Readers' Submissions

Recent Reflections on Teaching ESL in Thailand Schools

  • Written by Rahiri
  • February 20th, 2010
  • 19 min read


It’s usually a good thing when one’s somewhat cynical perspective is challenged by new experiences and evidence. This happened to me over the last couple of days when I attended my first Thai TESOL conference. But first let me recap. My main profession has been as a Performance and Rewards specialist in the Human Resources field but I have maintained a healthy interest in adult education and development since these are intrinsic to performance. I also have been a tutor while at university, a correspondence tutor for a private business school and an undergraduate lecturer in a tertiary institution in a field unrelated to my profession.

Unlike perhaps most teachers in Thailand, I didn’t drift into it out of desperation for a one year visa. I actually completed my Trinity TESOL in 2005 with the intention of teaching English in my retirement. This program was nothing like some of the very light-on affairs run by institutions in Thailand cashing in on the large pool of expats wanting to stay here. My course was run by the Auckland Language Academy, part of Auckland University where those familiar with the big names in ESL research will know that Rod Ellis teaches. The director of the program was Charles Hadfield – again those who take teaching seriously will recognize both his name and that of his wife Jill as key contributors to practical classroom teaching methods. Before the course even began we had to read Harmer’s Practice of English Teaching, work through Murphy’s Intermediate Grammar in Use and complete a searching and difficult pre-course assignment based on what we had learned and been stimulated to consider from these classic works. The course itself was a real pressure cooker and I seldom completed my course homework before midnight each day.

Frankly, I had never envisaged drawing on my “retirement plan” quite so early. But for various reasons I found myself approaching schools in Khon Kaen about possible vacancies late in 2007 and ended up at a large Catholic school in my first real English teaching job at the beginning of 2008. Nothing could have prepared me for what I faced. There was no formal induction program – something I had taken for granted throughout previous employment. But I was lucky. The school I joined had an intensive English program where native speaking ESL teachers taught all four skills to classes of 25 students rather than conversational English to 50 students which is the impossible norm in most Government schools. I had Prathom 2 – with a Thai assistant and Prathom 3 alone. An English colleague who taught the other 25 kids for each of my classes (the normal homeroom class was 50 students but was divided into two for ESL), kindly kept the classes doubled up for the first few days so I could learn from him what I was supposed to be doing. I will always be grateful to him for that, not least because he had himself only been teaching for a few weeks.

The Prathom classes were all boys and I felt like I had walked into a zoo. P2 was okay because the Thai teacher kept order for me, but P3 was hard work. The students seemed to have little interest in the subject or the book, they talked constantly among themselves, and I had no idea how to command their attention, gain their interest and keep them on task. I had completed some hours of supervised teaching during my TESOL, and felt I had been quite successful, but that was with motivated young adults. Anyway I persevered until the end of academic year, had my contract renewed for the following year and returned to school feeling quite positive about the prospect of teaching the same years, only to find that I was now to be teaching P5 and M3. For some reason that year the P5 boys were exceptionally naughty – even the Thai teachers acknowledged this. M3 is an awkward year in any school and in some Western schools specialist teachers are employed just to deal with this very difficult age group. My school is co-ed for Mathayom so the hormone charged issues were just that much worse.

Students were streamed each year by their ability in the core Thai curriculum subjects, not in English. There was a general correspondence at Prathom between English ability and the other subjects but there were more than a few major mismatches: I had some P5/1 students who were well below their peers and one or two in P5/4 whose English grasp was very good…So there was a mix of abilities but at Prathom all very manageable. 5/4 however, had not only had the worst students overall – it also had more than a few “special needs” kids – the Thai administration never actually bothered to tell us this, but left us to discover it for ourselves. I tried very hard to teach them – I won’t bore you with all the strategies and tactics I actually tried but this was one class that I never succeeded in achieving even a basic level of classroom management, let alone instilling a productive learning attitude.

