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Get it Together, Teach! 8 Crucial Elements of Superb ESL Classroom Management

Teaching is only the half of it.

As an ESL educator, a large part of your “teaching” time will be spent not developing lesson plans or introducing new material, but doing something else entirely.

This time will be spent simply figuring out how to manage your classroom in a way that works for you and your students.

Without having clear routines and procedures established, it’s impossible to give your students the maximum learning opportunities that scheduled time affords.

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a simple set of tips that will work in all situations.

To really get to the heart of how to effectively manage an ESL classroom, we’ll have to go deeper.

In this article, we’ll examine crucial elements that we, as educators, need to consider when deciding on our own approaches to classroom management.

Where to start? Let’s take it from the beginning.

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What Is Classroom Management?

It’s worth taking a moment here to define exactly what we mean when we talk about classroom management. To my mind, there are a number of key concepts to consider. Namely, preparation, procedures and behavior. The end purpose of effective classroom management is to optimize the students’ learning experiences by creating and sustaining an environment conducive to providing the best learning experiences.

The ESL classroom can offer its own peculiar challenges in this regard. Communicating expectations, enforcing discipline and even establishing simple classroom routines may pose special problems due to the language barrier. Cultural norms may differ, too, especially when teaching abroad. Fret not, however! Here we’ll take a look at the crucial elements you need to take your classroom management chops to the next level.

8 Crucial Elements of Superb ESL Classroom Management

1. Planning and preparation

It seems obvious only because it is. But it cannot be overstated: Thorough preparation is essential to maximizing the learning opportunities afforded your students. Tight planning allows for effective transitions between activities, and transitions can often be the time when class discipline is at its most vulnerable.

All too often I have seen teachers, trainees and experienced teachers alike come out of a lesson and bemoan the behavior of their students.

Mistake #1! The teacher is the authority figure in the classroom, whether you like it or not. You need to own that position of responsibility, as it shortchanges your students if you don’t.

The first step in taking charge is ensuring you have adequately planned and prepared. Ensure you have clear learning objectives and sufficient relevant activities. Got enough photocopies? Double-checked your USB memory stick? Flashcards on hand? Ample pencils or pens? Know where your visual aids and props are? Extra activities ready to go in case you have time left?

One convenient way to ensure you always have enough appropriate material to keep things moving is by using FluentU, an online immersion platform that takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

FluentU makes classroom management simpler by providing you and your students with a wealth of authentic English-language learning material that is both engaging and comprehensible.

Once again, the importance of being fully prepared cannot be overstated. Fumbling and confusion on the part of the teacher opens windows of opportunity for student misbehavior. Don’t let this happen. Keep them busy and keep them engaged.

2. Transparent expectations

Communicating clear expectations to your students is crucial in maintaining an atmosphere conducive to learning. Make sure that your students are aware of what is expected from them at each stage of the lesson. This can take the form of sharing the lesson objective with them from the start, modeling the activity with volunteers in front of the class before they undertake it themselves or by scaffolding examples of what you would like the students to produce.

It is also important to remember to keep instructions brief and sequential. You can differentiate the language and/or the detail here dependent on your students’ abilities. When the task is complex and requires extensive instructions, consider whether or not you can break those instructions into chunks and deliver them stage-by-stage.

3. A teaching persona (“Fake it till you make it”)

For new teachers, especially those who may not be much older than their students, developing a teaching persona is extremely important. Now, if you are one of those lucky people who are at home in their own skin in any environment, you may slip effortlessly into any classroom as comfortably as you would an old pair of pajamas. But for many of us, the classroom is a trial.

As mentioned at the outset, the teacher is the authority in the room and so is responsible for the creation of an environment conducive to learning.

When I trained as a teacher many years ago, I found myself on placement in a class of high school students studying literature. I love literature. I was so excited to teach Shakespeare and George Orwell—I couldn’t wait! Well, the reality in the room full of hormonal, disinterested and at times downright rude teenagers nearly broke me. They were not much younger than me and I found myself uncomfortable playing the role of the authority figure—too much Pink Floyd as a boy! I almost quit before gaining my teaching qualification. It was only the sound advice of my battle-scarred, wise old Welsh mentor that saved me.

His advice amounted to this: Don’t take it personally.

You owe it to your students to take charge. If it doesn’t come naturally to you then you need to create a teaching persona. Now we know persona can mean “mask,” but I don’t believe this is a dishonest act. It’s about finding a register, establishing a professional relationship with your students that ultimately creates an environment for them in which they can optimize their learning. After all, isn’t that what teaching is all about?

4. Smooth transitions

To maximize teaching time, it is crucial that we find effective strategies to transition between the distinct parts of a lesson. Clumsy transitions can lead students to become distracted and open up possibilities for misbehavior. This can be especially problematic in an ESL classroom, where communication may already be difficult.

Visual prompts can be a great aid here, especially with younger learners. Having photographs of what you require the students to do can make for easy communication. For example, pinning photographs above the board of the class lined up, tidying up or in pairs and groups can help you organize your students by merely pointing to the appropriate picture.

