Controlling an unruly classroom: How to manage the chaos and engage the learner, or die trying

Ahh, controlling an unruly classroom: every teacher’s nightmare! Screaming kids, unfocused students, chattering adults, and out-and-out chaos where you may as well throw your lesson plan out the window. 

In my first year as an ESL teacher, I was tasked with teaching a kids class (9-10 year olds), a teenage class (13-14 year olds), and an adult class (17+ years). Not to mention this was an after school/work program, so many of my students were already exhausted from their day. It was by far the hardest, most challenging year of my teaching career. In fact, three months in I was ready to pack up and leave. The fact I survived is a miracle in itself, although it taught me many valuable lessons on classroom management and controlling an unruly classroom:

Be flexible 

Like any new and conscientious teacher, I spent hours finely crafting my lesson plans. Everything was meticulously accounted for, down to the minute, only for it to fall apart minutes into the lesson. It looked a little like this:

  • Lesson plan: Warm-up discussion – 10 minutes
  • Reality: Warm-up discussion – 3 minutes

I have to admit that I’m a bit of a control freak, and I feel terribly lost when I can’t control every aspect of things. So, for me, when the start of the lesson descended into chaos, I found it hard to regain my footing. I was fighting many factors, especially in my teens class. In all fairness to those students, who would want to do an additional hour and a half of English lessons after 8 hours at school and a pile of homework? My students were tired and most of them didn’t want to actually be there, so their motivation levels were at about minus a thousand. 

I learnt quickly to roll with the punches and that I had to deviate from the lesson plan – and often! Even if I had painstakingly spent hours putting it together, if they weren’t into the activity, no amount of enthusiasm from me was going to get them into it. And you know what, it’s ok if things don’t go as planned. It’s better to scrape an activity that isn’t working than to make them suffer through it. 

Find things to engage and motivate

I consider myself a very energetic teacher. However I found myself after my lessons to be EXHAUSTED. I was putting on a song and a dance to get the students interested in materials that, frankly, were just boring. So much energy was spent trying to get them to engage with the material. I realised that that energy could have been better suited in finding things they ACTUALLY enjoyed.

When I started introducing more engaging and interesting activities into the lessons, the easier it was to manage the classroom. Instead of, “Hey, now we are doing this activity, stay focused please,” it became, “Alright guys, ten more minutes and then we have to move on.”

Embrace the phone

Our lessons used to be two 45 minutes sessions with a 15 minute break in between. However, I found my students could hardly manage to be parted from their phones that long. Before I could even say “break time,” they were glued to their phones. I sounded like a broken record, saying ”put your phone away” on a loop. So instead of fighting a losing battle, I decided to embrace it.

I created more activities where they had to search for information, show pictures, and look at statistics on their phone. For example, I had them look up how many hours a day they use their phones. Once I accepted that I couldn’t keep them from their phones, the novelty of looking at their phones under their desk wore off. (But, seriously, I think they thought I was stupid – they weren’t nearly as stealth as they thought they were!)

Get them moving 

This one can be a double-edged sword as it can work for and against you when controlling an unruly classroom. We don’t stay sitting at our desks all day and we almost always feel reinvigorated even if it’s a quick trip to the coffee machine, so the same is true for the classroom. Sitting at your desk can cause drowsiness and the students to become lethargic. To combat this, I aimed to get the students moving frequently. One student dubbed my lessons as Physical English (P.Ed and English combined). I always tried to get the students out of their seats and mingling or moving at least once a lesson to get the blood pumping a bit. 

Now, for the most part, it worked. The students did perk up a little after some movement. However, there were some students that absolutely hated this. I was met with “Do I have to?” and “Ashleigh, can’t I just stay sitting at my desk, I’m tired!” Hardly encouraging. Again, from the students’ perspectives, after a long day of school/work, you don’t want to follow the crazy energetic teacher around the classroom. I get it! 

Control what you can control

One thing I had to learn the hard way is that if a student doesn’t want to learn or they aren’t interested, there’s nothing you can do. As the old adage goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink. My first year of teaching was fraught with one particular class filled with half a dozen young teenage boys who I’m pretty sure sole purpose was to terrorize me. I had to accept the fact that no matter how hard I tried, no matter how “cool” and down to Earth as a teacher I tried to be, they just didn’t want to be there – and that’s ok. Sometimes the “management” in classroom management comes down to controlling what you can. The students that want to be there and learn will be attentive and learn. Let go of the things you can’t control, as the students that don’t want to learn, won’t.

One thought on “Controlling an unruly classroom: How to manage the chaos and engage the learner, or die trying

  1. The beginnings are always so hard but I’m glad that you made it and you still feel passionate about teaching 😊

    It’s hard to control a group of kids or teenagers, especially if they only attend your lessons because their parents made them.

    Whenever one of my groups started misbehaving, instead of panicking as always, I’d tell myself “if you can’t beat them, join them”. I realized that the second I joined their fun activities and made them into a learning experience, they were immediately less fun! 😂

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