Classroom Management: 10 things you should never do in class

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ESL Tate
I have been an ESL Teacher for more than 15 years and a Teacher trainer for the last three. Now I help new teachers start their journey traveling and teaching English abroad.
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Classroom Management rules you should always keep in mind. 

Like any job, there are unspoken rules that should never be broken for obvious and not so obvious reasons. And being that we ESL teachers teach in other countries, the line between what is acceptable or expected versus what is not becomes even more blurry. And that’s when common sense becomes your fall back.

But at times it’s hard to apply common sense in an environment that’s less than common and lacking in joining hands with what is common with the Teacher/expat as Korea often presents.

That’s regardless of your surroundings, you should never do these ten things in class.

Like any other job, we all have bad days and we make mistakes. The point of this article is to help you remember and try to avoid as many of those mistakes as possible and get you back on task if you slip.

Classroom Management 101:

Here are the ten things you should not do in a class

1. Use your cellphone

Most Teachers if not all will not like it if a student started using his or her cellphone in class. What message do you think it sends if you are using yours? It tells the students that it’s okay because if you, the Teacher, is doing it, then it must be okay. Remember, students learn more from us from what and who we are than what we teach them from the textbook. And in Korea this is especially true; not that it’s not in other places but because in Korea, your relationship with the students and staff is more important than your teaching ability.

If you are perceived as kind, caring, attentive and just an overall awesome person, you are going to have a great experience in Korea. If you are perceived as the opposite, even if you are not, your experience is likely not going to be a good one.

Not only that, you would have more credibility when telling them to put away their cellphone when you have never used yours than if you have. And if you have, well, you would make yourself a hypocrite. And who respects or wants to listen to a hypocrite?

    1. Yell at a student/ lose your temper

Students get whipped left and right in Korea. And don’t forget how much they get yelled at. They get yelled at for falling asleep in class. Something that I think its no fault of their own if you really look at how the education system here is set up. It’s not this bad for lower grades but I teach high school. And what that means is this:
1. the students wake up at 7:30 and in school at or before 8:30
2. they study all day and don’t get to leave school until 9 pm and sometimes later. That’s already a 12 hour plus shift in school.
3.from school they go to their respective hagwons/ academies for another 2 to 3 hours after regular school.
4. they get home and spend another 2-3 hours doing homework.
So just when do they have time to sleep?
And it they get to school a little late, they get yelled at and a beating. If they sleep in class, they get a yelling and a beating. So, if you as a foreign instructor is also adding to their stress, what makes you think they will give a hoot what you have to say to them? It’s bad enough they get it from the Korean teachers.

I am not saying you shouldn’t scold your students if they misbehave in a way that harms other students. What I am saying is there is a way to go about it. You can scold them without you even saying a word. But before I get to that, let’s talk about the message you are sending when you yell at your students.

What are you really saying when you yell at them?
You are unintentionally saying, you can get to me, I am weak and I have lost control of not just this class, but of my emotions as well.

This is not a good message to send to your students nor anyone else. You lose respect from the students when you yell at them. You become the dreaded, must-be-cautious around type Teacher and you know what? It also takes away from the students fully learning from you. Because if they can feel comfortable and relaxed around you, they are more likely to learn more from you.

I know in school if I didn’t like the Teacher I did my best not to give them the time and day for whatever they had to do or say to me. Luckily I only had one such Teacher in middle school.

So what is one way to deal with less than good students? I have written about that in my post on How to throw a Teacher tantrum. It worked like magic because the classes that followed until now, they have been the best class. There are other ways to deal with students without resulting to yelling at them. I find that the subtle ways work best. You don’t stress yourself, you simply point out what they have done wrong and then unleash the judgement. This way, you keep your sanity, your self control and best of all, your respect as an authority figure.

    1. Single out a student

This is a big no no. If you ever single out a student and cause them to lose face in front of their friends, you will lose that student forever. They will always remember that you did that to them and even though you may win them back to some extent, you can never repair the damage.

I remember when I made this mistake my first year in Korea. I was sitting in my class in Pyeongtaek; my best class mind you. The students were fantastic, they studied hard in class, did their homework outside of class and participated in all my activities without hesitation and with enthusiasm. To put it simply, there was magic in that class. I loved those kids. But I made the biggest mistake I probably have ever made in my years of teaching.

It was a class of nine students and one day I had assigned a home work assignment and only 8 of the students did the work. And since the class was so competitive, the students wanted to know who didn’t do the homework since everything was linked to my Super Duper System and they earned prizes at the end of the week.

Instead of being a good Teacher and not saying who it was, I got over excited and blurted out the student’s name. She looked at me without saying anything, and with that look, I knew it. I knew I had made a grave mistake. A mistake that I paid for for the rest of the year I taught there.

She got bad mouthed by the rest of the class. She was embarrassed, she was humiliated in front of the class , her peers, and what did I get from doing that to her? She became shy in my class, she participated less, she didn’t speak to me outside of class anymore.

