I think we've all had a student like this one. Or, perhaps you might even have several students whom you feel are always challenging you in class. In any country, in any classroom, you'll find yourself in a situation where one student seems like he or she is out to get you, ruin your class, and make you look bad. While some students can certainly be disruptive, one of the most important lessons I've learned in dealing with this issue is: the students are rarely acting out on purpose. It may seem that way, but if you dig deeper, you'll often arrive at a very different conclusion.
Know your Audience
A former student of mine, Andy, always had a hard time following me in class. He was disengaged, and spent most of the class daydreaming or aimlessly playing with the stickers in his book. I was hard pressed to make him do anything aside from what he wanted. It turns out he didn't listen because he found my class boring! By speaking to his mom and finding out more about him, I designed my lessons to incorporate some of his interests. Every time I made him smile and laugh, I made a mental note about what I did, and I'd use it in a later lesson.
Working at a private training school you'll often find yourself working at the evenings on weekdays. However, that means when students arrive to class they’ve already been at school all day, done some homework, and maybe even already had dinner. Chinese students are very diligent, and they spend upwards of 12-hours a day in classes. They start school at eight o’clock in the morning, finish at four, and still must attend English lessons in the evening for several hours before going home. If a student is acting-up in your class (or disengaged), it could be as a result of exhaustion and mental fatigue. I've found learning about the days of my students has helped me understand how busy and tired they are, and helps me tailor my lesson for them. Perhaps making them less active, or playing games that gradually build up their energy for the following activity will be effective. Sometimes something as simple as spending the first five minutes of relaxed chatting can do wonders. Those five minutes aren’t wasted if it achieves the objective of increasing engagement during the rest of the class.
Use the Force
On occasion, the opposite happens, and you have a student who won't stay quiet—he's always out of his seat, yelling and bothering the other students. Everyone's had a student like this, which is disruptive for other students trying their best in class. One in particular I remember was not only too energetic, but also extremely smart—this is often the case. I decided the best thing I could do was to embrace his energy and use it to benefit my class. He became an outstanding teacher’s helper—he helped me collect books, check homework, erase the board, and take attendance. When some of the students didn't understand part of a lesson, I'd ask him to model with me. I found a way to use his energy for the benefit of the class—it wasn't always perfect, but it was an effective way to minimize disturbance and keep him motivated.
Slow Things Down
Another reason you students could be acting up is because they don’t understand what you’re saying or doing. Beware of asking students, "Do you understand?" The answer will always be a resounding "Yes!" In China, admitting you don't know something makes you "lose face", which is a pathological fear in China, so they rarely admit to not understanding something. It’s better to ask them a Concept Checking Question; one that cannot be answered with “yes” or “no” but rather a specific response. Also, watch your students carefully—are they paying attention? Do you have eye-contact? Can they follow your instructions? If not, ask a student to model the activity, explain again in a simpler way, and give students proper time to understand what you’re saying. If the class is struggling, call on stronger students to help demonstrate.
There are numerous ways students can disrupt a class, but remember it’s not always because they want to cause trouble. In fact, it’s rarely the case. There’s always a reason for their behavior, and if you take the time to determine the root cause, you can much better deal with the issue and make the best of the situation.
About the Author
Mikkel is a Chongqing based teacher, blogger, and photographer. He has lived in China since 2010, and can be found blogging here, here, and here.