A very different picture presented itself at Mathayom 3. The majority of the Prathom students who we had taught English to four periods a week since P1, with some level of success, had moved on to other schools. At M1 we had a whole new bunch – many from village schools where they had been taught one period a week of English with a Thai teacher who almost invariably was completely unable to speak a word of English. Many barely knew the English alphabet, nevertheless we forced them to start English with a Secondary “Starter” book which assumes an awful lot of English is already known and that the student can read at a basic level. Perilous assumptions, but this is what almost all schools that I know of do for two reasons: first, the major publishers simply don’t produce a real beginner’s book that teaches ABC for teenagers, and secondly, even if one was available, it probably wouldn’t be acceptable either to parents or school for reasons of “face”. To be completely truthful, I have no idea how to teach ABC right from zero base English to teenagers and I doubt any of my colleague teachers do either. But this is the reality we face.

Life has moved on and I am now the Director of English at the same school, presumably for my management skills as I remain a babe in the woods as far as teaching ESL in Thailand goes. I also teach M4. At M4 the structural problem really hits hard. We persevere through Starter, Elementary and Pre-Intermediate books with M1-M3, and do make some progress…and then at the end of M3 we lose more than half of our students to their vocational school and get another influx of students from village schools etc – none of whom are anywhere near the intermediate level of English that I am supposed to be teaching them. Indeed I have a number of students who, when they arrived, barely knew the alphabet. You don’t have to be a genius to figure how the already difficult classroom management problems are magnified when a significant proportion of your students simply have not the foggiest idea what you are talking about and their textbook is way over their heads.

By the time our students leave M6 most still have minimal conversation skills and can barely read at Pre-Intermediate level. In a European school English students would be capable of Cambridge First Certificate in Year 11 – but FCE is simply unheard of in even the best schools in Thailand. We are supposed to be teaching all four skills and in the government schools where the Thai English teacher looks after the grammar, the foreign teacher is usually exclusively focused on speaking skills but they are achieving very little, as are we. Why is this so? It is certainly not the fault of the textbooks – which contain many fine speaking exercises – but most of us teachers are not using them – we are unable to manage the class well enough to do effective pair and group speaking tasks. We are afraid to do them, that’s the reality. What about the Thai students? Well, they are incredibly shy of making a mistake – an attitude shared by their Thai teachers who simply will not use English in class for fear that a student might pick up on a mistake and they will lose face. The situation is much worse in Isaan than Bangkok or Chiang Mai because the students here have little alternative exposure to English. The failure to develop reading skills has various reasons also. Reading skills are taught through the course book but the course books are usually too difficult for the student. Traditional Thai culture and educational methodology does not nurture critical inquiry and an inquiring mind is important to serious reading. I have mentioned elsewhere that books don’t feature prominently in Thai homes anywhere so there is little love of reading in the native language let alone in English. But extensive reading is critical for the development of vocabulary and general reading skills.

All of this is very depressing. But it gets worse. Mathayom students are at school from before 8am in the morning to 4 or 5pm in the evening not five but six days a week. They are always tired. They do English because their parents and the school think it’s a good idea but they have no English role models. Certainly their parents don’t speak English and usually even their Thai English teachers will not speak English either. So it is hard for them to see that English is of any real importance. They are also aware that a farang teacher has few of the sanctions available to Thai teachers (actually, Thai teachers have fewer than they used to but upcountry, regulations are usually honored in the breach, rather like driving rules!). So English with a farang teacher is an opportunity for time out, diversion therapy and even sleep. <Sadly, this is often the case in Bangkok tooStick>

