Naomi Epstein

Working with difficult students – Naomi Epstein

 Will The Real Difficult Student Please Stand Up?

— Naomi Epstein

Naomi Epstein

Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT’S relativity”

Albert Einstein

photo by Gil Epshtein

In every class in every year there will always be at least one student whom we would call difficult but difficult is a relative term. The reasons that cause us to feel that a certain student is harder to teach than the other students in the same class are not objective and not even constant. The student you found that most frustrated you (or brought you to a point where you were consciously aware of repressing anger) in one class that you taught, may have nothing in common with the difficult student in another class.

Two years ago, my most difficult student was a very clever girl who constantly interrupted me when I was explaining something on the whiteboard. She either had to inform me at once that her previous teacher had explained it differently (and better!) or needed a clarification question answered without delay.

Last year’s most difficult student was a boy whose sole aim in the classroom seemed to be proving that he had no need for a teacher and didn’t need to pay attention when he so obviously needed help and guidance.

This year my most difficult student is a girl with a constant whine in her voice. In her previous school when she whined enough she was either excused from the task or received a great deal of help.

The really slow learners or the hyperactive student who regularly knocked over the tin of pencils on my desk didn’t make it on my most difficult list. Making sure the hyperactive student had an excuse to move around during the lessons and ensuring the slower learners had support material was a very clear-cut and effective move. It’s those other ones that got under my skin.

So what did I do?

The first two students are still my students, but aren’t on my list anymore. I let off s lot of steam with my colleagues and my supportive husband. I took deep breaths before their lessons and tried to stay patient. I talked to them outside of the lesson. I looked for things I could compliment them on, unrelated to the lesson. But the main thing that happened had to do with time. Eventually, to different degrees, they learned to trust me. I really am trying to help them succeed.  Unfortunately, one can’t rush that realization.

The main thing that happened had to do with time. Eventually, to different degrees, they learned to trust me. I really AM trying to help them succeed. Unfortunately, one can’t rush that realization.

The penny has begun to drop with my  whining student but hasn’t reached that cha ching sound yet. Next year will be so much easier. Of course, then, there will be someone new.

— Naomi Epstein

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Published by

Naomi Epstein

For the past twenty-five years I have specialized in teaching English as a foreign language to deaf and hard of hearing pupils in Israel. I began my career as an elementary school teacher but have taught high-school for the last 21 years. I have a B.A. in Deaf Education, a B.E.D. in EFL and an M.A. in Curriculum Development. I'm the author of two textbooks for these pupils. I am both a teacher and a teachers' counselor. As a firm believer in the quote: "Be the change you want to see in the world" (Gandhi) I have found that sharing with others, networking and reading have helped me keep my enthusiasm for teaching burning bright. I've recently discovered the joys of audiobooks - I now read books AND listen to them while doing housework! Naomi's blog: Visualizing Ideas

36 thoughts on “Working with difficult students – Naomi Epstein”

  1. When I started teaching children English in Japan, my mum said to me, “Education needs patience.”
    Your story reminds me of the word of wisdom. Thank you so much!

    1. I totally agree with you, Chituki! I never shout or yell at my students even when they want me to do it. I don’t understand those teachers who start shouting or offending a student when he/she misbehaves ( as they think). Last year I taught English to a group of kids ( from 5 to 7) at a kindergarten. Every time when they started misbehaving, their teacher opened the door and started shouting and yelling at them. For the first time I didn’t understand what was going on, and why she was doing that, but after a while I noticed that the kids started listening and behaved well only after that “shouting”, they didn’t get used to “normal” trying to calm them down without shouting. After that I just tried to engage them as much as I could so they didn’t pay attention to other things, or fight with each other.

      1. When teachers shout at the students they display weakness and things are not under their control.
        Experienced teachers never raise their voices because they know that once you become a screamer, you will forever a screamer be. I’ve found that keeping students engaged and moving smoothly from one assignment to the next leaves little time for students to misbihave.
        Wise teachers would work to establish warm feelings and mutual respect.

  2. Just like lots of other things in education (and life), everything is relative. Most are “difficult” for a reason, and trying to find that reason, trying to find a way for the student to open up to you is the real difficulty. And as you know, the same difficult student may not be so difficult in a class/lesson that she or he enjoys.

    What’s difficult is to have on so many different professional hats at the same time, isn’t it? That of a psychologist, entertainer, confidant, etc etc…

    Great post, Naomi!

  3. Thanks for your post Naomi. I find your honest response refreshing and real. You are positive, and realistic about the process that sometimes just needs to happen.

