How to Maintain Discipline in a TEFL Class

6 tips on keeping control and maintaining discipline with large groups of children or teenagers

One of the hardest things for teachers is to not let their students become unruly, resulting in a class that’s out of control. So much effort is put into planning lessons, coming up with fresh ideas, and preparing materials, that it’s often forgotten that none of it reaches its full potential without a calm and controlled classroom.

We all remember the one teacher at school in whose classes you could mess around. Then there was the teacher’s class where nobody dared breathe a word. As a TEFL teacher, you need to find a healthy balance. Getting students talking is a vital part of learning a language. Fun, engaging classes are what motivates students to want to partake further. But not letting games, activities, or debates become chaos is another skill which we teachers need.

In my 8 years’ experience of teaching English as a foreign-language, I’ve worked alongside many people who failed at the basics of controlling the class. None of us are perfect at the start, and we can always learn. Here are my tips on how best to keep calm, and carry on teaching:

1. Don’t shout

If you’re shouting, you’ve lost control. We’ve all tried the sit-down and wait until they’re quiet routine, or sometimes a good bellow gets people to stop talking immediately. However, you should try to maintain a calm, soft speaking voice at all times. If a student speaks over you, or the noise level starts to go up, stop. Stop talking until there is quiet for you to carry on. If a student begins to misbehave, or do something you don’t like, it is so much more effective to calmly call that person over to you. Quietly let them know that you won’t tolerate whatever they’re doing. Make eye contact. Any raised voice creates an unproductive learning environment.

2. Find something they enjoy

I found that doing a deal works among most children. Let me explain. Find an activity that the class really like doing. This could be a productive game, a physical activity outside, or even exercises with videos or music. This can be your routine Friday class. If students are in a particularly rowdy mood, kindly remind them that only if they do as they are told will they be able to do their favourite activity come the end of the week.

3. Make a good seating plan

The last thing you want is the two chatterboxes sitting next to each other. Make it clear from day one that you’ll be deciding where everyone sits. If you’re new to a class, give them a one week opportunity to show you that where they decide to sit is fine. It may be fine after all; it’ll also set the tone of who is in charge from the very beginning. Most students accept seating arrangements, so don’t be scared to get strict in this aspect, they won’t hold it against you, and it could potentially be the deciding factor in whether your classes are successful or not. Let students mix in groups of their choosing when doing activities, but again, make sure they know that it’ll only remain that way if you see positive collaboration from them.

4. Talk to your students

You’ll have to adapt this tip depending on the age group you teach. With teenagers who show no interest in your class, make sure you spend some time to talk to them. One option is to talk to them in general, show them that you’re human. I find a chat about football gives me a great connection with many pupils. Or, if you see that there is no productive conversation to be made, talk to them about your classes. “You don’t seem very motivated in class. What’s up? How could I make it more interesting for you?” There’s a whole range of possible answers. A common response is that they don’t have a high enough English level to participate. Letting some students with a bad attitude know that all you ask for first and foremost is respect can often go a long way. A one-to-one chat can make them feel important. Most are reasonable, be patient! This conveniently leads me on to the next tip…

5. Be patient

Every student is different. Some can’t stop talking. Some can’t stay still. Some don’t do any work. Whatever grinds your gears the most, don’t let anger take over. We’ve all been guilty of dishing out punishments because we’re having a bad day. Try to breathe and remember that most misbehaviour is trivial. An angry teacher usually only makes a situation worse. If you need to get serious, then by all means do. But remember that each student could be struggling with their own issues. For example, studies have found that a few children learn better standing up, and may not even realise that they are always trying to escape from their chair. A teenager may be having a hormone-filled personal crisis. Getting angry will only add fuel to these fires.

6. Explain activities clearly

This may not initially seem to have anything to do with discipline in the classroom. For me personally, it’s probably the most important. Games and activities need to be explained clearly, with all materials well-prepared and organised. Why? It avoids any chaos or confusion in the classroom. It is difficult to keep calm and patient if you have 25 students all screaming questions at you. Students’ arguing among themselves about what they have to do is not helpful either. If everyone knows exactly what they need to do, any unnecessary negative situations are avoided. This could be said for something as simple as young students lining up to leave the classroom. Be clear in your instructions: “When I say, I want this row to quietly put your chairs under the table, and line up” as oppose to “ok let’s go everyone!” Imagine how the two different situations of leaving the classroom play out.

I hope you find these tips helpful. We are all constantly evolving and adapting as teachers and there are things we can always improve. Happy teaching!

Written by Adam Graham for TEFL.net November 2020
Adam Graham is a TEFL teacher and head of the English department in a primary/secondary school in Spain. He has over 8 years' experience teaching children, teenagers, and adults.

3 Comments

  • Jane M says:

    Excellent, clear and informative advice. I can’t wait to use some of your top tips in my classroom.

    I particularly agree with you about getting to know your students interests, such as sport or music. I find these topics universal and a great way to get them talking.

    Another key to learning a language for students is listening to the language. Many students may understand what is being said to them but may not have acquired the language to respond yet or the confidence. They might be too shy in front of others to verbally communicate as teens are more self conscious all day won’t want to make a mistake. Making students feel comfortable to have a go and confident is very important as well. Staying calm and not raising your voice helps with this aspect of learning a language.

    Thank you Adam.

  • Jane says:

    Thank you found this very informative I will definitely put a lot of it into practice.

  • The King Of Love From IRAN says:

    Thank you so much,

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