Discipline in your TEFL Class

Unfortunately TEFL‏‎ is not just about teaching English, the issue of Discipline also arises and needs to be covered and dealt with effectively.

Whilst discipline in language schools is not normally as much of a problem as it is in regular state schools, as a teacher you will likely come across classes which offer challenges. These are mostly – but not always – teenagers.

This article looks at the problems and some solutions of Classroom Discipline in other words, what options are available to you as a teacher to keep a productive, friendly atmosphere in class.

Low-Level Disruption

When discussing discipline problems the first thing to ask is precisely what we mean. There are obvious issues like being abusive, throwing chairs out of windows, fighting and so on but incidents like these are rare to apocryphal in the EFL‏‎ classroom. What most discipline problems come down to in class are what is termed low-level disruption.

Things like:

  • chewing gum
  • talking
  • students arriving late
  • forgotten homework
  • texting
  • passing notes
  • tapping a pen non-stop on the desk
  • dropping course books

in fact anything slightly irritating which (as any teacher knows) can slowly build up and turn the whole class into a waste of time. Students are, in the main, very respectful of the teacher but it has been shown that this low-level disruption can take take over much of the classroom time and make lessons almost worthless.

Before the Class

Firstly, and before any issues arise, it’s important that you need to know precisely what you can do with a disruptive student, just in case. This is important because you cannot make threats with punishments which cannot be given out; if you threaten to expel a student and then find that you don’t have the power to do this, then you will lose authority in the class as much as if you threaten to tell a student’s parents about messing about in class and then find out that’s impossible.

So talk to your DoS‏‎ or school owner and find out what punishments are allowed. These vary but could be:

  • expulsion for one lesson
  • lines (very old fashioned!)
  • calling in parents
  • written notes to parents
  • send to see the principal
  • extra work

and so on. Ideally you will never have to go this far, but you do need to know what is possible.

Causes of Discipline Problems

One way to approach the issue of discipline is to ask yourself why one or more students are causing problems. Removing those reasons might well improve discipline. The usual problem (but by no means the only one) is one of boredom. If a student finds the lesson too hard or too easy they will zone out and perhaps start disrupting the class; if the topic is of no interest to the student they zone out; if the student is passive in the lesson (i.e. they sit and listen to you talk instead of being actively involved) they zone out and disrupt.

So the first step for a lesson is to make sure it’s not boring and this is where your Needs Analysis comes in. This will remove a lot of low-level disruption and classroom discipline problems.

See the links below for more on boring lessons.

Attitudes & Rules

But it’s not just about the lesson. It’s also about how the students perceive you, the teacher.

Students – especially teenagers – need to be made explicitly aware of who is in command in the classroom. The moment they see what they can get away with they will dig at this and make the lesson a nightmare for you.

At the beginning of term in the first lesson the students will assess their teacher and work out where the boundaries are in terms of discipline. And you need to make sure that on Day One you are firm and the boundaries are set.

This means Hard then Soft‏‎ where you start by being very strict at the beginning of term and then slowly become more relaxed. This is far, far easier than starting off relaxed and then trying to impose discipline later on.

You move students in that first lesson. You make them turn off their mobile phones. You silence interruptions immediately. You get the reputation of being a tough teacher who brooks no fooling around. You establish right at the outset the class rules such as no phones and English Only‏‎.

And from then on it becomes easier because despite what you might think you cannot be a friend to the student; it is much better if you are their boss.

See below for links to these ideas.

Dealing with a Disruptive Student

A common problem is a disruptive student. Perhaps they talk when you are talking or answer back or mess around. Here is a simple solution.

Specifically ask the student to correct their behavior:
Jose, please stop talking.
If the student continues, tell them clearly and specifically what will happen:
Jose, if you do not stop talking I will send you to Mrs. Rivera’s office.
If the student continues, follow through on your threat.

This final step is very important. If you do not follow through or otherwise delay punishment, the student wins and knows that they can get away with more; you lose authority.

See Red Card, Yellow Card below.

Dealing with Confrontation

Sometimes, however, a confrontation isn’t as black and white. A student might raise an issue with you or challenge your authority in a less obvious way.

T: Jose, where’s your homework?
S: You said I didn’t have to do my homework.
T: No I didn’t. Everyone has to do homework.
S: No. You said I didn’t have to.

In cases like this, don’t get drawn into an argument, especially in front of the rest of the class. Instead say something like:

Ok, we’ll discuss this after class. We’ll talk about this later.

Write in your notebook their name & the problem and move on with the lesson. Then when the lesson ends ask the student to remain and when the rest of the class has left deal with the problem. If, however, you need to talk to the student before the end of class, take them outside where the two of you can have some privacy to discuss the issue. This removes the audience so neither of you will lose face with them during the discussion (and the student has no one to “show off” to).

On this issue, it’s important to keep the confrontation between the two of you. If you start to involve other students, either by appealing to them for their input or support, then you lose face and you can never be certain how they will respond. To be on the safe side, keep them out of the issue.

Finally, don’t lose your temper in class. If you lose your temper you lose face which is incredibly important. You will lose your position of authority and you will have dropped to the level of a student having a tantrum. So… stay calm at all costs and exert your authority with dignity.

More Tips

Here are further tips which can help:

  • Never raise your voice. If you keep calm not only does it mean that your students will respect you more, but they will need to keep quieter in order to be able to hear you.
  • Be Fair. Treat all students equally so if your best students does something wrong they get punished just as anyone else would. If you show favoritism in the classroom your students will resent this.
  • Each Lesson is New. Never bring over grudges or problems from previous lessons. Wipe the slate clean for each lesson.
  • Don’t Bluff/Be Consistent. Never go back on a threat if you’re called; always follow through with a punishment otherwise you will be taken advantage of. In other words, if you say you are going to do something then do it.
  • Use Humor. If you are that kind of teacher, use a little humor to close disruptions down (but be careful with sarcasm, some cultures don’t understand it).
  • Over plan. Make sure you have more than enough material for your lesson and everything is planned. Having to stop a lesson while you think of what to do next invites disruption and talking amongst students.
  • Be Understandable when Giving Instructions. Make sure your instructions are clear, simple and to the point. A lot of classroom problems arise when students don’t understand what they are supposed to be doing. See the link below for the main article.
  • Move Them on Day 1. If you do this then you can break up disruptive pairs later in term. See the link below for the main article.
  • Everything Off. To keep distractions to a minimum, have the students clear their desks while you’re explaining or covering a topic. See the link below for the main article.

Useful Links

Boring Lessons‏‎ – what they are and how they can lead to class disruption, and then how to fix them!

Giving Instructions‏‎ – how to give instructions in your class so everyone understands

Move Them on Day 1‏‎ – setting the ground rules

Everything Off!‏‎ – clearing the desks to make teaching more effective

Hard then Soft‏‎ – how to approach a new class to ensure no discipline problems throughout the term

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Posted in How To Teach English.

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