All good things come to an end, including school vacations, and so all over Thailand hundreds of English teachers reluctantly don those ubiquitous yellow shirts and trudge back to the classroom. The immortal words of Alfred Lord Tennyson come to mind.
“Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.”
Well perhaps teaching in a Thai school is not quite that perilous, but let me assure you that it’s no walk in the park either! As Stick has mentioned many times, it’s a lot of hard work, for very little pay. Often times you are working with Thai “colleagues” who simultaneously envy you for your superior educational background, and hate you for the fact that you are being paid a whole lot more than they are! Many times you are forced to work in full “mushroom mode” because the school administrators prefer that you be kept in a state of complete ignorance.
Be that as it may, we keep being drawn by that tantalizing Siren song, “ Don’t worry, this year it will all be different! The students will be perfect angels, ready to learn. The administration and your fellow Thai teachers will welcome you with open arms and eagerly listen to all your ideas”. Oh yeah, right! And of course bare breasted celestial Apsaras scented with Jasmine will be waiting to embrace you, you will win millions in the lottery, and this miraculous cream will make your manhood grow to an astonishing size. Really.
Well the last three failed to happen, damn it once again! But surprisingly the administration and the Thai teachers at my new school did figuratively roll out the red carpet for me.
Somehow even when I am not really looking for work, work seems to track me down, grab me by the neck, and make me holler until I cry uncle and accept it. Call it serendipity, but work does seem to come my way unbidden. For the past year I was teaching at a private Pratom level school. (That’s the equivalent of Elementary School.) It was only a part time job, but along with my tutoring, my days were pretty full. The school director was hell of a nice guy, and I like teaching the youngsters for a change of pace. So I wasn’t really looking to change schools.
But fate, in the form of my darling tee-rak had other plans for me. For reasons that are too complicated to go into in this particular submission. My mother-in-law and one of my wife’s nieces have come to live with us. (At some point I will write “A real Thai soap opera part 2” which will tell you more than you really may want to know about what is happening down in Buriram.)
My niece, who is really a sweet girl and quite bright, needed to be enrolled into Matitom 5 at a local school. We chose to try KS, which is a five minute drive away (ten minutes if I ride my bicycle through the rice fields behind our house). While my wife was at the school taking care of a small mountain of paperwork, she casually mentioned that her farang husband was a qualified English teacher. The next thing I knew I was being told to shower up, spruce up and shape up for a job interview! One thing I can say about my sweetheart, is that she never passes by an opportunity to find me a “better job”, i.e. one that pays more.
I had never been by KS, because while close to our home, was located on a side road that I had never been down. I was pleasantly surprised when we drove through the school gates. The school was located on over 250 rai of beautifully maintained land. The place was like a park, with dozens and dozens of well tended flower beds, hundreds of flowering shrubs and trees, and lawns that any gardener would be proud of. Not a bad impression I had to admit. All was quiet and serene, without the smallest scrap of litter.
My wife joined me for my meeting with the school director and the head of the English department. Actually it makes a good impression for the school to see that you are a happily married man with a family. It makes you seem stable and responsible. Anyway, my darling wanted to be there for any financial negotiations!
The Director and the head of the English Department were both extremely cordial in their welcome. They were extremely excited about the possibility of having a Farang ajarn. The school of more than 3000 had never had one before. Lampang has very few farangs living here. Apparently my reputation as an “innovative” English teacher in the community had preceded me here.
That was all well and good, but I needed to explain my educational philosophy and how I liked to run my classroom right from the very beginning. I wanted to make sure that there was NO misunderstanding of what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. As I elaborated, with my wife translating as needed, I saw smiling faces nodding with approval. I also made it clear that although I was teaching “conversation” my students would also be learning vocabulary, writing, drawing, singing etc. I told them that I believed in making my classrooms interesting, fun places to learn. I was willing to work hard on the students’ behalf, but in return they had to do a few things for me. They needed to show up on time. When I was talking, they needed to be listening. They needed to put away their mobiles etc. and watch what I was writing on the board. AND they needed to DO THEIR HOMEWORK! Yes homework! Not much. Not more than 5-10 minutes worth. I asked, was that going to be a problem? Not a problem I was told! They agreed heartily with all of my ideas, and promised full support. But did I need a teaching assistant? A Thai teaching assistant can either make your life easier, or make it hell, so I was hesitant to ask for one. That’s when I got the shock of my life when the Director suggested that my wife be my assistant! Before I could even open my mouth to reply, my darling agreed wholeheartedly to the idea. The fix was in. It was a done deal. I secretly wondered how this was all going to play out in the classroom.
