Guest post 19 – Sue Lyon-Jones on teaching the unteachable

I’m delighted that Sue Lyon-Jones (@esolcourses) has agreed to write a guest blog for me. The following piece is a really wonderful description of how someone who understands what learners really need can turn unteachable students into people who enjoy learning and benefit from it.

Teaching the unteachable

No Loitrin by Banksy (Chris Devers/Flickr)

I stumbled into teaching completely by accident, around fifteen years ago or so.

My son was about to start school, and I’d decided that I would take a gamble and have a stab at becoming a full-time writer, instead of a part-time hobbyist.

I’d had some very modest success at writing for theatre and television, and with a sitcom in development, I’d foolishly assumed that within a short space of time people would begin knocking on my door  making me offers that I couldn’t refuse.

Pretty soon people did start knocking on my door, though sadly they were only market researchers and Jehovah’s Witnesses – so in the interim, I’d started hunting around for a job to plug the gap between becoming a writing sensation and Desperate Scousewife.

Liverpool wasn’t exactly a great place to be if you were hunting around for a job in the 1990s and pickings were very thin on the ground, but eventually a classified ad in the evening paper caught my eye.

A local training outfit were looking for someone to help teach word-processing and basic skills to teens on a Youth Training Scheme.

Although I didn’t have any formal teaching qualifications back in those days, I had a HNC in Business Studies that just about qualified me to stand in front of a classroom by the skin of my teeth, so I decided that I’d give it a go.

I had a telephone interview with the learning manager which seemed to go very well, but he called me back later with the news that someone with a PGCE had come along and they had offered him the job.

I thought that would be the end of it, but he rang me again the following Monday.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to eat humble pie,” he said. “The teacher we took on quit the job in tears at the end of the first day. I don’t suppose I could persuade you to give it a go, by any chance?”

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I said yes.

The learning manager had described the trainees I’d be working with over the phone as being a “bit of a handful”, which turned out to be a major understatement…

The majority of my students were kids who had either been excluded from school because of disruptive behaviour, or who had dropped out of the school system of their own volition and spent several years truanting before landing in my class.

To put it bluntly, they were kids that the education system had written off as being unteachable for some reason or other.

I doubt that any of them really wanted to be there, if the truth be told. They were only there because they had been forced to sign up for some sort of training scheme to qualify for unemployment benefit, and my course was the short straw they had drawn.

I could see that I had my work cut out, and then some…

My brief was to teach them to read and write, do simple sums, and grasp the basics of health and safety, so that they could be sent out into the workplace without posing a danger to themselves or other people.

With the benefit of hindsight, the fact that I had never undergone any kind of formal teacher training probably worked in my favour. I think that if I’d approached the job from a conventional angle and tried to assume a position of authority, they would have shut down completely and I’d have never got anywhere with them.

What I did instead was to sit down and talk to them, and ask them questions about themselves and the kind of things that they were interested in.

I suspect that for some of them, this was the first time that a teacher had taken a genuine interest in their personal opinions and they were so gob-smacked by this turn of events that the majority of them opened up and began to communicate.

We continued this dialogue for the first couple of weeks, during which time I learnt the following:

  • underneath all the bravado, bluster and teenage posturing they were basically good kids, really
  • some of them were actually quite bright, but had had their confidence knocked out of them by lousy teachers and other adults who had repeatedly told them they were stupid
  • very few of them had positive role models to look up to
  • most of them had no aspirations to speak of and their future plans hadn’t been mapped out any further than spending the next year or two hanging round the streets
  • many of them had serious issues going on in their personal lives of some sort or other that they were struggling to deal with

Once we’d established that I was a very different proposition to the teachers they’d had before and I’d gained their trust, I set about tackling the stuff that was on the syllabus and we began to work through it.

If an untrained observer had walked into my classroom back in those days, they probably wouldn’t have noticed much explicit learning going on at all. Most of it was extremely well hidden within the general banter going on between us and the various activities we were doing in class that I’d devised to keep them busy and stop them going off the rails.

We studied maths by playing logic games and Fantasy Football, and practised budgeting by comparing the prices of clothes and CDs in different stores to see how much money could be saved by shopping around.

Fantasy football team - you have to be v careful with your finances, so good maths practice...

We learnt English by picking at bits of various texts that I’d knocked up on a geriatric version of MS Word, which were peppered with grammar and spelling howlers.

We learnt that if there is an accident in the workplace, then the number to dial for help if you live in the UK is 999, and not 911…

If the students stayed on track and we got through the material we needed to cover before the bell went, then we would end the lesson by swapping jokes and stories with each other.

Luckily, I was left pretty much to my own devices and I had nobody breathing down my neck telling me what to do, as my approach to teaching was rather unconventional to say the least, and I suspect it probably would have raised an eyebrow or two in some quarters!

