Dealing with the everyday frustrations of teaching

A number of years ago I was working in small supermarket in my hometown. You know the kind of place, kids buying sweets after school, mums who forgot something at the supermarket, all very standard for a small community really. The thing was that the job was boring. Unbelievably, mind-numbingly boring. As there were very few people around, there was no rush on anything and I would busy myself with cleaning or whatever else. 

Most of my friends at the time, also college students, had similar stories. They were lifeguards, or bar workers, and all agreed that they found their jobs very dull. So we would all get together, have a good moan, and then get on with it. 

Nowadays, with a job as an EFL teacher that I love and colleagues that I get on well with, the monotony of shop work is a distant memory. Doing a CELTA and becoming a teacher is one of the most inspiring professions, and every teacher will confirm this without hesitating.

Watching your students make progress and grow into wonderful young people is something words can’t describe. As a teacher, you often go out of your way to make your classroom a happy and a safe place for your students; you share their successes, their challenges, their first loves...

A dedicated teacher can play a significant role in a student’s life and influence them a great measure, and you do this while being well-aware of the fact. That’s why you try to teach them how to be good people too, and not just how to speak English.

That is not, however, to say that I don't have to deal with frustrations sometimes. My fellow teachers and I still get together occasionally to offload about the difficulties of teaching, and it’s still very therapeutic. Nowadays though, it’s also very helpful. We can help each other deal with whatever issues arise, and hopefully make them all go away! 

Generally, my various headaches all hit me at the beginning of the academic year. This is the time when mistakes are most likely to be made, when good practice tends to fall a little by the wayside, and important things slip through the cracks of enrolment chaos. 

So how do I deal with these hiccups? How do I avoid crying into my cornflakes when the going gets tough? Read on for my solutions to some of the common frustrations of teaching.

Frustration 1: Students arriving late

Frustration 2: Phones in class

Frustration 3: Students speaking in L1

Frustration 4: The dreaded silence

Frustration 5: Mixed-ability groups

Frustration 6: Being observed

Frustration 7: Awkward questions from students 

Frustration 8: Misbehaving students

Frustration 9:  Sometimes, your students will need a friend more than a teacher

Frustration 10: Dealing with a challenging parent

Frustration 11: When leaving work doesn’t really mean you’re leaving work...


Frustration 1: Students arriving late

As TEFL teachers, we have all experienced the joy of a well-planned lead-in activity in full flow with students paired up, out of their seats, chatting away. Then, halfway into the activity, a latecomer arrives, sits down awkwardly, opens their coursebook, and acts like they haven’t noticed all the commotion going on around them. 

This is a common issue in ELT, and one that can be very disruptive to English language lessons. I have heard of teachers issuing sanctions to students, and one teacher who even refused to let students in if they were more than 10 minutes late. The bottom line is that, unlike in mainstream education, our students are not legally required to attend our lessons: they come of their own accord, in their free time, and THEY PAY! 

For these reasons, we have to be sensitive to the needs of our learners. Some of them are coming straight from work or school, some have families, some have to travel long distances on public transport, and some just aren’t all that invested in the lessons. So, all we can hope to do is minimise the disruption and make them feel welcome.

The single best way to do this, whether the latecomer arrives during a group activity or a teacher-fronted explanation, is to have another student or students inform them (in English ideally) of what they have missed. This way the latecomer does not feel confused or excluded and it may even help develop learner independence and group dynamics.

Another solution might be to have and use a lesson ‘menu’ as part of your routine, that is, writing the lesson topic or aim along with the list of activities you have planned on the board. This provides an overview of the lesson which is available as a reference point at all times. Activities can be ticked off as they are completed meaning that anyone arriving late will know exactly where they are in the lesson. Of course, this only works if you do it for every lesson and if students are aware of what it is and how it is used, but when used well it is a great way to demonstrate the progress being made and the relation of each activity to the expected outcome of the lesson.

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Frustration 2: Phones in class

Phones are another source of frustration among English language teachers. Students may receive messages, check Facebook, or have full blown L1 phone conversations in the classroom, regardless of how many times you have asked them not to. In many language schools, the use of phones is banned in classrooms – I have even seen teachers make adult students put their phones in a box at the front of the classroom as they arrive.

It is important to remember that students have lives outside of the classroom and may have a very valid reason for using their phone. However, it is good to have clear expectations regarding the use of phones. I have never banned phones from my classroom, but I do make it clear that if someone needs to use their phone, they should leave the classroom to do so.

