Outdone by the pink elephant

Discipline is a big issue with young learners and classroom management skills are essential for preventing/dealing with the issues that inevitably crop up (unfortunately, I was unable to join the recent ELTchat session on this topic). Generally, I focus on building positive relationships with my classes from day 1. I make an effort to get to know them, to learn about their interests and to show them that learning can be enjoyable and productive at the same time.

However, there are some classes who are more difficult to get through to. They equate fun in class with playtime, they don’t respond easily to attempts to get to know them and generally they give every teacher a headache! I have one such class this year. All their teachers past and present say the same: “do your best and try to stay calm.” There is also no real support system in my school for helping teachers deal with difficult classes or students. We are simply told to sort out problems in the classroom in the classroom. To make matters worse, one of my lessons with this class happens to be on a Friday afternoon when they really are not interested in doing anything resembling work (at least this Friday is a public holiday here so I get a brief respite)!

4114216294_3369b003bb Image courtesy of JoetheLion

Anyway, this is one of the classes in which I have a ‘pink elephant’, that being the term used by Jason Renshaw on his excellent blog to describe an observer in class. My pink elephant is a new teacher with no classroom experience beyond his CELTA. He’s been given a schedule of classes to observe and has been doing so over the last couple of weeks. I decided together with a colleague that he should teach part of a lesson to prevent him getting bored and to give him some hands on experience. The weather seemed to be a good topic to start with. At first, I let him take charge of one of my better behaved classes and then told him he would do the same for my ‘difficult’ class. He gulped but then started to brace himself.

And what happened? He stood at the board, elicited some weather words, drew the pictures and drilled the question and phrases repeatedly. He then did an exercise from the book, checked the answers one by one, writing them on the board as he did so, and drilled the words again. So, the lesson was very much teacher-centred with lots of teacher talking time and the only interactions being teacher to student. Furthermore, there was little deviation from the vocabulary and language covered in the course book.

However, as I was making these observation, I noticed something else: What were the class doing? They were sitting good as gold and listening to everything. They eagerly shot their hands up every time he asked a question with no complaints or arguments about not being called upon. They did the exercises in full and out their hands up to call the teacher over to check their answers. I had never seen them like that before!

That got me thinking what had happened and why. Were they on best behaviour just because he was a different, new teacher? (I seem to remember they were not so bad for the first lesson of the year). Had he simply got lucky and caught them on a good day?

Or, was it the case that a teacher-fronted, rigidly structured lesson held their attention better than my attempts to encourage them to explore, collaborate and have some say in the direction of the lesson? Generally, the class teachers here have a tendency either to lecture or to  spoon feed knowledge to the students and I sometimes wonder (especially with this age group) if some kids take liberties in any class where they are handed more responsibility. For the sake of good discipline, should I be retaining tighter control over all aspects of the lesson?

Food for thought over the holiday weekend…


  1. Yep, you got it. They've been learning in a teacher-centered,spoon-fed environment their entire school lives. This kind of interaction is also encouraged at home. The kids will always respond well to that style of teaching in my experience.

    The problem is is that the type of student you want to promote? My answer has always been "no." This is where skill as a teacher really comes into play. Trying to get students to learn in a way completely different from what every other teacher of theirs is doing. For older students especially, this is also where chatting about methodology in L1 comes in really handy.

    As you said, fun activities are often seen as play time by younger students. They don't have that freedom in other classes and they simply don't know how to behave within that environment then when you do it in your class. Classroom management becomes 50% of the job - knowing when to get them up and moving and knowing when to calm them back down. Setting clear guidelines and expectations for more free activities in L1 also will probably help a lot.

    If you're lucky, you can build a class that grows to appreciate and understand the value of your teaching style. With all the constant reinforcement against such an approach in their lives, it is certainly not an easy task. Have fun.