Although I did put a fair bit of time and effort into planning my lessons,  I don’t remember ever putting anything much down on paper in the way of a lesson plan that couldn’t be fitted on the back of a beer mat.

Which was just as well, as that was often the way that things turned out…

The same goes for reflection and evaluation.  Things I tried which didn’t work got junked, and the things that did work got filed away inside my head somewhere, in case they needed to be pulled out and used another day.

The students seemed to enjoy my lessons and behaved themselves quite well on the whole (though they did have their moments!) and the attendance and achievement figures for my class were well above average.

After I’d been there a couple of months or so, the learning manager stopped me in the corridor to congratulate me on my classroom management skills.

“I don’t know what you’ve done to your students, but you seem to have put the fear of God into them,” he said.  “They must be terrified of you, because they don’t give you anything near the amount of trouble they dish out to everyone else…”

(Translation: they haven’t tried to burn down your classroom yet)

I found myself both astonished and amused by this, in roughly equal measures.

I’m barely five foot tall in my stocking feet and the idea that I could somehow manage to instil terror into a bunch of truculent rebels without a cause who towered over me struck me as being pretty comical.

I couldn’t see myself getting anywhere trying to browbeat them, even if I’d wanted to…

I replied that to the best of my knowledge, I hadn’t done anything other than what I was being paid to do, i.e. teach them.

The students came and went and by hook or by crook, I managed to coax most of them up to the standard where they left clutching a certificate of achievement in their grubby mitts… as did the other dedicated and committed teachers I worked with back in those days.

In other words, they weren’t unteachable at all if you were prepared to put the required effort in.

Granted, there were a few that fell by the wayside and dropped out, but there were also a couple of very notable successes as well.

I remember one student in particular who went from not seeing the point of education at all when he joined my class to itching to head off and study for GCSEs and beyond by the time the course was over.

It was the most rewarding job I’d done up to that point by a mile, and I continued chugging along quite happily until the company director decided that he wanted to make my post full-time and permanent. That wouldn’t have worked for me, so I said my goodbyes and headed off for pastures new.

So, what does this all have to do with ELT?

Well, firstly… thinking back on it, it strikes me that what I was doing all those years ago was not a million miles removed from Dogme, really.

I also think that although the CELTA made me a better teacher and gave me  more strings to my bow, the time I spent with those students probably taught me as much, if not more about what works and what doesn’t work in the classroom  as the formal training  I was to undergo later.

I’d like to finish off by sharing a few things I learnt about teaching from those students.

Although I’m sure that there is nothing earth-shatteringly new to report here and these things will have all been said by others many times before,  I think they are important and worth repeating, nevertheless.

  • There is no such thing as a “one size fits all” lesson. Students are individuals and need to be treated as such.
  • Find out what your students’ interests are and what motivates them, and work those things into your lessons.
  • Listen to your students and be sensitive to their needs.
  • Create a positive classroom atmosphere and make opportunities for fun – students who are having fun rarely (if ever) misbehave.
  • Praise your students sincerely and often for good work done.
  • Don’t spoon-feed your students – they need to be challenged and encouraged to think for themselves.
  • Be a mentor to your students; nurture their hopes and dreams and encourage them to aim high – if you have low expectations of your students, then they will live down to them.

And finally (and perhaps most importantly)

  • There is no such thing as an unteachable student. All students have potential – the key to unlocking it is making a connection with them and finding out what makes them tick.

Sue is a freelance ESL & IT consultant, & runs the free online English site

Banksy photo credit –

28 thoughts on “Guest post 19 – Sue Lyon-Jones on teaching the unteachable

    1. Hi Phil, & thanks for your kind words!

      Yes, you’re right it wasn’t easy and the students kept me on my toes most of the time, but there was never a dull moment and a lot of other positives as well to balance all the hard work out… 🙂

  1. Excellent post, Sue! I work with adults who’ve had similar experiences to the people you worked with and I’ve found that they often don’t need someone to ‘teach’ them so much as show them/convince them that they can learn things and do as well as everyone else, that they’re not stupid, that they have high levels of skills in other areas – areas usually not as valued as literacy and numeracy.

    A little bit of self-confidence and increase in self esteem can go a long way and have significant effects on other parts of people’s lives. One learner told me once, “Knowing that I can do this [I think it was multiplication or division] has given me the confidence to do other things, like sing on stage” which he did, quite a bit, after that.

    You gave these learners this and it’s great to read about it. It’s just a shame that more young people don’t get access to such genuinely learner-centred provision early on.

    1. Thanks, Carol!

      I agree with you that boosting self-esteem can make a real difference to people’s lives, as your lovely story about your student who found the confidence to sing shows… and it’s great to read about you giving your learners this, too 🙂

      I also agree with you that it’s a shame that more students aren’t given this kind of support and encouragement.

