Cecilia Lemos

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.

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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.

10 thoughts on “Working with difficult students – Cecilia Lemos”

  1. You’re the best, Ceci! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – your students are lucky to have you! Even though they may not realise it now, they will later, like the one you mentioned.

    I agree wholeheartedly that getting to know the students is the key. See, I may be old, but I’m not from the old school where distance has to be maintained between teacher and student in a cold strict manner.

    It’s different now. Teachers have to be the missing parent, the social worker… too.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Chiew, but I’m no different from so many other teachers – such as yourself – around the world, who not only are passionate about teaching but also care about the students and understand they are people, individuals, not just names on the role call.

      It’s interesting – though not surprising after being reminded – that you brought up, in your comment, the many different roles we teachers plays these days. I don’t think I had ever stopped to link the new realities our students live today – may it be teens who are bullied or have absent parents or adults stressed from too much work and demands – are very likely the reason why there seem to be more of these difficult students these days.

      I guess more than ever, knowing your student, the individual and it peculiarities and history, is key to reaching and helping them learn.

      Thanks for the comment! It made me go into a whole new string of thought!

    2. Congrats, Cecilia! You´re an excellent teacher and this articles is showing that. Teaching is not sometimes a simple task and you like an important aspect: Interest in Helping students with problems of learning and, the most important thing, Integrate them to the whole class. Teaching should involve Learning on the part of all students: easy, medium and diffcult ones. Be patience, creative and passionate teachers is the way to get success!

      1. Thanks, Maria! And I agree with you. Not only should teaching involve all of those you mentioned, but when it does, it’s more effective and lasting. At least I think so! 😉

  2. This is an almost perfect post with a memorable hook.

    Why is it not perfect? Because it isn’t long enough. We need more of the hands-on situations and how you dealt with them. The first one is so graphic. There is nothing to replace the stories of how things really happened.

    More, please, Ceci!

    1. Hahaha… You’re a mind reader, dear Ken! The first draft of this post was about twice the size… However, we have a word limit and I had to edit it some (well, ok… a lot) of it.

      Like you, I am a fan of case studies and real life, hands-on stories. It makes learning real and we can better relate to them. And I think this is true for stories of both success AND failure (yes, I know we can think there’s no failure in trial and error, in not achieving the desired result, but truth is we feel those as failure – I know I do). We all have those. Just as we all have groups that we can’t reach or lessons that just don’t work. We are humans, after all – even if we pretend to be super-humans 😉

      Thanks for your kind words. 🙂

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