How to make your students cry (Part 3)

Reading the signs

Don’t worry, this post marks the end of Blubfest 2014. But one of the best things about embarking on this little blog series has been hearing other people’s stories. While I still cringe at night thinking about some of the things that have happened, I can rest a little easier knowing that other people are doing the same thing 🙂

The lovely Anne Hendler (#makingkidscrysince2002), reckons she’s the Wicked Witch of the West for all the times she makes her students cry: “No, you can’t change your seat. Yes, you have to do your homework. No, you can’t go to the bathroom every five minutes. If you do that again, I will call your mother . . . ” But she added: “To be fair, they sometimes make me cry, too.” Ain’t it the truth. [You can follow Anne on Twitter @AnneHendler, and she also writes an excellent blog – reflective, honest and thought-provovoking.]

Anna Loseva wrote: “In the recent 2 years I’ve made 2 adult students cry in class. In both cases no extra discussion material was necessary, just my impertinence and directness in asking questions about holidays and weekends, and my thick skin. Was it terrible? It was.” [Anna’s Twitter handle is @AnnLoseva, and she blogs at – there are some real gems here, expected and unexpected, so do have a wander through.]

And Laura Phelps (@pterolaur) wrote: “I’ve had grown men weeping in class. I once had to stop a physical fight. I remember one particular group of 16-18 year olds – mostly unaccompanied minors – I had for a year, I asked them to prepare three-minute presentations on anything they wanted and loads of them went really personal and ended up in tears. And I count myself lucky for the hundreds of stupid comments I made that ought to have ended in tears and somehow didn’t.” [Laura is a writer and teacher, and her very funny and always interesting blog is here.]

What struck me about these stories though was that in most cases teachers are just pootling along doing the sorts of things that English teachers do, when BAM! Drama strikes. So is there a way to avoid this?

Scene 1:

Class of young adults in London in the 90s. In an effort to shoehorn in some contemporary cultural content, and as a “treat” for the students, I had prepared a listening lesson on Creep by Radiohead (I said 90s already, right?) Not wanting to get too personal, I deliberately stayed away from discussing “relationships”, and focused just on who was singing/about what/if they liked it, and some vocab follow up work. However, playing the song through for the first time I realised that one of my favourite students, a beautiful, smiley Italian girl, wasn’t actually just incredibly focused as she bent over her paper, hand over her eyes. In fact, her shoulders were shaking alarmingly. Yep, she was crying her eyes out.

Emergency response:

When the song finished I quickly grouped everyone to check their task, and unobtrusively channelled her outside. In the corridor, she just leaned back against the wall and put her hand over her eyes. I rubbed her arm in feeble British fashion. I asked “Are you OK?” (more Feeble Britishness). She nodded. I asked “Do you want to tell me about it?” She shook her head. I asked, “Do you want to take a break?” Shake. I asked “Shall we just stop – we can do something else?” Shake. “OK, we’ll just finish this off as quickly as we can and then we’ll go onto something else. OK?” Nod. “If you ever want to talk to me about this, you know you can OK?” Nod. Eye-wiping.

I never learned what the reason was for her unhappiness that day. She was her usual self the next day, and while I tried to follow it up with her, I obviously wasn’t the person she wanted to talk to about it.

Could I have avoided this?

I don’t think so. It was just bad timing – wrong song, wrong day, wrong person. You never know on what particular ordinary day someone’s heart may be breaking.

Scene 2: 

Full-time CELTA, Monday Week 2. I am the trainer. In a four-week course, it was the first and possibly only session explicitly and exclusively on teaching listening skills. After a demo lesson we get into the nitty gritty of the staging and aims, and I utter the magic words “blah blah blah blah activate schemata”. The trainees look at me like if it was the middle ages I’d be in the stocks and they would be pelting me with rotten fruit. I open my mouth again and a lovely, older lady just says, “Stop! I can’t – ” and – tears. She is overwhelmed. [There is nodding and muttering]. They have all worked too hard over the weekend [more nodding and muttering]. There’s too much new information, there’s too much jargon [pitchforks waving]. It’s too hard to prepare lessons and write assignments and take in sessions. And so on.

Emergency response:

It’s a fair cop, guv. I stopped the session and just took the time to hear them, sympathise, get the venting done and finally talk through some strategies.

Could I have avoided this?

Yes. Though probably not by much. CELTA is a great course, but it can be a bugger of a course. Listen to mumble mumble, copy someone else’s notes, write generic assignment and go home with nice shiny certificate – no. You have to be firing on all cylinders in all different aspects, all the time. And echoing Anne Hendler here, that goes for trainers too – we’ve all had a few watery-eyed days. It is stressful. But I reckon these tears are OK. It’s good to get it out and good on you lovely older lady for saying what everyone was feeling and putting it out there. Too often on intensive courses emotions can go the other way and turn into resentment and antagonism, so I vote lacrimonious not acrimonious (I really, really wanted to say that). However, in later courses I tried harder not to overload trainees with information and metalanguage – to slow down, signpost and support – and I was much more aware of the existence of those bubbling emotions and more ready to address them before they got to the point of bubbling over.


