Readers' Submissions

Robin Hood, English Teacher



‘Good grief!’ You must be thinking to yourself. ‘Not another English teacher submission!’ And what has Robin Hood got to do with all this?

Yes, it’s an English teacher submission of sorts – my short-lived stint at it when I first got here all those years ago. But Robin Hood?

‘Robin Hood’ is the local slang for a foreign person who stays here for a lot longer than a tourist visa, and finds some way to support himself (or herself), typically working without a work permit. A backpacker low on funds moonlighting as an English teacher would fall into this category.

Well, here I was, pretty new to Thailand then, newly married, with a whole new vista to explore. My wife had rented a double-storey house near the university; her sisters and a brother shared the expenses. I’d resigned from my old job, and thought I’d take a break of a few months before I started looking for something again, only locally this time. It wasn’t such a big deal, as I’d sold my golf club membership for a tidy sum – I wouldn’t need it as I was in Thailand.

My wife was still working in the provinces, so I’d spend a lot of time in the far North. I had an arrangement with a friend back home who was importing clothes; he’d come and get the orders in, then went back. I’d chase down the orders, arrange the shipment, etc; but there wasn’t a lot to do in the meantime. I got to be quite good at the daily Bangkok Post crossword. But I did get bored if I was in Bangkok, and my wife wasn’t. Then I spotted an ad for English teachers, please call this number… I did.

It was a small computer / English school. The head of the school was quite a nice guy, and explained it was only a part-time thing, which suited me just fine. My first assignment was to teach a forty-hour beginners’ course, two days a week with two hour classes. What this meant was that I wouldn’t see any money for two and a half months. Ah, well, you can’t have it all.

Finally, my first class. It’s on ‘English Conversation’. It’s a small room, whiteboard on one wall, and everyone is already seated in those chairs that have a writing surface built into the arm. ‘Good evening, everybody’. Mumbles of ‘Hello’, ‘Sawadee krab / ka’ come back. They’re a motley lot, there was no screening for the standard of English back then. So in a typical class, you’d get some who were reasonably versed with the language, but you’d always find one or two who were totally lost.

You can’t blame them, really. Up to just about eight years ago, English was only taught at secondary level, and then again, only a few periods a week. It was only just now that English is being taught at the Por 1 (Primary 1) level.

‘Right. Open your books to page five.’ Rustle of paper. Okay. Where’s the register? Ah. ‘Khun Somsak!’. A guy stands up. ‘No, no, sit down. Just raise your hand.’ He looks uncomfortable, looks around, then sits back down and raises his hand. ‘Okay, you’re ‘John’ in the conversation.’ ‘I scan the register again. ‘Khun Pannee!’ She’s halfway off the chair before she realises that she’s only supposed to raise her hand, and looks around before sitting down again. ‘You’re ‘Sue’.’ ‘Somsak, please begin.’

Somsak: ‘Wass yoo nam?’

Pannee: ‘My nam iss Soo’

Hang on a minute. Her name’s Pannee. I interrupt.

‘Khun Pannee, you must substitute your name with ‘Sue’.’ A blank look. ‘Change your name.’ Another blank look. ‘Change; Pannee – Sue; Sue – Pannee.’ Sudden realisation. ‘Okay, can we start again?’ A nod of the head. Great.

Somsak: ‘Wass yoo nam?’

Pannee: ‘My nam iss Pannee. Wass yoo nam?

Somsak: ‘My nam is Jon’

I know I’m going to be in for a long day…

From the students’ point of view, they’re paying good money, and they expect to finish their forty hours and come out speaking better English than when they came in. Truth be told, there’s very seldom a discernible difference; it’ll be forgotten in a couple of weeks anyway.

From the teachers’ point of view (and this can vary) – frustration is pretty high on the list; you do however get some good classes and can have a ball of a time. In most of the classes, though, the students go through the motions and try not to fall asleep. It’s sad to see the students leave after their forty hours no better off than when they started.

The school’s point of view? Money first, obviously. I’m sure there are some out there with conscientious teachers / management, but I’d say more the exception than the rule. As long as the students don’t complain, they’re happy to make you read to the students from the book. Obviously, these comments are more of a personal opinion; one cannot expect the smaller schools to survive on just teaching English alone. The work itself is typically seasonal, so actually finding quality teachers in these places long term would be surprising.