      Although YTS schemes did attract a lot of flak back in the day from various quarters, (some of which I think was justified) they did provide opportunities for a fair number of disadvantaged young people who perhaps might not have been able to secure work otherwise.

    2. Hello Sue Lyon,
      I have an unusual question. Were you once a huge Beatles fan who saw them in Liverpool?

  2. Well, hats off, Sue! I imagine it must have been very challenging, but you make it sound so easy /like philb81 has already said/. I’ve had a few “difficult” students, but not a whole class yet. The pieces of advice you offer are very wise and all teachers should have them in mind when entering their classrooms. Thank you for sharing your valuable experience.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Lucia!

      Yes, I think “difficult” students are pretty much par for the course from time to time for any teacher.

      Now if I could only work out the knack for dealing with “difficult” administrators… 😉

  3. What an amazing, challenging beginning you’ve had, Sue! Your sensitivity helped you become successful with that group of students. And that’s the main personality trait for a teacher IMHO. Of course, teaching training gives you the tools to know how to teach but then, one needs sensitivity, flexibility and understanding to be able to reach your students.
    Marisa (@Mtranslator)

    1. Hi Marisa, and thanks!

      Yes, I agree with you that teacher training on it’s own isn’t really enough and that some pretty specific interpersonal skills are required in order to make a real connection with your students.

      Sensitivity, flexibility and understanding are all pretty essential qualities as you say, along with lots and lots of patience I think, as well… 🙂

  4. All kinds of things struck a deep chord with me here. Teaching them to dial 999 was one. Wow, could that be useful, or what?

    And the listening you did. So often the most useful stuff we can help with arises naturally when we just listen.

    And the idea of ‘putting the fear of god into them’ – how off off target that guy was!

    And that’s not to say high expectations aren’t important – they are really important as you point out when you mention challenge.

    An really inspiring post – thank you!

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Vicky!

      Yes, the “dial 999” thing – it never ceased to amaze me how many students got that one wrong on the health and safety questionnaire!

      I suppose it just goes to show the pervasive influence that television can have on the lives of children…

  5. Yes, there are no unteachable students, but there are insensitive teachers who never takes students feelings and needs into consideration. Students remember their teachers’ attitude towards them the most, not what has been taught at school.

    Thanks for this inspiring post, Sue,


    1. Let’s add insensitive directors/line managers etc who put pressure on teachers to behave in a certain way, get certain results etc

    2. Thanks for your comments, Candan, and I agree with you absolutely about insensitive teachers and their attitudes towards students that stay with you!

      Most of the teachers I had at school were great, but there were one or two who deserved to have “could do better” or “must try harder” written on their end of year staff appraisal.

      I remember one cookery teacher in particular who took an extreme dislike to me for some reason or other, and who used to look down her nose at me with the kind of distain that is normally reserved for things that you find stuck to the bottom of your shoe.

      I lost count of the times she berated me for being “stupid” or “useless” while I was in her class, and I have her to thank for the fact that I spent the first couple of years I lived away from home eating out of tins and packets, because I lacked the confidence to cook anything from scratch!

      Eventually I got over it… In fact, I actually enjoy cooking these days and would say that I’m not a bad cook at all.

      It did help me empathise though with the students I taught who had been turned off education full-stop through similar experiences (or worse) with teachers of that ilk…

  6. I’ve never worked in circumstances like Sue’s, it’s so refreshing to see someone who doesn’t just abandon students who don’t have great study-skills and haven’t been given much encouragement before.

    As for the head of department thinking that 5-foot tall Anne was putting the fear of God into a bunch of Scouser teenagers – I agree that this says SO much about the system leaders.

    I was reminded of Scott Thornbury’s story about his own grandfather, an NZ primary school teacher in the 193Os who was told by the head to hit at least one child a day with a leather belt, and thankfully chose to ignore this brutal advice.

  7. Great post Sue, thanks for inviting her Ken!
    The situation reminds me of a similar school I worked the first year I worked for public education. It was a vocational school in a small rural town and I was given a class of nurse trainees, 19 girls and one boy. After the initial frightening week where all the students tried all their tricks to see how I would respond, namely flirting/threatening/sleeping/getting out of the window etc etc, we had a fairly good year, I think they learned a bit of English and personally I survived the experience and decided this was the job for me…What this tells about myself, I still wonder.

    1. Goodness!!

      ‘flirting/threatening/sleeping/getting out of the window etc etc’

      That is SOME LIST of tricks!! Do tell us the etc etcs as well! 😛

      1. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your story, Anna, and a big thank you to Ken for inviting me to do this piece as well – I’m very honoured!