So all in all, over the 3 posts in this series – this is what I’ve learned on how to (not) make your students cry:

  • Sure, engage learners by personalising content – but be wary of making it too personal or things can really escalate quickly (see Part 1). If you given a reasonable amount of thought to how students might respond to your material, and adjusted accordingly – well, at least you don’t have to feel too guilty when a student starts crying anyway.
  • It’s important to talk about genuinely meaningful topics, however PARSNIP-y* – (see Part 2) . . . but sometimes people just want to go to their English class, learn a few expressions and go home. Nothing wrong with that.**
  • In that couple of minutes’ space you have for chit-chat at the start of a lesson, it is absolutely worth taking the time to look each student in the eye and just try to get a feel for what signals they are putting out that day. It’s easy to blaze in all bells and whistles, busy being ‘dynamic’, caught up in what we want/need to do in class. But sometimes I’m sure some invisible flags are waving, and if we pay a bit more attention we just might be able to read the signs.



*PARSNIP-avoidance is a well-known formula in the course book/teaching materials world. It’s an acronym meaning don’t talk about Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -Isms (e.g. racism, sexism), or Pork. Lots of people have written knowledgeably and critically about this, including Scott Thornbury, Steve Brown, and Luke Meddings – in fact Luke went on to write a whole book (with Lindsay Clandfield) on subverting this sanitised  approach.

** Anna Loseva has written about this dilemma here.

7 responses

  1. Ha ha! Brilliant soph! I love the Parsnip acronym, most handy.
    A few sad stories there too, the lady listening to Creep – your students are far from home and in a big city, learning a new language, probably struggling. It’s a kind and thoughtful teacher who recognises that (and offers their best feeble Britishness to help). Interesting read and I shall miss blubfest 2014! Xx

  2. Nice to be mentioned in the same sentence as Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings – thanks for that 🙂
    On the topic of upsetting our learners, I also wrote this post:
    I would suggest that if anything we English Language Teachers worry too much about the possibility of upsetting our students. Obviously we need to show sensitivity, but that doesn’t mean we should shy away from everything that is potentially upsetting or offensive. Sometimes we need to confront issues or kinds of behaviour. I think this is an area of teaching that doesn’t get much coverage in ELT training.
    Thanks for these posts – some great reflections.

    • Thanks so much for commenting, it’s good to see you here! I read your post and I cringed at a lot of the very familiar behaviours – as you say, this doesn’t get much coverage in training, and I think it would be useful to see more discussion/blogging about difficult situations and behaviours in adult language teaching. I think it does pay to be firm and assertive on many of the issues you raise in your post, and students often, to give them credit, have more respect for a teacher with some boundaries and expectations of behaviour and professionalism than one who is perhaps afraid or anxious to assert themselves. Even so, I think I have still been guilty of no.5. Partly this is a function also of working in the private sector where students are also “clients”, and there is a lot of pressure from sales/marketing to keep students happy and not rock the boat, not to mention lots of mixed feelings from students who may feel English is a commodity they can buy, or a “service”, which means we have to provide the service/attention they want or they will take their custom elsewhere. It can be a difficult line to tread. There have been some interesting chats/posts on this on the #AusELT blog, e.g.: and Again, thanks Steve for commenting and sharing your views.

  3. I kept meaning to comment on this series of posts. Great idea. I think we often underestimate how much of teaching is about managing feelings, your own and other people’s. People often feel vulnerable just by being asked to try and communicate in a language they aren’t confident in using, and then you add relationships between people in the class, and then the subject matter. As someone said in the comments, it’s a wonder there aren’t more tears.
    One incident that stands out for me was when I was doing a session on a DELTA course on Humanistic techniques. We did a visualisation where I asked people to remember times when they’d been successful. I bet you can guess what happened next? Yes, someone started visualising times they’d failed and ran out of the room in tears. Lesson learnt? Don’t do pseudo psychological exercises with students unless you’re ready to deal with the fall out.

    • Hi! Thanks so much for your comment. I can’t tell you how delighted I am that you have experienced similar things 🙂 Though obviously it wasn’t so good being there at the time. So did you abandon ever doing that task again? Did you adopt it as a teachable moment? It seems like it should have been a fairly positive thing to do – not your fault that things went awry! I sometimes wonder what the benefit of such tasks are to actual language learners though. I know there’s been an ELTchat on this, and lots of interest in Hadfield & Dornyei’s use of such tasks in increasing student motivation and focus – but I wonder if we are dabbling in “pseudo psychological exercises” without fully understanding them – e.g. is a classroom context with a room full of (essentially) strangers a suitable place for deeply held personal beliefs to be explored? Just pondering. It’s definitely something I’m interested in learning more about. Thanks again for sharing your experience.

  4. Pingback: All I want for Christmas is… | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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