Monday, August 27, 2012

Sorry I’m Late, But …

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

I am the kind of person who is usually on time, and I will move heaven and earth to be somewhere at the time I promised. I’ve even arrived early to things, which has resulted in flustered hostesses and long waits in dentist offices. What can I say? It’s just the way I am. However, I know that not everyone is like me. There are many people, and some of them are my students, who don’t make it places on time. Some of them are simply over-committed and running 15 minutes behind everything and some of them are just chronically late. In my social life and the office part of my work life, this doesn’t really bother me. I know who will be on time and who to expect a few minutes later and I adjust my schedule accordingly.

In the classroom, though, it can be a little more difficult to manage. In a perfect world, all students would be in their seats eager to learn at the stroke of the hour. The class could begin without fear of students missing vital information or much-needed review. In reality, however, when I taught adult students, inevitably one, two or more would come late, sidling in with apologetic faces. It can be difficult enough to manage big classes of multi-level learners without students coming in in staggered blocks of time. Over the years, though, I learned some tricks to dealing with late students that helped me manage the class and (to some extent) helped students get to class on time.

Don’t Get Mad, Get Glad

I never got angry with the latecomers. Really! I knew my students had busy lives and, for some, just to make it to the lesson was a Herculean task. I knew not to take it personally; it’s not that they didn’t respect me or didn’t like the class, they just had other priorities. Instead of making a scene, when a student came late, I always said quietly that I was glad they could make it and continued on with the lesson.

Don’t Wait, Get Started

That’s right, I continued on with the lesson. I always started the class on time. I refused to wait for a few more students to come in, and I never made it a policy to start 5 minutes late to allow the bulk of the students to arrive before getting down to business. I think delaying the kickoff is a waste of valuable class time and shows disrespect for the students who made it to the lesson at the appointed hour. We just always began the lesson on time, and included the students who came late into the activity when they arrived. If students know and expect that class will always begin at a certain time, they will work hard to get there. If they come to expect you to delay the class to accommodate them, they will be less inclined to hurry. And, those students who are usually on time may start to come late, too.

Don’t Discourage, Motivate!

In my experience, the one most successful way of getting students to class on time is to give them a reason to hurry. Start the lesson with a bang, and students will want to be there. When I taught adults, I usually kicked the class off with a review of the previous lesson in the form of a fun interactive activity or game. This served two purposes: it warmed up the students for thinking in English, and it motivated the students to come on time so they could participate. For some great game ideas, check out previous postings by Dorothy Zemach (Playing Games Parts 1, 2, 3, & 4 and me (A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down). Late students simply get added to groups and members explain how to play the game quickly before continuing play.

Another idea for getting students to come on time is to schedule a quiz for the first few moments of the class. If you give grades in your program, this can be a powerful motivator, especially if you make it a policy that latecomers will not get extra time to finish the quiz, and if they miss the quiz entirely will not be able to re-take it later. This is a cruel and hard policy, so think it through before deciding whether or not you have the stomach to apply it. (You have to be fair, even if that means taking an unfinished quiz away from a student who is usually on time but got caught in traffic or was tending to a sick child.)

One of the writing teachers in my former Community College program used to begin each lesson with a 10 minute ‘quick-write’. This was useful for a number of reasons. First, it allowed the teacher to start on time and manage latecomers without adapting her lesson or going back over vital information again and again. Second, it gave all students something to do, much needed writing practice, when they arrived in class, on time or not, and those who came late didn’t disrupt the flow of the activity. Finally, this would work well even outside a writing class, as a great deal of research suggests that students of all kinds who journal about their learning develop more independence as learners.

Getting to class on time can be a monumental task for many of our adult students. However, it can be equally challenging for the teacher when students come late to class. In my opinion, shaming them or calling attention to their ‘bad behavior’ is counterproductive and may end in them being less excited about attending the class at all. I think it is better to start on time and merge the students, as they come, into an exciting, productive game or activity without disrupting the class so that they want to come on time next time.

I admit this isn’t foolproof, and I still had late students. So, I would be interested in hearing what you do to deal with latecomers. Have any of you had any success with this? Please share!


Comment from Gilberto Argueta
August 30, 2012 at 10:54 am

Good article! I like the way you deal with your latecomers.

Comment from Tamara Jones
August 30, 2012 at 10:51 pm

Thanks for reading!

Comment from Tamara Jones
September 16, 2012 at 11:02 pm


Comment from amie
September 21, 2012 at 8:38 am

Dear tamara jones
Thnks for sharing these wonderful tips. I would like to ask how can i encourage the late comers to b early for the next class? Im teaching at community college. Most of my beloved students are low abilities in english . I hope you can provide some suggestion and its highly appreciated.

Comment from amie
September 21, 2012 at 8:41 am

Dear tamara jones
Thnks for sharing these wonderful tips. I would like to ask how can i encourage the late comers to b early for the next class? Im teaching at community college. Most of my beloved students are low abilities in . I hope you can provide some suggestion and its highly appreciated.

Comment from Tamara Jones
September 23, 2012 at 5:30 am

It’s hard to get busy students to class on time, but, as I suggest in the post, starting on time and starting with an activity that is engaging and fun have worked for me.

Comment from Maria Shally
February 28, 2015 at 10:23 am

Hi dear Tamara
I really enjoyed your article! At the beginning of all my classes I have a contract with my students. First I’ll tell them that how important it is to be punctual. We work as a team in our classroom so we are responsible for each other. All the members are important in the activities. They should understand that they are valuable as a member of a team. We should give them a sense of worth by our words. Second, all of us has a busy life so as we are telling them the contract we should ask them that do they have any problem for being on time? Maybe they say because I come to class after my work I arrive 10 minutes late or any other problems. It’s OK and acceptable. We as a teacher should understand them and have a lesson plan for these latecomers that tell us about their problem. Before contract, they are allowed to tell their problems but after they accept the contract nothing is acceptable. But what should we do if they are late again? Firs session we just look at them and our watch so they understand that you’re sad about this. Second session we talk with them privately after the class friendly and ask them the reason why they are late and remind them the contract. Third session they face with a sanction.

Comment from Tamara Jones
February 28, 2015 at 11:35 am

I love your idea of using a contract and agree that we should be accommodating when students are struggling to arrive on time because of a situation that is beyond their control. Thanks for sharing.

Leave a comment on this post