Why you should fire that toxic student.

Introduction

When I decided to go freelance as a language teacher, I did it because I wanted to learn and grow professionally. I was tired of being at the mercy of schools and agencies that weren’t paying me what I was worth, and classes that left me physically exhausted and professionally disillusioned. Yes I wanted to decide my own schedule and design classes the way I had always dreamed of, but I also wanted to thrive personally. The transition hasn’t been easy.

One thing you quickly realize is that as a freelancer, whether in Spain where I live or elsewhere, you are a de facto business person. You might have a brand name, a website and an Instagram account or you may not. But you organize everything including scheduling of classes, marketing, and recruitment of students, paying your own taxes and social security, and so forth.

And as a business person, your students are clients. I have set up websites, placed Google and Facebook ads, hung flyers in the street and prayed for worth of mouth in the hopes of finding enough of them. And it can be extremely challenging at times, as can reaching the end of the month intact financially.

But since we provide a service to our clients, an excellent service if I do say so, we must expect a certain standard of behaviour in return. We aren’t working in a school anymore where we have to put up with whatever behaviour that comes our way, whether it be from the students, parents or administrators. When those standards fall, and when an individual’s toxic behaviour causes our own morale to suffer or prevents you from thriving and feeling good about yourself and your accomplishments (the reason we went freelance in the first place), it’s time to take stock and decide whether this particular business relationship is worth maintaining.

She would literally say “I hate (add any of several ethnic groups here)” when not prompted to do so in any way

It’s true that language teachers and trainers have been hit hard by the pandemic. Demand for face-to-face classes has sunk to new lows, while if you have been lucky, you’ve been able to transition and maybe even thrive in the new (-ly expanded) online environment. Others haven’t been so lucky, and as the saying goes “beggars can’t be choosers”. “Clients pay the bills and the rent”, you may be thinking. “I can’t afford to give up any of them”.

In any case, here are the kinds of toxic students (ahem, I mean clients!) you may want to give the boot to, and some strategies on how to do it.

Clash of values

I once had a student who after 6 months began to make racist comments. This is not as uncommon in Spain as one would hope. But this student was particularly open about her views. She would literally say “I hate (add any of several ethnic groups here)” when not prompted to do so in any way, in addition to making not so veiled allusions about which people she did not like on her trip to New York. Maybe I should have been flattered, as she obviously trusted me with her darkest opinions. But seeing as this goes completely against my values and sense of basic human dignity and equality, not to mention that my partner is of one of the groups she said she hates, the relationship had to be terminated, and soon.

I wrote to her and under the guise of her offices being too far, politely informed her that I would have to end the classes in one month’s time, giving her enough time to search for a replacement. You may feel differently, but I believe it’s always best in these circumstances to remain professional and avoid confrontation or conflict, as your name could be on the line. She was surprised by my announcement, and seemed unconvinced of my reason, but it would have to be.

A long-term working relationship must be win-win, and that means both parties feel that working together benefits them, or at least doesn’t make them suffer, beyond the basic exchange of services for cash.

Poor Communication

Some students think they can disappear without a trace and then expect to fall back into your trusted hands whenever they feel like it. One such student was a no-show for a class. She later sent me a text explaining why she couldn’t attend and that she would be in touch soon to schedule our next class. Already the second of such episodes, she got back in touch months later, with stories of all the stress and problems in her life, and declared that she now wanted to recommence “her classes”. Annoyed, I decided to take my time in responding — one week to be exact. Well, she never let me reach that week, because within a few days she had already sent me a scathing message, something to the effect of “how dare I not respond to her message!” and that she would now be searching for another teacher. Nowhere in any of her messages was there a single “I’m sorry” or “How are you?”. Good riddance!

Lesson: Good communication is a two-way street. You are providing a service — you are not their secretary. This student was unceremoniously and indefinitely banned from my electronic rolodex.

Oh, and she never paid for that no-show class. That’s where the second lesson from this episode comes in. Always have students pay for packs of classes, clearly explaining your no-show or cancellation policy. Offer discounts for the purchase of packs, making single classes more expensive, and only accept payment in advance.

Working long-term with someone who never enquires about your life, asks you for your opinion, or just asks “How are you?”, whether in person or in a message, will only make you resent them.

Narcissism

Beware of students who never ask about you and your life. Yes, it’s obvious that classes focus on the lives and experiences of students and teacher-talk time should be kept to a minimum, especially if you’re trying to build up your student’s fluency and confidence. A 80–20 ratio for student versus teacher-talk time is a good rule of thumb.

On the other hand, if you are to engage in a long-term professional relationship with someone, being treated not as a human being with feelings but as a tool in their language enhancement can be extremely draining on your self-esteem. Not only that, but it also goes against basic principles of good communication (isn’t that the point?), which involves empathy for and an interest in your interlocutor, as well as a two-way exchange of information.

You may have your own ideas about this, and there are certainly students who will by their nature avoid “intruding” on your personal life. It could also be a cultural issue, whereby you might need to explain or model the kind of communication that is expected and desired. But we are not therapists. While our classes do focus on the student, we are not more responsible for their emotional well-being then they are of ours. A long-term working relationship must be win-win, and that means both parties feel that working together benefits them, or at least doesn’t make them suffer, beyond the basic exchange of services for cash.

Working long-term with someone who never enquires about your life, asks you for your opinion, or just asks “How are you?”, whether in person or in a message, will only make you resent them. If you are in a position to do so, this student might be the one to say adios to.

At times students need subtle reminders that we are not their employees or secretaries

Toxic behaviour

Some students can kill the enthusiasm you have for your work through subtle, negative behaviour. This behaviour can vary, and I’m no psychologist, but it would seem to arise from their own insecure sense of self and/or or a need for control in any situation.

I had a student who gave me a stern look anytime I used a word of Spanish in class, even if only to translate a word for them. The student’s attitude suggested that he thought he had control of what happened in class, and that I was simply carrying out his wishes. But that was not the case, as I didn’t have a policy that banned the use of this student’s mother tongue in class. As I provide the service, I also decide the terms of that service. At times students need subtle reminders that we are not their employees or secretaries, and as clients, they are free to take their business elsewhere if our methods or policies don’t please them.

I had another student who would make degrading comments about his own family members. Eye rolling, sniggering, and ignoring or dismissing comments that I had made in class are some other examples of toxic behaviour from this student that eventually became intolerable.

Another student made not so infrequent comparisons of my job with his — wrongly referring to herself as “a biologist” simply because she had a BA in Biology. It was obvious the intent was to belittle my job while boosting her sensitive ego. This student was also regularly late for class, or cancelled, or refused to do the prep-work I had sent, and made it clear enough that she didn’t mind the lost time and money, or my own wasted time.

Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and protect the pride you have in your profession

As I finish this article, I would point out that many of these traits are often found together in particular students. Narcissistic individuals will behave in toxic ways, communicate poorly, and express socially unacceptable views and ideas. I’ve been blessed to have had mostly amazing students who are the opposite of the people I’ve described, and I look forward to teaching many more. However, I still recommend that as practitioners, service-providers and business-people, we always demand high standards of communication and interaction with our students to benefit not only our their but also our own psychological well-being and to protect the passion we have for our chosen profession.

So don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and protect the pride you have in your profession. By all means be professional and avoid confrontation, but when a class becomes more pain than gain, go ahead and fire that student!

*Some facts such as the gender of students and other information has been changed to protect the identity of individuals.

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