Use simple, consistent instructions. When you want your students to sit in groups, for example, use the same simple language every time. There are numerous ways to tell your class to get into groups. But you should pick one and stick to it, at least to begin with. You can begin to vary your instructions as the students gain understanding in the target language.

Establishing these routines early on will ensure the students are clear on what you expect from them. You can even make a game of it. One useful trick I frequently use during transitions is to display a countdown clock on the computer, set for 30 seconds or whatever length of time is appropriate. I stop the clock when the students have completed the transition. I record the number of seconds the class has “saved.” I add up the “saved” time over the week, and then on Friday this time is used to play fun language games I know the class enjoys.

This motivates my students to make the most of our time together and we all look forward to the fun (and educational!) time at the end of the week.

5. Appropriate sequencing of activities

It is worthwhile giving some thought to the sequencing of activities. Think about the time of day your lessons are taking place. Are the students “up” after a PE class? Do you need to start the class off with a more sedate activity to get things under control? On the other hand, a Friday afternoon may not be the most rewarding time to undertake a hardcore grammar lesson.

Consider sequencing within the structure of your own lessons, too. For example, it may not be the wisest choice to schedule high-paced games prior to instructing the class to undertake a piece of extended writing. Reflect on the success or otherwise of your previous lessons with this in mind. Use what you learn about your students over time to effectively schedule your various activities.

6. A wider support network

Every school will have its own school culture. It is important to bear this in mind when we consider our approach to classroom management.

Check to see whether your school has a whole-school behavior policy. Not only will this ensure you don’t overstep the mark, it will point you in the direction of support within the school. It’s also important to get a feel for the local teaching culture when teaching abroad. It is sometimes the case that difficulties are best resolved by a local teacher.

When possible, cultivate good working relationships with your colleagues. They can often offer invaluable advice and support. Parents can be helpful, too. It is important to approach all discipline issues with the aim of maximizing learning for each student. Playing the “blame game” can have a detrimental outcome for all concerned, particularly if we ignore certain cultural mores.

For example, ignoring the concept of “face” by loudly chastising a student in front of his peers may make you an enemy for life in several Asian countries rather than correcting unwanted behavior! On the other hand, dealing with behavior in a manner sensitive to the concept of “face,” e.g., by speaking to the student quietly after class, may be appreciated and encourage positive behavior in the future.

7. Employment of your students’ mother tongue

I know, I know! The dominant mantra of English language teaching for many years now has been to avoid this very thing. However, I would argue that, used judiciously, a student’s mother tongue can be a very effective classroom management tool. If you don’t speak the mother tongue of your students, learning a few key phrases can help you manage your classroom. This may well give you insight into some of the difficulties your students face in acquiring English, too.

You can also acknowledge your students’ native language(s) with multilingual and bilingual decorations and other content for your classroom. Language Lizard has posters and other classroom materials that come in a variety of language combinations.

8. Damage control readiness

Ignoring low-level disruptive behavior disturbances in the classroom may at times be necessary. It may seem counter-intuitive, but sometimes teaching, like politics, becomes “the art of the possible.”

While it is not ideal for a student to be off-task, it can be the lesser of two evils. There are occasions when a particular student becomes something of a black hole for our attention. This can be unfair to other students who are eager to learn. It is incumbent upon the teacher to make decisions about which behaviors to deal with and which to ignore. If a student is stubbornly refusing to engage with the lesson, and you have exhausted all other avenues, it may serve the rest of your class better to continue on regardless.

Of course, we don’t give up on a student, but we cannot always find a “quick-fix” solution in the middle of a lesson. Instead, we may have to build rapport with problem students over time.

Often students who appear disinterested, or even hostile, can be encouraged back into participation by the building of rapport. Take a little time out of your day to do this.

If you’re interested in improving your ability to deal with behavioral and learning issues in the classroom, you can consider taking the Educator's Fundamentals Series from ed2go, a set of online courses that include discipline skills and working with students who have ADHD.

We seldom know the full reasons for misbehavior. It may be that students just don’t like your class, but we should be sensitive to the possibility of other reasons. Find out what they are interested in and try to engage them in a little conversation when you see them. Take it slowly at the start, and have patience. A minute or two of conversation on a regular basis can go a long way toward improving your relationship and bettering the learning environment for the whole class.

Remember, classroom management is more of an art than a science.

There are no easy answers.

It takes time to develop your bag of tricks.

And not all tricks will work with all classes.

Always reflect on what is working and adapt your approach accordingly.

Good luck!

And One More Thing…

Searching for fun, authentic videos to show your ESL students? Check out FluentU!

FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, cartoons, documentaries and more—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons for you and your students.

It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. There are tons of great choices there when you’re looking for songs for in-class activities. You’ll find music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids’ singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.

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On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students. Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.

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For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:

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Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”

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It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about English!

The full FluentU video library is available on any computer or tablet, and users can even download the app at the iTunes and Google Play store.

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.

Bring English immersion to your classroom!

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