Recently, I returned to my school after a two week holiday in Malaysia. I was feeling relaxed and recharged. The idea of teaching didn’t sound like work; more like a refreshing challenge. I was excited to see my students again and challenge them even more.
Within fifteen minutes of the start of class, two of the boys were pretending to be ninjas. Trang, who is usually so well behaved, kept stealing pencils from my bag and laughing. Dat just kept staring at the mirror as if he’d just discovered his own reflection. It was an awful class, the worst I’ve had with these students in four months, and I walked away feeling awful.
Whether you’ve been teaching for a few months or for twenty years, there are days when things just don’t seem to work. A bad day of teaching can leave you in a minor state of depression and seriously affect your confidence. Recovering from a bad teaching day is a skill that every teacher needs to learn. Here’s what I do.
Also, if you want to down a reflective process template to help you work through your bad day, click on the button below.
Step 1: Reflect
You might be tempted to go straight to the nearest watering hole and drown your sorrows in a gin and tonic. That comes later. Bad days stick to you and if you don’t deal with them properly, they can be like poison. Before you try and forget about your bad experience, try to learn from it.
First, you need to identify exactly what went wrong. Using my recent nightmare class as an example, the main issue was that they were misbehaving more than usual. Under the surface of that, something else was at play. Yes, they were misbehaving, but why?
I came to identify that they weren’t as engaged in the lesson as usual. Also, my usual classroom management tricks took about half the class to take effect. For example, when I need them to focus because I’m going to explain an activity or present a new language, I usually do a call and response:
Teacher: clap, clap “Look at me!”
Students: clap, clap “Look at teacher!”
In this class, it took about twenty minutes before this started to work again. As for the activities when they started misbehaving, I realize, upon reflection, that they were way too complicated for their level. I slowly came to realize that the real culprit for their bad behavior wasn’t them, but me. The next step to reflect upon is what is different about your class when things go wrong. For me, there were three things. My class had been covered for two weeks by a different teacher who has their own methods of classroom management. So, of course, it took them a while to get back into it. Also, they were visibly excited to see me again…a little too excited and just wanted to play.
The third factor was that I had misjudged their level and become too ambitious with what they could accomplish. Since they couldn’t do the activities, they got bored. When they got bored, chaos ensued. During the lesson, I had to quickly scramble to adjust the activities so they could do them and remain engaged. This worked, but only at the end.
Stage 2: Forget
Have you identified the specifics of what went wrong? Ok, now you can pull out that gin and tonic. Obviously, I’m not recommending alcoholism as a way to cope with every class that doesn’t go as planned (all TEFL teachers would be alcoholics), but it is important to find a way to let go of the stress.
If you don’t find a way to let go and forgive yourself, you’ll be dreading the next class. This is what I mean by a bad teaching day when improperly dealt with, being like poison. You lose sleep over it, you start second-guessing your ideas for the classroom, you lose confidence and, most damaging, you might lose your joy of teaching.
Find a way to cope with the stress of teaching in a healthy way. Personally, I love running. When I run, no matter how busy my head may be with thoughts before I start, eventually the exhaustion and focus of the simple task of moving my legs occupy my mind completely. I usually finish my run with a sense of calm. Everything in my life seems more balanced.
Everybody’s different, the zen of running may not be for you. That said, I highly recommend finding an outlet of some sort. Maybe it’s the movies. Maybe it’s shopping. Maybe you like football. Whatever it is, use it to stop stressing over a bad class.
Along with forgetting about it, you also need to forgive yourself. One bad class is not the end of the world. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad teacher. What’s important, is how you deal with the problem.
Stage 3: Strategize
It’s game day. You’re preparing for the class that was a nightmare last session. Now is the time to come up with a way to mitigate whatever the problem was in the last session. Hopefully, you’ve written down what the specific issues were with the last class, now it’s time to come up with a plan. Continuing with my example, here’s how I fixed the problems.
- They weren’t used to my classroom routines anymore. To fix this I planned a ten-minute activity at the beginning where we reviewed the class rules and routines in a fun way. I was a little stricter than usual during this activity. Afterwards, it had the desired result–they were back into the swing of things.
- The previous teacher had other routines. This problem pretty much sorted itself out. I was back, and the kids didn’t become hyperactive just at the sight of me.
- The activities I’d planned were too complicated. This was an easy fix. I spent a little more time imagining my students trying to do the activity. Doing this allowed me to either tailor activities to them or come up with better ways to set them up. This worked wonders.
Different problems have different solutions. Hopefully, you are teaching in an establishment with a teachers’ room and a number of other teachers that you can talk to. Use a bit of your planning time to talk to more experienced teachers about how they would solve the problem. You’ll likely find that you aren’t the only teacher who had the same problem.
Stage 4: Test it out
Good teaching is a series of ongoing experiments, and as with all experimentation, isn’t always successful. Go into the class prepared and with a plan to solve whatever classroom problems there might be, but don’t expect them to work completely.
Many classroom problems that you might face in your career are a lot more complicated than the example I gave. It may be that you have a bully in the class. Maybe, you have a mix of ages and it’s difficult to plan activities that suit everyone. It might take a number of attempts and different strategies before you find a way to fix your particular issue.
“Good teaching is a series of ongoing experiments, and as with all experimentation, isn’t always successful. Go into the class prepared and with a plan to solve whatever classroom problems there might be, but don’t expect them to work completely.”
Treat your classroom like a laboratory. Keep track of what you do and the results of your experiments. The best advice that I can give anyone on their journey to become a better teacher is to reflect and experiment. Every teacher has their own style and is on their own journey. If you keep trying and have a good attitude about it, you’re sure to beat any challenges that come your way.
If you’re interested in a reflective process template that I give to all of my teachers, click on the link below. This is a great way to collect yourself after a bad teaching day.