“I have a student who appears to be oblivious to what the other students are saying. What can I do?”

“What can I do when one student inappropriately corrects another student?”

This scenario below recounts a real situation. In the dialog below, Mike is an experienced EFL teacher. Mila and Sofia are two students in his class.

Mike: So how was your weekend Sofia?

Sofia: My uncle is died.

Mila: It should be my uncle is dead or my uncle died, no?

Mike: Oh Sofia, how terrible for you. When did it happen?

Sofia: At Saturday night.

Mila: On Saturday night.

Mike: Oh Sofia I am so sorry. Well, let’s think of something that will take your mind off it. Does anyone know what to take your mind off something means?

Mila: Think about something else.

Mike has two difficult situations to deal with. The first is Sofia’s revelation. Such intensely personal revelations happen more frequently during one-to-one lessons where they can be dealt with in the same way as you would do if you were talking to a native English speaker. But they sometimes happen in group lessons too.

Mike handles the situation expertly. He juggles carefully between his role as a teacher in a classroom, and his role as a sensitive human being. So he asks Sofia another question so that she does not feel she cut short and that her situation is being dealt with sympathetically. You could also revert to the student’s native language to show compassion.

Then, rather than asking other students about their weekends, Mike immediately drops the topic and finds a way to move on with the lesson. He thus avoids embarrassing Sofia (who probably blurted out that her uncle had died without actually remembering she was in class) and also avoids making the class feel uneasy.

The second difficult situation is how to handle Mila. Mila has no idea of the insensitivity of her correction of Sofia’s mistake. For Mila this is an English lesson and she is unable to separate learning grammar from needing to show sympathy.

Mike’s solution is simply to ignore her comment … at least for the moment. But Mike knows that Mila too has paid her money to be on the course, so Mike’s solution is simply to email Mila saying: “For reasons that I am sure you will understand I did not want to deal with Sofia’s grammatical error. But yes, you were right, has died or died would be the correct solution.” Alternatively, he could tell her this at the end of the lesson as she is leaving the class. It is important that Mike does this, otherwise Mila might go home either thinking that she was wrong and that is died is correct, or she may simply decide that her teacher is incompetent.

Cases like Mila are common, both inside and outside the classroom. Don’t label Mila as weird, and don’t stop giving her eye contact and space. If Mila knew it was wrong to intervene in the way she did, then she probably wouldn’t have done so in this case. Also, she may not know that it is inappropriate to answer or comment on everything the teacher says – from her perspective she is just being a good student.

If Mila continues to show such behaviour, then it is probably worth taking her aside and explaining the impact and implications of her abrupt approach.

Mike Seymour studied Interpreting and Translating in Edinburgh. He then worked in Austria and Germany at several universities, and as an in-company ESP trainer specialising in telecommunications, banking, insurance and HR for over 25 years. Since 2018 he has been back in his hometown of Leeds where he divides his time between teaching German and Italian corporate students online, and teaching ESOL in an FE College.