Dealing with difficult students

Would you rather work with a student who knows what they want to the point of actually telling you how to do your job or with a student who leaves it all up to you? I used to think that answering this question was a no-brainer. Then, I changed my mind.

One of the benefits of working with students on a 1-2-1 basis (individual classes) is the opportunity to tailor the course to the particular needs of this one student. It is great as there is this sense of focus, direction, and progress that sometimes gets lost when teaching groups. The key to success is, obviously, negotiating the scope of said needs with our student and being open to adjusting and regrouping as the course progresses. In my experience, the process of trying to decide what the classes would be like and going on with the course has always been an ongoing dialogue between two pretty open-minded people who shared the same goal. Sounds almost idyllic, doesn’t it?

My dialogue experience has been shaken up a bit recently. Over a quite short period of time, I’ve met two students with completely different attitudes to expressing their learning needs and course expectations, but who actually turned out to be two sides of the same coin: a student who doesn’t seem to appreciate the idea of a partnership between a learner and  their teacher.

Student A

Student A showed up for our trial class with a very clear vision of what they wanted. So clear in fact that it was one of the “take it or leave it” type situations. Other than not entirely agreeing with student A’s ideas as to how the classes should be, I was mostly put off by their total rejection of any suggestions. There was no dialogue whatsoever. I heard a monologue peppered with the keywords “want”, “must”, and “no”. My role was to listen to the plan they devised and implement it. The course wasn’t the easiest to teach as my student’s expectations didn’t include anything I’d actually find beneficial for their language learning (trying to communicate in English) and involved a lot of what made me cringe inside (translating and repeating). Add a total lack of flexibility and a “I know what I want” attitude to get the full picture.

Student B

In comparison, student B, who I met shortly after, seemed like the most easy-going learner ever. They had a desire to work on their English, were open to whatever, and they didn’t have any particular expectations from the course other than to focus on speaking and “be interesting”. No specific topics were mentioned as such of interest. Was I given absolute teaching freedom?

From A to B and back

I taught students A and B over more less the same period of time and it was an exhausting time to say the least. Boy, was I wrong thinking that classes with B would be a breath of fresh air after my translation boot camp with A. Turned out that working with somebody who has a very vague idea of what they want to achieve and how they wish to do it is as frustrating as trying to get to a student who “knows best”.

Student B never revealed what topics they would find interesting to discuss in class yet, in the ongoing assessment form I had for the course, they rated each class as 3 (out of 5) in terms of how interesting it was. They seemed equally unenthused by my choice of listening and reading materials. Still, when asked whether there was something they were willing to discuss/read/listen to, they invariably said “No, that’s fine”. The line of open communication and my trying to send the message “These classes are here for you so let me know if there is something we could improve” remained unreciprocated. The course went on for several weeks, got 3s across the board in the final assessment, and was not renewed. I felt my teaching freedom project had failed.

Any conclusions?

I’ve thought about B quite a lot and asked myself whether there was something I missed and could have done better. Then I realized that I might have met somebody who was entirely unwilling to take any responsibility for their own learning. There is being flexible and open-minded and then there is being passive. There is trusting your teacher to do their job well and then there is expecting to be taught by a mind reader. There are constructive feedback and exchange of ideas and there is silence.

I am still not sure what kind of conclusions I should draw from these two encounters. Should I turn down students whose expectations I find ludicrous on the spot? Should I try to reach (and if so, how?!) those who say it’s all fine but visibly lack enthusiasm and aren’t invested in the course? Or am I simply overthinking this?


  1. Such an.interesting post! It’s one of these cases where what you describe not only rings a bell, but all bells of all kinds of domes. I’ll share what I now do (or have to.do) without suggesting that it’s always the best course of action. First, I always try to find some middle ground solution with both types of students. To do so I work a lot on goal setting at the beginning by drawing their attention on time, individual work issues and expectations. This way, Student A types often realize we need to work together so that they can meet their “deadline” (they’re usually the ones wanting to improve asap, hence the firm belief in knowing what’s right for them). Student B types are for me one of the hardest to teach because there’s often no sense of purpose in what they do. What I’ve tried is something like a game I call “Give me 5”. What I do is give them a checklist of topics they’d like to work on of which they need to choose 5 different topics for every 2 weeks of lessons. Also, twice a month they need to prepare their own activities (Speaking and Reading mostly) on a topic of their choice. Do all these always work? No, not always. In this case, if I see there’s no progress in the teacher-student communication area I try to be as frank as I can to my student about the whole situation and I ask fellow teachers for any extra ideas. If things are still getting nowhere, I don’t know how much there’s left to do.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Maria. Yours seems like a very sensible approach. Teaching these two types of students definitely needs some strategies put in place. Trying to activate type B might in fact be the key !

  2. “There is trusting your teacher to do their job well and then there is expecting to be taught by a mind reader.”
    This is a short summary of my biggest problem. I usually work with adults and young adults. But age doesn’t change almost anything. You don’t know what is wrong with the lesson until they finish the course and talk to someone who can tell those things to you.
    “when asked whether there was something they were willing to discuss/read/listen to, they invariably said “No, that’s fine”.
    This is another problem which I have to face with a lot. In my opinion, it is mostly related with their background and interests. If they are less interested in things around them, they have big difficulties to bring a topic to discuss in the class. Imagination and creativity are also other factors.
    I often try different materials, like poems, comics, short films,quotes which they can relate with them. When I can present those materials successfully, ‘sometimes’ it makes the things better.
    Finally, I ask myself the same question; “Am I simply overthinking this?”

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Rıdvan. You’re absolutely right about students’ interests informing (or not) English classes. I guess I often overestimate my students’ willingness to share in the classroom, i.e. contribute to the content of the course (which is supposed to benefit them and not me after all!)

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