Mark Newman

A better way to deal with class disruptions

What to do when students misbehave

This article is for teachers like me who don't have formal training to do what they do, but who nevertheless want to do the best that they can to enrich and improve their own lives as well as those of their students.

It's also a dig at the teachers who seem to enjoy boasting online about the power games they play with their students. Just recently, I've been seeing a lot of comments about the different ways that teachers tackle the problems they have with class disruptions.

Whether it's the use of mobile phones, a wisecracking comedian sitting at the back or the general lack of group motivation to learn what you are trying to teach, there are better ways to get the job done when someone misbehaves.

New teachers may find these ideas harder to jump on board with but you might consider them, as you start out in your new positions.

I'm not an 'expert' on this matter but I am 'qualified' to express an opinion. I've been teaching for blah blah blah... So, even if you don't agree, then this is something you can add to your arsenal of things NOT to pay any attention to.

The Rules Of Life.

Classrooms have rules. In most textbooks aimed at young learners, the first page or two is devoted to them. The older they get, the less those rules need to be spelt out and taught because students will know what they are... but the older the students get, the less they like playing by any set of rules.

In life, most humans go through progressions of attitude in this order: Obedience - resistance - disobedience - conformity. These stages can hit at any age but the worst 'progression' type to teach is the 'disobedience' one!

In Thailand, the hill is especially high because we live in a culture where rules about anything aren't taken very seriously, no matter how dire the consequences of ignoring them are. The rules of the road are a good example of this. This means that kids who go astray in your eyes don't see their misbehaviour as particularly serious. In Thailand, rules really are meant to be broken!

The Rules Of Your Classroom.

Confrontational students are an unavoidable fact of life for even the best teachers, especially at the high school level. Yet, other things in life have rules, too. The kids have rules at home which they have to follow. The video games they play also have rigid rules they need to pay attention to. Even eating in a restaurant has a set of rules that needs to be followed. A classroom is no different to any other social engagement that kids face during their young lives.

In Conclusion...

Before I go into a more lengthy and detailed account of some (hopefully) useful suggestions, I'll do a quick summary here. Remember this following statement and write it on your bathroom mirror (in shaving cream or lipstick) so you see it every morning when you brush your teeth...

"I am the responsible adult at work and I am super-patient because I was not brought up the same way as my students were."

If the maxim above makes perfect sense and you are already living it, you can skip the rest! You're already doing a good job!

The Stuff That Should Have Preceded The Conclusion...

There are a few things that we can do to minimize disruptions. A couple of obvious and academic ones are:

Know your subject... because it will give you confidence. Even though you won't share everything you know, you can cope with the subject matter at least!

Well thought out lesson plans, of course, are good. Winging your way through hours of teaching is tiring and makes you look awful!

Explaining to the class what you're doing and why, is also important. Kids want to know what's going on and why they are doing what you want them to do.

These things are teaching basics - but they don't really provide options when things don't go to plan.

When The Unexpected Happens...

All experienced teachers will agree that we should set the tone of our teaching styles from the first moment we become their teacher. You are the responsible adult and you are in control of their behaviour - except for when you aren't...

Is there a way to engage with a 'naughty' student that won't make them feel stupid? Perhaps a 'one on one' chat after the class will make their behaviour better in the future. It's better to have the worst behaving students on your side if you can manage it.

Many teachers (according to their online comments) seem to think that humiliation tactics work well with disruptive students. It doesn't... ever! Sometimes, I think that teachers deliberately set out to cause students to 'lose face' as some kind of revenge - which brings me to...

It's not personal.

It's never personal... unless you make it so. Thai kids enjoy school. They aren't resentful about being there. Join in their Thai spirit of 'Bon Vivre'! Your heart will thank you for it. Disruptions aren't normally meant to be personally disrespectful to you. (If they are, this is something that you really must sort out with your boss. But these instances are extremely rare in Thailand.)

A Change Of Plans.

