Working with difficult students – Cecilia Lemos

What is Difficult, after All?

The MacMillan Online Dictionary defines the word difficult as “not easy to do, deal with or understand”. After many years teaching and having many different types of difficult, I think dealing with difficult students all comes down to RISE.

Respect between teacher and students and between the students themselves. Foster that respect. Respect difficulties, fears and individual characteristics. Help students respect their own individualities.

Interest, genuine interest in the student, working to find out what makes him a difficult one.

Show you understand and care. Many times the source of the difficulty is a cry for attention.

Experiment with different ways of doing the same thing. Don’t be afraid to admit something is not working. By admitting that we can move on, try other ways, and find one that works.

Here are some examples of how I’ve used RISE in my classes:

I had a student exhibiting typical teenage behavior for Brazil, talking about sexual things and making others uncomfortable. I tried subtly asking him to stop and other approaches without success. On the day I snapped and told him in front of the whole class what I thought, he stopped.  Although it was harsh and maybe inappropriate, it worked. If at first I was afraid of visits from angry parents, my fears were calmed after he simply stopped. It was especially nice, years later, to meet him in the hallway where he gave me a big hug and said I was the best teacher he had ever had.

When you have teenagers with attitude problems, all you need to do is show you care and establish limits. Many students lack parental care because of parents who work too much and are too absent. Even if unconsciously, the students need that. It can make a difference. If you’re interested in reading more about this story and how I deal with it, click here.

Sometimes the difficulty involves learning or physical disabilities. Such situations can be very challenging.  I recently did a Teaching Village post about a student with real disabilities.  After feeling despair, I embraced the challenge and researched his problem. I learned how to keep his attention for longer periods, learned that keeping him busy with a variety of activities was key, and was honest with the other students and asked for their help. I treated him with respect, and didn’t patronize him while still keeping his difference in mind. It worked. That student with difficulties wound up socializing, being accepted, doing group work, and most importantly, learning.

Right now it is my beginner adult students who are difficult. They want to learn fast, have difficulty with sounds and are L1 dependant. I’ve been working on building their self-confidence as language learners, suggesting ways to fit extra practice into their busy lives, and helping them find immediate uses for English.  I talked to one especially difficult student a few times after class, learned about his interests and together we discovered a source for articles in his field that he could understand. He’s been writing reviews of those in English. He stopped complaining and now never misses a class. He is my biggest victory this semester – the one that makes the hard work worth it.

Still, things don’t always work. In addition to success stories, I have many where I wasn’t successful. There’s nothing wrong about that. We can’t expect to be perfect, or to always win, but we can’t stop trying. To overcome difficult we have to really want and try to understand it.

Difficult and different have the same root. Sometimes difficult only means different, and if that is the case we have to look at it differently. RISE to the challenge. It’s the only way to do it.

About Cecilia Lemos

Cecilia Lemos has been an English teacher in her hometown of Recife in Brazil, for 17 years. She is passionate about teaching for its power of transforming people and their future. She’s also an enthusiast about sharing and learning with other teachers around the world, especially through the use of social media. She loves books and languages.