Learning to teach Thai students: A crash course

Well, this post is long overdue. In fact, it was meant to go out at the end of last week but due to me being exhausted (this heat is killer) and this past weekend being the 4th of July (yay!) I haven’t had the energy to update. I currently find myself awake at 1:30AM BKK time (I guess this is what happens when I go to bed by 9PM instead of 12AM) so I figure now is as good a time as any to catch up!

This post really starts last Thursday on the 1st of July. If I remember correctly, I was just a bit more tired than usual so I decided to go with a hearty 20 baht breakfast (about 75 cents – I get this delicious fried pork and white rice. Just what you want for breakfast, right?!), a coffee-flavored milk (so tasty) and a Red Bull. It was enough to fill me up and give me much more energy than I’m used to in a day of teaching.

That morning, I conducted class with a bit more energy and enthusiasm than usual. I was being a bit more ‘goofy’ with the lesson and, as strange as this sounds, saying ‘oui!’ more. Now, this whole ‘oui’ thing just confuses me. I never remember hearing it last time I was here in Thailand, but it seems this time around Thais love to say ‘oui!’ when something happens, goes wrong, or they just want to show some sort of emotion. For whatever reason, I picked it up really quick and have been using it a bit more than casually all around Thailand.

Well, this particular day, the more I said ‘oui!’ in a playful manner, the more the kids laughed, the more fun they had, and the more receptive they were to my lesson. I finished my first class and was just floored – I had a great class, at 9AM on a Thursday, and the only thing I had changed was my attitude towards the kids. I had, since the beginning, adopted a ‘work today, play tomorrow’ approach. I thought that was fair, bang out the work in one day or a day and a half and then use the leftover time for games and fun. The thing was, we were well into week four or five of teaching (is it sad I lost count already?) and I hadn’t had a ‘good’ class in a long time – it was getting to be a bit discouraging. All of a sudden, I’m presented with a situation where the sillier I acted in class, the more receptive kids were to my teaching – so I ran with it.

The rest of the day I spent going ‘oui!’ crazy. If a person got a question wrong, ‘OUI!’ If someone got a question right, ‘OUI!’ If someone asked to go to the toilet (they don’t say bathroom or restroom here), ‘OUI!’ The amazing thing was it worked like a charm. I’m sure some teachers out there will say this is a proven fact, and I get that. The thing to keep in mind is that I’m teaching COLLEGE FRESHMEN. I would have never expected (I now realize how different my Western education is from the rest of the world’s) that you had to turn a college classroom into a middle school one in order for Thai kids to learn.

Doing a bit of research after class that day, I found something interesting in a Thai phrasebook I had. There was no direct translation for the American saying ‘work hard, play hard.’ Instead, the Thai equivalent is ‘make work a party!’ It all started to make sense. Thai kids hate to do work and so in order for me to get them to learn anything I would have to make each lesson much more entertainment-based rather than fact based. In order for me to teach Thai college freshmen I’d have to treat my class like a middle-school or elementary school class from the states. Oh joy. I mean, I always knew that Thai students were much less mature than their western counterparts, but I had no idea it went this far.

So Thursday and Friday were GREAT class days and really raised my spirits about the whole teaching job. That is, save for my academic class. I teach 8 classes per week, most twice a week. In that mix, I have one ‘academic’ class where the content is not conversation or speaking based but is based on a textbook that we were given to teach them. Among the many problems with this class (what I would do to be able to take over the department and fix things) is that they don’t give us enough time to teach the material. Seriously. I start the semester having to already make up 5 classes in order to get the required number of classroom hours a semester and then the timing of units and midterms makes no sense. Four weeks to do Unit 1 but only two weeks to do the more difficult Unit 2? As a consequence, I really can’t deviate from the book much (the Quizes and tests are based on the book) and I end up with: 1) A class that hates me because I never do anything fun. 2) A class that I hate teaching because these kids aren’t learning as much practical knowledge as they are just learning vocab and studying for a Quiz/Test. I finally understand a bit better when teachers say how much they hate teaching to a test. It’s frustrating, less exciting, and overall just not nearly as helpful as giving the teacher additional latitude in the classroom even if it’s at the cost of measurable metrics (like a standardized test).

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week I continued to have more fun in my classes, making entire lessons into games or just taking a break from the lesson altogether in order to do something fun and regain their attention. It’s been working amazingly well (At the cost of me drinking way too many Red Bull’s a day – something they don’t understand because Red Bull used to be a nutritional supplement and not an energy drink. They always think I was out drinking the night before or am sick with a cold.) and I daresay that from time to time I even leave the classroom with a smile. I know, I’m as surprised as you!

The new game I started on Monday is a perfect example. Instead of giving a lesson on description and having them do group work and presentations, I’ve been playing a game (Many thanks to Rich Marks, fellow ajarn, who mentioned this to me). I split the class into two teams (It’s Asia. Asians love groups and will participate so much more if you figure that out.) and then take a person from one team and put them under the board, facing their team. I write a word on the board behind them and their team has to describe it in order to get their teammate to guess what is behind their head. The class goes nuts every time. Everything from Lady Gaga (they start singing) to Pizza (they start yelling the quickcode of ‘1112’ which is what you can dial to get connected to the nearest Pizza Company sore) goes on the board and they love every minute of it. Do they speak less English than they might if I had them doing a bit more academic work? Of course. Sometimes I don’t know where the English ends and the Thai begins, despite my constant threats to extort 10 baht form anyone who speaks Thai (A rule I made the first week so I could invoke it later if need be), but it’s worth it to have a class that’s more fun and to some degree more productive than it would have been if I conducted it in a ‘Western’ way.

At the same time, this is exactly what I have NO TIME for in my academic class. It really kills me. That class is supposed to have 16 kids in it and only 4-5 show up on any given day and most, if not all are going to fail. Apparently ABAC has a 50% failure rate the first year which the school loves (Keep those students paying tuition! And I thought Loyola was bad!) and no one seems to mind if students fail. It takes the pressure off of me, which is nice, but it kills me to see students like this girl, ‘Om,’ who can’t speak a word of English other than ‘teacha,’ fail to understand time and time again. I know she’s going to fail. I know she has no fun in class. The bad news is, there’s just not much I can do about it without sacrificing the whole class to her level (I’m trying to get some kids to pass. If I did that, we’d NEVER get close to covering the material). Even then, I know my students hate the class because the material is dry (We have to cover it if they want a prayer of passing the standard tests given at the end of each unit.) and they never have any fun. It just kills me to teach it and I’m very sure that this blog does no justice to the frustration I feel about this one gosh darn class.

Anyway, on the whole things are going much better this week than they have since I got here. I don’t dread teaching as much as I used to and I think my students, at least in my conversation classes, are starting to actually enjoy me as a teacher. The whole experience though, has given me a much, MUCH, different perspective about teaching and teachers in general. The saying in the States tends to be, ‘those who can’t, teach.’ At one point in time I may have felt the same way. Now though, I have to give teachers much more credit. I never realized how difficult ad-libbing a 7 hour day, teaching to someone else’s standards, and making class fun, can be. It’s certainly inspired me to write thank-you’s to my best teachers in college thanking them for their hard work. I know I love it when my students say ‘thank you teacha!’ at the end of the day. It almost makes it worth it.