11 Challenges for ESL Teachers and How to Overcome Them

It’s easy for us ESL teachers to feel overwhelmed by the problems we face in our classrooms (and outside of them!). But keep in mind that whatever problem you may be facing, others have dealt with it as well.

Sometimes, you don’t feel like you’ve prepared enough, or there’s a particular student who doesn’t allow you to teach. Other times, there are issues that are simply out of your control.

Fortunately, with just a bit of effort on your part, you’ll not only come close to “solving” these common challenges for ESL teachers, but you’ll nip them in the bud before they turn into serious problems.


1. There’s Not Enough Time to Plan Classes

Like it or not, you have to spend at least some time planning your classes.

How long it’ll take you to do so depends on factors like administrative requirements, lead teacher expectations, student objectives and your own level of experience. (Generally, less experienced teachers take much longer to prepare than more experienced ones.)

While you can’t completely cut “lesson planning” from your ever-growing To-Do list, here are a few ways to keep planning time to a minimum and your sanity in check:

  • Identify your personal teaching style. Every teacher has their own teaching style. For example, if you’re a stickler for planning like me, you’re going to use (and reuse) the same preparation template again and again. Even if you have a more off-the-cuff style of teaching, you should still have some idea about how you’re going to do the same classes again and again day in and day out. In any case, browsing through basic preparation templates and expanding on one that fits you best will have you on the right track to identifying and perfecting that style.
  • Based on your teaching style, set up a lesson plan template. Here’s a more detailed guide on how to prepare ESL lesson plans (plus ready-made templates!).
  • Prepare well in advance. Even if you have a template, there will be unfilled slots on it. After all, you wouldn’t always know if the class would follow your planned rhythm until you’re able to gauge their needs. Therefore, it might be a good idea to dedicate a few hours figuring out what you need for the next day’s class, what expectations from all sides you need to fulfill, etc. This way, you’ll minimize last-minute decisions and look more prepared to your students, which is a big plus in classroom management no matter what age group or proficiency level you’re working with.
  • Plan more activities than you’re actually going to do. In teacher workshops, you may have learned something along the lines of “if you have a 50-minute class, prepare for a two-hour class instead.” This doesn’t mean that you should prepare twice as many exercises or role plays: rather, you should have more than enough additional material or activities related to the lesson objectives. This way, you won’t have to resort to “get started on your homework” or (gasp!) slipping a video in the player to fill in a 15-minute lack of ESL activity.
  • Keep detailed records of your materials and preparations. You’ll find yourself going back to older class plans and repeating the more successful things you’ve done. You may even feel challenged to improve upon those activities that flopped the first time around.

2. Students of Varying Levels Are Lumped Into One Class

There’s a good chance you’ll have a class that’s been arranged based on students’ availability rather than their level. Pedro may have sports activities just when the class that’s better for him meets, while Michico may have to catch a certain bus home and can’t attend the class that might be more appropriate for her level.

While you might be able to get a grossly misplaced student shifted to another class, most of your students will be subject to their personal schedules and won’t have the flexibility to change.

You’re well within your right to complain about the situation (away from your students’ and superiors’ ears, of course). But once you’re done with your mini-vent session, take a deep breath and try out these solutions that might make the whole thing much easier to handle:

  • Pair up the well-performing students with the not-so-well-performing ones. Sometimes, students are more open to a peer explaining something when they aren’t quite getting what the teacher is saying. For example, the student with the higher proficiency level can model a role-playing activity to their partner so the latter can see the activities in action and observe. Make sure to supervise this kind of “tutoring,” though, so that the more proficient student can give their partner lots of opportunities to actively participate in the learning process.
  • Identify the common problem your students share. Instead of trying to figure out how to structure your lessons to cater to everyone (which will typically result in no one being happy), zero in on the one issue that’s interfering with all of your students’ ability to progress in their English proficiency. Pronunciation is a good example of this: some students may pronounce English sounds better than others, but almost all of them will have difficulty with either a particular phoneme or just the coherent and fluid stringing together of sounds. You can compile a list of your students’ particular problems and see if there’s a pattern.
  • Structure your lessons around that common problem. For pronunciation issues, I’d go with vocal work with a bit of physical stretching and loosening up. I’d teach grammar through how it’s spit out, not how it’s graphed on the whiteboard. Finally, I’d go through new expressions or troublesome phrasal verbs and idioms using tongue twisters or silly songs.
  • Use resources that cater to different levels. Give students opportunities to learn at their own pace. You can do this by allotting some class time to individualized study and—to avoid the logistical nightmare of planning 30 different activities for 30 different students—use technology to your advantage. One of these technologies is FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

3. Students Are Behaving Badly

Kids will be rowdy. Adults may simply have had a bad day. Sometimes, students just act up because the weather outside is just unbearable.