It is also worth making students aware of the impact phone usage has on other learners. For example, if someone is using their phone during paired speaking, it should be (kindly) brought to their attention that this means their conversation partner is unable to partake in the lesson.

Phones can also be used as a language learning tools, such as dictionaries which, although fine in certain situations, often results in missed opportunities to deducing meaning from context. This is an essential language skill, and one that we use in our L1 every day. 

Students, especially those intolerant of ambiguity, are often unaware of the negative impact this can have on the development of such L2 skills. It should be made clear that deducing meaning from context, although at times mentally challenging and time-consuming, is time and effort well spent.

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Frustration 3: Students speaking in L1

Another frustration for TEFL teachers is learners speaking their native language in class. Even in plurilingual groups, two people from the same language background will find ways to use their L1.

There is research to suggest that L1 use can be beneficial at certain points in a lesson. It’s important to remember that our students have already learned (or mastered) a language system, and we would be remiss to ignore this when trying to help them acquire another. The learners’ L1 may even be a useful point of contrast or comparison. Translation activities, largely written off since the advent of Communicative Language Teaching, are beginning to make a comeback as a valuable tool for interlanguage development. However, there is a fine line between using L1 to help someone understand something and using it to convey ideas that could be dealt with in the target language.

One area of language that often has learners revert to their L1 is process language. Process language is formulaic chunks that are used when doing something. For instance, a board game used to practise relative clauses will also require phrases like “your turn”, “move two squares” and “roll the dice”. As these phrases are not the language focus of the lesson, many students will not have any with issue saying them in their L1, so it is worth teaching them or having them on the board. You could even award bonus points for their use! If you know the students’ L1 it might also be good to write up any L1 phrases you overhear and offer a translation.

If you find that, in a speaking task, some students are just chatting in their L1, another approach would be to simply ask what they are talking about. Although it may not be in any way related to the task, this succeeds in switching the language back to English in a non-confrontational way – along with showing an interest in your students!

Read this article from the IH Journal on how to reduce L1 in the language classroom for more information. 

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Frustration 4: The dreaded silence

One of the biggest frustrations for any English language teacher is a room full of students who refuse to speak. This has a lot to do with group dynamics – you can teach the exact same lesson with two separate groups and one group will participate actively, while the other group sit quietly with their eyes to the floor. 

I once had a lively, social, borderline rowdy group of Spanish learners who gradually, over a period of months, became quieter and less outgoing until it became a serious obstacle to their learning. The reason for this change struck me one evening when looking at the class register – they didn’t know each other. At the beginning of the course, I had provided lots of ‘getting to know you’ activities to build rapport. However, the group had changed. Some students had left and others had signed up to the course. So rather than press on with the course, I decided to change tack. For the next four lessons, I spent the first half hour doing getting to know you activities, and lo and behold, the dynamic began to change. It never got back to where it was at the beginning, but everyone was noticeably more relaxed and open, and the dreaded silence was a thing of the past. 

Another way to get students speaking is by introducing tasks that require speech. Language is communication, and without a genuine need to communicate learners may not see the point in speaking at all – not everyone is a social butterfly. For this type of situation, information gap activities work a charm. It’s simple: student A has some information that student B needs to complete the task, and vice versa. They can only complete the task by speaking to each other. Although better suited to transactional situations, the communicative nature of such activities can encourage even the least talkative students to speak up. If not, put on some background music and have pairs stand at opposite ends of the room – then they will have to speak up!

If all else fails – join them in silence. In some cultures, the expectation is for the teacher to stand at the front of the room and talk while the students listen. But your students need the speaking practice, not you, so they should be the ones doing all the work! If they are still not willing to speak, and this is in quite extreme circumstances, I simply stop speaking. I write a question on the board and I sit down. They look on in expectation. I look back in expectation. The silence becomes horrible. Eventually someone turns to their partner and begins to speak quietly. I smile and nod in approval and, slowly but surely, the others join in. The spell is broken. This is quite a confrontational approach, so I strongly recommend a gentle, meditative smile throughout, but it never fails.

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Frustration 5: Mixed-ability groups

Mixed-level groups in TEFL can be a blessing and a curse.