  2. Very interesting David. Hope you enjoy your holiday, by the way. I do really know what you're talking about. When I demonstrate lessons in primary schools, I'd say I pull them along, so they haven't got time to mess about. I give them opportunities all the time to act out words and be silly, so they're happy to pay attention to me for the next prompt. E.g. we encounter the word "huddle", can you huddle with your partner, protect him or her, it's dangerous out there, how are you feeling? Scared, yeah, true, huddle together, that's nice, look, these two are putting their arms round each other. "Restlessly", you can't sit still, look at Clare over there, she can't sit still, she's restless. Well done John (who can be naughty), you're really restless, right next word "silence". Shhhh. ... .... .... John is completely still and completely silent, he's acting it out, and there are many opportunities like that, so many in fact, that he forgets he's supoosed to be the naughty one ;-)

  3. Hi David! You've hit the nail on the head. The same happens to me. I have always wondered what's wrong with me that I always tend to excite my students rather than settle them down. I have finally got to the conclusion that there's nothing wrong with me and that a silent and quiet class doesn't mean that learning is taking place. We can learn a lot more by doing and experimenting (and that's always a bit noisy unfortunately jajaja)

  4. Thanks for the comments so far.

    Nick - I think this is more of a problem for me this year as in the past, I had two classes or 3rd graders, 12 hours a week each, so I could get them used to my way of things quickly. This year, I have 5 classes of 4th graders, 4 hours each so my lessons are more of a novelty than normal. Then there's class size to consider - 30+! I notice quite a difference when I do the split lesson with just 15 of them.

    David - Ah! TPR. It works with some classes but others can take it too far in my experience. It's all a matter of getting them used to the activities as well as the overall approach.

    Sabrina - Yes, you're right. Well-behaved and quiet does not equate to learning. The trick is to reach that point where they know when enough is enough in terms of noise and excitement!

  5. Great post, covering two very different issues that overlap in a rather interesting way here...

    Personally, I think it might be a bit too quick to assume the students were good and responsive because of the teacher-fronted style of the lesson. I've usually found that a new teacher (or just new person) running a class, while I (the usual teacher) watch from the side or back results in a deceptively well-behaved and responsive group of learners!

    I think we also need to remember that when we aim for more student autonomy and exploration, behaviour also becomes less rigid and less predictable, and our capacity to watch/control changes when different groups of learners are doing different things at the same time.

    I'd say mix it up a bit and watch how the learners respond. I daresay you might find the learners are as unruly with your highly teacher fronted and structured lessons as any other style -- but never know until you experiment a bit!

    Love that pink elephant picture of yours, btw - much better than the one I found!


    - Jason

  6. I think Nick got it... They were like that because they're used to a tighter-roped, more traditional, and they know how to behave in that setting. Once you present them with a different setting, they just don't know how to handle the responsibility and respect you've given them. Be persistent, talk to them. In a freer, more student-centered classroom their learning is more meaningful but they have to understand it, see it first. That's hard work for you... But worth it :-) I don't see the group your pink elephant was able to draw out of your students as being the good one. Being quiet and answering things doesn't mean they're learning - it doesn't mean they are retaining the language. I agree with Sabrina.

    Hang in there Dave! And enjoy your weekend!

  7. Fascinating observation. As teachers, you can learn a new perspective to teaching when observing peers. It is a real shame not many schools wish for more teacher-to-teacher observation. Nevertheless, the points you have raised are interesting and illustrates a combination of all teaching methodologies are neither wrong. Perhaps increased TTT is good in some contexts whereas STT is better in others.

  8. Jason - you're right of course that the me being the pivk elephant in this scenario made a difference. The observer affects the experiment and all that. It seems quite illogical though that they would behave better for someone who isn't their teacher than they do for the guy who's in the class every week and gives feedback to their parents... Kids, eh?

    Cecilia - Persistence and patience: two essential qualities for a primary school teacher! I'll be talking to them on Monday about why they acted differently in this lesson - if I can get their attention for long enough that is!

    Martin - thanks for the comment. I also agree that more peer observation would be good. Not just with trainee teachers but with everyone. Persuading others to go along with it is easier said than done though.

  9. Trust me, this becomes even more of an issue when the little darlings reach 18 years of age. I wrote on this subject a while back on my blog...