Yet, you have to keep your class in order or nothing will get done. In some cases, bad behavior can cost you your job, so it’s best to be prepared and proactive about keeping an orderly and peaceful classroom environment.

  • Create a handful of general rules for your class and stick to them. Make a list of what you expect from your students in terms of classroom behavior, then share it in the very first class. Make sure students understand what these rules mean and how you’ll enforce them, then actually enforce them throughout the term. You don’t have to be too specific (“Raise your hand before speaking”), but you should highlight the importance of the values these rules are trying to impart (“Doing polite things makes life pleasant for everyone”).
  • Use positive reinforcement as much as possible. People in general respond well to kind words. Rather than pointing out what your students did wrong (“You didn’t do your homework again”), talk about how they could do better next time (“If there’s anything about the homework that’s giving you trouble, please don’t hesitate to ask me”). Make sure you reward them in some way for following the rules, like saying “I’m so happy that everyone arrived on time today!”
  • List all the behavioral issues you’ve had or expect to have and create a suitable, ironic “punishment.” You can list these on a poster, so students know what to expect when the rules are broken. For example, if Juan always forgets to bring a pencil, give him a big pink crayon to take notes with. If Maria always forgets her notebook, give her a sheet of recycled paper (an old photocopy with one blank side) and remind her that she’ll need to copy all those notes into her notebook for the next class.
  • Avoid embarrassing or humiliating any particular student with an ironic punishment. You’re not putting a dunce cap on a kid in the corner: you’re trying to help your students discriminate between acceptable and unacceptable behavior and highlight that both have consequences.
  • Avoid, at all costs, using ESL activities or exercises as a punishment. The last thing you want is for your students to associate writing an essay or giving an oral presentation with harsh discipline. It’s challenging enough for them to do this type of thing within the context of class without it being perceived as a possible punishment.

4. One or a Handful of Students Are Particularly Disruptive or Dominant

Forgotten school supplies are usually the least of your worries. Sometimes, you’ll come across students that’ll push both your teaching skills and patience to their limits.

The unfortunate truth is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to dealing with these students. Chances are their issues are rooted in things beyond your control (like an unhappy home life).

However, that doesn’t mean you should let them carry on with their behavior and disrupt lessons for the students who actually want to learn. You’d have to be particularly firm about boundaries with these students; otherwise, the rest of the class will be swept up in their negative energy.

Here are a couple of ways to deal with especially troublesome students:

  • Ignore the behavior. This works best with students who are acting out of line for the attention. For example, if Jorge is always speaking out of turn or joking around with his classmates, it may be tempting to call him out since he might try harder to get your attention anyway. Instead, ignore the unwanted behavior—but don’t stop there! Make sure you observe him closely (and slyly!) and give him your full attention when he’s behaving appropriately.
  • Limit opportunities for badly-behaving students to dominate the class. For example, you may have come across the “Clever Trevor” type: he often knows the answer before anyone else and loves the attention he gets when he’s able to show off that knowledge. It would be wrong to stifle this enthusiasm, yet you have to give everyone a chance to get the answer right. What I do in this case is give each student five poker chips or playing cards representing one question each. Every time they answer a question (whether the answer is right or wrong), they have to give the teacher (i.e., you) a chip or card. The student with the least chips at the end of the session “wins.” This way, everyone gets an equal opportunity to have their say in class.

5. Students Are Just Not Into Studying

Some students aren’t outright disruptive. They just don’t want to be in class at all for one reason or another. Many of them are just there because they’re required to, not because they actually enjoy the process of learning.

These are the students who are often late or absent, fall asleep in class or stare out the window with their heads cupped in their hands instead of listening to what you’re saying.

As disheartening as these behaviors are, it’s important not to take them personally. Like disruptive students, unmotivated students typically have deep-rooted, personal reasons for why they are the way they are.

You may not be able to do much about the personal issues these students are dealing with, but you can foster a classroom environment that’ll make it easier for them to pick up lessons at their own pace, as follows:

  • If you see one or two who seem to be having trouble, discreetly ask to see them after class. You can slip them a small note while you’re doing your usual classroom rounds, for example. Make sure to write in the note that “no, you’re not going to be in trouble. There’s just something I want to talk to you about.” This small thing is important, because you don’t want them to get anxious about these after-class discussions.
  • Ask about what’s giving them trouble and/or what you can do about it. If they’re uncomfortable talking about exactly why they’re having trouble in class, you can always follow up with a question like “Is there anything I can do to help you?” or “What do you think can I do to make lessons better for you?” Not only does this empower them to have a say in their own education, but you’ll also get a more concrete idea of how to tailor your lessons to them.
  • Give them sincere praise as much as possible. Every time they do something right, make sure you point it out. Don’t be over-the-top about your praise, though: most people can spot an insincere compliment a mile away, no matter what language it’s in.

