Dealing with Difficulties

Title: Dealing with Difficulties: Solutions, strategies and suggestions for successful teaching
Authors: Luke Prodromou & Lindsay Clanfield
Publisher: Delta Publishing
Reviewed by: Jesus Garcia Laborda
Review date: September 2007
Summary: Resources for teachers with classroom dynamics or behaviour difficulties who need to gain control over their classes and increase their self-esteem.

Dealing with DifficultiesThere is no shortage of literature on the difficulties teachers can face: for example a recent issue in TESL EJ described the problematic situation of high school teaching in Spain and the US (Garcia Laborda, 2006), and a great article described the importance and professional development in China (Hu, 2005). Both papers show that there is little question about the changing roles of teachers and students in many parts of the world- especially in Europe, Latin America and the States. Many teachers even feel alienated and discredited.

Not so long ago, teachers were respected by their students and recognized socially. In the last twenty years, however, many schools have experienced situations of disruptive and bad-mannered children. According to Garcia Laborda (2003), the reason why many textbooks have changed the type of tasks to make them shorter and easy-to-correct is so that teachers can control their classrooms better, and many teachers have decided to increase group work activities assuming that weaker students progress more in cooperative language groups (Gillies, 2006), and decrease the degree of anxiety that affects the atmosphere of both formal school instruction and exam classes (Chen & Goretti Chang, 2004).

In this atmosphere, Dealing with Difficulties brings new insights to try to help teachers who deal with “everyday challenges such as noisy, unmotivated students” and also those teachers with a “huge variation in ability and learning styles” in their classes. As both authors mention, “books on what to do when students make life difficult for the teacher are few” (p. 6). In line with this goal, the book deals with five major areas: large classes, discipline, mixed-ability classes, homework and teaching exam classes. There is little question that these are hot topics. Although they have been addressed in psychology books and journals, what was needed was a book of reflections and recipes. Previous books from Delta Publishing Books for Teachers have paid special attention to practical topics like the use of the mother tongue (see reviews by Simon, 2003 and Garcia Laborda, 2004), humanizing the language classroom (Case, 2002) and Neurolinguistic programming (Bosworth-Gerôme, 2005) and have gained overwhelmingly positive reviews. This book exceeds these expectations.

As I said before, the book is divided into six chapters. Each chapter presents the problem first, followed by an analysis on how to approach it, and then the authors give some suggestions on teaching recipes to facilitate, whenever possible, the teacher’s job. In addition, they make clear the level, aims, duration, materials, language skills, preparation and procedure for each activity.

Chapter 1, Large classes and classroom management, intends to show how to work with smaller groups so it can be inferred that larger classes could be subdivided to address their problems individually. They also stress the importance of timing and pacing, the optimization of space, and integration of the four teaching skills. They consider, however, that there are little things like knowing the students’ names, using eye-contact and other that are easy to do and facilitate “feeling in control” of large classes (p. 9) and avoid the feeling of being lost. Additionally, they provide ideas for managing: class starters, handling latecomers (worth reading, p. 19), classroom dynamics, drilling, speaking and finishers (p 16-37).

Chapter 2, Discipline problems, is probably the most attractive chapter (do not miss the “creative” list of problems that a teacher can find in the classroom). The authors try to approach classroom chaos positively. Thus, as in the first chapter, the idea is to gain the ability to isolate the problems and be positive about most of the work, rather than feeling pressure due to the fact that teachers have to deal with the same problematic kids between two and four times a week (which makes at least 70 times a year- very stressful!!). The writers “suggest a range of tips and activities for beginning to tackle the most intractable of all classroom problems” (p. 7). The authors divide discipline problems into: overt (shouting, chewing gum, fights etc.) and covert (arriving late, not paying attention, sighing noisily etc.) (p. 39). This chapter focuses in diffusing discipline into the class, establishing rules and regulations, raising awareness, building good behaviour (p. 51-54), tasks to facilitate discipline and the effect of surprise in class control (p. 42-56).

Chapter 3, Mixed-level classes, sets an interesting but realistic axiom: all classes have students with different competence levels (p. 57). Therefore, all the classes in the world are mixed-ability classes. In that sense, teachers should try to benefit from the constructive aspects of this reality through exercises in which the best help the weakest, a humanistic approach common in previous Prodromou publications (1999). A second possibility is to assign different activities to students with different levels of proficiency (maybe through additional exercises or requesting more from the higher students). Another possibility that is usually provided by most textbooks is additional exercises for early finishers or better students). Prodromou and Clanfield also state that it is important to pay especial attention to different cognitive styles. This is quite natural since in some instances an unbalanced teaching style can produce barriers to language learning. They also summarize their point of view in a list of important aspects to keep in mind when working in this multilevel context (p. 59).