Now don’t get me wrong. My wife is quite a talented teacher in her own right, even if she never formally studied to be one. She has successfully tutored dozens of students since we’ve been living in Lampang. She is easygoing and has plenty of patience. Her English is certainly superior to most of the Thais teaching it. She has a better vocabulary, understands far more idioms, and has a solid knowledge of grammar. So it was not her ability that gave me pause. It was how we would get along in the classroom that had me worried. I have my own lessons and my own way of teaching. She was supposed to be there to support me. I was afraid that she would try to do things her own way. We really needed to sit down and have a long talk!
In the end I agreed to begin teaching at the beginning of the new term, which was a few weeks away. Since I had many notebooks filled with lessons for all levels, I was ready to roll, no matter what classes I would be teaching. There was no schedule for me yet, but I would receive one before school started. It was definitely going to be a full one: 24 classes per week! As far as salary was concerned, they agreed to the upper limit of what experienced Farangs were getting in the area.
Back home my wife and I came to an understanding. She was free to give me any suggestions that she might care to, but in the end I would be leading this little waltz! It would be interesting to see how this worked out.
The first day of school eventually dawned sunny and hot as hell. Thank the stars that a tie was not required here. We got there early to sign in and schmooze with the school staff. Lots and lots of smiles and wais. They actually seemed to be sincere. I saw how the school kept the grounds looking so tidy. Each day the students spent an hour or so weeding, raking, pruning, watering and grooming things to perfection. Eventually the entire school body lined up on the parade field for the flag raising and the national anthem. The anthem was played with some élan by the school band, and the flag was one of those oversized giants that ripples slowly when there is a breeze. Next were the obligatory Buddhist prayers followed by a welcoming address by the Director. I was asked to come up on the dais to be introduced and make a few remarks. Luckily I have had numerous occasions to speak to large gatherings, so I had no problem sounding reasonably coherent in both English and Thai. My wife was a bit disconcerted when she was asked to make a few remarks of her own. In the end though she did a creditable job, though she was relieved to hand the microphone back!
We had a half an hour to prepare for our first class, so we headed over to check out our new classroom. Actually classroom is not an accurate description of where we would be teaching. In fact it was a large separate auditorium building that could easily accommodate 500-600 people. It was like being in a train station! Luckily the school was very good at providing anything we needed, so in addition to two large whiteboards, we had a pair of cordless microphones. The print shop also banged out some handouts that I wanted for my students.
For a least the first part of the term we would be teaching Matiyoms 1+2. Later we would teach 3+ 4 and finally 5 + 6. When we finally studied our schedule closely we couldn't believe our eyes. The woman who puts together the schedules is a very nice person. She is both charming and intelligent. I had to wonder what the hell she had been smoking when she dreamed up this up. Let me explain. We would be seeing each class four times a week. No problem. Each class was made up of students from different sub classes. mayiyom 1 has classes 1/1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, etc. through 1/10. The same is true for matiyom 2. So on period #1 on Monday we would have students from 2/4, 2/9 and 1/10. Again this was no problem. The problem was that on Tuesday we would be seeing 2/4 and 2/9 again, but in that group was going to be 2/3 and 2/7 whom we did not teach on Monday. This would be the first time that we would be seeing them! How I can you teach a class when one half of the students have received lesson #1 and are ready for lesson # 2, when the other half of the class hasn’t had lesson #1 yet! Trying to point out this kind of problem to a Thai bureaucrat is of course an utter waste of time. The scheduling person did realize that this was a serious problem, and she did admit that it was her fault, but everything was now carved in stone. Until next term we simply had to live with it. Her suggestion was that we simply do lesson # 1 a second time for the group that had learned it already! I could see the students’ eyes glazing over already!
Well as the saying goes. “When life hands to lemons, make lemonade.” We were definitely going to improvise. This was our solution. Since we had an enormous space to teach in, why not use all of it, and divide these mixed groups into two separate sections. I would take the students who had learned lesson #1. I needed to work with these students on their pronunciation; this after all is why the school hired a farang English teacher. My wife would teach the group who had not had that lesson. She had already heard me do it once, and of course she is no dummy and is quite capable of doing it on her own.
My second concern was with the size of the classes. Anyone who has taught in a Thai school is used to large classes. In the past I’ve often had up to 50 students. Now I was scheduled to have classes of 75, 85 and even 95 students! What were they thinking? Even with 50 students it’s almost impossible to give students individual attention. What in the world was I going to do with 95 of them! I would need binoculars just to see the students in the back rows. The back rows of course are where all of your “slackers” tend to sit. Well at least I had microphones!
