If you had told me four weeks ago that today I would be in a position where I would feel confident walking into a classroom of thirty Thai students, feeling that I could actually demand their attention and (more importantly) help them learn something, I would’ve had a hard time believing you. I took three education courses in college, only one of which actually put me in front of students. So I was a little low on teaching experience when I started my TEFL certification course. But after four weeks of intense lesson planning, grammar inputs, and teaching practices, I now feel like Teacher Jen (here in Thailand they prefer to call teachers by their first names). I have participated in six teaching practices during the past two weeks, and I have learned more than I thought possible about Thai students, education, and what it means to be a teacher. Here are a few of the tidbits I’ve picked up.
Thai students love to have fun.
When you step into a Thai classroom, you learn very quickly that fun is the order of the day. Unfortunately, in America there seems to be a sort of war on fun in classrooms as stressful standardized testing, common core standards, and teacher evaluations based on student performance become more rampant. Teachers are stressed, students feel pressured and overwhelmed, and the classroom turns into a space where fun is marginalized in order to make room for quick learning. That doesn’t fly in Thailand. The Thais, in general, are fun-loving, lighthearted people. You will always find a smiling face on the street, and the same goes for in the classrooms. Go into a room with a monotone lecture and a boring worksheet and you may as well throw in the towel. I spent four of my teaching practices working with Thai teachers, and even these students, who were usually between the ages of about 25 and 60, engaged more if I was allowing them to have some fun during the class. This doesn’t mean that every single minute has to be filled with an exciting activity. But it does mean that you have to allow them to laugh, constantly praise them with a smile, allow yourself to loosen up and not take the lesson too seriously, and move quickly enough through the lesson to make sure they don’t linger and get bored. Thai students at any level demand constant creativity, energy, and attention (as I’m sure many American students do), which means a more exhausted teacher at the end of the day, but it also means a lot more laughter and fun for the teacher as well.
As a teacher, you get what you give.
Within my first two teaching practices, I discovered that exceeding the student’s energy was the most effective way to hold their attention. The more energy I gave to the lesson, the more energy they devoted to paying attention to it. I found this to be true in every classroom I was in, including kindergarten, high school, and with my adult students. If I brought a smile and laughter into the classroom, I received those things in return. If I brought praise and encouragement, I received kindness in return. If I spent hours preparing and practicing the lesson, the lesson was more likely to go smoothly. Thais are quick to show their appreciation and gratitude with handshakes, smiles, or hugs, so you learn very quickly if you are teaching them in a way that feels meaningful to them.
Every student matters.
Every student has a place in the classroom, and every student should be made to feel like they belong in that space. There are always those students that you wish you could throw out of the classroom halfway through a lesson, and those that will consistently push your buttons to get attention, but those students are often the ones that need to feel that sense of belonging the most. In several of my lessons, I found that the students that weren’t participating just needed me to acknowledge their presence and show them that I knew they were there in order for them to engage in the lesson. This could have been something as simple as making eye contact with them, or offering them a “Good job” during an activity. This doesn’t translate to a lack of discipline. All students must follow rules or the classroom deteriorates into chaos, but discipline can be implemented without cruelty.
My TEFL course was an invaluable start to my ESL teaching career. It gave me skills that will allow me to feel comfortable during the first weeks of whatever teaching position I get and helped me realize just how much I love being in front of students. And during the course I made friends that I sincerely believe I will keep long after I leave Thailand. But I have a long way to go. There are things I simply won’t be able to learn until I’m put in front of the same students for months on end, and I’m excited for that process to start. It will be a lot of trial and error, a lot of late nights, and a lot of consulting of my fellow teachers. I will have to constantly push the boundaries of my creativity, cultivate my sense of patience, and allow myself to be ok with making mistakes. My job search, which will likely prove to be one of my most significant adventures here in Thailand, starts on Monday. Here in Thailand you don’t get a job by e-mailing or even calling schools. You show up in person. So, equipped with my CV and a snazzy outfit, I’ll be knocking on the doors of schools in and around Chiang Mai until I’m offered a teaching position, and hopefully my next blog post will be celebrating a new job.