Steven Herder

Working with difficult students – Steven Herder

I wonder if any of you veterans or wise younger teachers feel the same way?

The longer I’m in the classroom, the more that difficult students have morphed from being powerful and disruptive, to being a manageable challenge in the classroom. They used to be able to throw me off my game completely; their stares of disinterest, boredom or defiance wreaked havoc on my delicate teacher identity. Now, more often than not, they end up becoming some of my most memorable students because they are so used to being misunderstood and judged inappropriately, that simply by recognizing that they need something before jumping to judge them, I have a much better success rate than I used to have.

If I were asked to give advice to any younger teachers, I guess I would say the following 5 points:

  1. Never forget the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
  2. Give choices rather than ultimatums.
  3. Be willing to lose a battle, in order to win the war.
  4. Be a teacher; sometimes that means taking a stand when push comes to shove.
  5. Be clear about your expectations, what’s negotiable, and where you draw the lines in your classroom.

Sitting here thinking about advice to that younger teacher, I immediately recalled students and situations that I handled either very well or very poorly. I’d like to offer a little more explanation or an anecdote for each of the 5 points above.

So, if you believe point 1 and approach the classroom from that perspective, I would be willing to bet that you have just eliminated 70% of your potential problems with students.

If you haven’t learned the power in point number 2, try having a child, because nothing has taught me more clearly and repeatedly that (little) people respond better to choices than to threats, than dealing with my own kids. Trying to force my children to eat their dinner, take a bath, or go to bed always ends up in a battle. Negotiating through choices with them works 90% of the time.

Regarding point 3, it took me a long time to learn that it was okay to lose sometimes to an individual or to the whole class. In fact, it was much better to lose sometimes because it empowered my students, gave them more responsibility for their learning, and showed them that life isn’t always about winning, but very often more about how you play the game.

I clearly remember the feeling in point 4 of not taking a stand in a classroom situation with a problem student in one of my early classes. Looking back, I’m sure that everyone knew I would back down if push came to shove. I remember an older teacher simply saying, “You have to be their teacher”. At the time, I had no clue what she meant. Finally, after a number of disheartening classes, I finally confronted one of the ringleaders, not from any preplanned strategy, but simply as my instincts took over. I stood over her desk, and demanded that she turn over her _______ (I can’t remember if it was a comic book, chewing gum, or a gun) but I can remember deciding that I would stand there for as long as it took for her to realize that I was her teacher. Even though it felt like hours, it was in fact some minutes before other students convinced her that I was serious, and nothing else would continue until I got what I had asked for. Things never became great with that class (because I had waited too long to be their teacher), however things definitely did get better. And, a few years later, that student and I got along.

Finally, I can honestly say that I can’t remember the last time I had a student throw me off my game for 2 lessons in a row. Besides getting a little older and a little grayer, I think I have finally learned how to see a problem coming and deal with it before it gets the best of me; the secret to that is in point 5.

I wonder if you can help me increase my list of 5 points of advice to a younger teacher?


Published by

Steven Herder

Steven has been teaching within the Japanese EFL context since 1989. Having over 20 years teaching experience at the elementary and secondary school level, he is currently an associate professor in the International Studies department at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts. He is also extremely active in professional development within the ELT community. He co-founded MASH Collaboration in 2007, an online community devoted to professional development through collaboration. He is an avid user of Skype and can often be heard saying, “Collaboration creates just the right amount of tension to get lots done.” He also spends time editing numerous articles, academic volumes and proceedings, and leading teacher training seminars for various companies throughout Japan. Steven works from the perspective that, “being a teacher means a never-ending commitment to learning”.

30 thoughts on “Working with difficult students – Steven Herder”

  1. I am not much ‘younger’ than you are but surely LESS wiser/patient in dealing with difficult students. While reading through your golden rules, I had an opportunity to reflect my own tendency and errors.
    Thank you so much for the chance. I feel my eyes got wider 🙂

    1. Hi Chiyuki,

      What a pleasure to have you reading a number of our posts on a Monday morning. Thank you so much for joining our conversation.

