I was one of those kids. So, I know. And if you were one of those kids too, you probably are thinking, KARMAAA!!!

I’ve been teaching at a lovely language school in Chiang Mai for almost 3 years. Prior to that I taught in Ecuador, and I was also a Waldorf teacher in the States, working primarily with grade school children, and this does not include my training time.

All this to say, I’ve spend some time in front of the classroom.

First of all, let’s take a moment to enjoy the fact that as teachers we get to see everything. Yes. Everything. If you pay attention to your students, and you should, you will know when someone is fiddling with their backpack, passing notes and copying homework. It’s empowering, and I love it.

However, all powers of perception can be used for good or evil. Let’s use our teaching superpowers for good, shall we? Let’s not pretend to know or assume before we have all the answers. So let’s take a look at common misbehaviors in an EFL classroom…

1. The damn mobile. When I first started teaching English in Thailand I noticed a lot of cell phone usage. Thankfully, I’m a curious person and so when I saw a student using their phone, I approached them and asked, “What are you doing?” More often than not, they were using their dictionaries.

girls-on-phoneNow whether you like them doing that or not is up to you. But why yell at them if they are trying to understand you or your assignment better?

Of course, some are texting, and in these cases, you can just take the phone away. Problem solved.

2. Talking. Depending on how much Thai (or whatever language) you know, you might not be aware that the students are talking or arguing about the work you just assigned. There are times I catch myself getting caught up in listening to the explaining and the debate of a grammar point or how to do something among the students. In other words, if you are careful in watching and listening, what looks to be misbehavior is really the students trying to clarify the work.

2a. More Talking. I’ve inherited a very animated class. If I had been a little greener behind the ears, I might be more inclined to think they are bad mouthing me, but they aren’t. I think a lot of teachers are afraid when students are talking in another language that they are automatically saying bad things about the teacher, you.

But give your students a chance and don’t assume the worst. My Thai is not good enough to understand everything, but this crazy class has given me daily opportunities to listen with my whole body.

By doing so, I have a greater understanding about what they are talking about, namely NOT me. And honestly, if I’m wrong, I’d rather be ignorant or ‘play dumb’.

boys-talkingIf you do suspect the worst, talk to the student in question, after class. This almost always works and can help ease your mind. I find it better to address the problem than let it fester and wait.

3. Fidgeting. I’ve had students get up in the middle of the class, walk up to me and ask me a random question, or get up and walk to the back of the room for no reason.  During the latter situation, I asked, “What are you doing?” And he replied, “I don’t know.”

We all laughed. This was on the first day of class, and it turns out, he was such a funny student who I now miss. Sometimes students will do these kinds of random things and hell, when I need a break from the computer I do the same dang thing. I get up and walk across the room.

I’ve learned to ignore students getting up to get something out of their backpacks, bouncing legs, dropping books, borrowing erasers and other little movements in the classroom to keep on going. I don’t see the point in getting angry, flustered or agitated over “ADHD” or everyday life. I guess because I myself can’t bare sitting down for long periods of time.

However I’m not very good with clicking pens…

pens should not click!

If you are easily distracted, I would seriously consider a career change. Students are people and people move and if you ask them to sit still for a long time then expect more outbursts and movement.

Younger children can only sit for about 10-15 minutes before parts of their brains shut down from non-usage. Think about how sleepy you get during a long lecture. Same same. Obviously older children can concentrate or sit for longer periods but you should be mindful of how long you have the students sitting in their chairs.

4. Understanding cultural differences. Doing my TEFL in Bangkok was very helpful because Thailand is where I’d eventually do the bulk of my EFL teaching (to date). During an observation, I learned that licking the end of papers before distributing them was a big NO NO. Westerners, for some reason do this and don’t think it’s gross but in SE Asia, they do.

And it’s very natural for Thais to talk when a teacher is talking (???). As an American, I find this extremely disrespectful. Before I taught here, my cousin invited me to a Teacher’s Day ceremony at Maejo and watched the university students freely chat when the instructors were talking. It got quite loud too as the professors were talking into microphones.

Now I’m not saying let them talk when you are talking, but it helps to know that this is considered OK here (???). I’m less likely to get upset and more likely to say, “In America, you cannot talk when the teacher is talking, it’s considered very rude.” Then teaching English also becomes a cultural exchange. Your students are here to learn that too.

Which leads me to the last ballpoint…

5. Don’t take things so personally! Sometimes I look at my students and wonder what the heck is wrong with them. They suddenly have caught an acute case of “speaking gibberish” or look like they’ve spent the night in a third-class chicken bus on an unpaved road.

So I know. It’s not me. It’s them. My lesson plan does not bloweth. They are just having one of those days or weeks. I know from experience, some days my Thai is brilliant and other days I feel like I just got off the slow boat.

And this has nothing to do with cultural differences, it just sometimes has to do with your students being tired. Like you. Happy teaching!


2 replies on “How Students are Misunderstood in the EFL Classroom

  1. Number 2 is so true! When I first started teaching in Taiwan 3 years ago, just hearing Chinese would set me off, but partly because my boss would come inside and scream “NO CHINESE” at the kids whenever she’d hear them. Now that I can understand the language, it’s exactly what you said, a lot of the time they are just trying to clarify the instructions or assignment, and are looking for more direction. Great tip!


    1. I know. We get that too. No Thai! But I remember very clearly learning Thai in the classroom and it would have been frustrating not to use English! Of course I expect higher levels to speak more English!!!!


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