Discipline in a TEFL classroom in many ways is easier but in some ways it also comes with extra problems. It’s easier because TEFL lessons are normally really expensive and because of that parents take their children’s learning seriously and will not be happy to hear that their children are not behaving as they should. In many cultures, children and teenagers are just not as unruly as in UK schools. They generally have more respect for their elders as well as for teachers.

To balance this, we have the added problem that our students can’t understand us. They literally may not have the English to understand what we are telling them they are doing wrong. Also, what is considered right and wrong differs from culture to culture and country to country.

Overall, we have very little problems in the TEFL classroom compared to other teaching classrooms. Our discipline problems come from normal situations such as overexcitement, boredom or teenagers trying to push boundaries.

Most of the tips to help keep control are based on common sense:

  1. Be consistent. The most important thing is to be consistent. If you threaten or warn of a consequence, then you should follow through every time. Your students will learn that you mean what you say. If you give countless warnings, your students will not believe you and will ignore you.
  2. Give a firm NO. Sadly, explanations are not really helpful because your students don’t have the English to understand. A good, serious “No”, delivered in the correct way, is a clear message that their behaviour is not acceptable.
  3. 3 strike system. Use a 3 strike system with the result of 3 strikes being that the student is to leave the class and/or their parents are contacted. Once you have thrown them out of the classroom, normally the owner or school secretary will take over.

4. Have a set of rules on the wall. Either with pictures for lower levels, or for higher levels, get the students to create a set of rules that they feel are fair. Then they will start to ‘police’ each other.

Tips to Keeping Discipline

Prepare fun lessons

It is important to remember that people don’t normally misbehave if they are enjoying the lesson because they are focused on the task. It could be that they don’t like the material or the way you are delivering it and are simply bored.

It’s never personal

Also, remember that it is not personal. If they are misbehaving, it is not a personal attack on you or on you as a teacher. Teenage students sometimes like to push buttons. If you learn to not take it personally or to at least act like you don’t, then it is also likely the students will stop misbehaving. For teenagers the target is sometimes to get a reaction.

Don’t be a friend

Many TEFL teachers start by wanting to befriend their students, they want to be liked. To maintain discipline, and ultimately control, the best practice is to set very clear boundaries. You are their teacher, not their friend. An experienced teacher once told me her trick was to not even smile before Christmas! No one suggests you need to go so far but the principle is the same. Once you know the students and they respect you as a teacher, then you can start to relax. The minute they start to push the boundaries you had set up, you should identify it and immediately go back to being distant.

Be fierce

Teaching is similar to acting. Don’t be fooled, some of your students will certainly play the part. If you have a student who is an instigator of bad behaviour or who likes to push the boundaries then let him know, the minute the student walks into the classroom, that you mean business. You can put the student’s name on the board to let them know that you are ready to give them a point. Another way is to prepare in your mind that you are going to give a point to anyone the second they do something, however slight. It’s similar to a referee in an important football match. If he gives a yellow card early in the game, then all the players understand who is in control and the game settles. The same can be said for your TEFL classroom.

Body language

We are all told that body language plays an important role in communication, more so than the words we speak or the tone we speak in. This is particularly prevalent in a TEFL classroom because of students’ lack of English.

You should always work on body language. Most of the time you want to give the impression that you are calm, relaxed and in control. You also want your body language to be positive and open. When it comes to disciplining, that’s when your body language is critical.

You need to stand upright, shoulders back, feet shoulder width apart.

You want to stand still, people fidget when they are nervous but people in control move calmly.

People in control make a lot of eye contact because they are sure of themselves.

You need to make sure your body language says all this, regardless whether it’s genuinely how you feel or if you are acting the part.

Saying ‘NO’

If you want to send a clear message that the student’s behaviour is not acceptable, then you need to be able to deliver an authoritative “No”. Here is a step-by-step guide to how to achieve that:

  • Make sure your body language is upright and authoritative.
  • Move to stand in front of the student you want to correct.
  • Make and hold eye contact for an extended amount of time until it becomes uncomfortable.
  • Make sure your face is serious (even if what they have just said or done is hilarious).
  • When you say “No”, make it a little quieter and firmer than your normal speaking voice (who is scarier – the screaming and shouting mother constantly scolding her kids or the quiet psychopath living next door?).

Maintain eye contact for a short time after the “No”, make sure they understand you are serious.