Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery, China
At the university where I teach in Beijing, I asked a student in private why he chose to major in English, since he apparently doesn't enjoy learning English. He said it wasn't his choice. His score on the English portion of the university entrance exam just happened to be higher than his score on the other sections, so he had to either major in English or not attend university. So even though he'd rather be doing something more math/science related, here he is, stuck in my English class. Similar stories for quite a few others in my classes. At Chinese universities, there's no changing your major a dozen or more times like I did in the US.
The best solution I've come up with so far has been to incorporate the topics these students are interested in into the English class somehow.
Creating a communicative classroom environment is naturally more difficult than staying in lecture mode. It might help to look at it as a choice: You can lecture directly from the textbook if you want, or you can encourage student participation if you want. Any teacher will need some compelling reasons to make the extra effort to elicit student communication.
For some it is a labor of love: we genuinely care about our students and their prospects for the future, and are convinced that our efforts to teach them English will be appreciated somewhere down the line. For some it's about career: we love the challenge of developing our teaching skills to meet with an extreme environment, providing a modern education without the cushy layer of teaching resources available in the West. Whatever motivates you (and there are more answers than just those two), remind yourself of it when times get tough. And be sure to pat yourself on the back at each minor success along the road...'cause no one else will do it for you.
Try asking the whole class to write down their suggestions for topics they'd like to cover or activities they'd like to do? Sometimes students are too shy to raise their hand or approach you, but will give you their opinion in writing when asked.
Last term, I was constrained to a certain textbook which neither I nor my students really liked (Oral Workshop: Discussion). To give my students some say in what they learned, I allowed them to vote on which chapter we should do the next week. Of course they chose the chapters they thought would be the most interesting. Complaints rarely surfaced, but when they did, I reminded them that they chose that chapter. (One student told me that she hadn't chosen the chapter; she was in the minority when the vote was taken. I told her to blame her classmates, not me. I'm just an impartial election observer.) Another idea is to have your students give oral presentations about topics of their choice.