What to do when things go wrong in your English class

It happens to the best of us.

You go into the class. All the students are waiting for you. You pull out your notes and keep them in front of you as you introduce the first part of your well-prepared lesson plan.

Then one student gives you a look as if he does not understand one word you are saying. Another student answers a question with great confidence only to give a response that has no bearing to the topic at hand. Two students at the back start chatting with each other and then brick by brick the whole thing falls apart.

Within seconds you are left standing at the front of the class, a cold bead of sweat tracing its way down the back of your neck, as you stammer your way through the remaining 30 minutes of class.

None of the students is paying attention to you and you just wish a great hole would swallow you live beneath you.


It matters not whether the teacher has one month experience or 20 years. It is inevitable that your lesson will fall apart one time or another.

So what to do?

Jump out the nearest window? Scream at all the students in front of you for not complying?

I have made a foolproof guide for you to follow in the chance that you end up with your foot in your mouth in front of all of your adoring students.

Read on and take note.

These next few paragraphs are lifesavers.


It’s not you – except it is you


Teaching English — especially teaching English in a foreign country — requires a thick skin.

You are, by virtue of the fact that you are often the only foreigner in the building, under much scrutiny in your school anyway. All the students and all the teachers know exactly who you are, how old you are, whether you are married or single, how many kids you have.

They even know if you are a Trump supporter or not.

They know pretty much all there is to know about you.

And they know when one of your classes fails.

It’s not like being a teacher of any other subject where you can let it slide. You are constantly being observed and so the fact that your last lesson ended in a kind of mini-disaster is passed around as news around the school.

The first thing you need to develop as an English teacher is a thick skin.

You have to accept that we are all human — even English teachers — and as humans we are all vulnerable to making mistakes. English teachers too are quite adept and not getting it quite right.

So that is the most important thing you need to develop. Some armour.

Lessons do go wrong.

They go wrong all the time.

What we have to learn is that the show must go on and you have to get back on your feet and continue teaching the class.

That may be cold comfort to you when you have frozen in front of 40 teenagers all gawping at you and wondering why you are shaking in front of them.

Accept that lessons can and will go off the rails.

Know that it happens to every kind of teacher and then make plans to deal with it.


The Warning Signs


We can often see if a class is about to fail.

The warning signs are quite apparent. We just need to know what to look for.

It is possible very easily to see exactly when an entire lesson is about to curve off the rails and plunge into the abyss — sometimes before the lesson even begins.

It could be any one of the following:

  • an argument between students before class
  • a fight that happened outside
  • a late arrival

If you are standing at the door to greet students you might be able to nip this in the bud before class even begins.

Two students arrive and an argument is still taking place between them. It is quite possible for you to calm them down and get them to sit in different places in the classroom so that their little row doesn’t spill over into class time.

You can prevent this from disrupting your class.

But not always.


It could be a late arrival from a student just as you are in mid-flow introducing the key concepts of your lesson for the day.

Something as simple as a student arriving five minutes late could derail your whole class.

I have had entire classes where the students have arrived anywhere from five to 20 minutes late.

Some would argue that this is out of your control and you cannot do anything about it. I would argue that there is plenty you can do. More on this later.

Other warning signs that your class is about to sink are:

  • students chatting or talking to each other
  • students asking the same question over and over
  • students answering the question incorrectly – this shows they have not grasped the exercise properly
  • students taking too long or too short a time to complete an exercise – shows that the exercise is either too easy or too difficult


These warning signs indicate very clearly that the fault lies with you the teacher.

Students chatting to each other is a strong sign of boredom. The students don’t know what they are supposed to be doing and are now bored and so they start having a conversation of their own.

Asking the same question repeatedly — or answering a question incorrectly — shows some kind of misunderstanding. Or no understanding at all.

Whose fault is this?


And if the students take too long to complete an exercise or do an activity then clearly it is out of their reach. They just don’t know how to do it.


These are the clear warning signs that you need to look out for in class. Fine tune your observation senses and you can see this happening in the early stages.

Then you can take action.


What not to do


Before we look at what you should do. Let’s look at what you absolutely should not do.

The worst thing to do is panic.