      1. Patience, patience and patience!
        I believe that patience is one of the most important personality traits that a teacher should have. An adult student once told me in the middle of a lesson, ‘ how patient you are!’ It’s quite funny because he indirectly admitted how difficult he was. A little stubborn but definitely not difficult at all, that’s what I honestly thought about him. I obviously was pleased to receive this compliment but not as much as when my 14-year-old student said quite a similar thing to me most recently in an equally spontaneous way. She really touched me.
        Now how patience or lack of it has influenced my practice as a teacher, in particular, in dealing with so called difficult students? And what do we really mean by difficult students?
        I agree with you when you say that the word ‘difficult’ is relative. Do we mean by difficult this bright and intelligent student with that slyish cast in the corner of the eye who constantly harasses you with a deluge of pertinent questions no matter how hard you try to answer she or he would just give you that unconvinced look in return or completely disagree with you! Honestly, I adore these students and they usually wound up becoming my ‘friends’.
        So again who are difficult students?
        When I quit teaching in the mid 2000s after six years of practice in a state owned school, I left with the idea of never teaching teenagers again! Difficult students to me back then were those who presented discipline problems; I was determined that I would never stand again in front of a class of some 40 wild teenagers aged between 15/19. A less number wouldn’t have persuaded me to change my mind though; better starve! I used to say.
        I taught younger and much older students after that which means I never really quit teaching. But I also never really got over what I deemed was a failure or a defeat. I was constantly asking myself why didn’t it work?
        After four years, I decided to teach again at a secondary school but this time I opted for the private sector.
        What happened?
        During the interview with the director of studies, I enquired whether I would be able to diversify my materials when teaching using videos in the classroom, data show or computers. I also asked if internet access was available. Her answer was yes and that I had the freedom to use whatever materials I judged useful. She said it quite nervously and I could detect some uneasiness as if there was something she was reluctant or embarrassed to talk about. Then she decided to tell the truth. She informed me that a ‘parade’ of teachers had preceded me and no one could be able to make it with the students whom she described as being extremely difficult. She even inadvertently or advertently, I couldn’t tell, let the word ‘la bête’ slip out of her tongue. I could manage a smile though, I don’t know how. In fact, her propos didn’t disturb me in the least; I remained calm and most importantly calm inside. The only remark I threw to her as a reply to her final description of the ‘beast’: ’they seem quite intelligent to me; I’m eager to meet them’. She finished by informing me I had four groups and one group – in particular – was the most difficult to handle. She didn’t want to tell me which one it was, ‘I prefer to let you make your own opinion’, she said.
        Before I saw the students, I met with their former teacher: a lady in her mid fifties who’d been teaching for more than 25 years. She confirmed what the director had told me but her words were even harsher.
        Imperturbable, I decided to embark on my new journey regardless. I arrived in the middle of the second term and believe it or not, things went smoothly from day one until the last day in the school year. I have never been able to identify the scary group everyone talked about. I didn’t meet the least resistance from any student in the four groups. They wholeheartedly accepted me and don’t recall any day they made me feel teaching them was an unpleasant experience or an ordeal as some made me believe.
        So how did I succeed where others had failed?
        I had no special plan in my pocket, just armed with a strong will and a strong faith that these students will accept me because I had already loved them even before I met with them!
        But what did I do practically?
        I tried to earn their trust first. I showed them that I respected them and that I genuinely cared about them and believed in them. Second, I used videos in the classroom that generated debates in which I allowed freedom of speech. Students struggled with their English but talked nonetheless; I succeeded to create in them that need to talk.
        Last but not least, I broke with everything their previous teachers used with them, turning the classroom into a hub where serious and interesting topics of their own choosing were being discussed followed by written tasks they duly handed back. All this was achieved without neglecting a single text _ compulsory texts in the programme they had to study so that they could take the final exam (the baccalaureate) which allows access to college.
        In conclusion, there are no difficult students when we believe that what makes them difficult is our own misjudgment and lack of ingenuity!

        Thanks for the interesting post indeed.


  4. The words “trust” and “time” are so important with difficult students. As you noted, it takes time for them to come to trust the teacher. Sometimes they don’t (they vote with their feet)!

    I think I also need to learn to trust too. I mean, it’s not the student who is difficult but the teaching situation — the mismatch between what I bring to the student and what he or she needs. I can trust the situation to point to a learning opportunity for me. I’ve been teaching for less than 3 years and the difficult ones are the ones I remember most … for what I’m learning from them. And I’m thankful for that, though you wouldn’t know it from all the griping and groaning I do, hah! Just reminding myself of this helps. *chanting silently* “You are my guru. What can you teach me today?”

