ESL Teacher Tips: How to Cope With Bad Days in the Classroom

Every teacher has a story about their worst day as an educator. If you’ve taught for any amount of time, you’ve probably had one, too. It’s a normal part of the job to sometimes feel like you’re failing, and this can be particularly hard to deal with if you are a new teacher. Add in the difficulties of living and working in a foreign country as an ESL teacher, and one can imagine the challenge.

However, with each hardship there is a lesson to be learned. Each excruciating day leads to better preparation, more effective techniques, and a cooler head. These are the days that ultimately make you a better teacher.

These are the stories of four TEFL teachers and their toughest days on the job abroad. See how they made it through their worst day, and how they came out on top!

Each excruciating day leads to better preparation, more effective techniques, and a cooler head. These are the days that ultimately make you a better teacher.

esl teacher tips

When Students Are Violent

I taught abroad in Thailand for only three months, and had plenty of students working at both a private language school and a government school. I taught mostly kindergarteners and had one class that was just boys (only four of them); how hard could it be?

It was an absolute nightmare.

One of the boys was three years old and was the worst behaved child I have ever seen. In my short time there I was kicked, hit, spat on, and had a chunk of my hair ripped out, not to mention having my nose kicked so hard I thought it was broken. I tried everything from being extra stern to overly kind but this child wouldn’t have it from me or any of my teaching assistants. The worst part was that he also hit other kids, so I had to spend most of my classes separating him. There was some improvement over the semester, but in the end the mother decided to not enroll him in the next level. There’s only so much a teacher can do for a child, and if a child doesn’t want to be there so bad that he’s violent then I think the mother absolutely made the right decision.

Learn how to deal with situations like these in our Thailand TEFL Program! 

How did she cope?

I was never able to fully ignore him. It was a small room so I could always see what he was doing, but I knew I had to focus on the other children. When I could see he was calm I would call upon him to answer a question or see if he would participate in a game. Sometimes he was really good and played along, other times he would just stare at me or yell. It all depended on his mood at the time so some classes he participated a lot, others not at all. I just learned how to react to his moods and when it was worth putting up more of a fight to get him involved. I continued to teach the rest of the class the best I could and had to let my teaching assistant handle his bad behavior so I wasn’t disrupting the lesson so often.

Follow Taylor’s journey at Taylor’s Tracks.esl teacher tips

When the Responsibility Feels Unmanageable

I teach at a primary school in Thailand. I was told that I had to plan, budget, buy supplies, manage AND teach at an English camp for a then-unknown number of children. I had only two other teachers helping me (and one didn’t show up until the day before the camp because they hired her and decided to give her to me to manage). I had four days to get all of this done before the camp started. Kill me. I had never planned anything like that before, and neither had the other teachers who were supposed to assist me.

How did she cope? 

We all sat down and compared notes on what did or did not work, and then I completely reworked the lesson plans. A lot of the floundering came from us being too new at this, but the other two teachers were BRAND new, and so I started working with them to improve their classroom style. Neither had good “voices”, both were too quiet and meek for our sassy primary students, so we had to work to improve their confidence. One had a tendency to ramble (she speaks like a stream of conscience) and as my students are all English language learners, it made it very difficult for them to understand directions.

But it was difficult for the teacher too, because she wasn’t a native English speaker either! So in the evenings I practiced with her. 

In the end, it worked out okay! We floundered for the first few days (we had WAY more students than we expected) but we adjusted.

Follow Sara’s journey at Please Don’t Die in Thailand.

Our Online TEFL Course can prepare you for all types of situations like Sara’s!

When You Can’t Tell a Student’s Gender

I had a middle-school aged student in South Korea who chose the English name “Hagar.” I was only familiar at the time with the male comic book character with this name, not the Biblical female. So, given that and the fact that this student dressed in an androgynous way and had really short hair, I assumed the student was a boy.

One day we were doing an activity to practice English pronouns (him/his/her/hers) in which each student put one belonging in the center of the table and other students discussed the owners. During the report back, one student told me that an item belonged to “her” and gestured toward Hagar. I corrected the student and clarified that since Hagar was a boy the answer was “his.” Immediately the students got upset and insisted the answer was “her” since Hagar was a girl. I felt terrible about this error and didn’t know how to make the situation right.

How did she cope? 

I don’t think I ever did make the situation right, but I apologized to Hagar, who seemed really upset, and then I just tried to move on with class the best I could. These days androgyny is more accepted, but this was about 20 years ago when there wasn’t much awareness of it.

Follow Davina’s journey on Twitter.

esl teacher tips

When Only Two Students Attend

All but two of my students in a class of 18 boycotted my class.

I was in Vietnam teaching at a college. I’d been on this contract for a while now and, frankly, wasn’t doing my job well. I’d been working for a few years in Japan but what I did there and what I was doing here were lightyears apart in terms of responsibilities. And I wasn’t living up to them. The students decided to finally vote with their feet and formally complain to my seniors on top of it all.

My seniors then made it clear that I was screwing up and they’d about had enough of me.

How did she cope? 

Anyhow, there is a happy ending to this story: the next time I had that class I decided to take the first five minutes to just let them vent, anonymously, their frustrations on paper. I then changed things around in terms of preparation and presentation, not 100% following their demands, but being mindful of the more reasonable aspects.

Simply put, the remainder of time I was at that school, my reputation improved considerably, the management took notice and was actually sad to see me go.

Story shared by F.R.

Moral of the Story: It’s a bitter pill to swallow but, as a teacher, one should be aware of students desires and needs. Not to be 100% servile, but to be able to constructively reach a happy medium.

Every teacher will have a worst day on the job. But the right attitude can change everything. No matter how hard it sometimes gets: don’t give up. Your students will thank you for it.

Have you had a worst day teaching abroad? We would love to know what happened and how you overcame it!


Words compiled by Dara Denney.

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