All English language schools will try to put students in the right group, so they can learn alongside others who are at a similar level to them. In fact, good level testing is the foundation of a successful language school. There will usually be a written test followed by a speaking test, which feels to the student like a relaxed chat. All of this to ensure that they are placed in the class which best suits their needs. The teachers are usually blissfully unaware of this process, and expect to turn up on the first day and find a class full of pupils who are singing from the same hymn sheet. 

However, the reality is always a little more complex. In all my years of teaching I have rarely had a group about which I could firmly say “everybody here is exactly intermediate-level at all language skills”.

People learn and develop at different rates; some shoot up the levels only to hit a plateau, while others are late bloomers. Some students are better at grammar and writing, some have a more extensive vocabulary and are at a higher-level speaking. It can be the case that a student has completed a course, so they are automatically moved to the next course whether they are ready for it or not. 

In TEFL, mixed-level groups cannot be avoided. But this is not necessarily a bad thing and, if dealt with appropriately, may in fact have a positive impact for all learners. Research shows that in mixed ability groups everyone benefits. Less able learners benefit from the support of more able students, while the more able benefit from the support they offer to the less able. Docendo discimus – the best way to learn is to teach. 

This, however, does not just happen of its own accord. Well, perhaps given enough time it does, but who has time for that? So for the sake of efficiency, learner training is required, and an environment that encourages peer support. Again, it is about taking responsibility away from the teacher and placing it firmly in the hands of the learners. 

One approach, for example, when dealing with a particular language point, is to have students, in pairs or small groups, explain to each other what they understand about the language point. The teacher can listen in to pick out good points and any common misconceptions that need to be addressed and highlight and clarify these for the class. Finally, students re-explain what they understand in their pairs or groups. As the teacher, one issue that needs careful consideration here is the seating plan. Students need to be paired according to ability (that is, a more able learner with a less able learner), but also according to personality, so that one learner does not simply dominate. 

Here are some other tips:

  • Avoid the temptation to 'Fly with the Fastest'. In other words, try not to motor along at a faster pace than usual in order to satisfy the higher ability learner. Doing this will lead to one isolated student, and a room full of dissatisfied and confused others. 
  • Prepare an extra activity / worksheet or two, so that nobody is twiddling their thumbs after finishing an exercise early. Try to have one or two of these up your sleeve and at the ready at all times. 
  • Remember that this doesn't have to be a bad thing. A mix of students in class provides a level to which others can aspire, as well as a helper for you. 
  • In short, it is all about how you set up your classroom. Any frustration can be turned to an advantage, so take a step back, consider the situation, and find a way to hand responsibility and effort over to the students. After all, you deserve a break!

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Frustration 6: Being observed 

Now obviously, TEFL teachers haven't cornered the market on being nervous when somebody is watching you work, being watched happens the world over in many different professions. 

That said, there is something quite special about the nerves that take hold when you're in a English language classroom full of expectant students, and another teacher with a clipboard on top of that. Indeed, the first time I was observed, I was a bag of jelly. I'm sure you can relate. 

But fear not! I was a bag of rather pathetic looking jelly only because I didn't understand the real purpose and potential benefits of classroom observation. Once I had grasped those things, I was all set. During my CELTA course, I was completely comfortable with being in front of 12 learners, 5 fellow teachers and a course trainer while teaching my class. All of those people, except the learners, had clipboards. 

Having now been in the position of observing other teachers, as you will also experience during your CELTA, I shall share my wisdom with you. 

Evaluating teaching performance is not the objective 

Surprising, right? 

Do you know how a school evaluates your performance? They use exam results, student opinions, and the opinions of your fellow teachers. Not classroom observations. 

There are a myriad of reasons why that person, let's call her Marge, may be sitting at the back of the room, all of which are positive. 

To help 

Marge may simply wish to pass on her years of experience. She will, therefore, watch you do your thing and perhaps even participate in the lesson, and then offer her opinion on how you might improve. She may also tell you about the things that she liked and will borrow, or provide insight into why your activities didn't go down as you'd hoped. Whatever little gems she might deem appropriate, the experience of more senior teachers is always extremely helpful. 

To monitor 

Remember that Marge may not even be there for you specifically. Managers often come into my ELT lessons to observe the students themselves. This is done to ensure that they are interacting well, and to sort out any behavioural issues that may be found with younger learners. 

To learn 

If your language school is training new teachers, expect to be put on display as an example of best practice! Those budding teachers at the back of your classroom are exactly like me at the beginning of my journey into the world of TEFL. Be an example of the kind of teacher they would like to be. 

