companies.

Understanding that these issues are present can help you to better formulate a course of action in dealing with them if, and when, they do come up.

Discipline Issues Online

Just as there will be general discipline issues in an offline classroom, so to will there be some in an online classroom. The major difference will be that you are on the other side of the computer screen from the student and there is very little you can do in that position.

This is something that all teachers will come across given a long enough period of time. Thankfully, most of the discipline issues in the online arena are relatively minor. You aren’t going to have to worry about students fighting in the classroom, for example. Probably the worst you will have to deal with will be students getting up and moving around or not paying attention to you. The major downside, as stated, you also can’t really do anything about it.

What can be done for better classroom management?

Understand School/Company Policy

This is going to be the number one place you need to start whether you are teaching in a classroom abroad or for an online company. Everything you do in regards to classroom management and disciplinary action should be in accordance with the school or company policy.

At the end of the day being a TEFL teacher, whether online or offline, is a job. This means you are there to do your job and get paid. So, if you are fired from that job because you chose to use classroom management techniques that were not in line with your schools or companies policies then it will be so sorry out of luck for you.

When you are first hired for a school or online company you need to make sure you very clearly understand what their policies are for dealing with disciplinary issues or any other potential problems that may arise in the classroom. For online companies, this will also include any technical problems that arise on either yours or your students part. Understanding these guidelines and policies will give you a (hopefully) solid framework for creating your own classroom management plan so that you can be prepared for problems before they happen.

Have a Plan B (all the way through Z)

As we discussed above, you are going to come across an abundance of issues in the online and offline class related to course material, a student being at the wrong level, schools that are not equipped to truly help students, etc. These issues are unavoidable and there is absolutely nothing you can do to prevent the vast majority of them. However, how you respond to each situation is entirely within your control.

When you create your lesson plans or when you are preparing for each class, make sure to look at everything that could possibly go wrong. If you know you have three students in the class that are well behind the others in terms of skill level, build this into your current lesson plan. Are you working with a topic that may present controversy in the classroom? Plan out how best to present it so that students can better digest the topic and don’t get hung up on the minor issues.

Having back up plans and being flexible and adaptive in your classes is going to be the difference between a stressful situation and a fun-filled class that all of the students, and you, can enjoy. So, don’t just plan on everything going correctly when you are teaching. Instead, have a backup plan and then have a few more backup plans in case the first one fails.

Understand the Culture Before Taking the Job

If you find yourself continually running into problems with students or the company or school you are working for directly related to the local culture, you are the one at fault. This could be anything from topics you want to discuss to certain views you have about the way things should or should not be managed. You have to remember, at the end of the day, you are in a completely different culture with a different set of societal norms or values than you may like.

If you want to avoid headaches and potential problems that could get you fired, or worse, then you need to understand where you are and who you are teaching. This means not talking about certain subjects in certain countries and learning to accept the way native teachers discipline their students in others. In some countries, this could also mean learning to accept that you cannot discipline students in the same way the local teachers can as it could cost you your job.

The best thing to do is learn about the local culture before you move abroad or accept a teaching job so that you can be well aware of what you are getting into before you get started. You are going to have to remember that even if what you believe is right in a logical or moral way, you are not there to change the culture or the people. You are there to teach English. So, by learning about the culture before you move abroad or sign a contract, you will be able to assess whether or not it is really a place you want to work. This will also allow you to better formulate a classroom management plan that is in line with what is acceptable according to where you are.

What are some final thoughts?

The best teachers are those that are the most prepared and at the end of the day, the teachers that make it the longest with the least amount of stress all know exactly what they should do in almost any situation. You may not always know what the day is going to bring you. Also, you may not always be in control of every single situation. But, you are in control of how you deal with the situation. This means that at the end of the day, the burden will be on you to have a well-formulated plan for dealing with any and every problem, whether minor or major, that won’t get you into trouble with the school or company administration. Taking the time to create this plan is going to be one of the most valuable things you can do in your teaching career and will save you a lot of wasted time and potential stress.



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