A very bad, horrible, no good class

We’ve all had them! That class when, for whatever reason, nothing seems to go right. A teacher friend of mine had a class like that today.

 Parachute Games

Image: markheybo

It was worst… the lesson was worst… Kids were running around, laid themselves down on the floor, spoke Japanese a lot, didn’t listen to me and others from the song!!! But they were very nice to play with parachute.. One of their mothers told me, kids didn’t understand what I said during the lesson. So they felt the lesson was not so interesting. Have you ever had the lesson like that? What do you do for that?


This is a mixed ability class, where brand new beginners have joined an existing class. The beginners were the students who were most energetic (and a bit out of control). The mother offering her impression of the problem is the parent of one of the more experienced learners.

What advice can you share? What do you do with lessons go wrong? How do you integrate beginners in a continuing class?


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23 Responses

  1. Anna Musielak says:

    I think that in some situation, especially with new learners who are not used to being still on a lesson and who do not know the commands/rules you can use your L1 (repeating in English). Reinforce the rules of your classroom – ask the old pupils to say what you usually do (so that the new pupils know what is expected of them). Use it as a command revision lesson;) Also a kind of a reward system might work- stickers/stamps for those kids who behave well – the ones who misbehave would want to get some as well. For a lesson with MA I use a lot of songs and rhymes – the weaker pupils are not intimidated as they “perform” in a group. Hope it helps:)

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks, Anna! I love your suggestion to take advantage of knowing the students’ L1. Asking the old students to help review the rules helps them feel special, too!

  2. Anna Musielak says:

    Sorry for the typos – was writing too fast;)

  3. Eric Kane says:

    Question #1: What happened before the class started?

    Were all the children welcomed? Was there a procedure for entering (the classroom) or starting the class? Did the newer kids learn from established learners?

    Question #2: Was the lesson…”lesson” specific?

    Was the teacher moving in line with an established curriculum without taking into consideration the varying levels of the learners? What was the gap in experience, knowledge and connection (with the teacher)? How many assumptions were made about comprehension, motivation and ability?

    Question #3: What are the follow-up plans?

    All is not lost. The key to success in the classroom is the communicative connection between the teacher and learners (teacher/learner and learner/learner). When new members enter the environment, creating a welcoming environment which acknowledges its newest members can make a world of difference.

    It may take a few minutes of class time, but it can open the flood gates to communication and learner later! 🙂


    Eric Kane
    ELF Learning

    • Barbara says:

      I like your idea of having a welcoming routine, Eric! Can you give an example a routine teachers might use to welcome new students and begin class on a positive (and calm) note?


      • Eric Kane says:

        Why certainly, Barb. 🙂

        At our school, we have a lobby area where we do the following as the children come in:
        1. Remind them to put their books in the book return and get a new one, helping as necessary.
        2. Give them a sticker for attendance in their stamp book.
        3. As time permits, we cover (preview/review/mini-assess) material in their stamp book (basically a book we’ve made with a summary of the content for their class level).

        When it’s class time, we have them make a line in front of the door where we sometimes take role and sometimes just banter for a moment before the kids ask, “May we come in?”

        Of course the answer is yes, and we usually have something for them to do set up in the classroom. I could be puzzles or matching for the younger learners or books for older learners, but usually something (even a YouTube video). We find that a, “routine of change” can be a good routine…if that makes any sense!

        When newer students join, I usually don’t make mention of it until roll call, at which point I try and show a great deal of interest in the new student while taking notes in our book. By showing my interest, I’m modeling what I hope others will do. I then introduce the student and have everyone say hello. Then I suppose I just treat him/her like a regular member of the class while being mindful of class routines that might be unfamiliar. In those situations, I might take an extra minute to show how to do a game or activity for the benefit of the new member.

        When I taught in larger classrooms (primary and secondary schools) with anywhere from 25~40 students, the routine was obviously different. After taking, “speed roll” (saying their names and they returning, “here” as quickly as possible…we used a timer. HINT: Change the order of calling their names each day. Be sneaky.), I liked to use the board a lot. I’d write up something on the board as a puzzle. Sometimes is was instructions for an activity that they needed to understand before starting. Sometimes is was a matching activity. Sometimes it was a story or dialog that I wanted them to remember. The point was that there was a focus from the start where everyone had to work together. There were not usually new students in these classes so I can’t say exactly how I’d handle that. Perhaps during roll call? Leave that person for last and then have everyone say hello in an obnoxiously loud voice? Then the same as above I suppose. Treat like a normal member of the class and assist as necessary.

        Is that even a little bit clear? 🙂

  4. The first image that came to my mind as I read this blog post is that of the Ron Clark Story . In this mvoie teacher Perry had every reason to stay where he was teaching – things were all going so good for him and the students. But he ventured out into a New York inner city school to be of useful to less-privileged students. In the Inner Harlem Elementary School what awaited him was a bunch of teenagers who were more interested to see whether their new teacher can outlast them.

    Perry however does not give up. He starts his teaching the ordinary way – setting up ground rules – but learns soon that with this group of kids it won’t work. Then he goes the unconventional way and tries to learn more about these kids. Over the months he wins the children’s confidence and very soon the equation changes in his favour.

