Dealing with Difficult Adult Students

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Early on in my teaching career, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to manage challenging behaviour in my young learner classes. After around six years in the game, I decided that teaching kids wasn’t for me. Fortunately, most of the adults I’ve taught over the past 17 years or so have been wonderful. However, I have a little bit of experience when it comes to  dealing with difficult adult students. Let’s dive in to see what I’ve been through.

No real challenging behaviour - Just the odd bit of eye-rolling

It was way back in 2008-09 that I taught several really difficult adult students.

One student that stands out in my memory was the kind who would roll their eyes at every given opportunity. Whenever I said anything, whenever I looked at her, whenever I asked someone else a question. Essentially, whenever I breathed. I’ve read Teacher Elly’s post on her most difficult adult student. We went through something very similar. Unlike Elly, I didn’t have the luxury of being able to share my concerns with the co-teacher of the particular group the eye-roller was in. Would you Adam and Eve it - they were cousins! Hence, I expect he witnessed zero eye-rolling.

When her eyes were tired of the incessant eye-rolling, she would turn to pouting her lips and sighing loudly. Anything to get attention. More often than not, she would waltz into the classroom halfway through the class. This was another way for her to draw attention to herself.  

Back then, my beliefs as an EFL teacher were very skewed. My boss practically forced me to be an audio-lingual drill teacher. Unfortunately, I bought into the method, or rather I was brainwashed by my boss. Therefore, if I’d decided to speak with this student about why she behaved like an eight-year-old and always looked so dissatisfied, I wouldn’t have had any bargaining power. The nature of the method, together with my own dry personality, hardly gave students cause to be on the edge of their seats.

Advice for my younger self

I was working in a school where teachers didn’t have a voice and the customers were ALWAYS RIGHT. Hence, I felt as if I couldn’t ‘discipline’ this particular student for being an attention seeker or arriving late to class. To my credit, I stayed calm. Right or wrong - my main policy was to ignore her to prevent myself from blowing up. As Elly writes, “Getting angry … jeopardises your professionalism.”

While this particular student’s behaviour didn’t disrupt the flow of lessons or other students’ learning, I still should have spoken to her. Teachers need to strive for absolute transparency with their students. If a student sees that a teacher cares, that they have the guts to clear the air, the student’s respect for the teacher would surely increase. Consequently, the bad or disrespectful behaviour might well stop. 

Back then, I was only 23 years old. I hadn’t fully matured as a teacher, so I misjudged and mishandled many situations. I wasn’t confident enough to talk with students about issues that mattered.

These days, I don’t wait months to get something off my chest. I nip difficult situations in the bud straightaway. Even though it’s rare for a private adult student to be disrespectful, I’m still prepared to do what it takes to ‘repair’ a damaged atmosphere or ‘correct’ unmannerly behaviour. 

I draw the line at students who wish to have lessons while going through a carwash

The majority of English language teachers will never have to face dealing with difficult adult students who take one-on-one classes online. I mean, it’s not as if students are going to refuse to participate in activities or play on their phones throughout a class. Or you would hope that the latter would never be the case. 

Nevertheless, we can substitute the word ‘difficult’ for ‘disrespectful’ or ‘awkward’. 

Around five years ago, I began giving classes to a Polish chap who we shall call ‘Radek’. This guy has probably made me the no-nonsense teacher I am today.

It all started when he refused to use a camera. I’ve written about nipping inconvenient situations in the bud. However, at the time, I wasn’t as bothered by this ‘telephone’ mode of teaching as I am today. No more cameraless students for me.

Occasionally, his camera would turn on at the moment he answered my calls. Realising he’d committed a sin, he would proceed to turn the camera off. Anyway, I caught a glimpse of Radek’s flat, which looked like a dump. Sometimes, I could hear him making tea or coffee while speaking with me. All right - not a terrible thing. But still quite annoying.

The Definition of Tardiness

More often than not, Radek was late. He’d write to me just before class asking if he could start 10 minutes later, or half an hour later or sometimes three hours later.

In came my policy for charging people for every minute they are late from minute number 6. I have a five-minute lateness threshold for all students so I don’t think the policy is out of order. 

Anyway, the writing was on the wall for our old mate ‘Radek’. I sent him an email informing him that he’d been late over 40 times in the previous four years. That might have been a generous estimation based on my very swift scan of our Skype chat history. In terms of his tardiness, things definitely improved after he read my email. He rarely went over the five-minute threshold. 

I will never know how I could be so understanding for so many years.

Who’s Gonna Drive you Home?

There were plenty of times when Radek would take classes while ‘on the way’, as he always used to say, despite my constant insistence he should say ‘I’m driving’ or something similar.

It’s beyond me how can anyone focus on developing their English skills while driving around Warsaw during rush hour. Ok, maybe listening to a podcast, but not trying to speak to the best of your ability.

Things reached boiling point when he said that he didn’t have a good connection because he was ‘going through the carwash’. I was absolutely seething inside. Hence, I sent him an email explaining the situation and that I would no longer be able to teach him.

All in all, Radek probably did me a favour because he made me reconsider my policies and threshold levels when it comes to tardiness and many other factors connected with online teaching. 

I currently have one student (a very committed learner who I believe could pass CPE) who often takes lessons from inside his car while on the way to work. The difference with this situation is that his car is always stationary. because he parks up on the side of the road. Moreover, his camera’s always on and his levels of concentration are good. So it doesn’t bother me one bit. Unlike Radek, this student knows what respect is.

Protect Yourself by Setting Firm and Clear Rules

I may have come across as being quite harsh in this post but respect is a two-way street. Respect MUST be reciprocal. 

If you read my last post which details my hesitancy to increase my private lesson prices, you may conclude that I’m more fair than I am draconic.  

I teach many professionals - architects, lawyers and so on. They are great students. However, I’m not intimidated by them. I don’t regard myself as less senior. 

Even though I strive to be patient, understanding and cooperating, I still have to be the one in charge. I think that my policies show that my self-respect and sense of integrity are intact.

In summary, the modern day version of myself is well cut out for dealing with difficult adult students. 

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