At last the students for the first period began to trickle in as an Australian friend once told me, “like Brown’s cows”! Each class is 50 minutes. It takes a minimum of 10 minutes, and often 15 before they all show up and sit down. Then there is attendance to take. Here I am extremely grateful to my wife, who can rattle through a list of names that would leave me tongue tied! When all is said and done you’re left with 35 minutes to teach. So let’s get moving!
So what exactly am I teaching? Conversation? It’s pretty hard to have a conversation with students when they barely understand any English at all. Alright, let’s forget what they’ve been doing for the past 6-7 years. I’m starting with Square #1. For me this is the 100 Most Commonly Used English Words. Would you like to know what those words are? Please go to:
Here you find not only the first 100, but the 1000 Most Commonly Used English Words. There are other corpuses out there that have slightly different frequency orders, but this is the one I’ve been using. With these words as a foundation we would slowly and surely begin to teach these kids how to have a conversation. There would be plenty of games, competitions, drawing, singing etc. I would only teach them the bare minimum of grammar. They get more than they can possibly comprehend from their Thai English teachers.
Thai students are notoriously shy when it comes to opening their mouths in public. (At least to speak English!) I was quick to mention that if they are shy to speak English, they should listen to me speak Thai! After I speak a few sentences, everyone is laughing and the ice is broken.
I ask students who would like to have fun in class to raise their hands. Eventually most do. That’s great, because I also like to have fun. I go on to explain that for all of us to have fun in this class I need them to do a few simple things for me.
1. Please try to come to class as quickly as possible, so that we can have the most time possible learning.
2. When I or Ajarn S (my darling) are speaking, please listen to what we are saying. If we are writing on the whiteboard, please copy it in their notebooks.
3. If I am speaking too fast, someone say, “slow down please!”
4. If you don’t understand something, please let us know and we will try to explain it in a different way.
5. We will be giving you a few minutes of homework every class. It is important that you do it! If you like you can work in groups.
Preferably I hoped that they wouldn’t copy from each other, but having been down this road a time or two I knew that they inevitable would. Hopefully a small portion of information would be transferred from their hands through their eyes and into their cerebral cortex!
Okay! Let’s start with the five , most commonly used English words.
First I had them pronounce the words as a group. Then I randomly chose individuals to stand up and say them. Naturally they were mortified to have me stick a microphone in their face, but eventually something recognizable as being more than a mere squeak emerged from their lips. Naturally some of their fellow students were greatly amused…until I made it clear that everyone would have numerous opportunities to stand up and do the same!
Next I asked if anyone could make a sentence using the word. Not surprisingly the silence was deafening. Once again I chose “volunteers” to make a sentence. I learned years ago that no Thai student will ever volunteer on their own, so you’ve just got to have them “face their fear” and get over it!
Time flew by and soon it was time to say goodbye, but Time flew by and soon it was time to say goodbye, but not until I assigned their home work: Please write a sentence using each of the five words we had learned today in their notebooks, Next class we would practice speaking these sentences.
Monday is the busiest day of the week. We had six classes; three before lunch and three after. If it wasn’t for microphones I doubted that either of us would have been able to utter more than a croak!
Lunchtime was a chance to sit down and chat with fellow teachers. Once again I must say that we were made to feel welcome. Many times we were asked how things were going, or if we needed anything. The outdoor cafeteria is quite a lively place. You can get a decent lunch for 20 Baht. I couldn’t resist some homemade ice cream for 5 Baht.
Once again it’s show time! I must admit that in order to get the attention of a large group of drowsy students I often ham it up a bit. I don’t mind “playing the clown” a little bit as long as I’m not “playing the fool!” Three more matinee performances of the Ajarn L. show go off without a hitch. We both are happy to be finally packing it up and heading home for a well deserved rest. Our little boy Sam is certainly glad that we are home. At 20 months he is happy to be with “Yai” (grandma) but there is no substitute for mommy!
The next morning we are at it again. A quick throat lozenge or two and it’s time to greet those smiling young faces. Actually some of them are smiling, some of them are bored, and some of them are just plain sullen. I’m sure that every teacher out there reading this has a “wise ass” or two in his class. I’ve been generously “blessed” with more than my share. They saunter in (late) with an unmistakable expression on their faces. It’s one of, “Fuck you white boy! You just try to make me learn something!” Some of these boys (they are always boys) are pretty damned big! It’s hard to believe that they are only 14 or so. It’s easy to mistake them for at least 16. In any case having walked down this road before I remain as cool as a cucumber as I smile and stare them down. My look says, “You may think you are hot shit, strutting in with that chip on your shoulder, but in the end, one way or another, I will have your ass!” Even my sweet wife was taken aback by their rude and crude behavior. In the end though there is a simple solution to tame these beasts. KS is blessed with what every school should have…a disciplinary officer who means business! Ajarn S. is quite a nice fellow. He is always inquiring about how classes are going. We turned in the names of a dozen or so of our hooligans. What he said or did to them I will never know, but they now quietly slink into class, sit down and keep their “pie holes” shut! Sweet!