    Yes, teaching can be one of the toughest jobs in the world. The kind of disruption that’s presented in the original blog post can scare any normal teacher away. However, to be in the profession and to be of some use to the learners one just can’t be a normal teacher. A quote shared once by one of my classmates and that often returns to me about teaching is this:

    To teach John English, one needs to know English and John first and then how to teach English to John.

    There’s lot of truth in this statement. Teaching cannot be restricted to the actual contact hours; instead teachers need to do that extra work to know as much as about their students as possible. This knowledge will help them to teach English in a way that’s relevant and immediate to the students.

    To sum up, I’ll recommend that teachers should watch this movie (just to be reminded that all classrooms need not be a bed of roses and despite it being that patience and perseverance of the teacher can turn things around) and also to know as much as possible about their students.

    • Barbara says:

      This is a good reminder, Cherry. We should always try to get to know about our students, and know about their lives outside of class. Great movie, too!

  5. I’ve been teaching young learners for nearly 20 years or more in more than several settings such as my own school, a nursery school and elementary schools. Classroom management all depends on the setting and the students so that it is quite hard to say what works and what doesn’t without knowing more information about the class you have a problem with. However, in my case, recording my classes has been one of the best ways to identify what exactly went wrong in classes. After watching the video or audio recording, I often identify the reasons for issues in my class such as bad behavior of some students. It could be unclear instruction, unusual changes, unpleasant or tiring events before the class, troubles at home, concerns at school, excessive stress, insufficient energy outlet, lack of sleep and so on. To make the matter more challenging, most of the time young learners don’t understand why they act the way they are on the day. By observing the recording, the activities or the approach were inappropriate for the class, I usually modify how to conduct the activities or approach itself to more appropriate one. However, if the problems are circumstantial, there is not much you can do but tell yourself, “Oh, this kid is having one of those bad days. Let’s take it easy today.” Excessive excitement of beginner students is one of circumstantial factors and as they get used to the class and other students, they will be calmer. What you might need is not to take it personally and be upset about the class too much. Instead, I do some activities that are familiar with them and can get involved without confusion from the day 1 such as Janken game. It is not linguistically rich but when there is no order nor motivation, young learners learn nothing anyway. So, how about letting go of the negative thoughts of yourself, taking advantage of the excessive energy and enjoying the moment with young learners instead of exhausting yourself by trying to control the situation? After all, one of the best strategies of class management is to get to know your learners and appreciate their uniquenesses. Happy teaching!

    • Barbara says:

      I like the idea of giving ourselves permission to have a bad class once in awhile. There are so many things that affect class dynamics — weather, holidays, school events, etc. — and we don’t have much control over them. Always good to have a few activities to pull out that always work.

  6. Ayat Tawel says:

    What a scary class for many teachers it can be !! However, I will start from Chiyuki’s point of taking advantage of the situation. It is very important to see the good in an apparently bad situation, to have a positive eye !!
    In such a class, we have to be smart to make use of the students’ different interests. The teacher should walk around the class and share with the students their interests. You can go to the students who are singing, appreciate their sweet voice and sing with them an English song or start with them a challenge of making up a new song themselves. Other students who are moving around can be given an activity to do such as writing as many items found inside the classroom as possible or even going around the classroom interviewing other students to get to know some special things about them (this can perfectly help new students get along with other students).
    As for those who are always talking in their native language , you can give them a challenge to see who of them can keep talking in English longer than others before he stops to say a word in his native language !!
    These kinds of activities will make use of the apparently bad class and turn it into an enjoyable learning experience. This will also be appreciated by the students who will like the idea that their teacher didn’t discourage them or force them not to do what they like, which will build a wonderful relationship of trust and confidence between the teacher and the students, and thus build up for better and more controlled classes later on !!

    • Barbara says:

      This is a good example of finding a silver lining, Ayat! Thanks. I like the idea of taking children’s problems and turning them into learning strengths. It’s good advice to try even with classes that aren’t out of control.

  7. Adi Cerman says:

    Hi everyone,

    My Worst Case Scenario protocol when teaching YL is:

    1) Close the book or stop (pause) the lesson.
    2) Give them a ‘Me-time’ break, a break where every kid can do whatever they like in the classroom, and ask them use simple one or two word English phrases to tell the activity to their friends before they start playing. Teacher can help in language production when necessary.
    3) Allow them 5-10 minutes to have their ‘me-time’. Teacher goes around to show interest of what the kids are doing and how they are feeling. Teacher can help with their English to respond if necessary.

    When ‘me-time’ finished, ask the kids to gather in a circle (on the floor if possible) and share what they have done, whether they enjoy the ‘me-time’. Teacher and other students give an applouse after each student shared his/her experience in very simple English.

    I believe that simplicity is the key to effective teaching. Another 2 (two) basic principles that I beleive about teaching YL:
    1) they don’t come to our class to learn, but to play.
    2) It’s the teacher’s role and art to make that ‘play-time’ become a ‘learning-time’.