Again, if remembering the important stuff above doesn't quite do the trick, here's a backup list: 

Be prepared 

Of course, you should always be prepared for your lessons. But in the event that you're being observed, make an extra effort to put your lesson plan onto paper and provide the observer with a copy. Having an idea of what you're doing and where you're intending to end up is immensely helpful. 

Ignore them 

Not in a passive-aggressive way, of course. But just try to forget that they are there at all. You'll often find that your observer will not stay for the full class, and leave before the end anyway. 
Involve them 

As an occasional observer myself, I love being asked to get stuck in and interact with learners. 

If all else fails 

The old 'picture them in their underwear' chestnut, well that works every time. 

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Frustration 7: Awkward questions from students 

In TEFL teaching, as in life, you can't be expected to know everything. Even EFL teachers with years of classroom experience will tell you that they get stumped sometimes. Especially with questions that are worded strangely, or about obscure grammar structures that they haven't touched on in a while. Nonetheless, being in front of a class and not knowing how to answer a question that's put to you can leave you feeling a little foolish. 

Don't worry, here are my top three solutions! 

1. Never lie 

Lie is a strong word, but I've seen it many times from teachers who simply didn't know the answer. They will either give an explanation that doesn't hold up when compared to a correct one, or they come out with, “It's an exception”, or, “It's like that because it is, there is no rule”. Goodness me, it really gets my goat. There is always an answer, for everything. 

Lying will always come back to bite you because students will look it up. It therefore makes you look less professional. Avoid at all costs. 

2. Be honest 

Students will rarely expect you to have all the answers. Simply tell them that you would like to look it over in more detail and get back to them next lesson. Remember to actually get back to them! Doing this will foster a great relationship with your class as well, and they will see you for the consummate professional that you are. 

3. Use your CELTA training 

A little nugget that I picked up during my own course with International House: when a student asks you a question you can't answer, simply give them the responsibility of reporting back to the class. Say something like, “That's a very good question Jack, why don't you research it at home tonight and tell us all what you have found tomorrow.” 

As well as making a learner feel included and important, you have effectively dodged homework yourself. 

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Frustration 8: Misbehaving students 

If you're going to be teaching English to children, always be prepared for a few young learners that will test your patience, especially in the first few lessons. Don't despair, there are solutions for this. 

Don't go it alone 

As I said before, you'll find that you have support all around you. Perhaps another teacher has some insight on that particular student or has experienced something similar and can help. Take their advice to deal with the situation. 

Always follow through 

If punishments are threatened, try not to chicken out. Phoning parents, telling them to sit out, or sending them to your supervisor for a little chat can all be good ways of managing things. Doing so doesn't make you look like you can't handle it, rather like you are willing to put the rest of your learners' needs first. 

Use incentives 

I'm not talking about sweets, I always try to avoid relying on such bribes. Instead, offer them some time at the end of the activity or lesson where they can choose the game or exercise. This can lead to great fun! 

The CELTA method

Try giving your little troublemaker a space all to themselves in the classroom, a small one. Tell them that, within the space, they can do whatever they like. Play with a fidget spinner, bounce a ball, or maybe just sit and think. When outside this space, however, they must join the rest of the class and behave. Once they see their classmates having fun and doing things together, they get bored and return to the fold. 

This little tidbit is based on psychology, and it really works. 

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Frustration 9:  Sometimes, your students will need a friend more than a teacher.

They are just kids. They will have good days and bad days.

After a good day, you come home smiling, thinking about all the things you taught them. How great they were. How fast they got it.

But then a bad day comes, and you start questioning your teaching skills and the ability to manage a class. The students aren’t listening; they don’t want to participate, they tease each other, and do all those things they’re told not to. You feel like screaming and storming out, but you know it won’t help you make things better.

You’ve tried yelling before, giving them some extra homework, but it’s never worked. It’s time to change the rules and try some new strategies.

Sit down for a minute. Take a deep breath and remember they’re just kids. Or teenagers. Whatever their age is, they are still learning how to live in this world. If it’s hard for you, it’s even harder for them.

Try asking them about their day. Maybe they’ve been having trouble with another subject or a teacher. Maybe something else is bothering them. Their acting out might be a way to get attention and get someone to ask them what’s wrong.

