Students switching off

I have recently started a new course with a small group of 17-18-year-olds in a school. The course is aimed at supporting the work their classroom teacher is doing, with a possible outcome being to then prepare the students for a certification.

I had my first lesson last week, and as usual I prepared a short getting-to-know-each-other activity, as well as some speaking activities related to the topic of the day (family and relationships, and expressing feelings). I knew from their entry tests that some students would have been stronger and others weaker, so I tried to gauge my lesson in between, hoping to make it easy enough for the weaker students but still challenging for the stronger ones.

Everything was going great, all the students seemed engaged, when after about 30-40 minutes I started to notice that one of them was not speaking during the speaking activities, and not collaborating at all with their partner during pairwork on new vocabulary.

At first I thought it was because the student in question was in pairs with a stronger, more chatty and dominating student. So, as I usually do, I tried to gently encourage the shy student a couple of times, asking him questions and signalling to his partner to include him in the conversation.

This didn’t work. So I went on to ask him privately if something was wrong, and if he could follow the lesson. He replied “so-so”, so I tried to ask what was not OK, or if he needed some extra help, at which point the boy completely shut off and stopped talking for the remainder of the lesson.

He then left 5 minutes earlier (as he had asked me to do at the beginning), leaving me with the feeling I will never see this student again in my class.

I have been thinking about it since then, and I still can’t figure out what went wrong. Was the vocabulary being explored in class too difficult for him? Was he put off by the fact that he felt he was the weakest student in the room? Was it because I made him (and others) change pairs at one point?

I wish I knew, so as to avoid the same mistake next time.

What do you usually do when you have shy teenager in your class? Do you use any special techniques or activities to make them feel more at ease? This is actually the second time something like this happens to me. The other time was more than a year ago, not with a teenager but with an adult. How do you take each learner’s ego into consideration in your lesson?

Thank you for reading (and for sharing any thoughts or ideas on the matter).

5 thoughts on “Students switching off”

  1. Hi Giulia!

    I must admit I’ve never encountered such problem, but considering that it doesn’t happen so often to you I guess it’s not about you or your lessons but just about the student. It happens sometimes that it’s just not YOUR students, and you’re not this students teacher, you know what I mean? We can’t be liked by every single student no matter how good our lessons are. Maybe this student just needs another teacher or another environment you can’t provide for some reason.
    I used to have some unmotivated students (and some of them would hardly speak during the first lessons) actually. I’d usually maintain a positive attitude, smile a lot, praise when they actually say something and encourage them gently. Usually it works. I can’t say all of them started being very active but still, at least they started speaking a bit more and even ask questions.

    1. Thank you for your comment Lina. As you wrote, I kept gently encouraging the student, who now seems much more engaged and active during the lessons. Maybe he is just shy, and needed time to adjust to the new class. 🙂

      1. That’s amazing!! I guess in his case, gentle encouragement and positive attitude (from the teacher as well) are those things he needs 🙂

  2. Hi Julia,
    I don’t think you should think of this as your ‘mistake’! Maybe there was something bothering him that had nothing to do with the lesson. Or maybe like you said he felt self conscious. Teenagers often do. You did your best to encourage him, the rest is up to him. We as teachers can’t possibly control everything that happens in a lesson. And it was your first time with the group which is always something like a needs analysis. Once you know them better maybe you’ll see what it was that was bothering him. If he is the ‘weakest’ student in terms of speaking he might have strengths in other areas, like knowledge of lexis connected to his own personal interests. Of course it takes time to find out such things. Good luck!

    1. Thanks Lindsey, you are probably right, and I agree, we can’t possibly predict everything and help everyone all the time. However, once I got to know his better I discovered that putting him in pairs with the right person was the solution to the problem. I’m about to publish a post on this. 🙂

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