I spent the entire rest of the year trying to repair that damage. And no apology or praise could undo it. No high five could undo it.

It took until the day before I left Korea for my year long travel to Europe for her to come to me and say, I will miss you Teacher, thank you for teaching me English. She hugged me in front of the Director who had been urging me to stay at his school and she walked out of the hagwon. And even with these words, you know all I could think of was about that day.

I learned something very important that year. And that’s what it’s all about. Learn from your mistakes and experiences and strive to become the best teacher you possibly can.

    1. Embarrass/humiliate a student

Like the story above illustrates, you don’t want to embarrass a student. It’s just as bad as singling them out. I remember my manager at the same school above who also taught there. She was a fantastic manager and a very kind lady. But she just didn’t know how to deal with the kids. In short, she was a great manager with the teachers but not the best Teacher.

She came to class one day with me as we were subject to observations by her at the hagwon. For two weeks I had been using mnemonics as way to get the students remember more information. And it was working marvelously with occasional mistakes here and there of course. The students were not used to that way of learning so I expected it.

So they manager came to class and we had been studying occupations. Using mnemonics, I had linked all the occupations to each other with a story of how they related to each other. In fact, the students came of with 95% of the story so it was funny, silly but it did what I intended it to do. It made them remember and able to use all the words, occupations and pretty much everything in the story in the real world. It was working.

All the students told the story showing off their vocabulary as they often did, some even deviated from the original story and made up their own parts and I welcomed this with enthusiasm. But not so fast.

Jenny, one of the students, who had been struggling but was making progress with this way of learning made a mistake. She paused, got nervous because the manager was watching. I had a big smile on my face trying to encourage her but before I could say any words of encouragement, the manager had already stepped in. She called her stupid for forgetting, urged her to hurry up and said many things until the poor girl started to cry.

I could not forgive her for doing that to Jenny but the damage was done. That little girl was never the same in any of my classes.

    1. Eat

I had given into this one several times before I realized the damage it had caused. Suddenly I saw a more than 50% increase in the students bringing food to class. They would chew on their chips, packaged hot dogs, shrimp chips and whatnot all while I am trying to explain something on the board.

I mean, the mirrors, occasional cellphones, make up kits, dictionaries, and MP3 players and god knows what else they carry around are distractions enough. And I made the mistake of being so hungry one day that I took a snack I was eating to class and continued eating it. A tragic mistake that haunted me for several classes because I found myself having to spend time telling the students to put their food away thus taking from valuable class time.

Not only that, I looked like a complete hypocrite and since I didn’t want to be one because that’s even more damaging as a Teacher or any other authority figure, I had to compromise with them. So I let them bring food only if they are starving like I was but only if they can eat it inconspicuously. See how we lead by example whether negatively or positively?

    1. Get too much in students personal life

Many teachers fall into this one. There is a thin line with this one. Even though it’s less so in Korea but there is still a thin line not only because foreigners are sometimes seen as less than whatever but because it can be disruptive for your class and you as a teacher.

You start to be more of a friend than a teacher. And if you become too much of a friend with the students, you start to lose respect. There is a fine line here and you are in full control of it. You get the respect you demand by your actions.

For example, my students have become very close to me. They tell me things that I would prefer not to hear sometimes. They tell me things I am sure they would never tell a Korean teacher. This is partly because I have this understanding with them that nothing they can say in regard to themselves that I will dismiss as unimportant. However, the important thing they look for and I know better than to do, is what I do with that information.

If I divulge that information to others, I lose their trust, respect and confidence. No teacher wants that. In University, the professors I liked very much and still friends with until this day, are the professors that I respected as teachers but who also saw me as a friend to some extent. They had a open door policy. I could talk to them without feeling like I needed to hold back. And because they knew I respected and valued their opinion as I felt they did mine, we got along and they would even invite me over to their house and asked me to watch their dog while they were away and whatnot.

So getting involved in the students life is usually not a good idea but can be beneficial to them and possibly you especially if they look up to you as a mentor. But be careful about how involved you get. And not only that, too much of you makes need and dependent students. You should aim for the opposite.

    1. Only follow the textbook

Please don’t bore the students to death. Be creative, look up youtube videos, pictures, riddles, idioms, games, tongue twisters, the possibilities are endless to add to your text book.

Students, especially older ones have seen it all. They have had the text-book only Teacher, the worksheets only, the games only and so forth so be the one that brings a little excitement to class by bringing all of this ideas to class.

I hated going to the classes where the teacher only read from the book and then handed out a worksheet for us to do. This is fine but what made the the classes I loved more interesting was the fact that those teachers brought in other materials such as newspapers, guests, their personal experiences and much more to the class than the textbook was offering.