Take a break together. Talk about everyday things or play their favourite game. Don’t worry about wasting your time; you’ll find a way to catch up with the material. At the moment, it may be more important to show them that you’re listening. That you care about them. Maybe they just need a bit of help to focus and get back to work.

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Frustration 10: Dealing with a challenging parent

A TEFL teacher will deal with fewer stressful situations if the relationship with the students’ parents is honest and they’re able to communicate openly. However, the one who benefits the most from this relationship is the student.

As a teacher, you need to have some form of cooperation with the parents. You need to be able to talk to them about your student’s progress, strengths and weaknesses so the student can grow even more.

There are different types of parents who may make your job more challenging, but remember that they all want what’s best for their children. It’s important for you not to lose your cool; keep your voice down and try to stay as calm as possible.

Some parents seem to have planned their children’s whole lives. You have probably noticed that some students have (too) many hobbies and activities outside of school and they still manage to finish all of their homework. These parents believe that having perfect marks and being excellent at everything is important and that it will help their child in the future.

If you notice that the child is overwhelmed, tired or unhappy, talk to the parents. Be tactful; tell them you know that their intentions are good but remind them that children also need time for social life and just to be children. Explain that a busy schedule can have negative effects on their child and cause anxiety. The child should choose one or two favourite activities – that’s enough for such a young age. Doing something just to please the parents will do more harm than good.

On the other hand, there are parents who you can never reach when you need to talk to them. Their child needs to be pushed a little in order to do the homework and prepare for quizzes or exams, but they don’t seem to do it as often as they should. Still, if the child gets a bad mark, they come to school, demand to see you and blame you for the child’s failure.

When talking to these parents, focus on what’s good rather than what the child did wrong. Highlight the child’s strengths and give the parents a piece of advice – what can be improved and in what ways. This will help lower the tension and maybe they’ll understand how much effort you put into your work. The success of their children doesn’t only depend on you and they must realise that. When everyone does their part, both at school and at home, the success will surely follow.

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Frustration 11: When leaving work doesn’t really mean you’re leaving work...

How many times have people told you that you’re lucky because as a TEFL teacher you have the whole summer off? You only work in the morning, you can sleep in the afternoon, you don’t work on weekends... What people usually don’t see is the other side of your job.

They don’t know how much time you need to prepare your lessons. They don’t know you spend hours going through your books or surfing on the web, trying to find the best activities for your class. Writing lessons plans, printing handouts, thinking of new games... Grading! So much testing and so much grading.

It’s hard enough going home knowing there are chores that need to be done. When you have your own kids, it feels like there’s ten times more laundry. So when you remember you can’t just sit in front of your TV and relax even though you’re exhausted, both physically and emotionally, being a teacher doesn’t feel very entertaining anymore.

Try to leave as much work as possible at school. You obviously can’t spend the whole day there, grading and preparing your lessons for the next day, but use breaks to finish smaller tasks that don’t require much time.

Always have a piece of paper and a pen with you to write down the ideas that come to you at unexpected times. You know you sometimes waste your time trying to remember something great you didn’t write down when it occurred to you.

Draw a clear line between your work time at home and your personal time. You can’t spend all of your free time doing work-related tasks. After a while, you will love your job less and less because it takes too much of your time and you never get to have some real rest.

Most importantly, try to leave your worries at work. Being a teacher can be emotionally exhausting because you want to help every child who is in some kind of trouble. You come home and you’re still trying to find a solution for them. This prevents you from relaxing, spending quality time with your family, or simply regaining strength for the next day.

If you want to be able to help someone else, you need to take care of yourself first. Put your own mental health first and try to focus on your life when you leave school. You may come up with an idea tomorrow when you feel well-rested.

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So, with all these frustrations, is TEFL worth it?

Sure, there will be times when you’ll think this is too much for you and you can’t take it anymore. Daily frustrations can overwhelm you, but that’s why it’s important to find the small but significant ways to deal with them. The same way small things can make you feel frustrated or sad, they can brighten up your day.

Make your class laugh at least once a day. Buy yourself a cup of your favourite coffee. Read a few pages of a book you like. Look at the mirror and tell yourself – you rock! Call your parents, your siblings or your friends and tell them you love them. Leave a love note in your significant other’s wallet. Look at the students in your classroom and remind yourself why you love being a teacher.

Like in any other job, there are some challenges you need to overcome. But they don’t make the wonderful job of EFL teaching any less rewarding.