What to do when your students want to prove your incompetence

The other day, I joined in a very interesting conversation on Facebook. A colleague of mine started the thread by asking a question about a certain grammatical point. During the discussion, one of the participants suddenly posted this: “What do you do in case your student wants to prove you are an incompetent teacher of English?” I didn’t react because I didn’t have much to say at that point. But the question has lingered in my mind since …


Last week, a colleague of mine came to observe one of my lessons. The lesson went well and the students were brilliant. At one point, when explaining her health condition, one of the girls used the word conundrum. I didn’t know what exactly gave her the impression of me possibly not knowing the word but she noted, in a very non-threatening, casual way: “You know what conundrum is, right?” I nodded and quickly provided a synonym. Although I didn’t feel threatened in any way (I was being observed, remember?) and I was actually proud of my student’s vocabulary, deep inside I did feel I needed to prove myself (thus the synonym). However, by no means do I think she wanted to prove I was an incompetent teacher of English. But maybe, in a different situation, or if her tone of voice had been different, the poisonous idea of her trying to discredit me as a teacher might indeed have crossed my mind.

But life hasn’t always been a bed of roses. Many, many years ago, after I had just graduated from university, I had this student who liked asking me questions which I didn’t have answers to. I still remember the remark she once threw in: “Oh dear, what did they teach you at that school?!”Although I’m not faint-hearted, I felt devastated and my ego hurt. Moreover, I suspected that I couldn’t do much to prevent such situations.

Fast forward in time. Some years ago, a young colleague of mine got this challenging group of 17-year-olds. There was one boy who was particularly difficult to handle. His English was excellent (he was actually a maths genius) but he was terribly arrogant – especially towards female English teachers. I suspected that he had chosen this particular class because it was originally supposed to be taught by a native speaker. But then the NS had to leave unexpectedly and this young teacher joined our team. I met my colleague in the hall after her very first lesson with this challenging group. To my surprise, she looked very enthusiastic and told me with this triumphant tone in her voice that she had had the boy for breakfast. She said that he’d tried to convince her of something but she retorted: “Well, you know, I studied to become an English teacher for a couple of years so I think I know more than you do!.” Needless to say, this was her last victory. A war actually started that day.

I’m saying all this because I’m afraid there’s no recipe which solves the problem of challenging students. It doesn’t really matter how much you know as a teacher. Neither does it really help to have a set of ready-made responses when such a situation occurs. I’d say it all boils down to a combination of factors:

  1. the teacher’s confidence (which may or may not be relative to their age and the amount of knowledge).
  2. the teacher’s experience (which may or may not be relative to their age and the amount of knowledge).
  3. the teacher’s relationship with their students. Let’s face the fact that students sometimes know more than we do. We must simply accept this as a given and be ready to admit our error.
  4. the teacher’s enthusiasm and love for the subject/language they teach. Students can certainly sense the teacher’s enthusiasm or a lack thereof from miles away. There’s no way to deceive them. But, based on my experience, love is blinding – the light you shine will hide all your imperfections. 🙂
  5. the teacher’s knowledge. It goes without saying that it’s not enough to rely on the fact that you once studied to become an English teacher, so continuing professional development is a must. Plus, the more you know, the more confident you feel regardless of your age or experience.
  6. the teacher’s perspective. If the teacher is convinced that students are always on the lookout for their slip-ups, then, regardless of the truth, they will always perceive their students this way.


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Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages and levels for almost 30 years. You can find out more about me and my passion for teaching here on my blog.

3 thoughts on “What to do when your students want to prove your incompetence”

  1. I’ve been #6 all these years that I’ve been teaching English. I too am not sure how to deal with challenging students. I guess, it makes it worse when a senior colleague tries to discredit you, intentionally or unintentionally, in front of a student. Want to say more, but I don’t know how to put my thoughts into words. Thanks for writing this post! Made me realize I’m not the only one who go through this.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I tend to enjoy challenging students – maybe because I used to be one myself. Everyone makes mistakes – everyone! including the instructor. When I was teaching, I would give students an extra credit point on the final exam for any mistake they spotted (typos excluded), and I would always thank them for pointing it out. I think the fact that I showed that I was comfortable with acknowledging my mistakes made it more likely that a student who pointed out something that wasn’t actually a mistake would trust me when I corrected them or told them I would check it out and get back to them later.

    Liked by 2 people

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