To this very sad state of affairs, the numerous sorry examples of farang ESL teachers in Thailand we regularly encounter add the last nail in the coffin. As I mentioned, the majority did not come here to teach English. They came on holiday, for cheap pussy, a few on the run from something in their home country and some are predators on children. They wash up on Thailand’s beaches and decide for all kinds of reasons that they want to stay and teaching English is a readily available option for a one year visa. In the past a university degree was not required. Many institutions offer a quick and dirty TEFL/TESOL training course that delivers a certificate for a price and a modest amount of instruction. The Thai government is trying to clean this situation up and now requires either a BEd or Bachelors degree in another discipline plus a full Teaching Diploma and Licence in the home country to obtain a permanent teaching licence here. Those who have a degree and TEFL but no actual Teaching Diploma/License are required to pass four exams demonstrating competence in the areas of teaching mandated by the Ministry of Education and Thailand Teachers Council. These authorities have the right intentions but as usual with Thais, no ability to make coherent policy to actually deliver what they need. Consequently all those who were already teaching in Thailand prior to the new rules were grandfathered (got a permanent license anyway) regardless of ability or qualifications, and new entrants with a degree are given a two year temporary license during which time they are supposed to do the four exams as well as a Thai Language and Culture Course. The authorities still seem to only examine thoroughly the qualifications of permanent license applicants, so a number of poorly qualified people are able to get temporary licences with an online degree from a degree mill and a local TEFL certificate. In fact the latter is not actually required at all, but many schools like to see one.

The four exams might be useful if the Thais would tell us what we need to know to pass them. No such luck! Neither a course book, nor previous exams with answer keys are available, just a high level broad description of the areas of knowledge a teacher is supposed to demonstrate. I have no idea what the actual pass rate is, but the ESL scuttlebutt claims 5% and those teachers I have met who have actually taken the exams claim the Thais have their uniquely own-world interpretation of the correct answers. Of course if you live in Bangkok, have a spare (I believe) 60,000 baht and time on your hands you can do a course. As usual no-one seems to give a damn about what happens up-country.

When I was first appointed as Director I had two vacancies to fill and had to look at more than 120 resumes before I found a bare half dozen worth interviewing. The supply seems to have improved a little since then – mainly because Abhisit assured parents education would be free but the schools weren’t given any more funding so those that depended on some additional fees to pay their farangs had to quietly lay them off. Nevertheless I frequently get applications that are riddled with both spelling and basic grammatical errors – and these people want to be English teachers. I am blessed with what is by local standards an exceptional teaching team but in my short time at school I have also observed we had an alcoholic who was drinking by lunchtime, an American teacher who was not only certain that anyone who claimed to be in Thailand for any reason but “the pussy” was lying, but also used to look at porn on the school computer, and teachers who profess openly to not understand grammar and can’t be bothered to try to learn it! Much more common is the attitude among teachers that pays no attention to the “lazy” or unmotivated student but simply goes through the motions of delivering the program.

The industry has some horror stories…Stick has from time to time relayed a few, and I have more often than once wanted to not admit to the job I do here for fear of being tarred with the same brush.

My appointment as Director has brought with it a growing new perspective, informed (or prejudiced, depending on how you look at it) by my background in Performance Management in business. Teachers can complain about the low pay, the frustratingly incompetent Thai school administration, the laziness and lack of motivation of Thai students etc, etc, but the bottom line is this: we, collectively are not performing. Our reason for existence is to teach our students English and we are failing. At my school a Thai English teacher earns 10,000 baht a month and teaches 50 kids in a class. A native speaker gets a minimum of three times that and teaches 25 kids a class. That means we cost SIX TIMES as much as a Thai teacher (at least!). Where is the value in the results we are achieving? It is certainly not six times and I very much doubt it is two times. At my school the parents are paying higher fees for their children to come and do our intensive English program. The school has employed us to deliver on that trust. The Thai government has also invested hugely in employing native speakers in public schools and in universities. Frankly if this was my business, I’d be very tempted to fire all the native speakers and allocate my precious cash somewhere I can get a return from it – maybe by more development and support for Thai English teachers!

I for one am determined to do a lot better than this and a lot of change is coming down the pipeline at our school. It was with this determination that I attended my first Thai TESOL at the end of this month – mainly to try and get ideas for things to try to make a difference. What I got was much more than that – I got a new perspective entirely on ESL in Thailand.

