Often, when I tell other teachers what I do, teach ESL students at the college level, they exclaim, “Oh, that must be great! You don’t have any classroom management issues. Because your students really want to learn.” Well, yes and no.
I indeed think it’s a great job. And adult ESL students rarely have classroom management issues like throwing spit wads and shoving each other—they do, however, make and receive cell phone calls during class and update their Facebook profiles. ESL students, like students in general, come to the classroom for a variety of reasons, intrinsic love of learning is probably not primary among them in most cases. This is complicated by divergent notions of what is appropriate classroom behavior—not only from what students were taught in their past education experiences but also from instructor to instructor on the same campus. One instructor may not be bothered by the student text-messaging under the desk—or at least, not say so—while another may come unhinged. So how does the teacher manage the classroom under such circumstances?
Classroom Management for the Adult ESL Student
Get it in writing: Put expectations in syllabus
If you are really bothered by use of cell phones and other electronics during class time, say so in the syllabus. If you’d really prefer students spend the majority of time speaking English in class, rather than breaking into discussion groups in their primary languages, say that as well, and give a reason.
Have a plan
Have a plan. Break course objectives down and have a plan for the semester, week, and day.
If students are busy doing relevant work, there is less chance they will become classroom management concerns.
Transparency is the key
Make your plan transparent. Put the day’s or week’s or semester’s plan on the board or class website so students know what they should be doing moment to moment.
Have a classroom management plan, too
Also have a classroom management plan in place, whether it is in your head or in writing. But think through what you would do in certain situations: what you would do if you find a student had plagiarized her paper or what you would do if a student could not seem to stop talking through your lectures.
Vary grouping strategies
Students tend to get bored when in one activity or grouping for too long. If I’ve done a teacher-fronted, whole-class activity for ten minutes, often my students begin to drift and to hold side conversations. This is a sign that it’s time to vary the instruction, to break students into small groups for further practice. Usually once the activity has changed, the negative behavior disappears.
Discuss it in private
Although classes as a whole tend to have a specific “climate,” and often it’s the case an entire class is just difficult to manage, sometimes there is an individual student with problematic behavior, such as consistently (and disruptively) arriving late. If behavior like this develops in one student, it’s usually best to meet with the student privately and discuss the situation. Often the student is unaware that there is a problem and is very apologetic and promises to improve. Other times the student knows the behavior is a problem, but it is rooted in some other academic or personal concern, like loss of transportation or simple misunderstanding of how important it is to be on time in a U.S. classroom. The teacher can discuss the situation with the student, and often the problem can be solved with one meeting.
Be polite but direct
Be polite but direct about what you want students to do or not do. If you are bothered by a student bringing food and drink into class and loudly consuming it throughout the class, it is all right to tell the student--privately, so the student isn’t embarrassed--but usually students who demonstrate inappropriate behavior like this are not going to pick up on subtle hints that their behavior is inappropriate, so being direct is necessary.
Don’t let them cross the line
It is rare but not unheard of that student behavior can cross the line from merely inappropriate and annoying to alarming, especially if there are suspected drug abuse or mental health concerns. For example, a number of years ago, an immigrant student who had acted a little odd all semester, enough so that most of the other students avoided him, was in my ESL class. One day, when apparently upset over his failing grade, he came into my office, shut the door, and asked, “Do you love your husband?” Startled, I replied simply that I did. He then asked, “If you love your husband, why don’t you love your students?” The behavior of shutting the door and then the bizarre dialogue was enough to alarm me into dropping a note to my dean, who I think must have then had the student into his office for a stern conversation because the student disappeared from the program shortly after. Of course in most cases, this is not the outcome we would wish, but in reality not all students are able to benefit from all educational settings.
Involve authorities as needed. Although ideally instructors should develop the skills to deal with the vast majority of classroom management issues within their own classes, it is all right in certain circumstances to involve higher authorities—sometimes the police, if you feel your immediate safety is in jeopardy. Although it is rare, sometimes student behavior warrants intervention from others. Instructors should have on hand the phone numbers of their dean, campus security, and the police to be notified depending the level of behavior: a case of repeated plagiarism should be referred to the dean, for example; calls to security or the police should be reserved for threats to property or personal safety.
Yes, classroom management is a challenge, and most classes do not magically organize themselves into active and respectful groups of students—not even classes of adults, not even ESL students.
This requires the hard work of a teacher. However, the well-conducted class can be achieved with planning, varying grouping, being direct, and involving others when needed.
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