    Hope it is useful! 🙂

    Best regards,
    Adi Cerman

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks, Adi! I definitely agree that if something is not working, it’s good to stop and do something else. I like the idea of “me time”. It seems like a good way to encourage authentic language use, especially in a pre-school or kindergarten where children are there for several hours (at least). Might be a bit more challenge in a language school where classes are only an hour long (Me time and talking about it could take the entire class!). But even then, giving children a chance to do “what they want” could give teachers some good information about the types of activities that learners might find engaging, and use that to guide lesson planning.

  8. Martha says:

    Firstly, I’d like to point out the importance of learning your students’ names before setting up any activity. For one thing, the new comers will feel more welcome and integrated into the group and it’s also a way for the teacher to show that he/she cares about them. It seems to me that once you know everyone’s names you’re more in control of what happens in your class.
    As for the activity, how do you tackle the level of difficulty? Being a mixed ability class should instructions and or task be the same for all of them or was it possible to do some task grading? e.g. Working with a song some of them could’ve filled the gaps, others put words from the song in order and the last group might’ve ticked words they heard from a list. Why not include a balance of challenging activities between those that who were already trained and the ones who were new in the group?
    Besides, how much decision making was given to students in the choice of task? In many cases, students will feel more motivated when they are given the opportunity to choose how to do things.
    Remember that as a professional teacher it’s important to be flexible and be prepared for the unexpected so always have a bag of good activities you can use when things don’t go as you wanted.

    I do hope these ideas will help you. 🙂

    • Barbara says:

      These are great ideas, Martha! There is SUCH power in knowing names — praise is more meaningful, and so is correction. Quite often, when a student is acting in a way that disrupts others in the class (talking when I’m trying to explain something, or bouncing around when it’s time to move to the next task, or whatever) all I need to do is address the child by name, and the behavior stops.

      So, what’s in your bag of good activities?

      • Martha says:

        Hi Barbara!

        I once heard or read that being called by our names is like the most beautiful music to our ears and I couldn’t agree more. It’s true: knowing names is power! 🙂
        As for “my” bag of activities. Not exactly mine. However, the key lies in drawing their attention so the simplest activities such as asking people to count numbers in twos, threes, backwards or making them say the alphabet will do. Then you can move on to reformulating instructions and eventually get the first task done.
        It makes me think of how important it is to follow the steps for setting up an activity. Don’t you agree? 😉

  9. DaveDodgson says:

    Thanks for sharing this ‘problem’ Barbara – it’s nice to see a ‘discussion-based’ post on the ELT blogosphere for a change.

    New students in a continuing class is always a bit tricky – on the one hand, it is important to make them feel welcome and integrate them as quickly as possible but on the other hand, having moved around a few times myself as a kid, I have memories of feeling ‘on the spot’ in front of a room of kids I had never met before…

    What was the reason for doing the song? Was it to ensure a ‘fun’ first lesson for the new students? Or was it because that is what the class was going to do today anyway?

    In the first case, I would suggest doing something like teaching the rythym of the song first before without words. This allows a low-key way to introduce the song without the pressure of trying to understand/repeat new words and then kids can ‘hum along’ if they don’t feel comfortable enough to sing along.

    If the latter case is true, I would suggest taking a break from the planned series of lessons to spend time integraitng the new students into the class. As has already been suggested, having existing students tell the new ones about the class rules, class rountines etc. would be useful. Also, some activities/games in which students need to use each other’s names and basic language (describing each other or giving each student a different coloured object “Who has got the red pen?” etc) – these will be low key for the beginners, revision for the continuing students and a good way to learn each others names.

    As for the parent, how much of the lesson did she see and in what context? If she was in the class watching the lesson, I would view her comments differently to if she just came to the door for a few seconds at the beginning/end…

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks for helping us see the “new kid” from a different perspective, Dave. It’s easy to see the problems that come with integrating a new student into a continuing class community. It’s good to remember that it’s not any easier for the person joining a new community. I like your ideas about teaching songs! It’s good to give students plenty of time to become comfortable with the song and rhythm before being asked to sing.

  10. ICAL TEFL says:

    When I first started out I had lessons like this. But then I got trained, read books, learned how to teach and those kinds of lessons went away.

    There are many questions to ask here. How was the lesson prepared? Was the lesson prepared? Were normal opening class procedures followed? Did the teacher have a few “emergency” backup activities ready to bring out to get the class back on track?

    – Jenny

    • Barbara says:

      Wow, you never have these kinds of lessons? I’m impressed, Jenny. I’m not sure that training can prevent having lessons go awry, since what the teacher does is only one part of the lessons. Students bring the outside world into the classroom, and (particularly with children) that can affect the dynamic of a lesson. Training helps in giving teachers more options to draw from when things do go wrong, and experience helps us takes those challenges in stride.

      • ICAL TEFL says:

        Training helps because it equips you with the tools to handle lessons like this. And experience of course. The more we teach, the more we learn, the easier it gets. Experience, especially, helps us to see when something is starting to go off-track and then it’s simply a matter of bringing out a tried and proven activity or technique or change to bring the lesson back to where it should be.