If your lesson is collapsing like an old wall being shoved over by a steamroller do not allow yourself to be flustered in any way.

Remain calm and you will remain in control.

Running for the door screaming your head off will not win you much support. You must be stoic about this. Accept that your precious lesson plan that you slaved over into the small hours is now nothing but a small meaningless blip on the landscape, but you must retain control.

If something goes wrong you can’t tell a group of 40 teenagers to wait while you take an hour out to meditate.

There is no time to regroup.

You need to think fast and pull a rabbit out of your big magician’s hat.


What to do


What you can do is pause the class.

This does not mean stop the entire class while you curl up into the foetal position and start bawling your eyes out.

But in the circumstances of students chatting to each other, staring blankly into space or just unable to answer any of your glaringly simple questions — yes, pause.

This is a good time to take stock of where the students are in the process.

Go through what you have done so far and then you can find out where the bottleneck is in their understanding or lack of.

You can isolate this and have a mini-meeting to bring all of the students up to speed.

For example, if you are doing a class on a certain grammar point, maybe the students haven’t quite grasped the rules. Isolate this and then act on it to ensure everyone is on the same page.

At this stage, it might be necessary to insert a necessary task or activity into your lesson plan as a step up. Something that can assist the students so that they all have that light-bulb moment and you can all move on.

Usually, it is because there is a general lack of understanding.

But it could be the opposite.

The students understand exactly what is going on. It’s just the activity or exercise they are doing is much too simple.

The answer to this is pretty obvious then.

Remove the offending activity or exercise and move on to the next stage of your lesson plan. Present the students with something more challenging, breathe a quick sigh of relief and all is good.

The key thing here is to be flexible and versatile in your classes at all times.

Do not be that teacher who prepares a lesson plan and then forces all the students to follow every single step rigidly.

In an ideal world, it would be great.

But teaching English is never really ideal.

What you need is a back-up plan or something in reserve.


Where’s your back-up?


As with everything it all comes down to preparation.

When preparing your lesson plan it is a great idea to have other activities and ideas to use as back up.

Over time you will generate an entire roster of back-up exercises that you can just pull out of thin-air and insert into any of your classes. A little bit of fine-tuning to adapt the activity for your lesson and then you are all good to go.

Before the actual lesson takes place it is worthwhile going through every facet of your lesson plan and asking the question What if?

For example, I did a lesson for some business students and used a lesser known British company as a model. This was in China and none of the students had any idea what this company was or what they did.

This led to a small period of confusion and some wasted time.

If I had asked the right what if questions during the preparation period I could have saved myself some time and frustration.

All I needed to do was ask the question what if the students have no knowledge of this company?

Do this yourself for every stage of your lesson plan and you could easily save yourself in class.

But sometimes the inevitable happens and you still may meet a roadblock in your class.

If you have an entire class of students all gazing at you in bewilderment now is the time to pull out all your reserve ideas and activities.

You can often do this without anyone noticing.

All you need to do is say “I think that’s enough conversation about Abraham Lincoln, let’s move on.” Then you insert your stock activity.

The students usually have no idea that your lesson was disintegrating. They will just think that the new activity is all part of your lesson plan.

Two great kinds of activities that can rescue you in class are starters and ice-breakers.

We just think we can use these at the beginning of a class. But in fact, we can use them at any time during an English class.

Maybe the right amount of judicious tweaking and you are all good.


The 3 Fails


It is probably a good idea to identify the three main kinds of class fail.

I have given these the names The Bellyflop, The Near Miss and The Trip and Quick Recovery.

Let’s take a look in detail:


The Bellyflop


This is the no-medal standard that you probably did in the school swimming gala.

You stand on the edge of the board, then plunge down into the pool and land on your stomach.


In the English class, this is where your entire lesson has completely fallen apart. It is impossible to rescue. It is dead. It ceases to exist.

Do not embarrass yourself by trying to save it. Let it die and come up with a reserve activity. Do this fast.

After the class think very carefully why your lesson plan failed. What went wrong exactly? Critically analyse and either redesign the entire lesson plan or abandon it and make a new one.


The Near Miss


I believe this is what they call an incident where two aeroplanes nearly collide. Some say near miss, others say that was too close for comfort.