If you need more ideas, here are other ways to motivate ESL students to learn English.

6. Your Teaching Methods Clash With the Schools’

You may find yourself in a situation where there’s an established “method” already in place at the school. Administrators may expect you to teach using a syllabus handed down from above, or you may be asked to use some form of the Audio Lingual or Natural method.

Many franchised academies have ready-made methods or techniques that they use as marketing material to sell their classes. Other institutions may have a curriculum in place that they expect their teachers to follow. So how do you deal with the frustration of having to follow someone else’s ways when you have so many ideas of your own?

  • Learn the school method inside out. Instead of spending your already-very-limited time grumbling about how a certain method is [redacted], familiarize yourself with it. Take a good, honest look at what makes it work. There’s probably at least one good reason an entire educational institution recommends it, even if you don’t agree with that reason. Take the positives and run with them!
  • Plug the gaps in the school method. Now, examine why the method doesn’t work—or at least, why it rubs you the wrong way. All methods have their flaws, and a school-prescribed method is no exception. That’s where your creativity and skills as a teacher come in—figure out how to make up for those gaps within the constraints of the established order.
  • Sprinkle in a little fun whenever possible. Once you’ve mastered the ins and outs of the school method, you can drift away by offering your students some kind of rewarding activity in the last minutes of a class. After all, regardless of method, student satisfaction is a priority for any school. You might want to do a sing-along every third Friday or a quick game of 20 questions once a month. As long as you keep up-to-date with the objectives of the “method,” you’ll probably find little objection from the administration, especially when your students evaluate your class with five stars or smiley faces.

7. Students Are Having Difficulty Communicating in English

I’m going to come right out and say it: having a strict “100% English only” rule in an ESL class is a terrible idea. Not only is it an unrealistic rule to impose on people who are still in the process of learning the language, but it also demotivates students who already think that learning an entirely new language is difficult to begin with.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting you heavily lean on code-switching (or rapidly changing between English and your students’ native language) either. There’s a balance that needs to be struck between encouraging students to use English as much as they can and not making them feel like they’re in the classroom equivalent of a YA dystopian society.

Often, there are a myriad of reasons students are unable to use English as proficiently as they should. Luckily, these problems are also (relatively) easy to deal with, as follows:

  • Low proficiency. Create dozens of simple role plays and practice in pairs until the roles have been learned by heart.
  • Low energy. You can keep the class energy up by alternating short blocks of activity instead of drumming through one single theme for half an hour.
  • Low understanding. Take advantage of Clever Trevor and have him help you clearly explain what you expect in the activity or exercise.

Another great way to reinforce English lessons is to take classic songs and put an ESL twist on them. For example, you can change the lyrics of “This is the way we brush our teeth” to:

  • “Can I borrow a pencil please, pencil please, pencil please?”
  • “Can I go to the restroom please, restroom please, restroom please?”
  • “Would you repeat the question please, question please, question please?”

You can also make up your own tune and teach your students the classroom language in song. (If you can accompany the whole thing with a musical instrument, even better!) Then, when a student forgets to use the appropriate language, make them all smile by breaking into song and singing that phrase/sentence/question that the student seemed to have forgotten.

8. Cultural Gaps Are Too Wide

Language and culture are tightly intertwined. It’d be difficult, if not impossible, to understand one without doing the same for the other.

This is not to say that you should be an expert in your students’ culture or native tongue. More than anyone else, you’re probably aware of how long it takes to be an expert in anything. But you should know enough to understand how your students’ native language (or languages) and culture affect the way they think, communicate and learn.

While you can’t completely erase cultural gaps the size of Grand Canyon troughs, you can:

  • Learn the basics of your students’ native language. As I mentioned in passing earlier, you want to avoid code-switching as much as possible. However, being able to understand basic phrases can come in handy for when your student falls back into speaking their native tongue when they can’t express something in English, or you want to give them meaningful praise in their native language. Here’s a more in-depth article on code-switching in the classroom if you’re interested.
  • Let your students talk about their culture in English. Aside from teaching them about the culture of English-speaking countries, you should also give your students opportunities to showcase their culture within an ESL learning context. Even if they haven’t completely mastered the language yet, being able to discuss something they’re knowledgeable about can give them the confidence they need to express themselves in English regardless of their proficiency level.
  • Use cultural/linguistic differences as teaching points. For example, in Spanish, adjectives come after the noun, not before like in English, which could account for why your Spanish-speaking students are having trouble with this particular grammatical point. Use this as an opportunity to emphasize how adjectives and word order work in English.