  10. Dave, that's the student in you speaking - in the sense that good teachers are eternal learners. They analyze everything to the last detail. As a part of recruitment procedure, we get potential teachers to "observe and then continue a lesson". The phenomenon you mentioned is almost always true - I mean std paying more attention, being more involved. Unfortunately, often the same students complain about the same teacher after a period of time (if the teacher is employed)
    I feel it's more on the lines of "New girl in class - let's impress". Most individuals in most situations want to impress someone new in their environment. Once the newness wears off, so does the urge to impress which gives way to a more realistic analysis. ESL students today are generally way more aware of what should(n't) happen in a classroom.
    - my 2 cents

  11. Thanks for your 2 cents Ron. I think I'll have my trainee do another lesson with the same class soon and see if the novelty continues or if it has started to wear off. ;)

  12. Hi David,

    I've been meaning to comment on this post for a while now, but didn't have the time to do so. Even though I guess many people said what I think that might have happened, I'd like to add my contribution. Shall I? :)

    I guess maintaining discipline in the classroom is not something that comes easily. It takes time for us to get to know our learners and try to see what works and what doesn't work. When the teacher has just started teaching the group, students tend to behave much better than when time goes by. This might be so because the students are still trying to "feel" the teacher and experiment with the limits. I really don't think it's a matter of teaching style, but mainly a matter of feeling comfortable with the teacher/school so that they do what they feel to be considered acceptable.

    I guess I agree with Jason when he says that students would probably be just as unruly if this pink elephant were to keep teaching the, I also see your point when you replied to it, but, as you said, kids, huh?!

    I like Penny Ur's description of classroom discipline, which is something in the line of a set of rules that is agreed upon by the teacher and the learners in order to allow for an environment in the classroom that is conducive to learning. I really don't think this is a matter of your teaching style - all teachers try their best to make sure their learners grasp what is being taught.

    Then we also have to take into account learner's differences. Perhaps I could add some more food for thought. One student in our school, a 11-year-old boy, told the teacher the other day that "it is the student who's got to adapt to the teacher, and not the other way around." Go figure... most students his age tend to believe that the teacher is boring, and the classes are boring, and all they want is playing games. To be honest, when we're in a classroom with more than 5 learners, and if they're all different, it's pretty hard for the teacher to cater for all tastes, which means I do agree with the little boy's remarks.

    I'm afraid I went a bit off topic here. Hope you don't mind! :)



  13. Hi Henrick,

    Your comment finally came and it was worth the wait. :) Funny that this wasn't one of my 'planned' posts - it was just one that came to me and was posted there and then and yet it's generated the most comment of any post I've done to date!

    One thing with this particular class is that they never listened long enough to go over 'the rules' at the start of the year. When I did manage to discuss what teachers are like with them (I talked about this in another post but based on the lesson with another class) they came out with very negative answers like 'angry', 'loud' and 'boring' - I guess their behaviour has caused their teachers to be this way but they've never made that connection themselves.

    Thanks for dropping by. Your comments were much appreciated. :)

  14. This comment was sent by Kirsten Hawkins, @linglizya
    on Twitter, who for some unknown reason can never manage to comment on blogspot from her browser and so asked me to post this for her. :)

    Nice post! I have a group like this. Well, 2 groups out of 5 are like this for me. One group are doing their PET exam on Saturday! This still does not give them any motivation to be quiet and listen. Same experience as you, I found they took advantage of my more fun classes, so have been giving them boring ones ever since just to maintain control. It is a comfort to know that teachers who have been teaching for years still have these problems.

    I mean seriously, I gave them a mock exam yesterday, and they wouldn't even be silent for that!

    They get all excited and I say "What's up with you guys?" Reply: "It's Monday" okay, so no work on Monday coz it's Monday, first day of the week. No joy on a Friday, either. So one third of the week I can work with them. Just Wednesday. They also told me that school is finishing in a couple of weeks, so they are on wind down. Great.

    I feel your pain! Could you do a review of what you've learned about this group over the course of the year? I think you might have had some reflections since. Have you found a way to teach them that you and Ss are happy with?

    Check out Kirsten's blog: http://flykites.wordpress.com/

  15. Thanks Kirsten for sharing your experience. Unfortunately, this was one class I never really managed to find a balance with. Just today I had to have a word with 2 of the boys out in the corridor because they were so disruptive. Good idea to do a further reflection now we are nearly at the end of the year - I'll make it an upcoming post. :)


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