      I can’t agree that you are less wise or patient than anyone, but I can agree that you are one of the most cheerful and positive teachers that I know. I have smiled many, many times on early mornings reading your Facebook posts. Your smile and pursuit of happiness inspires me and others I’m sure.


  2. Hi Steven,

    Fantastic list and on a good day I like to think I try and keep at least three or so of the points firmly in mind while teaching. The only one I can think to add is, “Provide all students with the opportunity to succeed.” All students want to succeed. But especially in a mixed class, it can be difficult for some students to find that chance for success which is so important for their motivational levels. And while it can be hard to give out leveled assignments all the time, I think finding ways to prepare assignments which all students, in their own way, can be successful at is one of the best ways to keep “difficult students” engaged and motivated. So if a new teacher had a student who seemed to be disengaging from class, I would ask the teacher, do your expectations/assignments/in-class activities for the class allow that particular student to succeed? Because if the student is feeling miserable before they walk into class and feeling miserable on their way out, it’s going to be pretty hard for her/him to suddenly feel positive when the bell for the start of class rings. Giving “difficult students” the glow of accomplishment that comes with success is a gift that you, as a teacher, might be the only one in a position to give to that particular student. So don’t stint when it comes to the gift of success. You’ll get much more out of the giving than simply a better behaved class.

    Kevin Stein
    Osaka Japan

    1. Congratulations, Kevin,

      My 5 ways to work with difficult students is now 6 thanks to you!

      My old colleague from many moons ago, Chris, wrote a wonderful piece that I still keep in my bookcase called, “A Chance to Shine” which highlighted all the events in her English classroom in a calendar year that were designed to allow everyone a chance to succeed in her classroom.

      Your description above immediately made me recall that influential writing from my past. Thank you and let’s hurry up and meet!


  3. Yes, yes, yes, Steven, really wise thoughts and rules! Every teacher should follow these rules, and teach themselves firstly. Thank you very much.

  4. Thanks, Nina,

    I love your enthusiastic response, and people who take the time to make comments here and for any of our iTDi bloggers really make it all worthwhile.

    With everything that is going on in our busy iTDi lives, a few of us were up VERY late last night (early this morning) getting this edition of the blog ready for today’s deadline. So, a very sincere thank you from a sleepy guy in Osaka, Japan.


  5. Steven, you’re turning into another Shelly, the one who never sleeps! I’m watching you from across the ocean and your light is on in all ungodly hours!

    I’m sure, in any case, that a lot of teachers would have benefitted from your (& Kevin’s) golden rules. Now, go to bed early tonight!

    1. God help me if I start to drink Coke ZERO like Shelly does.

      Everyone in iTDi, including you, are burning the candle at both ends to make this work. Our dream is a pretty big one, but building a company together that is for teachers by teachers is a pretty good way to spend my time.

      Thank you, as always.


  6. Thank you Steven for those Golden Rules:)
    I always read your blogs and try to improve myself through those experiences.I’ve been teaching English as a second language for more than twenty years and I can honestly say that I start each teaching day with the same enthusiasm:) I absolutely agree with your 6 ways.I want to thank Kevin for his mentioning of providing each student an opportunity to succeed.Giving “difficult students” the glow of accomplishment that comes with success is a gift for positive youth development :)Thank for the collaboration.

    1. Thank you, Buket.

      Where are you teaching and in what context?

      I think we are similar about our enthusiasm. I love that we can meet in this online community and support one another and share ideas.

      It really is amazing, huh.


  7. Thanks Steven for sharing such wonderful ideas and specially for putting into words what I’m sure most of us teachers feel at one point or another in our teaching career. Reading your post has definitely reminded me of my own experiences as a teacher. It’s funny to realise how much alike we teachers are despite living in so many different parts of the world. I especially enjoyed finding out that dealing with your kids led to point number 2 for the same happened to me when I had my kids. The way they enriched my life in ways I never imagined helped me to grow in both ways as a person and as a more caring teacher! Have a great day.