9. Parents Are Making Things a Little More Complicated

If you’re teaching younger students, you’ll probably have at least a handful of meetings with parents. These meetings may be initiated by either party and often revolve around some issue concerning their child or children. They can also be nerve-wracking, because a terrible review by one particularly vocal parent can spell the difference between you keeping your job and being forced to fly back home to your country in tears.

To help you deal with those dreaded parent-teacher meetings:

  • Have a general idea on how kids are raised in the culture you’re teaching. While your upbringing may have been a pure corn-fed, Midwestern work ethic, other cultures have attitudes about parenting that you may find puzzling (or even shocking!) at first.
  • Make use of interpreters. Unless you’re fluent in the native language of the parents, you’ll want to take a qualified interpreter into the meeting with you. They can be a work colleague or administrator who’s bilingual. Avoid using your student as an interpreter, especially if the subject matter is delicate, since there’s going to be an obvious conflict of interest.
  • Start off the meeting with compliments. Whatever list of complaints you may have, you’ll want to start by telling the parents at least three things you’ve noticed in their child that are complimentary, like “always on time” and “makes a conscious effort to participate.” This isn’t dawdling: this is the “feedback sandwich” in action, where the harsh blow of negative feedback is softened by “sandwiching” it between two positive statements.
  • Frame any problem you have with a student as genuine concern. Don’t complain about the problematic child. Instead, tactfully communicate to the parents that Juan is important to you, his improvement is also important and that you’re willing to work together with the parents to weed out the actual problem and help Juan behave better.
  • Make sure you have hard evidence to back up your concerns. This can be quiz scores or homework turned in. (Don’t record classes to protect yourself! Parents can rightly flip out when they find out you’ve been recording class!) When doubts arise, you can demonstrate the source of your concern by showing the parents these tangible proofs.
  • Mark common goals and strategies to help the child get over the rough patch and move on to something better. Again, this is the “feedback sandwich” in action: you’re following up the negative feedback with constructive solutions that’ll benefit everyone, instead of complaining about how the student’s behavior is bothering you personally.

10. Resources Are Sorely Lacking

In an ideal world, ESL classes have a decent teacher-to-student-ratio, all students have complete school supplies and the classroom doesn’t feel like a raging furnace in the summer.

But we live in the real world, and in that world, all of the above would be the other way around.

This is one of those issues that can be tricky to work through. If the school already had some kind of shortage by the time you got there, the administration’s not going to magically cough up cash for extra seats, books and all those important-but-not-really (to them) things. In this case, your creativity and resourcefulness will be put to the test. 

You can:

  • Reuse supplies from a previous class. Of course, you don’t want to make it too obvious that your paper props are hand-me-downs. But if they’re still in good condition, there’s no harm in reusing them. Replace or repair them only when necessary.
  • Ask other teachers for help. You don’t have to pay for everything you use in class. If you have a good relationship with your colleagues (or better yet, your superiors), you can borrow their supplies whenever you need them.

11. Stress and Job Burnout Are Real

While ESL teachers aren’t the only ones who suffer from stress and job-related burnout, these can still significantly impair the way you teach—not to mention your health.

Organizational politics, the problems I just mentioned above, personal issues—these can all contribute to making you feel like you’ve already given everything to your job and yet none of it feels enough or worth it.

I know this issue isn’t directly related to teaching ESL students, but I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to look after yourself whenever you get the chance. Whether you like it or not, your energy in class affects your students: if you’re upbeat and eager to teach, your students will be the same—and the opposite is also true.

To keep stress to a minimum (because jobs are always stressful in some respect):

  • Maintain good relationships with other teachers. It’s easy to think that teaching is a solo endeavor. After all, you usually don’t have another teacher with you when you’re handling a class of four dozen students or so. But having someone to say “hi” to in the morning other than your students (and to vent with over coffee after class) can make a world of difference in your ability to cope with the often ridiculous demands on teachers.
  • Stay healthy. I don’t mean to sound like your GP, but try to get a balanced diet and exercise as much as you can. If neither of those are possible or practical, at least try to stay home if you’re not feeling well for any reason. Keep a healthy supply of multivitamins and over-the-counter medicines if your budget allows for them.
  • Squeeze in time for activities other than teaching English if you can. You’re probably already spending most of your day devising lesson plans, checking quizzes and homework and mulling over how to get Juan to stop disrupting class. Why should you feel guilty about having a stress-relieving hobby? As far as I’m concerned (and I’ll bet many other teachers feel the same), you’ve more than earned your leisure time.


There’s simply no job on earth that doesn’t come with problems. Teaching ESL is no different.

While we may all enter the field with a vocational attitude and hours of personal preparation or training, there will be challenges for ESL teachers and choices we have to make. The more decisions you make ahead of time, the less stressful it’ll be and the less improvisational your solutions will seem.

By being aware of these problems, you can minimize the impact they can have both on you and your students, and nip them in the bud before they escalate.

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