5 Classroom Management Tips for High School ESL Teachers

Being a first-year teacher standing in front of a room full of teens is probably one of the most challenging experiences any teacher has ever had. Teaching high school learners is not an easy task, but it can be a rewarding experience. Over the years, I have experimented with different ways of working with my students, but I have realized that teaching classroom routines should be the most important pillar of my classroom management system. I believe that the key to having one’s classroom run itself is teaching routines from day one. So, this is how I set up classroom routine in my ESL classes.


On the first day of class, I welcome my students with a seating plan. Having a seating plan sends learners the message that they might not do whatever they want in my class. In addition, placing students in alphabetical order also helps me remember names easily. 


I teach classroom routine as early as the moment they step into my classroom. I always greet my students at the door, thus, if some of them are too excited and pretend not seeing me there, I ask them to step outside and enter the room calmly and greet me the way I did when they were rushing through my door.

I also observe students’ attitude during the first class. If I see any unwanted behaviour such as students rolling their eyes, communicating with their classmate while I am talking, incorrect sitting position or talking without raising their hands, I definitely address these issues immediately. For instance, if two students are talking while I am presenting the course syllabus and expectations, I start walking in the classroom. If they continue communicating, I stop by their desks. If it is not enough, I stop talking and wait. If they do not understand the message that it is time to listen to their teacher, I warn them verbally and discuss their conduct after class, which usually results in changing their seats, as well. 

It is always better to prevent unwanted behaviour than dealing with it when it is too late. So, the first three or four weeks of school, I teach, prevent undesirable comportment and reteach classroom expectations. I am not shy to call the parents the third week of school either, which usually helps a lot. Sometimes, a call home is what it takes to show learners how far they can push your limits.


When I am mentioning bell-ringer activities, I am not necessarily referring to using worksheets or task cards students need to complete at the beginning of the class.

Rather, my routine is the following:

  1. The first period of the class starts with a short writing journal. Thus, students know that they need to prepare their notebook if we have a morning class. Sometimes, I give them a specific a writing prompt, other times, I let them write about anything they want. These writing activities last 15 minutes only. There is no word count, but I expect my learners to write a well-developed paragraph.

  2. The second period of the day usually starts with a grammar workshop. I often show my learners a grammar video lesson (It is more engaging.) or I offer short instruction and modelling, then, they complete the activities in their activity book.

  3. The third and fourth periods start with independent reading. So, learners know that, in the afternoon, they need to choose a book and be ready for independent reading when the bell rings. To make sure students are reading, I have them keep a reading journal and record their impressions, opinion, observations, information about characters and plot while reading. 

Having a specific task to complete at the beginning of the class on a regular basis helps learners calm down and get to work right after the bell rings. It also avoids questions such as ” What are we doing today, Miss?” because they already know what to expect. These bell-ringer activities also allow me to take attendance, check homework before correcting and prepare my class.


When you have 30-33 learners in your class, it is difficult to check every students’ work or make sure they have their materials. During the first three weeks, though, I take my time and check materials every single class. I also use learners’ agenda to inform parents about missing school supplies such as a binder, notebook, loose leaves, activity book or pencil case.  It is time-consuming, but my students learn that they must bring everything to class because they cannot leave my classroom once the bell rings.

When it comes to checking learners’ work, I do not necessarily correct or grade classwork to show students that what they do in class is important. Instead, I use a self-inking rubber stamp to offer quick feedback on their performance in class. For example, fifteen or ten minutes before the class ends, I walk around the classroom and check how much work learners have completed. I reward my hard-working teens with a smiley face. Therefore, those who wasted their time and did not complete their work will try harder to stay on task next time, so they can get a smiley face, too. Although it might be hard to believe, using a smiley face to reward my high school learners for their good work has been a huge success in my classes.

Another way I hold my students accountable for their learning is collecting their writing or reading journals regularly. I do not grade these short paragraph writing practices in the first couple of weeks. Instead, I offer corrective feedback on students’ work. This strategy encourages them to pay more attention to revising, correcting and improving their paragraphs than getting a grade they are not satisfied with. Delaying the grade and offering corrective feedback are effective teaching practices that motivate learners to focus on improving their writing skills. In order to save time while offering corrective feedback and to make sure learners understand their errors, I have created a colour-coded revising and editing checklist as well as an error correction code guide for my students.

These tools not only help learners to develop effective revising and editing strategies, but they are also essential tools for me so I can offer corrective feedback more quickly. For instance, instead of writing lengthy comments, I use a colour-coded error correction feedback card to target specific areas students need to revise in their text. 


I always make it clear that the bell does not dismiss my students. However, I make sure that I stop my class five minutes before the bell rings, so I can give feedback on students’ performance, remind them of their homework, what they need to study, finish or prepare for next class. I never end my class without wishing my students a wonderful day or encouraging them to have rest and enjoy their weekend. I also remind them to push their chairs and leave my classroom calmly.

On a last note, having a well-established routine in my high school ESL class helps me create a safe and welcoming space for my students who know that I value their hard work and I expect them to adopt a pacific and positive attitude when they come to English class.

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