        I’ve taught a variety of different groups of teens over the years (both EFL and native speakers) and a couple of these sound horribly familiar…

        I can guess what some of the etc’s might be also, although I agree with Ken that confirmation would be nice ;-))

      2. I’ll leave the etc etc for when we all get together again! I just wanted to add that in that same school the principal was urging me to teach them anything but English “because English irritates them” as she said!

  8. Hello Sue,

    Hats off to you, completely 🙂

    I can empathise with your story to some extent. I have just completed an academic year with a 16-19 year old group I like to call my ‘unrulies’. Almost every lesson until quite recently, I left the classroom close to tears and completely deflated at the thought that little or no ‘measurable’ learning had taken place. Attendance rates were good, and, most of the time, I was able to keep behavioural issues in hand. Plus we had quite a bit of fun. But there was a general sense of apathy and demotivation when it came to ‘work’. I blamed myself for this completely, and spent hours trying to find fun and engaging ways of getting their interest. There were one or two ‘eureka’ moments, but, to be completely honest, they were few and far between, and, although considerable progress was made by some, there were others who didn’t progress much at all throughout the year.
    Towards the end of the year, I took them on a trip into town. We climbed our local Church (The Stump) and, as I was perched many feet above the town centre, I had a kind of epiphany. Conversing with the students and just being in their company made me realise how much they had come on since they walked through my door several months previously. They were still using the present continuous in every utterance (despite my best efforts), but the learning that had taken place was on a different plane. In fact, I spoke to Ken about the experience afterwards, and he also reassured me that what they had learned through their experiences of being my students was valuable in its own right.
    …In fact, I think I am the one who has learned the most from the process and I feel quite honoured to have played a part in the integration into society of these young people, most of whom are vulnerable, traumatised and desperately trying to adjust to a new way of life and all that that entails.

    Can’t wait to meet you, Sue, and thanks for sharing your experience 🙂

    1. Hi Callie,

      Thank you for your comments, and for sharing your experience.

      I’ve taught my fair share of EFL “unrulies” in my time, too, and have often found the EFL ones to be more of challenge than the “unrulies” who are native English speakers due to the language barrier that also gets thrown into the mix, so hats off to you as well for being brave enough to stick with it and not give up on them!

      I agree with Ken that what your students learnt from their experience of being taught by you was valuable in its own right, and I also think that some of the most important learning that takes place in class is not the kind that can be measured by using a checklist and ticking off boxes.

      Well done for giving your students the help and encouragement they needed to help them on their way, and I very much look forward to meeting you, too 🙂

  9. I think everyone has said already what I would have liked to have said but rather than dash away in the fear of adding the words “great post” to this, I will say it: great post!

    And… one of the things that occurred to me, and I’m dying to ask Luke and others who find themselves with a dogme soul, does learning to teach before studying to teach, teach one to put the students at the centre more, I wonder?

    Sometimes it’s so incredibly hard to explain the dogme approach and then, at other times with other teachers they’re like: oh yeah, right, been doing that for years – cool that it has a name (recent real experience).

    Worth asking ’round.

    Anyway, your experience with those kids is just wonderful, I had some very similar experiences (we talked about it in Harrogate) and lucky they were to have ya.


    1. Hi Karenne,

      Thanks for stopping by, and great comment! 😉

      Seriously, though – an excellent question…

      How much of one’s teaching style is set by whether or not you cut your teeth in the classroom before undergoing formal teacher training?

      For me, the first time I came across dogme it was certainly a “deja vu” moment and like you say, it was a case of “oh, right, been doing that for years” – albeit with a distinctly techie flavour.

      I don’t know whether or not I would have been a different teacher if I had undergone my training before I started teaching – I suppose it’s possible that I might have been, at least in the early days… though as I was a writer and a techie before I went into teaching, I doubt that the teaching with textbooks style would have suited me and so I think I’d have found my dogme feet eventually.

      I remember those conversations at Harrogate well… yours were lucky to have you, too :-))

  10. What an inspiring story – many thanks for sharing, Sue.

    I’ve recently been teaching some very reluctant learners on various professional courses (Building, Metal Mechanics etc). They don’t really see the use of learning English for their jobs, and it’s been hard to find materials and activities that keep them interested and involved. Most of them have also had less-than-positive experiences of learning in state schools, so all in all, it’s been a bit of a struggle.

    But I’ve also found that by focussing 100% on their interests we’ve been able to get through the lessons without too much pain. My moment of awe came when I saw the most disruptive of them all whizz through a “match-the-engine-parts to the vocabulary list” with 100% ease and confidence. I can’t help thinking that the lessons should have taken place in a workshop, where he and the others would have been able to use English in more practical – and for them, more useful – environment. A classroom is not always the best place to teach or learn.

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