Keeping on the theme of discipline, yesterday morning the school director had all of Matiyom 3 out on the parade field. Apparently some students had been fighting. This normally kind spoken gentleman was ripping all of them a new asshole! Man, He was going up one side of them and going down the other. It’s times like this when I wish my Thai was better, because I’m sure I would have learned some colorful expressions!
Staying yet again on this theme, as any Farang teacher knows getting Thai students to do their homework is a perennial problem. What they would automatically do for a Thai teacher is suddenly “optional” for you. I am pretty lenient with the kind of homework I’m handing out now. I don’t care if students sit in a group and copy from each other. It is amusing though to see multiple copies of an assignment with identical spelling and grammatical errors! I will correct these errors, but this is not my focus. I simply want students to stand up open their mouths and speak English. My focus at the moment is on correcting their pronunciation. The first time I asked students if they had done their homework, I honestly didn’t expect that more than a handful would actually do it. So I kindly explained why I wanted them to do the homework, emphasized its importance and smilingly told them that next class I expected them to have it ready. These boys and girls couldn’t get away with the time honored Thai excuse that they didn’t “understand” what they were supposed to do. That’s because my darling explained it all in Thai! Anyway, the second time the homework wasn’t done, I was this smiling, still speaking gently. This time however I made it clear that Ajarn L. would not be happy if the homework was not done for the next class. Naturally for the next class only the same small handful of students had done their work. This work should take even the dullest student no more than 10 minutes…maximum. Did I become unglued and start shouting? No I did not. Instead I turned to a method perfected by teachers in the one room school houses back in the 19th century. I simply wrote on the board, “I must do the homework for Ajarn L.” I then told the students (not the ones who had done the work) to open their notebooks and start writing that simple sentence…again and again and again! They looked perplexed, as if they didn’t really understand what I wanted them to do. They soon got the message though. Not being a truly cruel person I only had them write or about 15 minutes; just enough for them to be shaking their tired little wrists. I then asked them to stop writing and asked them a simple question. Would they rather write five tiny sentences, or keep writing that one sentence for let’s say an hour? Who would do the homework? Every hand shot into the air immediately! I am not naïve enough to believe that everyone will do it, but I will be content if 2/3 of them do.
I don’t want to give the impression that most of my students are naughty. Most of them are good boys and girls. Some of them (mostly girls) already had the desire to learn English. Our challenge was to motivate the rest of them to want to learn. Not an easy goal, but being someone who actually enjoys teaching, I am willing to give my students 110%. If they want to learn, I will do anything in my power to help them. We have invited students to stop over at our home anytime. Some of them have already stopped by, which is encouraging. This is still a trial period for all of us. They are getting used to a farang teacher. I am learning the best ways to help them. Because the school administration and the English Department is giving us full moral and physical support, I really do feel that as the weeks go by we can achieve some measure of success. I’ll report back to you all on how things are going later in the year.
Post script: Apparently my wife thinks that I am not working to “my full potential”. On Wednesday afternoon I only had four morning classes. The afternoon was blessedly free! Any thoughts of me taking a well deserved nap (or drink) ended when she found a way to fill in this “gap”. Now on Wednesday afternoons I am teaching at a small rural school. I do mean rural! This place is in farm country…way out in the hinterlands. They have one class each of Pratom 1 to Matitom 3. This school had hardly dreamed of having a farang teacher. All of the parents showed up to meet us, everyone beaming from ear to ear! Wow! They had some really high expectations of what I could teach their children. Luckily I think I may actually accomplish quite a lot here. The relatively small Matiyom 1 class of 20 I taught were light years ahead of the kids I taught during the rest of the week! They were bright, smiling, intelligent and eager to learn! We all had a great time. It’s nice to finally have an opportunity to teach young people who want to learn.
Okay time to sign off for now. In addition to all of my other teaching I put in four hours at Kumon and have a full load of tutoring. No time to be bored, that’s for sure!
When people read a submission like this – and I can confirm that the author is deadly accurate with all that he says – it is remarkable that anyone would actually WANT to work as a language teacher in Thailand. The problems Mr 2000 covers here take place t all schools.