Ask Matt: How Should I Discipline Bad Students?

Hi Matt,

I just moved to Taiwan to teach English and I’m really nervous. My roommate comes home everyday complaining about the unruly kids that she has to teach.  I’m starting my first teaching job next week and I’m afraid that I’m not going to be able to control them. Can you offer me any advice?

Thanks! Love your blog!


Hi Katie,

There are a few simple things that you can do to keep your classes under control when you start teaching. Although these ideas are simple, they can be difficult to execute because they go against many impulses that a new teacher feels, and they require a lot of self-discipline. However, if you can follow them, your classes will fall into line in the first few weeks (or months, depending on the class), and you will find that things go very smoothly.

1) Be Strict from the Start

New teachers are inexperienced and feel insecure.  Naturally, they want approval of their teaching, so they seek the approval of their students. The easiest way to gain students’ approval is to make friends with them, joke around, and let them have their way.  This is totally natural, and a total disaster for classroom management.

It is infinitely easier to start as an strict teacher and make friends with students afterwards while maintaining discipline, than to let the students walk all over you to make them like you and then try to enforce new rules later on. The standard for all of your classes will be set in the first few days with a class. This is the time to make sure that students know the rules and know that they have to follow them.

2) Be Clear

You cannot expect students to behave if you have not clearly explained what  is and is not acceptable behavior. When you get angry at a student for a reason that they don’t understand (we’ve all done it) it does nothing except confuse the student and frustrate you.

During my first several years of teaching I made a habit of writing the rules on the whiteboard at the beginning of every class and having the students read them with me. When I encountered new behavior that repeatedly caused problems I would add it to the list. This way, if a student broke a rule, I could simply say, “Jimmy. What is rule 3?” Then it would be clear to the student that he had acted in a way that he knew was not acceptable, and could not argue about whether he deserved to be punished. It was clear.

3) Be Consistent

Nobody is on their game all of the time. We all have days when we just don’t want to go through the effort of scolding students and maintaining order. But, it’s important to enforce classroom rules consistently. It is in your best interest to make good behavior a habit for students. This can be a long and difficult process, but in the end, students who are accustomed to being good (because they were not given the opportunity to be bad) are always the easiest to teach.

4) Be Their Friend

In Rule 1 I told you to put discipline before friendship. That is very important when you first meet a class. However, discipline and friendship are not mutually exclusive. Many of the teachers that I liked most were teachers who maintained good classroom discipline, and many of the students that liked me the most were ones that I scolded regularly.

Respect is the basis of any good friendship. If you treat the students with respect, they will treat you with respect in return. This means that when you scold them, it will have that much more of an impact.

Also, it enables you to reason with children and help them to understand why they can’t misbehave. I find it useful with very unruly to explain that I have no choice but to punish them, and that I will always have to do so. The conversation goes something like this:

Me: “Who is my boss you guys?”

Students: “Mr. Wang.” (Mr. Wang is, say, the principal of the school)

Me: “Do you like it when you go to Mr. Wang’s office?

Students: “Noooo!”

Me: “I don’t like it either. Do you know what will happen if Mr. Wang walks past and sees you guys running around and playing games?  He won’t come in and yell at you.  He’ll yell at me. Do you like it when he yells at you?”

Students: “Noooo!”

Me: “Do you think I like it when he yells at me?”

Student: “No.”

Me: “Do you want Mr. Wang to yell at me?”

Around this point in the conversation the students get the picture, and settle down, at least for a while. And you’ve managed to maintain discipline, and let the students know that you will always maintain discipline, without making yourself into the bad guy.

These are the things that I found helped me most to maintain classroom order during my seven years of teaching.

I hope it helps!


This post is part of a series called ESL Blog Carnival
– hosted this month at Go Teach Abroad on the topic of Classroom Management

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7 thoughts on “Ask Matt: How Should I Discipline Bad Students?”

  1. I teach ESL at a bilingual preschool, and find that with YLs, having a routine is the best. I start every day with the same set of activities before moving on to the new material, then have a certain way to clean up books and the classroom. Good luck!!

  2. Yes, routine is definitely key for kids. If they know what they have to do, they will do it. But if they don’t, they won’t try to figure out what their job is. They’ll totally just start to talk and play.

  3. I’d like to offer an alternative to your step #1, which I wholeheartedly disagree with, except for the part where you say it’s good for insecure teachers. If you need a power trip to make yourself feel good, being strict is a good place to start.

    I realize this is a matter of opinion, but I personally think that reward, rather than punishment, or “strictness” will help build your relationship with the students. For example (I assume there is some kind of reward system at your school) when I start a class, I say “hello” to my students, and give points to the team or individual who responds the most enthusiastically. I immediately have control because the students realize there is something at stake, and at the same time I have not punished or taken away points from anybody.

    I think as a life lesson, we all know how first impressions stick. If you start out strict, and slowly let your guard down, you have chosen “fear” when choosing to rule between “fear or love.” You may think your students are your friends, but they know that the “1st day of school strict teacher” exists inside of you.

    I don’t ever get angry or yell at my students. What does it solve?

  4. Although, I have to disagree with you about discipline being a power trip for insecure people (I meant that new teachers who have not been trained and feel unsure about their teaching, will seek the approval of students in the absence of anyone else to give it), I totally agree that using a reward system is far better than using a punishment system. The carrot is always better than the stick.

    I must point out, though, that fear is also involved in the reward method. You are making students ‘afraid’ not to be rewarded. They are trying not to get left behind. Although this is better than being afraid of being punished, it is not altogether different and it is not love. You are putting students in competition with each other for the reward and for validation. They want to win because they are afraid to lose. Discipline is not an unconditional love situation.

    On a different not, your “fear or love” statement sounds incredibly similar to Bill Hicks’s “eyes of fear and eyes of love” monologue. Are you a fan? If so, check this out!

  5. The following is an excerpt from Rafe Esquith’s book “Teach like Your Hair’s on Fire,” which I don’t think any teacher (that actually likes kids and teaching, as opposed to just doing it to make money and pass the time inTaiwan) should attend another day at work without reading:

    “I know this because I’ve been there. I’ve fallen into the same trap. The simple truth is that most classrooms today are managed by one thing and one thing only: fear.

    The teacher is afraid: afraid of looking bad, of not being liked, of not being listened to, of losing control. The students are even more afraid: afraid of being scolded and humiliated, of looking foolish in front of peers, of getting bad grades, of facing their parents’ wrath.”

    The rest, and more, can be found here:

  6. This is a good blog with tips on classroom management. With good classroom management you should have fewer discipline problems, and when they arise you and the students should know what to expect.
    Also, it can be much more powerful to use positive reinforcement than simply catching kids when they are bad.


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