Your Class Has Really Gone Off the Rails. What Can You Do RIGHT NOW?

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All classes are different, and each has its own personality, a result of the chemistry of the people in the room, the time of day the class meets, the length of the class, and the general mood of the school/community it’s in. This is one of the great things about teaching. You really never know quite what is going to happen. This is a pleasure, once you have your feet wet and you are confident in your ability to handle whatever is thrown at you, but it can be a terrible and frightening burden for a newer teacher or in a class that is really challenging the teacher’s authority.

Honestly, it’s been a long time since I’ve lost control of a class. That’s because I design my classes with clear structure, I communicate often and I present a listening ear, and I pay attention to my students’ engagement, so I can detect a problem before the students begin to act out on it. But these are skills that teachers develop over time. If you’re a new teacher and you don’t yet have that veteran teacher confidence, you may find yourself in a position of being out of control without having seen it coming.

Your students might be passively ignoring you, talking over you in class, not completing assignments you give, online shopping or texting or even sleeping in class. Or, even worse, your students might be acting out: openly defying your expectations, vocally challenging your abilities in front of the class, threatening to walk out and get you into trouble with the school administration, or even wrestling and fighting in your class, possibly breaking school property and injuring each other. I’m not talking about a few students; if that’s the case, take a look at this post. I’m talking about when an entire class is simply refusing to learn from you.

If students or you are in physical danger, you should immediately contact the appropriate administrators (or security) to ensure public safety. If there’s no imminent threat, though, there are things you can do to improve the situation fairly quickly.

So, if your class has really gone off the rails, what can you do RIGHT NOW?

Empathize with Your Students

The best thing to do is first try to understand your students and why they are behaving so poorly. Are they bored? Are they angry? Are they rejecting the content? Do they dislike or mistrust you? Do they find your class irrelevant? Do they simply prefer to be social with each other rather than cooperate with you, their teacher? Do they not respect you?

How would you feel if you were a student in your own class? Would you be one of the ones causing you trouble? The more honest you are with yourself about how the students may feel in your class, the more likely you will be to address the problems and get the class back on track.

It can be difficult to get past your own assumptions about students, schooling, and teachers, but it’s an essential move you need to make in order to address the problem. If you find this very difficult, see if there are attitudes YOU need to adjust before you can truly begin to empathize with students. I had to change some things myself.

You don’t have to agree with how you think the students are feeling. Nor, do you need to think they are right to feel as they do. But understanding where they are coming from is essential to get things going well.

Communicate with Your Students

Let the students know that you find the current situation unacceptable and that you are required to improve things. Ask them why they aren’t choosing to do the work in the class? Try to get them to open up about what the problem is. And then, listen without defending yourself. I find actively taking notes while the students speak is a good way to show them you are listening, and it gives you something to do to keep from being defensive. If the students should use this as an opportunity to truly begin abusing you or making fun of you, stop it, and hand out some independent work instead. (This is a bigger problem that needs more support than a blog post can provide.)

I find that making a big, grand gesture to start this conversation is helpful. Often, I have told the students something like this, “Today, we are going to do something different. I’d like you all to gather in a large circle (or into a small gathering), so we can be up front with each other. This class is going very poorly, and I’d like you to tell me why you think that is. What is happening here that is encouraging you to not cooperate with me?”

The grand gesture works because it signals two things to the students: 1) We are going to do something different (and possibly interesting) today; 2) I want to hear your thoughts. Both of these messages will bring most students around and prepare them for a serious discussion. It taps into their better, more mature angels.

Don’t ask the students to offer solutions. Instead, just keep asking them to talk about how they feel in the class and what they would prefer to feel. Look for answers, such as:

  • “I am bored. We just keep doing the same things.”
  • “You yell at us a lot, and that doesn’t make me feel like learning or listening to you.”
  • “I can’t hear you because other students are always talking.”
  • “The stuff you’re asking us to do is stupid, and it won’t help me in my life. I don’t care about school.” 

What you are looking for are the root causes for the problems. You already know the symptoms (acting out, ignoring the teacher, refusing to complete work when asked), and now you’re trying to diagnose the illness (so to speak) so you can cure it. Prepare to be a bit humbled because the root cause is almost certainly something you are doing or not doing.

Thank the students for their honest feedback and tell them you are going to think about it carefully and get back to them. This is probably the most important thing you do. You are showing students that you can understand them, you are listening to them and taking their concerns seriously, and you are going to do some work (for them) to improve things. Do not skip this step. Having done this, you have already largely solved the problem. After all, the students are listening to you, too, and in most cases they will give you a chance to improve their classroom experiences.

It’s a good idea to have that conversation on a Friday, so you have the weekend to work on a response.

Next, write a letter to the students explaining what you heard them say and how you will try to address their concerns. Don’t put yourself down in the letter. Instead, make the letter entirely about the students and what you will try to do to address their concerns. For example, “I know from our discussion that many of you find that the class reading has not been connected enough to issues and lives that you care about. I will seek to bring in readings that are more relevant and interesting to you.” And, as you write the letter, start with “I” phrases: “I know,” “I heard,” “I understand you.” But as you move to the middle of the letter, shift to “we” phrases: “We will read,” “We will look at more,” “We will work together to.” This is a way to create community with the class. When the letter ends, there should be a sense that improving things is something ALL OF US have to do together.

It’s a good idea to hand out copies of this letter, to read it out loud to the students, and to ask them if they feel heard and understood.” This continues to build community, and hopeful the students will be listening to you now because you are talking directly to them and you are showing them that you hear their concerns.

Now, they are ready to reinvest in the class and in their own learning.

Set Rules and Plan Times to Revisit Them with the Students

Once you have a plan in place to make things better, you should set up a new structure for your class, so that the students know what they have to do in order to enjoy the more tailored experience you are now going to try to give them. You can explain what changes you will make to improve the class atmosphere (whatever that takes, depending upon their concerns), and you will also explain what their role in this is. Essentially, you are making a new arrangement (or deal) with the students, and everyone should understand their part to play.

Once you have laid out your plan, ask the students for feedback on it, and try to make a few changes to show that you are approaching them in good faith.

Then ask them to agree to it. You can even draw up a contract that you will all sign. This is not only something that works, it’s also how the real-world outside the classroom often works. You can talk with them about conflict resolution in the real-world, and they might even find this as something relevant to them and their lives. (So in drawing up this deal, you are already making your class more relevant to their lives.)

And celebrate with your students. Applaud, celebrate with a victory poem or a pop song the students enjoy. Something to show this is a positive that you’ve achieved together. Just feel GOOD with and PROUD of your students (and yourself) for a little while.

Check In with the Class

Hopefully things will get better. They usually do. There may be one or two students who continue to be challenging, but it’s so much easier to deal with individuals (outside class) than an entire class in revolt. 

But don’t forget to check in. A few days or a week after the contract was agreed upon (with as much formality as you preferred), ask the students to think about it again and ask them how it’s going. If you are lucky, a few students will say things are better, and you will now have made some allies in the class who can be helpful to you as you try to maintain the new, positive atmosphere. 

Don’t Freak Out

Every teacher has experienced classes that have not gone well. But it’s really scary, especially before you have tenure and before you feel confident enough to know that your administration will support you. 
It’s easy to freak out when you’re a relatively new teacher. But remember we’ve all been through this. If you find success from the steps above, and it makes you feel good, then you’re on your way! And if you need a real pick-me-up, check out this lengthy list of my worst teaching fails. After reading that, you’ll know that if I made it, you almost certainly can! 🙂

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