The other side of English teaching – an English-speaking teacher teaching full time at a reasonably good school – also has it’s share of problems. There’s typically a Thai teacher to back up the English speaker. The Thai has a smattering of English, the English speaker just spouts off and expects everyone to understand, and the students don’t have a clue. It will come together one day… eventually.

I did this on and off for nine months before getting a ‘real’ job; staying in limbo too long affects the brain and lets it get soft. I think I learnt more from the students than they learnt from me; I also did a few things that bucked the system a little, and with interesting results…

I was teaching the class about colours, and the textbook had this colour picture of some clothes drying on a clothesline. I’d point to an item and ask’ Somsak, what colour is this?’ And he’d answer, ‘Green.’ Good. ‘Bee, what colour is this?’ Bee giggles and says’ Not good.’ ‘What do you mean, not good?’ She point to the item and says, ‘Cannot put there.’ I look down to where she’s pointing.

On the clothesline, everything is hung on the same line. Shirts, trousers, skirts, underwear, bras, panties. All are at the same height. The Thais will wash the undergarments separate from the rest, and will hang them on a clothesline on a lower level than the main one. ‘Must hang lower than the head height’ I was told. They take it almost as seriously as using your feet to point at something.

After several frustrating (for me) classes, I asked the students what they really expected from the course. There were many varied answers, but the most common was the confidence level. Most of the students already had a fair background in grammar; what they wanted was the ability to hold an intelligible, two-way discourse with an English speaker. I formulated a plan.

‘You can throw away your textbook for the rest of the lesson.’

First, some speech exercises to give them a better confidence level. I singled out three problem areas. They find it difficult to pronounce the word ‘it’ and similar. It comes out sounding like ‘ists’. So ‘what’ would sound like ‘wass’. Exercise time.

I know they can do it, I’ve heard it. You just have to show them where to look.

I wrote ‘It’ on the whiteboard. ‘Somsak, read this word.’ ‘Iss’. ‘Bee, your turn.’ ‘Ists’. Okay. Now, I wrote in Thai script, orr-ang, sala ‘e’ and a tor-tahan. A lot of eyes suddenly opened wide. ‘You write Thai? Can you speak Thai?’ Yes. But not in class. Now, pointing to the Thai script, ‘Somsak, read this.’ ‘It’. Perfect. ‘Bee, you next.’ ‘It.’ Wonderful. Point back to the English. ‘Somsak.’ ‘Iss.’ ‘Try harder. Remember, ‘it mon, it block’’ (brick, cement block for building). ‘It’. Good.

They have a problem with the ‘r’ too. ‘Rock’ gets pronounced as ‘lock’. I wrote the Thai word ‘Reua’(boat) and added another syllable spelt in Thai to simulate the ‘ock’ sound. ‘Somsak.’ ‘Ruea-ock’ ‘Okay now throw out the ‘eua’.’ ‘R –ock’ ‘Faster.’ R ock.’ ‘Rock.’ Good.

They can’t pronounce a ‘V’ either, but there’s nothing in the language to help that. It will always be pronounced as a ‘Wee’.

The second thing was to teach them how to ‘sing’ in English. As with any language, you don’t have to hear the actual words of a distant conversation to ascertain that you either are familiar with it, or are not. It’s the ‘singing’ that gives it away.

With the Thai script, the five tones are very clear to read. Along with the forty-four consonants and I forget how many vowel combinations. Not so with English.

I picked up a book that gave a simplified version of this singing. Four tone levels in English. Laid out just like in music script. Okay. This is how you sing a sentence, children. Statement song. Question song. Good. Now, accented words, single syllable. Double syllable. Put them in a sentence. How does it sound? Good.

How do each of the vowels sound, based on a varying consonant structure? The difference between the sound of the ‘a’ in ‘mad’ and ‘made’, for example.

Tongue twisters were a hoot.

Funny thing was, no-one used to fall asleep anymore. They’d be interacting among themselves. They were confident. I felt good. New students would sign up, and insist that they be assigned to a class that I was teaching.

But time and tide wait for no man. You cannot ‘Robin Hood’ in the country and hope to get a yearly visa. I got that job, with the work permit. As it did require some overseas travel I told the school head that I would not be continuing after the present assignments were complete. The repetitiveness was also beginning to wear me down. He was sad, but did leave me a standing offer of a job. I never ever took him up on it.

Stick, you can keep your job.

Stickman's thoughts:

It can be frustrating at times, but when you see keen students and progress made, it all becomes worth it.