Phom saawrn pasa an grit

Insight on the profession of teaching from a thirteen-year-old:

“In the present, I’m still a student.  Don’t have special life or any money, but I’ve a lot of occupation in my dream that I hope one of them it will be the best that I can do it.  When I was young, I saw my teacher teached many students in my class.  She’s always smile and looked happily, so my first dream is ‘teacher’.  Then I growed up, I think this dream its too easy for me.  I changed my heart to be teacher to another occupation.  Now my future occupation that I hope it’s a tour guide.”

Well….shit.  My job is too easy for a thirteen year old to even consider.  I’ve been on the job for six months, so maybe it’s time I do some thinking….

  • Ok, so a tour guide handles large groups of people at a time.  I have fifty students in each class room, twelve classes a week. Check.
  • Next, a tour guide has to impart information to his or her tour group.  I do that!  That is, whenever class isn’t cancelled because, “Teacher, we go dance,” or whenever students aren’t forty minutes late because, “Teacher, we do sit-ups” (Both legitimate excuses in Thailand, but neither of which my students are able to elaborate on).  Check.
  • So a tour guide has to handle dealing with many different scheduling issues.  Sometimes, I’m told that my class is cancelled, then it’s not, then it is, then it’s not, then it is, then it’s not, then I show up and no one is there, and finally a passing student shrugs and says, “No class today, Ajarn Maxwell” (Not an exaggeration, just a Wednesday).  Check.
  • Tour guides need to be responsible for their tour group, and keep track of their whereabouts.  With fifty students in a class at a time, this can be tough, but I do my best.  Like that one time….

“Teacher, I want go play soccer.”

“Thats great, but we have a listening quiz today.”

“I want play soccer!”

“Well you can either take the listening quiz, or you can go play soccer and get a zero on your listening quiz.”

“Ok, I go play soccer!”

I knew exactly where he was the whole time!  I could see him playing soccer on the field outside our window.  No one gets out of my sight.  Check.

So I think I could definitely make the switch to tour guide if I ever truly get overwhelmed with teaching.  But calling teaching “too easy?”  Maybe this particular student hasn’t noticed me sweat through two shirts while trying to save a lesson plan which I expected to last forty-five minutes, but which actually lasted only six minutes.  (“Ok. So….now….I want you……to draw…Yes! Draw your favorite sport on the back of your paper, please!”)

Teaching is tough.  Teaching in Thailand is…well it’s something.  It’s strangely easy to become responsible for six-hundred thirteen year olds here.  Basically, if you show up, are white or Filipino, and speak English, you can get a job as a teacher.  Having a TEFL or TOEFL certification doesn’t seem to be completely standard or necessary, but it helps.    If I hadn’t been awarded this teaching position by Princeton in Asia and Prince Royal’s College, I would have gone straight into the University of Puget Sound’s Masters in Teaching program.  I decided I would use Thailand as my testing grounds to see if teaching was right for me.  A bunch of tiny, Thai guinea pigs if you will.  I didn’t feel too bad about this idea, since many teachers here in Thailand are not considering teaching as a career, but are just along for the ride.

I had taken several course in Education while at UPS as an undergrad, and was beginning to consider and build my own personal pedagogy.  Soon after this personal development, I stepped off a plane and was slapped out of my Liberal Arts fantasies by the reality of teaching in a foreign country.  There are several issues with being a Western teacher in the Thai education system.  These issues can cause headache-inducing roadblocks for Western teachers, regardless of their actual interest in teaching.  Now that I’m here facing these problems, I’ve had to contradict my personal pedagogy on many occasions.  This is not by choice, but because in many ways I must fall in line with the Thai education system.  I often find myself doing some deep lamaze-style breathing, repeating the country’s catch phrase, “Mai bpen rai,” (“No worries”), and moving on.

Lets talk grades.  Thai students cannot fail.  Yep.  They pass onto the next level regardless of their score in the previous.  I’ve seen Thai teachers erase a student’s failing score and just write-in whatever is a barely passing score.  Zero student accountability.  This explains why my students, who are in their sixth year of English studies, often respond to “How are you?” with “Haha, yes Teacher!” (My face lives in my palm).  I have no upper hand in situations where a student wants to go play soccer while I write a big “0/10” on his or her test.  But I don’t necessarily fight it, because this means one less student in an overcrowded class room.

Fifty student class rooms.  This is craziness.  And as much as it pains me, I’ve had to accept that I have no option but leaving some students in the dust.  Sometimes the choice is made for me, like when students who have no desire to listen to a 22 year old American explain what “grabbing a bite to eat” means, and decide to just not come to class.  This allows me to really focus on the small portion of students in a classroom who are actually interested in learning English.  It sounds awful to say, but sometimes I’m happy when students make that choice for me (I’m clearly not recruiting for the Dead Poet’s Society).  At other times, I can see that a student is struggling, but I can’t always stop class to help.  If I direct my attention at one student for too long, I quickly lose the attention, and then control, of forty-nine other students, and sometimes you can never pull out of that death spiral.

So what do I do?  There are essentially no grades, huge classrooms, rampant acceptance of cheating, no expectations for students to show up on time, classes cancelled almost on a daily basis, and only fifty minutes of contact time with my students each week.  I can’t take it seriously.  Don’t hear me wrong.  I seriously care for my students, and I love my job.  But if I tried to hold my teaching to the standards I expected to have when I left university, my hair would turn gray within a week.  And besides my personal well-being, I would make no progress with my students if I tried to combat these conditions that come with teaching in Thailand.  The system isn’t too serious, so the best way for me to make progress is to go with the flow, and grab student interest where I can.  I’ve adopted a strategy of not teaching very technical English, but instead making my classroom a place where hearing English is just comfortable.  We play games, do skits, and listen to songs.  Rarely do I lecture, and if I do, it’s not for more than ten minutes.  As long as I’m creating a slight association between English-speaking and the relaxed environment of my classroom, then I feel accomplished.  And the more I foster this comfortable classroom atmosphere, the greater the response I see from my students.

I’ve spent the last three weeks teaching my students to say something other then “I’m fine,” when asked how they’re doing (“I hate when you all say that, you sound like robots!”).  I told them that “fine” was a boring word and I wanted to hear how they really felt.  A sign came to me that maybe I was a little bit successful with my teaching strategies when one student ran up to me, hugged me, and said, “Hello Teacher, I know you are fine.”  Cheeky little bastard!  Well, I didn’t mean to teach them sarcasm, but I’ll take what I can get.

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