Everything I said above is true but it is not the whole story. There are some outstanding people working in ESL in Thailand, there are some exciting new initiatives, there are people within the Thai government and education authorities who really do understand what needs to be done and are heading in the right direction. So I’d like for a moment to share a brief snapshot of some of what I encountered because it added hope to my desperate determination. Thai TESOL, by the way, is the annual conference of a professional organization of mainly Thai educators set up to promote ELT practice and professionalism in Thailand. The keynote address was by Khunying Kasama Varavarn Na Ayudhaya. She is a Harvard graduate and previous permanent secretary to the Education Minister and here are some of the things she said to an audience containing a lot of Thai English teachers:

“Of all the subjects I learned at school, English was the most beneficial to me”.

“The key influences in my successfully learning English were:
1) My (Thai) English teacher spoke only English
2) We had to write up a ‘thought of the day’ which was assessed more for the quality of the thought than for its grammatical correctness’
3) Reading English for enjoyment, aided by the teacher reading to the Students for their pleasure.”

That in bringing change to English teaching in Thailand “there are three secrets
1) Taking care of your teachers
2) Ensuring we have good direction
3) Transparency”

My thought of the day: “this lady gets it, and if she was working in the MoE, there must be others there who think similarly”. There’s hope…

That set the tone for me in what proved ultimately to be an epiphany. Yes, the education system in Thailand is a disgrace and the company of native speaking ESL teachers sometimes feels shameful, but there are some fine people, intelligent, clear-thinking and morally upright people working hard to bring change. On the micro level there was, for example, a British guy engaged to help train upcountry Thai English teachers – and his simple but effective strategies have been welcomed and implemented. On the macro level there are people getting projects underway in Thailand that use proven methods to develop student autonomy – and if you are not sure what this means it isn’t leaving students simply to go it alone but provides them with what they need to be actively engaged in their own learning. Moreover the evidence is very strong that autonomous learners are motivated learners so any progress made here is directly relevant to our daily battle in the trenches. There is significant work underway to try to help schools use assessment for learning rather than simply use assessment to sum up what learning has taken place, so that assessment becomes a tool to motivate and encourage future learning rather than at best encouraging complacency “I got an A”, or crushing motivation “I failed”.

When you’re battling the daily grind out in the field, in some cases perhaps as the sole native speaker or perhaps in company you are not proud of, you may not be aware of this other dimension in ESL teaching in Thailand but it is there, and for those teachers who care about their kids and haven’t given up really trying to help them learn English there is more hope than might seem apparent and there are more people than you might believe working to help you.

As I write the final words of this submission, I have had my first day back at school and it has been awful. My M4/3 class comprising a handful of lost boys and a bunch of very naughty girls, all of whom I love dearly and work like a dog to try and help learn English came 15 minutes late to my class because finishing their work in computer studies was more important to them. About half had not done their homework, far worse than usual. I had spent all last week on non-defining and defining relative clauses, yet today they could not identify a non-defining relative clause from the commas nor name a relative pronoun used in a relative clause to talk about people. I felt both angry and miserable. For a moment I wanted to walk away from them. But they are children, the products of their environment and it is my job as a teacher to teach them. Fortunately I have enough examples in my own life of my own laziness, indifference, and confusion, AND one or two precious teachers who didn’t give up on me. I have to remind myself that there are no shortcuts, no quick fixes, and the hope for these kids in the current system depends on having teachers who don’t give up, who keep trying to find better ways within the system as well as using whatever channels there are (and it may not be many – but it is ALWAYS more than you think) to change elements of the system.

If you are a teacher and you care about the kids and care about your results I want to encourage you that as dark as it may seem there is light at the end of the tunnel, there are good people in the right places working to help you and are not as alone as you might feel. If you are tempted to feel that you have failed, then remember that no-one has failed until he has given up trying and that it took Edison 2,000 failed attempts to finally deliver the incandescent light bulb. If you are contemplating working as a teacher, let me remind you that this is a trust to be taken seriously and for which you will need a great deal of resilience.

Rahiri

Stickman's thoughts:

Very nice report of what it's like in the trenches.

It was sad to turn my back on the teaching industry, but it is ultimately a decision I do not regret.