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Lessons learned – The most challenging class I have faced

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A post about a challenging class of young learners and advice for teachers with problems.

Has a student or a class ever brought you to tears? This blog post is about class that brought my partner teacher to tears and took me to the edge of despair. It was back in the spring of 2001 when I was a relatively new and inexperienced teacher. My partner teacher was even less experienced than I was at that time. I remember worrying about this particular class every weekend, but there was one particular day when everything that could go wrong, did, and horribly so.

Before telling you about that particular day, let me provide you with some background information. I was a teacher at a language school in Japan. This particular school rented rooms in kindergartens and my partner and I partner would travel to this kindergarten every week. Early in the afternoon, as regular kindergarten classes finished, we would teach some of the kindergarten students who had signed up for this school. Then, as the afternoon progressed, elementary and sometimes junior high school students would come for their English lessons. I would teach a conversation English class and at the same time my partner would teach reading and writing to another class. We’d do this for 25 minutes then we would change rooms and teach the other class.

The class my partner and I were having some difficulties with was a class of 10 five year olds. There were three or four extremely lively boys in the class. At the best of times, I found it challenging to get them to even sit down. They were also quite aggressive with the girls in the class. I don’t think they mean to, but they certainly intimidated several of the girls with their behaviour. The day in question was a parents’ observation day and that was to be my second class of the day. I taught my first class and after 25 minutes packed up my things and went to the class where my partner was teaching. All of a sudden, the door burst open and my partner came out in floods of tears. She was too emotional to speak, so I gave her a few words of encouragement and then entered the class.

The scene that I was greeted with is one that will stay with me for the rest of my teaching career. One boy was standing on the table in front of a girl with his pants round his ankles. His twin brother was under the table also minus his pants. I looked around the room for their mother but she wasn’t there. Another boy was lying in the middle of the class on the floor screaming. I checked for his parents but again they were not present. A fourth boy was sitting down at the table and was punching the girl next him. Again, after scanning the room I found neither of his parents was attending. I moved quickly and dealt with the boy who was throwing punches by moving him to another seat. I then managed to pull the boy’s pants up who was standing on the table and got him seated. I then encouraged his brother sat down with his pants on. The boy on the floor wouldn’t move so I took up a seat where I could keep him in my vision.

Of course, the class was a disaster. I managed to get them to sing a song and join in a flashcard activity but it was mostly damage limitation at that point. It was a long 25 minutes. I seriously considered quitting teaching after that day. I would now like to tell you that I discovered a fantastic technique that turned the class around and made it a joy to teach, but I never found that technique. Teaching doesn’t work like that, does it? I did however have a great boss at the time who agreed to come and observe me and give me advice. His guidance helped me make small steps and slowly over a period of 12 months the class became easier to control and eventually quite enjoyable to teach.

The advice he gave was specific to what I was doing in class at that time and in that context, so I’m not sure if this is applicable and useful for you, but it is what I learned. First, was to take control of my own body language. In other words, to be completely aware of how I am being perceived, particularly through the eyes of a young learner. I always tried to be a happy, smiley, and fun teacher, but in this context, being that way all the time was not helping me. I learned that showing displeasure through your eyes and poise can have a big impact on the behaviour of younger learners. By slowing down my actions I also learned that I could control the energy of these boys much more effectively. I didn’t need to be overly energetic. I needed to slow down and thus calm the atmosphere of these lively boys. I also learned that being specific and lavish with praise when a learner did something well was very effective. I often told and showed my satisfaction when they did something well, but I learned to hone this praise to specific individuals for doing certain things.

It took a lot of time, but with hard work, determination and the use of these techniques I did eventually manage to turn the class around. I actually went on to teach the twin boys for a total of about five or six years and they became fantastic students. I’ll finish with what I think is the best advice I could now give a new teacher or a teacher that is having difficulties with a class - reach out to another teacher. If you can be observed, that would be great. If not, talk to colleagues or join a teaching community online. Good luck!