When a disruption in the class breaks your train of thought, is there a way to use it to create a mini 'lesson'? Can you sidetrack from your sweat-stained lesson plan and be diverted into adopting the negative distraction and turning it into something interesting for the whole class? It's a dignified and 'professional' way to diffuse a situation.

Failure Is An Option!

Let's be honest, for 90% of your kids, learning English is about as useful to them as learning French. Resist getting annoyed or worked up when they just don't get what you're teaching. Either keep at it slowly and patiently or move on. Kids will pick up on your moods. If you're sulking, the good kids that are making an effort feel inadequate and the bad ones are gloating.

Learn What's His Name's Name. 

This is an especially powerful tool for your worst students. Oh, boy, never underestimate the power of knowing a student's name if you want them to pay attention! If you can learn their full Thai name, even better! Keep a cheat sheet of names.

Delegate Your Cold Stares.

Let the good students do the 'cold stares' for you. In my experience, students know exactly what's going on around them in the classroom. About half of them (mostly the girls) will be on your side wanting a normal classroom experience and the other half (the boys) will be looking for an opening where they can exhibit their rebelliousness. Quite often, it will be the other students who can do your job for you, in calming down a situation.

Keep Your Cool!

Always keep your cool. A temporary solution to unruly classroom antics is to shout it down. It may be a battle you win, but in the long term, it's a war you've lost. You're the responsible adult in the room and the good students need to see that - when you are dealing with the bad ones. Talk to your unruly students after the class and try to win them over with a chat. If a kid is gagging for attention at school he's not getting it at home.

Don't Play Their Games.

One thing that has worked occasionally for me is to walk away from a situation. But everyone has to see you do it. I have broken away from a class to march right up to a student... wait a couple of seconds while the class hushes into nervous silence... and then turned away and continued teaching the class as if nothing had happened. That one's quite good fun to do if you can pull it off! Sometimes when you react in the opposite way to what your students are expecting, it can diffuse a situation.

It happened to me once, too. In the summer of 1976, I was revising for my 'O' Levels and having a crafty cigarette in my dorm. (Yeah, boarding school.) Mr Wilson (nickname Tank because he was a giant of a man and the strictest history teacher on the planet) clunked his way through the corridor, doing his rounds. I heard him coming and chucked my fag out the window and wafted the curtains to try and dispel the smoke. He marched in - smelled the smoke and bellowed "Exercising your lungs, Newman?" - he laughed, turned around and marched off. I could have been expelled! But the opposite of what I was expecting happened. I liked him an awful lot more after that!

Make Notes.

Detailed evidence trumps general accusations when a student persistently loses control. It might be a good idea to keep a class journal that details incidents of bad behaviour that you can point to if things get away from you and you are held to account by your boss or by parents in the future! I haven't done this but I worked with a teacher who did. He made a big show of it too, scribbling notes in front of his classes.

Appeal To Their Vanity.

All kids like to be praised, even (especially) the difficult ones. "Look, you're a smart kid... I know you are better than this. Let's work together so we all help each other get through the day." Harder to say if you don't speak Thai or their English is rubbish! Maybe get a Thai teacher to sit in on this with you. Then, at least you've noticed them for something other than the bad stuff, right?

Summary two!

Just a few ideas of my own that have been swimming around in my mind to counteract some of the teachers who have been promoting some rather passive aggressive alternatives to classroom discipline! A lot of successful teaching methods won't come from books or training... and they aren't always coming from your fellow teachers either! It's your own common sense, your patience and your instincts that will make or break you and reward your students.

You're their teacher, not their boss. You are the responsible adult at work and you are super-patient because you were not brought up the same way as your students were.

If the absolute worst happens and you really are at the end of your tether, it's best to just shoot them and flee the country... this takes a lot of planning ahead which I'll be detailing in a future article!


Good information Mark! I enjoyed reading your point to delegate cold stares. It is best to let the well-behaved students discipline the disruptions of their peers. There is always one student that enjoys taking on this role, and in my experiences I encourage them to be the sheriff.