    Martha Mendoza

  8. Good evening Steven.
    I hope you are well, I think you are doing a wonderful thing here. From your answers to the readers I can sense the honesty and love you project in class.
    I am an English teacher in one of the more difficult high school for boys.
    I try to project empathy and be creative as possible, I try to look for stimulating videos and involve games. My problem is that lately some kids made it their target to abuse class, and as much as I try , they are deliberately rude just for the fun of it..
    I have tried to take them to private conversations, to talk to their parents, to punish and encourage them to believe in themselves. Today I came home with a flat tire.:( Maybe there is something in my nature ….. I am sad.

    1. Oh, Etty, my heart goes out to you, and to all of the teachers working in a difficult school or struggling with a difficult class.

      I do know how you feel, and I’ve been there. There are no simple answers, but I found some thoughts that helped me at the time.

      When I’m in a situation like that, I think to myself that “if I take the high road, keep my patience as much as possible, keep my dignity and show respect to the kids who don’t cause trouble, someday the students – both the good ones and the bad ones might remember my behavior, and my attitude in that tough situation, and they may learn something from it.

      I try to realize that abusive kids are not happy kids; I try to tell them that they can be happy someday. they can make a normal life for themselves, and they need to hang on if they are in a bad situation at home or in their school.

      I have said something like, “I know you have a lot of power, and I know you can use that power to make your life better. I’ll always be here if you want to try to have a happier life, and I’ll always believe in you. Can you try to believe in yourself?”

      I hope things will get better for you, and I invite you to continue to come back to our iTDi community to meet people, ask questions, share ideas and support one another.

      Thank you, Etty, for your honesty.


  9. Hai Steven I like your perspective. But education in my place just need high mark not really about the knowledge. We learn English coz it is one of the subject at school or college. this is also happen to me when I was at Senior high school. so your perspective will motivate me to be a good teacher. Thank you.

    1. Hi Nining,

      I’m very happy to meet you. What country are you teaching in? I would love to hear more about your teaching someday.

      Your comment, “But education in my place just need high mark not really about education” is so interesting and it is the reality in so many places.

      It make me think, “What is a teacher?” and “Maybe you can get enough satisfaction when your students get high marks” and “Have you ever asked your students if they are satisfied with their “education” in your school.

      I really hope that you’ll come back again and that slowly we can get to know more about each other. THANK YOU FOR POSTING YOUR COMMENT!!


    2. Hi Nining
      You are not alone. We have the same problem. In my country (Iran), both parents and studnets keep pressing for high marks. A lot of heed is given to the end result at the cost of ignoring the process (how the high marks are obtained). In fact, they never question whether or not learning has taken place.

  10. Dear Steven,
    I would like to add one more item to your list, That’s consistency. Teachers should try to be as consistent as possible. At times, I have had problems with my students negotiating over dates for quizzes or exams.When they do not agree on a specific date for a test, I have to postpone it. I think If the teacher shows too much leniency (inconsistency in decisions), students may tend not to agree on another appointed date making false excuses. Therefore, giving choices sometimes does not work.

    1. Hi Shahram,

      CONGRATULATIONS!! My list of 5 became 6 with Kevin Stein’s idea and now it becomes 7 with your contribution.

      Consistency is certainly one of the greatest and most challenging ways to be a good teacher. In my own definition of consistency, I also add the word “fair”. Students don’t expect to get everything they want, but I think that they are very good at judging fairness. I know that they know a lot about all the teachers within days of entering my school – Seniors tell juniors all that they need to know about the teachers.

      I shall announce that you have made the list grow to 7 points. Please come back and help me again whenever you like.


  11. I would like to point out that it takes two to tango. Both you and the student are human, and have bad days, troubles and personality conflicts. I think it is very important to come at the issue with some human understanding. I do believe that the teacher should have control of the classroom, but approach it with more maturity and understanding than what your mentally immature student is.
    Talking to them and treating them as individuals rather “do it because I said so and I am the teacher.”

