When I first started teaching at my school in Hang Dong, I was stiff with inexperience and fear. I was placed in front of 40 students who couldn’t communicate with me, and I was supposed to be teaching them how to speak English. Seriously? So needless to say, the first semester was one big learning curve. I had to experiment with lessons and teaching styles, figure out what level my students were at, challenge myself to become a better teacher, and attempt to connect with my Thai coworkers. It wasn’t easy, but I learned a lot, and I discovered that if I was going to have any chance with my students at all, my demeanor in the classrooms had to change.
Thai students don’t take education all that seriously, partly because education isn’t taken very seriously in Thailand in general. There are some students that are motivated by the prospect of a good job, but many of the students have resigned themselves to living a life that doesn’t require a high level of formal education, a life that is led by many Thais outside the larger cities. The students are naturally laid back, a trait they’ve picked up from their culture, and they rarely plan ahead or worry about completing work. I give tests every few weeks, and I’ve seldom had a student come in fully prepared. Most either don’t care enough to study outside of class, or they forget as soon as they leave my class that they will have a test the following week. I’ve learned to accept this because there’s simply nothing I can do about it. I can’t force them to study. I can only give them a bad grade when they fail, which also doesn’t faze them much since, according to the school rules, the students cannot fail a class. If they receive anything lower than a 50%, they are required to do extra work for the teacher and then the teacher is required to raise their grade above failing. This made me incredibly angry when I was first told about it, but I’ve had to assume an ‘It is what it is’ attitude toward it although it still makes my blood boil if I allow myself to consider it too long. The culture in Thailand has not reached a point where it places a lot of importance on education, and the students lack motivation because of this and because of the lack of consequences for poor performance. I do think the US places far too much pressure on students and the grades they get, but at least most citizens of the US seem to realize that they need an education and they inherently value it on some level.
As you can imagine, with the students being mostly unconcerned with their own education, I have a pretty difficult time motivating them to pay attention in class and do their work. When I first arrived, I took my position as a teacher very seriously, and when my students didn’t show much improvement in their English skills, and when many students failed my class, I was very hard on myself for not being an effective teacher. And part of it is me, certainly. I lack experience, I don’t speak Thai, and, with 22 periods each week, I see too many students (almost 500) to give them the individual attention they deserve. But some of it isn’t my fault. Some of it is the cultural norms that prevent the students from giving their education the attention it deserves. Some of it is the lack of focus placed on speaking skills. Some of it is pervasive disorganization in the Thai government school system. All of these things combined make being a teacher in a government school very challenging. But I’ve recently discovered that the challenge isn’t impossible to overcome. You simply have to be willing to be an entertainer as well as a teacher.
I’m naturally shy. I don’t generally like being the center of attention. I easily sit on the introvert side of the introvert-extrovert scale. But, as a teacher in Thailand, you can’t afford to be reserved. If you enter a Thai classroom and start to lecture in a quiet, monotone voice, you may as well throw in the towel. You’re done. During my first semester, I wouldn’t say I was a boring teacher, but I was very serious. And the Thai students couldn’t connect with that. They needed someone to come down to their level in some ways, and in order to do that, I had to switch up my style. I started to become more relaxed with the rules (Want to use a cell phone while we’re doing a worksheet? Sure, go ahead.), started to laugh more with the students, and started to laugh more at myself. Showing embarrassment is a sure way to make the students feel uncomfortable, and even resentful in some cases. Because of that, I’ve learned to play up my mistakes instead of trying to hide them. If I write something incorrect on the board, I play up my shock with a dramatic, mocking ‘Oh no!’ and laugh with them when they laugh. I often find that, in an attempt to keep the students focused, I’m practically dancing around the room as I jump playfully from one end of the board to the other. When I have them practicing pronunciation, I allow my face to distort in all kinds of creative ways in order to show them how the sound is made. And when they can’t get a sound, we’ve learned to laugh at the temporary failure together.
Thai students will rarely point out a mistake made by a teacher. It’s considered disrespectful and out of line. But my students have learned that Teacher Jen doesn’t hold them to the same standards and that I’m ok with making mistakes. This has opened the door for them to participate more by questioning certain words, grammar points, etc. For example, last week I was teaching my Mattayom 4 students (15-16 years old) about kitchen utensil vocabulary. I always have one of my Thai coworkers write the vocabulary words in Thai for me to help the students relate the English words to the Thai words. But occasionally my Thai coworkers, still working on improving their English skills themselves, write the wrong words. In one of my classes, I was hanging up the utensil words, and a student came up behind me and said, ‘Teacher, excuse me, but that word not right. Means ‘fight,’ not ‘fork.’ I cocked my head, looked at it, and we laughed together. I took the word down and asked her to show me how to write ‘fork’ in Thai as students continued to filter in. She wrote it on the board, and then I took the pen from her and copied the Thai word into the space left empty by the paper I had taken down. The students sitting behind me all watched quietly, and when I had finished successfully writing the word, they all erupted into applause. And we laughed.
Since I’ve started allowing myself to be more laid back and forgiving of both myself and my students in my classrooms, I’ve seen improvement in the students grades as well as in their behavior towards me. Whereas I was often viewed with aversion and weariness when I first arrived, I’m now constantly greeted with genuine smiles. Students will yell, ‘I miss you, teacher!’ as they run past me down the hall. Students will even remain after class in order to try to speak a few English sentences with me, something that never happened during the first semester. Some of it is time. I’ve been at the school long enough for the students to get to know me. But some of it is my willingness to establish an attitude that is more familiar to them. They’re comfortable with me, and that comfort translates to an improved, more relaxed atmosphere in the classroom. Instead of asking them only to respect and obey me (as many of the Thai teachers do), I’ve allowed the option of us respecting each other, and it has made all the difference.