By T. Lion, United States (2nd June 2023)

Thai kids are gold. I really can't complain. Second year in I was given two horrible classes that a tiny Filipino woman couldn't handle. I was focused on EP and the smart kids in Intensive. I knew the book was dreadful and over their heads. No time to help the castaways.

Last year I had a falling out with one student over her phone. She challenged me in class and I had to take the phone. They're not supposed to be using their phones in class unless work related. The vibe amongst about six of them was never good but became increasingly tense. Very high minded, privileged lot that think they can challenge the teacher in Thailand.

Other than that students have been great. Nearly 3000. Still in touch with a few to this day.

Best way to avoid classroom issues is teach at a good school. Work hard, stand out get assigned to the best classes. Problem solves itself.

By Jim Beam, The Big Smoke (15th April 2020)

I do find badly behaved kids in some unmentionable part of Asia (not Thailand) a pain to teach.
They don't pay attention, fight with other kids, disrupt the class with their annoying pranks/playful antics, don't do their work, etc. and then go back complaining about the teacher(me) for poor classroom management! I was told to leave the place because apparently those fee paying naughty badly behaved kids are more deserving of respect than a poor, struggling, new teacher like myself.
The oppressive situation and teaching environment in many parts of Asia can be extremely brutal, frustrating and soul destroying despite my best attempt to cope with their endless Asiatic nonsense.
I still like teaching English but I just don't like their brutal and often unfair exploitative Asian culture. I think it is best for our sanity to avoid working with arrogant, spoilt Asian kids who have totally no interest in learning English and have totally no respect for us who are trying our best to teach them!

By wpass, In another part of Asia (27th January 2019)

Hi Jack...

Thanks for your comments and encouraging feedback.

If I gave the impression I was blaming Thai culture for badly behaved kids, that was a mistake. I feel strongly that (in its most general form) 'Thai culture' is a great to raise kids. There's not much I would change.

The exception being the part about not taking the consequences of actions into account when making decisions and then adopting that casual attitude to everything in life and passing it on to impressionable kids.

I'm making that call as a foreigner, as a teacher and as an old man.

As a foreigner, I don't expect I'll foment much support from Thais. And I certainly don't want to change their world. As a teacher, the support I get is a short-term 'band-aid' that essentially do no healing. As an old man, I see some awesome minds going to waste and that makes me sad.

And you're right that kids are naughty the world over... and in my time we quickly learned some harsh lessons when we went astray. Naughtiness was met head-on with a lot of serious consternation. The modern world has changed a lot from those days and I'm mostly happy to be a part of it.

Thai kids choose the path of least resistance and this is learned behaviour. If something is a challenge then it's hard work to be avoided or cheated. I don't blame Thai culture for naughty boys... and Thailand doesn't need a lot more old, foreign English teachers showing them the way.

By Mark Newman, A. MUANG (1st April 2018)


Overall an interesting blog and filled with good advice.

Although I would have to question your assumption Thai culture leads to bad behaving children. If you listen to teachers back home in Farangland you will hear near constant gripes about the terrible behavior found in schools (having the student commit mass murder is not too common in Thai schools). My friends and I sure gave our teachers a tough time back in my student days and to listen to the stories of my uncles and father, they might have been even worse back in the 1940s and 1950s. Although hard to quantify, I suspect on average Thai kids are ever so slightly better behaved than Farang kids are back home (at least they don’t seem to shoot up schools quite as often).

Grumpy old teachers complain, it is what they do. Back home grumpy old teachers complain about the younger generation, grumpy old teachers in Thailand can alternate their complaints between the generation and the culture.

Many years ago when in desperate need of a paycheck, I took a temporary job teaching children. It wasn’t for me, I don’t have the playful personality or the patience. I hated it and sucked at the job. But the problem was me, not the kids or the culture. I was checking the want ads everyday trying to find something more in my preferred line of work.

A good children’s teacher in Thailand or anywhere is worth his or her weight in chocolate bars. I suspect you are one of the good ones.

By Jack, Near the beach (1st April 2018)

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