Teach Abroad

6 Classroom Management Strategies for ESL Teachers

Steve Patton

Steve calls Boston home, though he spends as much time on the road as he does in any one place these days.

It doesn’t really matter where in the world you are, how old your students are, or what subject you are covering -- classroom management is a universally important part of being a successful teacher. Keeping your students in control is perhaps even more important for an English teacher abroad, especially when it comes to building rapport with your students.

Classroom management is a universally important part of being a successful teacher.

When faced with a significant language barrier, remaining poised and authoritative in front of your students is crucial, as at the first signs of disarray, things can very quickly spiral out of control. It's a nightmare that I'm sure every newbie teacher has had.

But, we know why you're here: you don’t want to be that teacher that is constantly shouting over a room full of kids buzzing around the room like a hive of angry bees, so check out some of the classroom management strategies below, and keep them in mind as you begin your stint teaching English abroad!

Enter Class With A Well-Planned Lesson

Your students will pick up on signs of anxiety or nervousness on your part, so remaining cool is a key component of maintaining a tightly run classroom. The best antidote to anxiety in front of any crowd is feeling prepared, so start planning early and often.

Especially when you first start out, make sure your lesson plan is detailed -- overly detailed even. Some things you should include:

  • A clear intent for your lesson -- almost like a "mission statement" (For example: By the end of this lesson, students will be able to do ___ by completing / doing ____)
  • Estimates on how long each task of your lesson will take.
  • Notes on how you'll give instructions.
  • Definitions for potentially new vocabulary you'll have to explain.
  • A plan for how you'll write all of this on your whiteboard / chalkboard.
  • Extra activities in case your lesson takes less time than you planned.

All of this will not only help you feel confident and prepared, but it helps you stay on track and avoid tangents that might get off topic or confuse students. It also helps to communicate your intent to your students. Tell them what they're about to learn, and they'll be less likely to spark tangental conversations as well.

More than anything though, have a lesson plan that you feel confident about, and review the subject matter in advance so that you can deviate from your plan without feeling lost. Having a backup plan or extra activities will allow you the freedom to switch things up at the last minute is really helpful when a particular lesson or activity just isn’t working, and you’ll be able to cater your students learning styles more effectively.

Feel (or Fake) Calmness And Confidence

Of course, there are times when everybody feels nervous, and that’s okay too. Especially when you’re first starting out, you should expect butterflies in your stomach. That doesn't mean your students have to know this.

Instead, the key is presenting yourself with confidence, even if you don’t necessarily feel confident at first. Having some practice before you’re on your own in the classroom will help, so hopefully you took a TEFL or CELTA certification course with a practice teaching component (if not, we have a whole list of TEFL courses for you to choose from).

If you're still nervous, get together with a friend or fellow teacher and talk out your lesson, or even just practice it in front of the mirror the night before. It sounds a little goofy, but we promise it helps with those first day (or week) jitters!

Maybe putting on your favorite teacher sweater will help you feel more confident for those first couple weeks (look good, feel good, right?) Different strategies suit everybody, so do some experimenting and find what works for you!

Confront Problems Immediately

Unfortunately, no matter how prepared you are and how efficiently you structure your classroom, you will eventually encounter some difficult students.

For any number of factors, some people just aren’t too keen on learning, aren't interested in English, or maybe even find the lessons too easy. Unfortunately, these students that act out can quickly become a distraction to even highly motivated people. If you ignore problems and sweep them under the rug, or are passive in difficult situations, they will just build up and eventually boil over, so it’s best to confront your difficult students early.

Sometimes a higher-authority figure it necessary, and having a local on your side can be helpful as well.

How exactly you deal with this will depend on your teaching style and the culture you're teaching in -- but no matter what, don't be afraid to be stern, and always, always, always keep your cool.

If a student is talking out of turn and creating a distraction, let him or her know the first time that it’s not okay, without raising your voice if possible. If the problem persists, consider dismissing the student from class. Don’t wait until the third or fourth time when the behavior becomes a habit.

Situations like this can make a language barrier more difficult to overcome, so it’s not a bad idea to have at least some survival phrases in the local language that you can use if needed, or enlist the help of a local teacher to administrator to help explain the issue to your student.

Ask Other Teachers And School Staff For Help

... Which brings us to our next point. As a foreign English teacher abroad, you can only do so much on your own. While you should certainly try to diffuse problematic situations by yourself first, if unacceptable behavior continues and becomes a serious problem, don’t be afraid to bring your boss/supervisor into the situation before it truly gets out of hand.

In some cases, talking to the students’ parents might be an appropriate course of action. You’ll have to use your best judgment for each individual situation, and unfortunately, there’s no concrete rulebook.

For adult students, the situation can be even trickier. You may be younger than your student and feel weird about reprimanding them. Or it may be considered rude to single out any one student for bad behavior. Definitely ask for help and advice from your boss/supervisor in this scenario. They're experienced both with the job and the culture and will have tips for you.

Of course the natural instinct is to want to prove to your employer that you can handle the situation by yourself, and show your effectiveness as a teacher. But sometimes a higher-authority figure is necessary, and having a local -- who can reprimand students in their native language -- on your side can be helpful as well. There is no shame in admitting that.

The unfortunate reality is that bringing such situations to light can be met with varying degrees of seriousness by hiring schools. Hopefully your employer takes it seriously and offers to help diffuse the problem behavior, but some administrators might not want to hear it. “It’s your class, figure it out,” is an unfortunately common phrase in the industry, but if you find that your employers reaction falls into the later category, it might be time to think about moving on to a different school.

Prevent Potential Problems In Advance

The best classroom management strategy is really prevention. If you can identify easily distracted students early on in the semester, and give them extra help when needed, you can probably eliminate most problem behavior before it occurs.

The average ESL classroom has a higher variation of abilities than you might be used to at home, and it can be a big challenge to find material that suits both advanced and less adept students. Fortunately, there are resources out there (Google "multilevel ESL classroom"), and plenty of ideas for activities for multilevel ESL classes to help you tackle this challenge.

What feels like chaos at first can be turned into creative group learning opportunities; so don’t be afraid to experiment.

If these tactics don't work and a student still seems to be struggling, ask them to stay after class and see if you can’t help them grasp the material with one-on-one tutoring. Behavior problems often stem from lack of understanding, and when a “problem” student gets a taste of accomplishment, that can often be the first step towards turning their behavior around.

Conversely, boredom can lead to distracted behavior as well. You might find that more advanced students can be just as disruptive sometimes, so see if you can identify such cases and provide them with more accelerated material in your extra time, or ask them to peer teach less advanced students -- let them do some of the work for you!

Change What You Can, Don’t Stress About The Rest

Some things are beyond your control as an English teacher abroad. Your classroom might not be a model of proper behavior, with perfectly silent, diligent students providing you with their undivided attention every day, and that's okay. And maybe you don't want that! Maybe you do want a class that's not afraid to talk (in English, of course!)

That doesn’t mean that they aren’t learning though, and it doesn’t mean that you aren’t doing your job. Some classrooms are simply going to be more boisterous than others.

If you find yourself with a group that is a challenge to manage, see if you can harness their extra energy, and turn a negative into a positive. What feels like chaos at first can be turned into creative group learning opportunities; so don’t be afraid to experiment. Teaching abroad is the perfect chance to try new things, and see what works and what doesn’t, both inside and outside of the classroom!