Student failure and underperformance are inevitable in the ESL classroom, especially if you teach in a foreign country/culture.
Failure may or may not be your fault as a teacher, but it is important to understand its origins, stay positive, and cope with it appropriately to become more effective going forward. Here are some analysis questions and tips to address underperformance in your classroom.
Identify the EXTERNAL Factors for Failure
Did the students have trouble coming to class because of transportation issues? If they blame transportation, it is important to identify if they are using it as an excuse or if a transportation issue does indeed exist. Students might say that they cannot come because a bus was cancelled, but really they just did not want to wait in the rain for a bus. Make your class as close as possible to where students live or where they can easily be transported by bus, car, motorcycle, horse, etc.
Did the students have trouble coming to class because of scheduling issues? Students might have conflicts with more pressing engagements in their daily schedules. Make sure you ask before you plan another class what times are best for students, or pay attention to the daily schedule of people in the community. Do not plan your class at lunch hour, for example, especially if preparing that lunch is a familial duty of your students!
Did the students have family problems? Sometimes family obligations come first, and there is little you as a teacher can do. Identify what the specific problems were if you can, i.e. students never got permission from their parents, or there was a death in the family. Make sure students have not only permission from their parents, but also involvement from them if possible.
Were the students motivated to begin with? Analyze if students really wanted to study by identifying their stakes in signing up for and then completing your course. Do they have other school and/or work commitments and are too tired to learn more in a day?
Did you analyze cultural norms of completion and classroom failure? Maybe you are doing better than you thought! This author was teaching private classes and became discouraged when only 20% of students completed and passed her EFL course in a new community. She then learned that local professional institutes for EFL are pleased with a 10% completion rate!
Identify the INTERNAL Factors
Different Classroom Environment?
Are the students unprepared for your type of classroom environment? You might be teaching on a whole different level than their typical classroom, which can result in failure. Make sure you research how students learn in your community or in the culture from which they come. If teachers never ask questions, for example, you might be scaring them with your constant pestering for participation. Tone it back!
Do you try to teach too much? Do you assign too much out of classroom work for which your students do not have time to complete? Be honest if you are trying to do too much and creating the failure.
Are You Effective?
Are you an effective teacher? Evaluate yourself. If no one can help you with this because you are in a remote location, try an auto-evaluation tool like videotaping a class and observing yourself.
Do you have adequate classroom materials? Do students have pens and notebooks and English texts? If you are in a developing country, adequate resources can be a barrier to learning. Try making personal reusable blackboards from milk or juice cartons (or any other shiny cardboard) and a roll of clear shipping tape. With a dollar or two investment in a marker, students can practice writing at least during your class time.
Can They Understand?
Can students understand you? Maybe they need glasses and you are constantly writing terms on the board that they cannot read! Maybe you talk too fast. Maybe they cannot even read or write and you are relying too heavily on those learning methods. Pay attention to your students and make sure they understand what you are teaching! Constantly check for learning and adapt your teaching methods accordingly.
Do students respect you? Maybe your students do not connect with you personally or want to learn from you because they do not view you as a valid expert in the field. Seek help from locals or cultural community leaders to gain respect! Invite them to class to speak, observe, or just visit. Sometimes students just need to associate you as an expert/professional to take the class more seriously.
Whether the factors for failure were external or internal, now that you have identified them you can work toward alleviating them in the future. There is still a significant emotional burden you bear from the failure however, which is also important to address before you take on another classroom assignment.
- Take time to talk to other ESL/EFL teachers in your community to share experiences and commiserate difficulties together. They probably even have some fantastic suggestions for you to improve your classes and your perspective!
- Take a vacation. Get away from English teaching for at least a week and do something in which you are successful. Your confidence will bounce back.
- Create specific goals for improvement. Do not be too hard on yourself if the failure factors were internal! Use it as a learning experience and set three or four concrete goals for improvement, like
1) I will journal after each class about student reactions to checks for learning and
2) I will sit in on one class a week at a local school and incorporate a new classroom methodology that is culturally aligned every week.
Do not think of student failure as a personal failure, but as an opportunity to grow and learn as a teacher and better serve your students going forward!
Odds are the majority of the failure is not your fault or is fixable – the key is to stay positive and work towards improvement.