    Thanks for a great post!

    1. Don’t stop groaning (not in front of the students, of course!)! Don’t keep the natural feelings of frustration bottled up – that’s most certainly not good for your health! It sounds like your getting on with the work with a great attitude, and thats what counts. If I hadn’t found with whom to let off steam I doubt I would be still teaching. I’m now finishing my 26th year and have about 15 more to go…

  5. Dear Naomi,

    As I said on Twitter, your title says a million things! Your students are very lucky to have you and it is great that you found things to compliment them on, from outside class – they feel valued that way. I wish I could watch one of your lessons! I will never tire of saying it!

    Best wishes,

    1. Vicky!
      You are most welcome to visit! I hope you do!
      I’m really interested in looking into other ways of celebrating the things students are good at (unrelated to class). There’s so many ways to improve!

  6. I had a diffucult girl student few years ago. She couldnt accept many teachers methods. Yes she was talented but stubborn. She thought she knew everything and in vain study Univrsity. She went to get her Master degree. She is still stubborn…

  7. I’m just beginning my second term of teaching and patience is something I have to practice more. The students are used to seeing the ‘native’ teacher at their bilingual school leave every year, so they have a fresh teacher every year to bait. It seems each class has at least one difficult student, some more than that. I have to say that as I begin this term, I’m down to one. I am looking for ways to challenge this one, and reading your post gives me the encouragement I’m going to need to do it!

  8. I’m extremely glad to read Rima’s comment because that’s almost how i feel about teaching the so called “difficult” students . And, they are in every class I believe. Teenagers are full of energy and when they come to school, they don’t like to be suppressed obviously .And a teacher in that position should be like a sponge-his main function is absorbing. Patience as you have put it –that is he :she should find a way to make learners ,especially the out of control ones, busy or otherwise they will make him so .Discipline problems in that regard are mostly the teacher’s responsibility .And if i come to the class with a previous negative thoughts and judgements or all of a sudden decide to be tough with learners , take it from me i really get into unwanted troubles. I often tell my self:”These are human beings for God’sake not machines or robots . They carry problems, frustrations ,dreams with them. All that need to be considered and viewed from another angle. To my knowledge, there is no secret recipe to deal with” difficult” learners. May be stopping a little in our minds to feel about them that way and trying to approach them ,befriending them will help. The bottom line here is to design activities, tasks in which you make sure all the class get involved .Make the lazy or the uneasy learners participate-not by forcing them- encourage them little by little, try to boost their self -confidence and take it from me you will be stunned by the outcomes you will achieve!

  9. I’ve read Naomi’s post and then almost all the posts bellow. all the people commenting Naomi’s post say the same thing in different way. Patience, patience and the patience again. Thank you, Naomi for your sincere words. I stand behind you.

  10. Often what we consider a “difficult” student simply comes down to a mismatch in personalities. Some of the most interesting students I’ve had have been ones that other teachers considered “difficult.”

  11. When reading your post Naomi, I had a feeling that you were talking about some of my students that I have to deal with almost every year. But, I think that you touched upon key elements when you mentioned patience, discussion, compliment, and trust. I believe there is no other way to overcome such “problems” and to work with “difficult” students.

  12. I’ve been teaching English to 14-19 year olds for more than 20 years now. In my practice I met different kinds of personalities and types of behavior. There are difficult students almost in every class and here comes the challenge for the teacher to figure out what the reasons for student’s being naughty are, why they are so quiet and silent or why they like showing off they are smart alecks. Usually students act to get something or avoid something. Examples could be to get teacher’s attention because only then they feel cared or noticed. Two years ago I had a student who for example liked singing and speaking in a loud voice. What I did was that the following day seconds before the start of the lesson I invited him in front of the class asking him to entertain us for 5 minutes and I promised we would be a great audience. I repeated this the following day and on the third day he rejected entertaining us saying he was OK sitting there on the desk. Since then he never misbehaved. I think we should not try to change student’s behavior but find out how to help them change their thinking themselves, students don’t have to feel lectured but have the freedom of choice, and that’s because they have that freedom they change .

  13. Hi. You made me reflect on what I have been doing the past two years working with children. Now I know that it is not difficult to control this situation in the classroom, keep busy the hiperactice one and the slow ones to hav enough supportive matierial. Yes, it calls for a lot of patience.

  14. Hi. You made me reflect on what I have been doing the past two years working with children. Now I know that it is not difficult to control this situation in the classroom, keep busy the hiperactice one and the slow ones to hav enough supportive matierial.