  12. Isn’t being a parent so useful for being a teacher?!!
    I certainly agree that these ARE golden rules for for both settings.

    Even a veteran teacher such as myself needs to hang (at least virtually!) these rules above the classroom door. Different students need different things and come from a different “world” than they did 20 years ago. We have to beware of being complacent about our tactics and evolve in order to be able to stick to the principals.

    Thanks for this!

  13. How about not calling them difficult students, and calling different students.If you have only taught in Asia, the “sensei – student ” relationship is so defined. Try teaching in am British high school, where they steal your purse, and piss in the garbage can at the front of the classroom. Or like my friend who taught in Harleem NYC, where there wouldn’t be enough seats if all students who actually showed up on a list. Or in the north of Canada, where my friend has to teach children who to brush their teeth, and remove her porch from her house because the local kids would always hang out there,or in Vancouver where special ed students pull knives on teachers, then you will be dealing with very difficult students.

  14. To point out the obvious: There is a tension between the golden rule to do as you would be done by and the injunction to be a teacher. You wouldn’t wish a student to angrily stand over you and wait until you handed over your cell phone.

    Perhaps there is a tendency in some quarters to assume that anything that smacks of hierarchy must be eliminated or acknowledged only in embarassment. We had to stand up when the teacher entered the classroom. We saw no objection to that. However, in many places now there is no longer the cultural support for that kind of practice. Some would argue that the consequences of the change are mixed, expecially in relation to the phenomenon of the “difficult student”.

  15. Dear Steven,
    Your seven list gives us prompts for application as they worked with you. The first is particularly interesting because it is useful and true in any situation. It underscores fairness to you and to other people, and can help prevent attitudes leading to conflict. Peace could be greatly dependent on avoiding to abuse, cheat, frustrate, minimize or insult one’s interlocutor.

  16. Very insightful article; I also feel the same. At times I decide to make those “troublemaking students” the leaders and teachers of the class, but there are moments when that’s not enough and I have just to make myself understood as the teacher. I use metaphors and simple stories to show them what they’re doing, the bad side of that and make them to imagine their future as teachers and practice the first point you give: would you like your students to do what you’re doing now? that simple question make them to think things over and change their attitude; it’s not that easy. Every class, I must do activities like this. Thank you for the advice number four, because when I heard some people complaining and telling: W e can’t do this, we can’t do that and we’re not teachers and things like that, I start wondering if I’m not asking too much from them. We really need to show our students, difficult and not difficult ones, we’re their teacher. We can be their friends, but we’re still their teachers. I like to talk to my students, try to solve any problem through dialogue digging on the real root of their behavior and presenting some ideas to get rid of it and when that doesn’t work out, I remind them that they’re responsible for their actions, their success or failure is up to themselves. At times it works, at times it doesn’t, but I’m still there to give advice to them and help them as much as I can and they allow me to. Teaching is a work of love, patience, understanding, tenacity, character…

  17. Hi Steven,
    Thanks for the wonderful post. I am really inspired by the passion you show for dealing with difficult students. The points you provided are very insightful. However, I am not sure whether they can be applicable in other contexts and with students from different cultural backgrounds. In other words, adopting the strategy you clarified above may lead to topsy turvy results as they may be misunderstood by students. This might be the outcome of following advice number 3. I’d be grateful if you could possibly elaborate a little bit more on that point with an example!

  18. I honestly enjoy reading articles such as this! To the point and with a sense of humour! I’ve been teaching English in secondary state schools in Greece for the past ten years and I could add, if I may, two more rules: 1) Don’t take things personally, 2) Once you say something, never take it back. During my first years as a teacher, I faced a lot of difficulties with classroom management. If a student talked back, I took it personally and lost my temper. Well, it only made me feel bad. Once my attitude towards teenagers changed, things became much better. As for rule number two, I’ve seen that they take you seriously and realise you are trustworthy when you say something and mean it (either “Tomorrow we will play that word game I promised” or “Go to the principal’s office now”).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.