A near miss in your English class is where you start your lesson and all appears to be going well. All the students look engaged and act engaged. But when you set them an exercise you realise they are clueless.

This is where you can work with one student and follow where they are having trouble. Then you can use that as a road map to help the other students because they are probably all in the same boat.

This may often happen with some grammar point you are trying to teach. It often means the students missed something along the way and you have to go back and lead them through it.

You can work with one student and follow where they are having trouble. Then you can use that as a road map to help the other students because they are probably all in the same boat.

Roadmaps? Boats?

Don’t teach these mixed metaphors to your students!


The Trip and Quick Recovery


In this kind of class, you might find one or two students are a little lost. Or it could be all the class.

But it is a very easy fix. You locate where they are having trouble and give them a guiding hand.

Maybe a little similar to The Near Miss but not as serious.

In this case, it is just a case of going over the activity and making sure there is clarity and maybe provide a little comprehension check to see that they are all up to speed.

A quick check in the mirror and shift into gear.


The 3 Recoveries


As well as identifying the three main lesson fails we can also identify three recovery tactics.

I have named these Action Action, Have a Break and Split ‘Em Up.


Action Action


In this tactic, you ensure that the activity you decide to do to rescue your class is action-packed.

Have an activity where the students are standing in front of the class or moving around. A presentation or a role play or something where there is a lot of action and energy. This can save a badly failed lesson plan.

Get the students moving around and they will forget anything about their English teacher at the front of the class with egg on his face.


Have a Break


Quite often in longer two-hour English lessons, it is possible to have a break. I always gave students a break halfway through a two-hour class.

They needed it and I certainly needed it.

You can use this to your advantage. If you are in such a class and the lesson is falling apart then maybe it is a good idea to take a break.

During the break pull out all your reserve activities and select the best ones to continue in the class.

If you cannot take a real break then take a break in the form of a great activity.

Preferably one with some action in it.


Split ‘Em Up


Put all the students into smaller groups. This can save you because when a lesson fails often the students start talking to each other as one. Break this pattern by putting them in smaller groups and giving them an exercise or activity.

It also changes their focus and they start concentrating on the new part of the lesson.


Reflect and Learn


After a failed class you need to reflect and learn from the mistakes you made.

You should be doing this after every class — I’m not saying every class will fail, but you should reflect upon each class you have and see what worked and what did not.

But with a failed class it is a good time to reflect and learn from our mistakes. Ask yourself — What went wrong and how can I prevent that from happening again?

This can make all your future lessons near perfect as you fine-tune them to the point of perfection.

Well, not perfection but you get my point.

Find out what went wrong and try to figure out how you can change that for the future.

One thing you should never do is blame the students.

It is never their fault. Adopt this position and do all your reflecting from this point.

Isolate where it all went wrong and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What did I do wrong?
  • How can I prevent that from happening again?
  • What should I do differently next time?


Save the reprimanding for after class


If a student disrupts your class by continuously arriving late or making a scene you need to deal with him.

But the classroom is not the place to do it.

Reminding the student what time class begins might help.

If this serves no purpose than a word with your higher-up might bring the student’s tardiness to a halt.

Students that make great efforts to disrupt your class also need to be dealt with in the correct manner.

Usually, a quick word in class can do it but if the behaviour continues a longer word outside of class may suffice.

The point is, do not let these students run chaos around your lessons.

Class management skills and correct communication can go a long way.




There are three things to take from this guide:


Look for the warning signs.

These will become obvious after you gain more experience in the class but start to look out for them and act on them immediately.


Build a reserve of back-up activities and exercises to do in class

Over time and with experience you will have a stockpile of back-up ideas that you can use in class but three good places to find such ideas are here:


After a class where something goes wrong take the time to reflect.

Go over the class and find out what exactly went wrong and figure out how to fix it. Maybe it’s an activity that simply doesn’t work with the kind of class you have. Or maybe it can be adapted to improve it.


By following these three main steps you can avoid most class fails. There is always one that slips through the net but for the most part, you can save yourself.

Do not take it personally.

It happens to all of us and you have to learn to live with it.

Know that as you gain more experience you are becoming a better teacher and a genuine asset to your school.

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