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How to Manage Different Characters in the TEFL Classroom

A wide range of backgrounds, ages and personalities are very common in the classes at English schools. Lucy, a TEFL teacher with 20 years of experience, tells us how to manage different characters in the TEFL classroom.

Memorable students

I have had a number of truly memorable students. From the quiet Japanese teenager who was incredibly shy, to the Austrian pilot who just wouldn’t come up for breath. I remember waiting minutes for the former to suggest a day of the week during a brainstorming session for a story. It intended to be a fast-paced, dynamic activity, but it came to a grinding halt when it was her go. In the end I said, ‘How about S…Sat…Satur…’ before she whispered ‘Saturday’.

The latter had the opposite problem. He would stand alongside me like he was my teaching assistant and tell us all a story. Entertaining as it was, it didn’t really allow anyone else to speak. The lesson was more like a talk show, rather than an English class.

Then there was then the cool, Swiss teen who liked to gang up on me with her minions and insist on speaking Swiss German. My classroom became a war zone, where anyone who represented authority was the enemy. That was a pleasant experience! Based on my experience, here are my lessons on how to manage different characters in the TEFL classroom.

how to manage different students in tefl classroom

Balancing characters

All jokes aside, balancing different characters in your classroom and avoiding any kind of uncomfortable atmosphere, is a skill in itself.

To manage different characters in the TEFL classroom, for me, is really a case of slightly unsettling the over-confident ones, in the nicest possible way of course. And encouraging the painfully shy ones. As for the Swiss student, well, I’ll come on to that.

How to manage talkative students

So, you have a student who loves the sound of their own voice? They are often the ones who make quite a few errors but intimidate the shy ones because they are so fluent. I simply pick up on something they aren’t good at – in this case accuracy. After a talking task, I will put errors I’ve noted down on the board. I won’t expose who made the errors (they know who they are), but I will make sure there are more from the talkative student. I will then ask the class to notice the errors and correct them. The genius of this is that it is often the quieter students who will come up with the corrections, thus giving them more confidence and taking a little away from the chatterbox.

how to manage different students in the tefl classroom

How to manage shy students

The shy students are often happier in small groups so that they aren’t the centre of attention in whole-group activities. They also usually prefer reading, writing or listening tasks. So, my advice is, make sure you do a variety of skills in class and make it known that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. Spell it out for them if necessary: ‘Kyoko is good at writing but needs to work on her speaking, while Ricardo is very fluent but needs to work on his accuracy.’

how to manage different students in the tefl classroom

The Swiss student was a particular challenge. After a lot of patience, I said in a calm voice that I needed to talk to her after class. She maintained her bravado but was clearly shaken. The lesson ended and I chatted to her. A sandwich is what I gave her – a compliment followed by my grievance followed by a compliment. She was so used to being told off that when I said something nice for a change, her guard was let down. I told her she was really good at English (she was) but that I needed her to speak English. Then I said that she was well-respected by her peers (she was, albeit due to fear of going against the popular kid), so if she stopped using Swiss German, they would follow suit.

I’d love to say she left the class and didn’t immediately make a gag about me to get a laugh from her adoring fans, but I’d be lying. Having said that, from then onwards English was spoken and the atmosphere was much more comfortable.

Students won’t always get on, but that’s the nature of group lessons. They all have a right to be there, and if teachers achieve some kind of balance, the learning experience can be more pleasant for all involved. And, if all else fails, suggest a private lesson!


Written by Lucy Holmes. Lucy is a TEFL teacher, materials’ writer and author of Talking Images: idioms. She has lived in Italy and Japan and taught English for twenty years. As well as teaching, she writes for Macmillan and OUP, and is currently working on her second book.

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