Teacher Tim's TEFL International Blog December 10th, 2011

Textbook Trials

Whither the textbook, my ESL colleagues in Thailand are asking. With eBooks becoming more & more popular, and reasonably priced and user friendly, it is only a matter of time before students, not just in the West, but everywhere, are bringing their tablets to school for the day’s study, and not a parcel of clumsy, dog-eared books.

In Thailand the cell phone has already become the scourge of classroom English teachers from Loei to Yala. Especially as more and more applications are crammed into those little, infernal chatterboxes. Your students may come from a rickety hovel that hangs precariously over a noisome klong, subsisting on a diet of rice and fish bones, but somehow they will manage to have a cell phone with them when they come to school.

This is one of the great things about the Thai family dynamic; you can be dirt poor, but somewhere there is a relative that is always going to be willing to get you a few of the things you absolutely must have, such as a cell phone. I discovered early on in my relationship with the Thai gf that the quickest way to her heart is to hear her out about the dreadful, disgraceful living conditions of her nieces and nephews and cousins, and then offer to buy one of them a cell phone or a television set. (Do NOT just give the gf cash!) This gives the gf ‘face’ with her family and neighborhood: “See, I have snagged a farang sugar daddy, and now we’ll all be rolling in baht!”

Let me quickly balance that cynical image with another typical scenario – the Thai who is working overseas in Brunei or Hong Kong, and who delights in sending funds home for the family members to spend as they please. One of the best Thai gf’s I ever had was a more mature lady who already had a grown daughter working abroad; when the gf found I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, spring for a car for her, she contacted her daughter in Bandar Seri Begawan and asked for the funds to purchase an auto. That same week she went down to the Grung Thai Bank to collect the sent funds and got herself a nice Toyota truck, and was gracious enough to let me ride around in it with her. She wouldn’t let me drive it, though.

A windy, tedious, way, perhaps, of saying that, in Thailand, when eBooks become a must-have item like cell phones, your students will be able to procure them easier than you.

I am undecided whether or not I like this idea.

A teacher without a textbook is like a sailor without a boat; there’s precious little they can do without one.

On the other hand, textbooks are a pain in the keister. It is a world-wide phenomena, not just peculiar to Thailand, that when you hand out a textbook to a school child and sternly tell them not to write in said textbook or in any other way deface it, what the child hears is: “Please doodle like mad in your book and rip out as many pages as you like!”

I have never gotten back a decently preserved textbook at the end of a school year in Thailand. They are heavily used, true, but never, it seems, for study. Thai students use their textbooks to flatten mosquitoes, drop out windows into rain puddles to see how big a splash they can make, placemats for impromptu meals, canvases for sketches & caricatures (I am always drawn to look like Jimmy Durante), and repositories for scurrilous gossip and complaint.

I have had to start the school year with these tattered relicts and suffer through endless variations of that old vaudeville routine:

Teacher: Please turn to page 22 in your book.

Student: But page 22 is missing.

Teacher: Then turn to page 28.

Student: That’s missing, too.

Teacher: For heaven sakes, is page 33 also missing?

Student: Not yet, but give me a moment.

Students are forever losing their textbooks, and in some Thai schools I have been at, it was the teacher who had to pay the replacement cost, not the student.

Then, of course, there are the commercial language schools where a good chunk of the profit comes from selling the students an expensive textbook. At those establishments the teacher is expected to become a huckster, peddling books by the pound, like a butcher selling hamburger.

The bottom line, I think, when it comes to textbooks, is that you, as the teacher, have the teacher’s edition, which has all the answers, and isn’t that what it’s all about – that we have the book with the answers, while the students only have the book with the questions? It would make anyone mad with power!

But when the eBook finally takes over, the students will undoubtedly have all sorts of fancy bells & whistles, as they do on their cell phones, that will not only answer their questions for them, but probably provide them with a criminal background check on their teacher, as well as the results of his or her latest urine test.

And when the teacher tells them to click on a certain link to work on grammar, they will invariably pull up Angry Birds instead.

It’s enough to make a person wish for world-wide illiteracy!