*that* student

Compared to a teacher of children or teenagers, behaviour isn’t really  one of the major problems I face.  Sure, there is the odd problem, but really it’s just lateness and attendance, both of which are hard to deal with when the causes are usually more significant than not being arsed to get out of bed. But still, even in the “lovely” world of apparently delightful and compliant adult ESOL students, you can have behaviour problems.

Sometimes these are as savage as anything a teenager can pull off, or worse even, because they appear almost out of nowhere. I was sharing a class a couple of years back where this became a really rather significant problem. Two students, one very liberal in his views, the other very conservative, and both “alpha male” types, clashed on a matter of their faith, and this escalated into something very personal, and very unpleasant.

What was at the bottom of the clash, however, was the clash of personality. Many classes have them: individuals with big egos, an inflated sense of their own importance, often coupled with a sense of righteous passion to lead. They dominate the class, drawing attention to themselves, sucking away at the teacher’s focus and patience, and they are hard to ignore. 

The intent behind the student’s behaviour is usually positive: a desire to help or improve things, perhaps. Or perhaps just a desire to get what they think they should be getting, particularly when you have the twin toxic influences of fees and exams. Certainly my own experience is that these often domineering students mean well, but don’t always succeed in getting that across. 

The trouble is that even when they are less of a challenge in class, they still prey on your mind. Like any such problem they niggle, catching the edge of your uhtceare and growing, cancerously in your mind. As a result every lesson becomes judged by their standard: they come to represent the class, embody the group, even.

And of course with that embodiment also comes the answer. They are not the group, nor necessarily representative of it. They are just that person, and maybe, even very possibly, the rest of the class are as cheesed off with them as you are. 

The rest of the class. Remember them? The ones who are funny, engaged, charming, focussed, un-petulant and overall really rather lovely. A pleasure, in fact, to teach. And they are the ones you focus on.  The confident stroppy egomaniac has had his (and in my experience, it often is his not her, sometimes adding a nasty layer of sexism when the stronger, if perhaps quieter, students in the class are female) share of your focus, so it’s time to remember the rest of the group. They have equal rights to the classroom, equally important and necessary needs, so apportion them that time. And not just in the lesson either: feeling sore because that student looked unhappy? How did everyone else look? Worry about them too. 

I’m not saying that that student is a bad student, or even a bad person, and certainly not that their concerns should be ignored: you need to analyse their comments and behaviour because they might be symptomatic of something the whole class might be feeling. No, it’s just that they need to be viewed in the same light as the quieter, less confident student, given equal treatment, and equal time. Keep that in mind, and THAT student will become just A student again, and those 4am worries may not disappear, but will certainly become more proportionate. 



  1. This blog entry accurately describes my experiences in adult education. I have often been challenged by “that” student and after many years, still wrestle with the best way to deescalate situations between adult students. Even when there is not a clash, it seems that most classes have “that” one student with an over inflated ego who wishes to dominate the conversation. I feel it is necessary to intervene, especially when the rest of the students in the class show disdain or loss of engagement. It is a fine line that the teacher/facilitator must walk when balancing the need of the vocal student with the needs of the rest of the class.

    I loved your use of uhtceare or lying awake before dawn and worrying. Unfortunately, have done it too many times! Great blog article and will continue to follow.

  2. Great article. I wondered if you had any tips you’d like to share on turn-taking in ESOL classes and how to ‘teach’ (enforce?) this in a non-patronising way?

  3. When I started out i wanted to please everyone including every student. I have had ‘that’ student so many times now I know when to nip, escalating, non constructive rants in the bud!

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