5 Reasons Why You Don’t Understand Your Students

When you teach ESL, there are several barriers between you and your student. The obvious one is the language barrier. That’s not what I’m talking about here. The word “understand” in the title is not referring to understanding pronunciation, spelling, or grammar.

This post is about how ESL teachers often have difficulty understanding the motivations, attitudes, goals, and struggles of their students. I’m not trying to attack anyone, and these might not be true for everybody. But if you read one and say “oh shoot, that’s me!”, then you’ve got some things to think about.

Reason 1: You’ve never learned another language.

This is probably not an issue for you if you’re an ESL teacher. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of ESL teachers I’ve met have learned at least one foreign language (usually two or more).

But it’s invaluable knowledge. Having gone through the process of learning a language makes it so much easier to relate to someone who is going through the same process with your language.

Reason 2: You’ve never studied a hard enough second language.

However, this issue I’ve seen a lot. Many American ESL teachers I’ve met have learned relatively easier languages that were offered in their high schools: Spanish, French, German. I’m not saying that learning these languages is “easy,” but there are many things that make them much easier than Chinese or Arabic for example: same alphabet, similar phonologies, many cognates.

If you can read in English, you can at least attempt to understand most of the signs you see in Europe. You might not speak a lick of French, but when you see a sign pointing towards “Paris”, you can decode the letters and know what it says. But what if the sign was pointing towards ??????? If you don’t know Korean, those just look like random squiggles to you and you wouldn’t be able to attempt to pronounce it or memorize it (in case you’re wondering, that’s “Seoul”). If your students are completely new to English, they’re going to be seeing random squiggles where you see perfectly obvious words.

And although English has proliferated most of the globe and found its way into many languages in the form of loan words, there are huge discrepancies between the number of English cognates in Spanish and in Chinese, for example. Even if you have never learned a word of Spanish, you might pick out a few words from a conversation because they sound like English words you know. If you hear a conversation in Chinese, that’s much less likely.

Reason 3: You don’t know what your students do after class.

Depending on who your students are, you might have very different lifestyles than them.

Of course, there will be party animals in your class, sleeping their hangover off as you ramble on about the past perfect. You might be able to relate a little if you can still remember your imperfect past, but most teachers have moved on from their wild youth and go to bed shortly after the sun goes down and get up before it rises, so it’s hard to relate to the motivations of a college-aged kid having the time of his life. Teachers should try to curb this behavior, especially if it’s becoming a problem that interferes with the student’s schoolwork, but they should also recognize where it’s coming from.

But partying isn’t the only thing that students do outside of class that interferes with their schoolwork. Many students have children that need to be cared for, which suck up tons of energy and focus. They might also have jobs that they have to work at after class. They might have both! As a teacher, it’s very important to know about these kinds of circumstances before you scold a student for not turning her homework in or missing class too often.

Reason 4: You’ve never needed second language proficiency for a job or application.

I’m so privileged as a native speaker of the lingua franca of the world. Most of my colleagues are too. I have never had to take any type of language test to gain entry into a university or to apply for a job, and I don’t think many of my colleagues have either.

So we don’t really know what it’s like to need to study for a TOEFL test. We know the stakes are high, but we’ve never actually been in that situation. Many teachers I know hate taking tests as much as their students, but I imagine the fear of and disdain for gate-keeping English exams is something special.

I’ve heard teachers complain about how students are obsessed with the TOEFL (or whatever English test they need) and how they can’t get their students to learn the English that they want to teach. But if you had to take a test that decided a lot about your future, wouldn’t you be acting the same way?

Reason 5: You love language(s), but your students don’t.

One of my co-teachers in Korea told me something that I’ve remembered ever since: “Teachers can’t relate to bad students because most teachers were good students.”

In my experience, this is the main reason that many ESL teachers can’t relate to their students; it makes more sense with a little narrower definition:

ESL teachers can’t relate to indifferent language learners because most ESL teachers were enthusiastic language learners.

Like I said earlier, ESL teachers love learning languages and they’re usually good at it. My majors in undergrad were German and English Lit. Many of my colleagues have BA degrees in French and Spanish. If your students have negative perceptions of learning a language, low intrinsic motivation, or both, then it’s going to be difficult for you to understand their mentality.

I can say “Isn’t it so cool to be able to communicate with people in English?!” to my students every day until I’m blue in the face, but if they’re not interested, it won’t matter.

Side note: One way to address this is to make the content in your class interesting. If your student hates English and language in general, but loves airplanes, teach a lesson about airplanes in English. They’ll need to use English, which they might not like, but it will be for an interesting purpose.


Teaching is a job that requires a great deal of compassion, and the teachers I know are some of the most compassionate people I’ve met. But sometimes it’s still difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of our students. I’ve been trying to keep these five things in mind when I encounter a problem situation in class, and I hope you do too.

Thanks for reading.


Featured Image Credit: Seth Capitulo



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