As language teachers we’re normally happy when a potential student comes along or when a student indicates that he would like to continue having lessons with you. When you’re new to teaching, saying “no” to a student probably won’t occur to you. Most of us still have this image of a classroom situation in our minds where neither the teacher nor the student has a choice. They just have to get along with each other. Students who opt for individual classes via Skype and use platforms like italki have already learnt that they do have a choice. When they’re not satisfied with a teacher, they disappear and look for another one.

But what about the teachers? Do we also have the right to say “no” to a (potential) student? I’ve been teaching online since 2012 and the vast majority of my students are just awesome. Some have become friends who I’ve already met personally. However, there have been some situations where I rejected to start or continue with a student. It was never an easy decision but on the long run, I always felt better after I had made that decision. 

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Trust your gut

Sometimes a potential student comes along and you already feel while exchanging written messages that it won’t be a good match. Students who can clearly express what they’re looking for, are normally great students but once in a while a very demanding and unpleasant person comes along. So if you think that a potential student asks for much more than the price of your lesson normally includes, you have two options. Firstly, you can simply reject the student by telling him that you currently cannot accept new students. Secondly, you can offer “Special Request” lessons at higher rates. Since I added such a course to my italki profile, I haven’t had problems with too demanding students anymore.

However, if you exchange messages with a potential student or perhaps had a trial session with someone and feel that it’s an unpleasant person, then just trust your gut and don’t start or continue with that person. It has happened to me just once. I had already accepted a session request which the student then re-scheduled twice without further explanation plus we exchanged some messages which left me with a very uncomfortable feeling. So I cancelled the lesson and explained very politely that I felt we weren’t a good match. As a consequence, that person started to insult me in such a horrible way that I knew that my decision had been right. Not a nice experience but such things happen.

Lacking knowledge

It may happen that a student has special needs and you’re simply not the right teacher for him. One example are students who need to learn the language of their working field and a general business course is not sufficient. For example, I have a medical background and have already taught nurses and doctors because I know I can provide them with the terminology they need and also with information beyond language learning. If an engineer asked me to teach him technical German, I would reject him because I simply don’t have the knowledge.

So if your student asks for something, you can’t provide (or not at this moment), be so fair and tell him. In such a case it’s not your right but your obligation as a teacher to reject the student. Perhaps you can refer him to another teacher who is able to meet his requirements.

Saying “no” to a current student

Obviously, this is significantly more difficult than rejecting a person you don’t know yet. Why would we do this at all? Well, have you ever felt bad, almost anxious, before starting to teach a class? It means there’s something wrong with the relationship between you and your student. You can certainly try to talk about it but often the problem lies within the different personalities of the teacher and the student. Sometimes it’s simply not a good match.

So what can you do when you feel absolutely uncomfortable with a student and don’t want to continue with that person. When you already have lessons scheduled, this is extremely difficult, of course. It’s the best moment when all current lessons have been taught and the student would like to schedule more. I’ve done this just once and it took me months to make that decision. I made it when that particular student requested more lessons after a break of several weeks. This had happened before and I still remembered how bad I had felt when back then I had accepted the new request although I had been relieved when she didn’t schedule any lessons for a while. So after the second break, I waited for about 24 hours, thought everything ever again and then declined the student’s request. Make sure to be polite when you do something like that. There’s no need to tell your student that you disliked working with him.
Photo credits:

Going To The Bathroom via photopin (license)

nobody-knows-you-are-a-dog-on-the-internet-by-frits-ahlefeldt via photopin (license)

Author: Daniela

Hi! I'm Daniela - a native German who's currently living in Lima, Peru. Besides making a living teaching German and English, I'm constantly trying to improve my Spanish and Portuguese. On my blog, I write articles for (aspiring) language teachers to help them get started and for people who want to travel the world and make some extra cash teaching their native language.

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2 thoughts on “May (or should) I turn down a student?

  1. Hi Daniela, I just discovered your blog today, and as an Italki tutor, I find myself agreeing with so many of your articles.

    I try to be clear on my profile and in my messages about how I am able to help the particular, but I still get several lesson requests asking me to teach them something very complicated or demanding (sometimes in a 30 minute trial lesson!).

    It’s never easy to reject a student, and I try to be polite when doing so. Unfortunately, I have received several rude messages from students when I suggest another teacher- thankfully, Italki has had my back, and they were able to help the student find another teacher, or when the messages turned harassing, to delete the student’s account.

    Thanks again for a great article!

    Posted on 12. November 2016 at 20:39
    1. Hi Kate! Thanks for your comment. Like on any other website (and like everywhere in the world), there are always some nasty people among the majority of nice people. As you said, be polite when you turn someone down and everything’s fine.

      Posted on 12. November 2016 at 21:59