Chapter 4, Homework. According to the authors, this is a forgotten resource both in and out the class. For Prodromou and Clanfield, students need to not only get engaged with homework but also value it as a source of learning. Additionally, it is stated that homework should correlate with the class and the writers give interesting tips on homework correction (p. 104-105) with a special emphasis on humanizing it and taking care of the students’ positive perceptions about their work and esteem as learners.

Chapter 5, Teaching exam classes, is most likely the least innovative and necessary chapter since some good books have been published lately (even with the same title, see review by Garcia Laborda, 2007) but they also suggest that this can be boring for the teacher who may be like an “examiner” or devote most of his time to drilling for the test and forget about the beauties of being a teacher. Besides, students need to trust their teacher and not to be challenged in excess or even turned down. Readers will probably not want to miss some advice on how to eliminate anxiety in this type of student (“error or terror”, p. 113), and provide the best input and feedback.

Chapter 6, Professional development, deals with ways to increase the teachers’ self-esteem and self image through personal reading, professional writing and personal development. Additionally, they state that team teaching or, at least, teaching cooperatively can also help both the experienced and inexperienced teachers through activities like: constructive teacher meetings, attending or organizing workshops, teachers groups, teaching observations, exchanging classes and getting parents and the school involved. The book finishes with a good and complete reading list for personal development.

Overall, the book is clear, easy to follow and reader friendly. Although the section on exam classes is not really necessary since other publications have covered this point well, this publication intends to cover an area that is common to all the teachers everywhere in the world, and thus, absolutely essential. Therefore, this publication will be of interest for experienced and inexperienced teachers, those who teach in private or public institutions alike, in many different countries and with different cultural groups and it is, in summary, useful for most of us. In conclusion, it is a valuable tool for all those who need or want to share better experiences with their students on a daily basis.

References:

  • Bosworth-Gerôme, S. (2005) “Review of Unlocking Self-Expression through NLP”. Tesol France website retrieved on June 10 2007 from:
    http://www.tesol-france.org/New/Reviews.html
  • Case, A. (2002) Humanising Your Coursebook, TEFL.net retrieved on June 10 2007 from:
    http://www.tefl.net/reviews/Humanising_Your_Coursebook.htm
  • Chen, T.-Y.; Goretti Chang, B. Y. (2004) The Relationship between Foreign Language Anxiety and Learning Difficulties, Foreign Language Annals, 37(2): 279-289.
  • García Laborda, J. (2003) An Analysis of Current Textbooks: Are we Getting What we Want? APAC Magazine, 47: 35-40.
  • García Laborda, J. (2004) Book Review: Using the Mother Tongue, RELC Journal, 35: 377-379
  • García Laborda, J. (2006) “Forum: The Dark Side of the ESL Classroom” TESL EJ, 10-2: 1-6. Retrieved on June 10 2007 from
    http://writing.berkeley.edu/TESL-EJ/ej38/f1.pdf
  • García Laborda, J. (2007) Review: How to Teach for Exams: Sally Burgess and Katie Head, TESOL Quarterly: 209-211.
  • Gillies, R. M. (2006) Teachers' and Students' Verbal Behaviours during Cooperative and Small-Group Learning, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76 (2): 271-287.
  • Hu, G. (2005) Professional Development of Secondary EFL Teachers: Lessons From China, Teachers College Record, 107 (4): 654-705
  • May, P. (2000) Exam Classes, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Prodromou, L. (1999) Tds Discipline and Motivation, Oxford : Macmillan ELT.
  • Simon, T. (2003) Review of Using the Mother Tongue: Making the most of the learner's language, Developing Teachers website retrieved on June 10 2007 from:
    http://www.developingteachers.com/books/review_utmt.htm

TEFL.net ESL Reviews & ArticlesJesus Garcia Laborda, PhD. has taught English, including Business English, in Spain, Croatia and Bosnia. He has also taught Spanish and (currently) English for Tourism Studies at the Polytechnic University at Gandía, Valencia (Spain). His research interests include low-stakes language testing, English for Academic Purposes, and language teaching methodology. He has published book reviews in many leading education journals, such as TESOL Quarterly, ELT Journal, JALT Journal, TESL EJ, Eurocall Review and TEFL.net.