  15. Thank you Ms Naomi for sharing this wonderful post.
    As a new teacher I often feel insecure when having to deal with difficult students. Sometimes it’s just a personalities clash and other times there’s a problem that causes the student’s difficult behavior and the teacher has to identify the problem, step in and offer assistance.

  16. I can relate to this post so much. Every year I have to deal with my ‘difficult’ student. Last year, it was a student, who didn’t want to study at all, came at the lesson totally unprepared and believed that playing computer games all the time was better. The year before that, it was the student, who was constantly calling names and insulting other students. Also, the student, who tried to correct me all the time and find mistakes in everything I said. The difficult part is that I have most of these students only for a year and I don’t have plenty of time to gain their trust. At the end of the year they have their examinations to get a certificate and they usually stop having lessons. Also, while I try to have conversations with the parents, many times they are not very helpful.
    So, I try to be patient and find different ways to make them interested in the lesson. I don’t always succeed, but I hope I can make a difference and I hope that they’ll learn something. The good thing is that when I see them afterwards they are always happy to see me.

  17. Your post reminds me again to do better as a teacher. To find ways how to deal with difficult students. Because what I usually do, in some situations, just ignore them and refuse to deal with them. However, having read your post, it makes me think that I have to do something with those kinds of students. Thanks a lot.

  18. What an interesting and important topic! Thank you, Naomi! We all have to deal with difficult students, this is true. I’ve had a lot of them over the 30 years of my teaching career. From the very beginning I used the tactic of patience and respect and it did magic. I never complained about my difficult students to the Dean, never reported them and never asked them to leave the classroom unlike many other teachers. By the end of the first semester most of them lost interest in bullying me and trying to make my life difficult, and looked at me with a lot of admiration in their eyes. They joined the list of my best students and I could rely on them when I needed some help in the classroom.

  19. I have a few difficult students in my class. I fear that their antics will get someone hurt. This summer, I have spent quite a bit of time praying for guidance on how to get them so involved with the lessons that they don’t play or behave rudely. I have spoken to each student separately. I have acknowledged their efforts in class. I hope that when school starts again, I will have patience while they mature:)

  20. We teachers very often find “difficult” students in our classrooms. I’ve got a lot of experience and years of teaching and I can tell you there’s no recipe for that. Every student is different. What works with one of them is completely wrong with another one. You simply must find out what the reason is for bad behaviour and sort of help them somehow. They are actually looking for our attention, for our help. Once you discover what their trouble is and they see you care, it’s much easier. …for a moment at least… Be patient, that’s all and try again.

  21. Thank you, Naomi for the apt blog about difficult students. I too have had quite a few during my 40+ years of teaching and patience is indeed a virtue which is needed. I was lucky to get ‘she is very patient and will explain in detail so that we understand’ in my evaluations. I also find that different classes have different kinds of difficult students, so in one class you will get the student who is always on their phone under the desk while in another will be the ones who sit and chat although they don’t understand the grammar concept being explained.

  22. I also agree with all of you that patience is the key. “Difficult” students are just students who ask for more attention, or the ones not interested not only in English classes but school in general. And we are the ones who need to look for the ways to get closer to them (that Vicky’s human touch).

  23. Thank you for sharing this with us, Naomi! I really like your emphasis on relativity when talking about ‘difficult’ students. We’re all different, and we all have different behavioral patterns and expectations. Hence what seems ‘difficult’ for one teacher may seem as a blessing for another. I suppose that every case of a ‘difficult student’ is unique and poses a unique challenge for the teacher. The reasons behind their ‘disturbing’ behavior could range from a simple lack of manners (‘study the family’ exercise), or some cultural or ‘sub-cultural’ matters, to a deep psychological issue that a child may have, i.e. extreme shyness which leads to unwillingness to participate in anything (at times labeled as ‘stubbornness’ by teachers), or seeking attention at any cost, quite often by provoking the teacher or doing something beyond any logic and common sense. Yet, every behavior has some reasons behind that should be discovered and adequately addressed by the teacher. The only recipe here is patience, time, trust and love.

  24. Patience is the key to deal with difficult students. And you are already showing the patience and doing good, Naomi. Dealing with difficult students also requires careful planning keeping in mind the whole class as well as these difficult students. Anyhow your words are inspiring. Good post.

  25. Thank you for sharing your experiences with “difficult” students. I consider there’s no difficult student, we just need to find a way to approach to him/her and help them as much as we can. After working with some students who seemed to be very difficult I’ve discovered they’re just wonderful people and students, and just need a bit of friendship and openness to show their real potential and value.
    Of course, dealing with them, at first, is not easy, but when we get it, we end up having very good friends and excellent students.

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