Classroom Horror Stories

We’ve been having a heat wave in Vermont, in the northeastern United States where I live. The temperature has reached 95° F (35° C). It’s actually hotter here than it was in Saudi Arabia when I visited in the spring. It got me thinking about the effect of heat and other discomforts on our classes and how we approach them.

ESL classes in the U.S. are often “at the bottom of the totem pole”—that is, at the lowest level of importance—in a university setting. The result is that sometimes we end up teaching in classrooms that no one else wants.

During a ten-year period when I taught at an intensive English program in Los Angeles, I got to teach in some of the following less-than-wonderful classrooms:

  • a chemistry lab, where students had to sit on high stools behind lab counters and balance their English textbooks over sinks and gas jets
  • a converted student housing apartment after classrooms were damaged by an earthquake
  • temporary classroom buildings that were really trailers on wheels (again because of the earthquake) that trembled and shook every time the noisy air conditioning units came on; and,
  • probably worst of all, a machine shop, where students had to make their way past large pieces of scary power equipment and tools in order to get to the chairs at the front of the overly large room.

There was also the common problem of teaching in classrooms that were too hot and stuffy. Though I also remember teaching in China in the middle of winter in a poorly heated classroom. Although there was a small coal stove in the back, it really wasn’t adequate to warm the room. My poor students would huddle at their desks, their hands in gloves with the fingertips cut off wrapped around cups of hot tea in an effort to warm themselves.

Of course there are other things that can make classrooms uncomfortable:

  • noise from construction going on next door
  • poor or inadequate lighting
  • lack of temperature control
  • equipment that doesn’t work
  • an inability to write on the board because of missing chalk or markers.

Have you ever had to teach in a terrible classroom? What was it like? How did you handle it?

About Joe McVeigh

Joe McVeigh
Joe McVeigh works independently in the field of English language teaching as a consultant, author, and teacher trainer. For over 25 years he has taught at universities in the United States, including the California Institute of Technology, the University of Southern California, and the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. He has lived and worked in countries including China, India, Chile, the United Kingdom, Hungary, and Saudi Arabia. He has taught students from more than 50 countries. He is co-author with Ann Wintergerst of Tips for Teaching Culture: Practical Approaches to Intercultural Communication (Pearson Longman) and a co-author with Jennifer Bixby of two books in the Q: Skills for Success series (Oxford University Press). In addition to writing and consulting, Joe speaks at conferences and workshops, and maintains a blog and website on issues of interest to teachers of ESL. You can also find him on Twitter: @JoeMcVeigh. Joe is a past chair of TESOL's Intensive English Programs Interest Section and served on the TESOL Board of Directors from 1995-1998. He lives with his wife and son in Middlebury, Vermont, USA.
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8 Responses to Classroom Horror Stories


    Do you have some stories about teaching in China? I need advice as I will go there soon, in terms of how to really get what they offer. 🙂

    • Joe McVeigh Joe McVeigh says:

      Maria — I have LOTS of stories about teaching in China. But in most cases, the teaching situation, the host institution, the students, the curriculum, and the expectations are going to play a significant factor in your experience, so, while my stories might be interesting or amusing, I’m not sure that they would be really useful to you in your preparation. But I hope you’ll have a great experience there, as I did.

  2. Janet Pierce says:

    I can identify with all of your comments. I used to call ESL teaching the Rodney Dangerfield of Education because we got no respect. I have traveled between 5 buildings a day, carrying all my materials in the trunk of my car, taught in closets, boiler rooms and rooms with no ventilation, no windows, etc. Many years ago, I taught in a small room that meant my students had to go with me through the janitor’s closet to a furnace room. I would tell the student, “Put your feet where I put mine, so you do not trip and fall.” Then when fumes from the furnace or chemicals they were using got bad, we would open the one window in our little space, regardless of the rain or snow. Another time I taught in a room that had no heat or AC and if there was anything going on in the auditorium, the students could not hear me. This is the room my students called “a galley”, depending upon how they perceived themselves and the learning that took place in that little space. This in turn led me to my dissertation study of place and space and how it impacts interaction in the ESL classroom. I must say that now things are changing, we get some respect now, but it still depends upon how much we are needed. Low ELL count, low regard to our situation, unfortunately.

    • Joe McVeigh Joe McVeigh says:

      Janet, I know the feeling. I think though, that we need to resist the Rodney Dangerfield approach and stand up for ourselves and our students to get better working and teaching conditions. Did you find in your dissertation any useful strategies for dealing with these challenging conditions?

  3. Judie Haynes judie Haynes says:

    I have taught in hallways, storage areas and shared classrooms. The teaching condition that many ESL teachers face is teaching in multiple locations. In New Jersey, each ELL must be taught 5 days a week. ELLs teachers are often required to travel to two or more schools. One teacher I know travels to four schools and teaches 20 students in grades K-12. She organizes her ESL program in the trunk of her car. In each building she teaches all of the students who need ESL during one or two class periods so that some of her groups combine 5th graders with 2nd graders. When she arrives at her destination Pat teaches in whatever space she can find. It’s not always the same space everyday. Her materials are spread throughout the schools that she visits or are kept in her trunk.

    • Joe McVeigh Joe McVeigh says:

      Judie – we have similar situations here in Vermont, where we have “low incidence” ESL throughout our rural state. Though I should point out this isn’t always limited to ESL teaches. My wife, who works in mental health counseling in public schools here often has to scramble for office space in which to conduct private conversations with students. She often resorts to taking walks with them—though this isn’t always an option with our snowy New England winters.

  4. Claire Bradin Siskin Claire Bradin Siskin says:

    My “worst nightmare” classroom was a portable structure in which 38 ESL students were crammed. There was a very loud echo in the room. We had a sort of air conditioner to cope with the Florida summer heat. It was a pronunciation class, and between the echo and the air conditioner, hearing was very tough! How did we cope? Somehow we just did. 🙂 Part of the time I met the students by individual appointment in order to help them with pronunciation. The appointments were time-consuming, but the students seemed to appreciate them. I taught the class over 30 years ago, but I still remember some of the students. It was a rewarding experience because they were well motivated and actually made progress.

    • Joe McVeigh Joe McVeigh says:

      Claire — I like your positive approach! This is what we need to counter these conditions and help our students make progress. Is there an online teaching equivalent of the nightmare classroom?

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