Strive to be this kind of Teacher. Bring in samples of what you are teaching if possible so that the students can touch it, smell it, see it and thus solidify their knowledge of the lesson. Be a super-teacher, you can do it 🙂

    1. Show who is your favorite student

This is a no, no, no, no, no, even if you have a favorite you should never reveal who they are, not even to the student. It is heart-breaking when a student finds out that you favor other student(s) over them. It shuts them down immediately and even more so if you are their favorite Teacher.

It’s like finding out Santa is not real at the age of 6, what a sad day that was and clearly I still haven’t gotten over it. I still cry at night under my pillow on Christmas Eve, I wish I was joking.

By having a favorite student and revealing who they are, you create a problem for the student and for yourself. The student will be shunned, looked down on and even bullied. You will be seen as unprofessional whether you realize it or not. And not only that, you will make the rest of the students feel horrible and create a divide in your classroom that cannot be mended.

Imagine, two brothers, both handsome, gifted in many ways including intelligence. However, one is more ambitious than the other. He goes to college, gets his PhD and teaches at MIT. The other who is not so ambitious, decides on a modest living. He does not go go to college, stays at home with the parents in the basement and plays video games all day.

Then one day he hears the parents talking and they express how proud they are of their PhD son while expressing dissatisfaction with their video game playing, basement son. Imagine how he feels upon hearing that. That’s how the rest of the students feel when they find out you have a favorite among them.

    1. Be late

There are forces we cannot control. Things happen and sometimes you can’t help it but be late to class. But being chronically late sends a bad message to your students.

Yes it is true that class starts when you, the teacher, gets to class because without the teacher there is no class but this is the very reason why you should be in class on time. Even if you don’t like the class, be there a few moments early.

Regardless of how you feel about the students or the school or whatever it maybe, you still have a job to do. You still have to be on time because you care. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t be teaching would you?

It can be rough being a teacher at times but think about the difference you are have the power to make, the lives you are shaping and the lessons you are teaching through your actions.

If you are late for reasons you cannot control, acknowledge it before you begin class and apologize to your students for so being. They will appreciate it and maintain a high sentiment about you.

    1. Overload students with homework

Giving out a lot of homework doesn’t make you a good teacher. If you are planing on giving 30 questions for homework, why not give 10?

Quality will always be superior to quantity. Don’t fall into the over-teaching zone because it is counter productive. The over-teaching zone is also the boredom zone, smothering creativity and leaving students gasping for air. This is bad to say the least.

You want to maintain a healthy balance while giving students breathing room.

The most effective way to give students breathing room and something I never considered before is self-study sessions. I have incorporated this into my lesson plans. Once a month now I give the 3rd and 2nd graders a self-study class.

I give them a small assignment the involves getting ideas from each other and interacting. I am there for questions and guidance only as I move from group to group lending a hand and pointing them to the right direction.

They really like these sessions because they get a chance to release, blow steam from being overworked in other classes and so forth. Some of these sessions end up being great discussions sessions and some end up being a talent show. My only concern and as my co-teacher approves to it as well, is that everything is done in English. And this is precisely why only the 2nd and 3rd graders have this privilege because they have a high vocabulary to speak and carry on a discussion. Not that the 1st graders don’t but it’s not enough.

It might be just what your students need. So, protect their right to learn by not over loading and leading them to become as Michael Linsin, arthor of Dream Class puts it, ‘unmotivated, reluctant students’. Knowledge is power and the teacher is the wielder. You are that Teacher. The power lies with you. Whether you know it yet or not, you are someone’s hero.

Although widely known these tips are often forgotten. With the authority we get as Teachers come the responsibility to be professional and courteous regardless of our personal life situation, at all times.

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  1. Pretty much agree with this, although I find the Korean teachers are the worst for answering or checking their phones while teaching, mid-conversation etc. (fair enough the latter if it is ringing, but not if it is just a text message). I know in the UK, teachers aren’t allowed to have their phones on vibrate generally, just completely silent so you can see missed calls, messages etc. after class).

    re: The raising your voice thing, I agree to never get angry, but if you are someone who rarely raises their voice, the rare time you do (again, not angrily), they are much more likely to listen (obviously, if you shout all the time, is becomes the norm so they will ignore the ‘difference’) so it can be effective if used VERY rarely.

    One minor thing I would add is to treat all the students as equally as possible, if you have a set punishment for certain actions, you punish your (secret) favourite student the same way as you would the student who gets punished for this action all the time. I had to do this in a class where too many bits of paper were being thrown around, so I told everybody that the next person I saw throwing paper was going to be sent to the back of the room with their chair, cue one of my favourite girls a second later tossing a piece of paper. Did her punishment very quietly, then came back and cried at her desk. Didn’t feel good, but it showed that I am fair. (obviously, I am teaching elementary here).

    • Indeed, the fairness thing really gets to them. If they suspect you are not being fair, they will quickly resent you. And especially at the age they are right now, they are a lot more sensitive.


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