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Impressions of an english teacher
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  1. #1
    Andrew Guest


    At the age of 32 I decided to set aside my career as a journalist and web editor and come to teach English in Thailand. As you can imagine, stepping into a foreign culture, having never taught before, and without speaking their language was a daunting prospect. My first month has been an exhausting learning experience. And I thought I was the teacher!

    I soon discovered that English teaching in Thailand is, like many other Asian countries, quite an informal arrangement. As long as you are a native speaker and reasonably-well educated anyone will take you on. But without any formal teacher-training, and no set structure or curriculum, the task has so far been quite challenging. The school is happy for me to simply walk into the class and talk away to the students hoping some of it will rub off on them.

    Without experience, I often find I'm blindy feeling my way and sometimes busking through a lesson when my preperation work turns out to be too difficult or too easy for the students. Teachers who have been here longer will no doubt have more accurate comments to make regarding this. But the point is you probably won't have the benefit of clear instructions from the department head, such as you would in a typical Western school. In the first two weeks I did the rounds of every age group, ranging from 5 - 15, simply to judge what level each had reached. This is of paramount importance to ensure your lessons are effective.

    Fortunately the Head Teacher at my school is exceptionally astute and experienced with maintaining quality education. Her English is excellent and I discuss all my plans with her first. On the other hand the English teachers clearly haven't had the benefit of using the language in constant every day use. Their grammar knowledge is sound but their conversatoin ability is limited. Sometimes it's difficult to establish with them what you are intending to do. All the same it's useful to have them in the classroom to translate vital instructions to the students. I'm constantly reminding myself that they are highly qualified individuals and I have to tread carfully to avoid them losing face over poor-pronunciation. This is an important cultural consideration in Thailand.

    Culture is clearly an obstacle. As a new teacher I find it frustrating that some seemingly simple 'concepts' appear to be beyond their comprehension. Fortunately the teachers are really accomodating and particularly fond of new foreign teachers who make a big effort to fit in. Before the term started we all went off on a teacher's seminar, no English was spoken for two days but I gained a lot of respect by whole-heartedly throwing myself into a karoake evening!

    No one here will tell you where you're going wrong, because it's simply not done in Thailand. It's difficult to know if the students really did understand you, or if you have upstaged the teacher (by being more fun), or compromised his/her lesson plans. I'm constantly aware that I'm getting paid at least twice as much as them despite being totally unqualified.

    Now into my fourth week, I'm settling in with the students, picking up on what holds their attention, how to humour them, and most importantly how to maintain discipline in the class. Thai kids (in my school anyway) are well behaved, but you quickly realise that some classes are just much more lively than others and are easily over-excited. You set out being a fun teacher and they soon push their luck with your authority. Some are so shy then can't even tell you their own name, but the more they get to know you the less subdued they are. I'm extremely lucky in that I have the advantage of many resources and excellent advice from my colleague Ajarn Richard Barrow. After 8 years he has developed some very useful internet aids.

    I kept hearing that everything in Thailand must be 'Sanook' (fun), and this certainly applies in the classroom. I'm quickly realising that having an imagination is important for inventing little word games to beat late afternoon lethargy. Skill at being an entertainer has proved to be vital. Luckily I was treated as a novelty from the start but a little bit of acting and clowing about certainly helped me liven up some of the older, more reserved classes. This means I'm forever cracking jokes, acting out verbs, impressing them with appropriate Thai idioms, using a falsetto voice for women when reciting dialogue and so on. They love it! I would say that confidence is one of the most important virtues of a new teacher.

    What's less fun is the inability of some students to learn and pay attention. I was immediately impressed at the extent of their vocab and accuracy of their spelling, but the moment you call them up to speak, their tongue (and brain) turns to sticky rice! As I gain more experience I hope to think of novel ways to encourage them to speak, I would say this is their biggest deficiency. Using a PA system is really helpful. You quickly realise that education in Thailand places more emphasis on rote learning than initiative.

    Does it matter that I don't speak much Thai? No, I fortunately have the benefit of the Thai teacher, as any new teacher would. I've learnt all the calssroom instructions and vocab in Thai but the less of their language you speak the better. From Prathom 6 upwards you can survive with English alone. I was admittedly a little nervous about the language barrier but in the end I got by.

    Finally, it's not difficult to step into a teaching job in Thailand, provided you are aware that there are differences in culture and methodology. In hindsight I would've taken a proper TEFL course first. Many teacher's in Thailand feel it doesn't guarantee you'll be a good teacher but I certainly would've benefitted from the methods they teach, besides it forces you to re-assess your knowledge of grammar. I think a combination of a TEFL certificate, experience, entertaining skills and enthusiasm would be most desirable. In every class I learn something new, but this requires plenty of experimenting and preparation. Every successful lesson is preserved, and I look forward to the day when I can start recyling them.

    I'm having fun, the students are having fun and everyone is learning. Everyone is happy.

  2. #2

    thumbs up

    Very good story, Andrew. I really enjoy reading it. Thank you for sharing the teaching experience in Thailand.

    I'd love to hear your other experience living in Thailand. Maybe you have posted them already. But if you don't please do as it will be very interesting for us to read and maybe we could discuss about something else that might come up in your story.

    I'm a Thai female living in Thailand, btw.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Sep 2002
    Paknam, Samut Prakan, Thailand
    Thanked 1 Time in 1 Post
    Khun Andrew has written about his experience learning Thai which you can read on this forum by clicking here.
    Support the forum and chat rooms and buy computer software and books for learning Thai at

  4. #4
    januspentium Guest

    Gor Gai

    I got this from Chicken Soup for the College Soul. I just want to share this with you guys because I think it's very funny.

    [B]Dear Mom,
    $chool i$ really great. I am making lot$ of friend$ and $tudying very hard. With all my $tuff, I $imply can't think of anything I need, $o if you would like, you can ju$t $end me a card, a$ I would love to hear from you.

    P.$. Thank$ for $ending the $weater.

    Dear Susan,
    I kNOw that astroNOmy, ecoNOmics and oceaNOgraphy are eNOugh to keep even an hoNOr student busy. Do NOt forget that persuit of kNOwledge is a NOble task, and you can never study eNOugh.

    P.$. Thanks for your NOte!

  5. #5
    Bec Guest
    Having had some interesting experiences as an English speaking exchange student in Thailand with English teaching, can I ask - are you teaching American English, or English English?

    The reason I ask is that there is quite a distinct difference in many areas, and an important part of effective TEFL is providing students with the ability to recognise that English does have many 'dialects' that they will come across and to adapt to them. Unfortunately, the problem (at the time of my exchange) with the English teacher training in Thailand was that the American English they taught was seen as the only way.

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Sep 2002
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    Most Thai students I met seemed to have been taught only American English and little knowlegde of English English. Good thing I'm not a teacher, or I'd be forever making corrections like 'color' to 'colour' and confusing them all.

    Also it seems they generally find the American accent easier to understand than a British one, because they're more accustomed to it from Hollywood films and the like I guess.

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Oct 2002
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    Hi Mike,
    I agree what you said. It's not only the Thais. I guess many asian countries such as Philippines, Korea, China, Japan, speak American English.

    I am not too sure why they prefer to speak American English.

    In Singapore, we speak English English. (Maybe it's because Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore... hehehe). And every year, Singaporeans take the Cambridge GCE "O" Levels English Exams. So did I. But my english grade wasn't that good.

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Sep 2002
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    Quote Originally Posted by [b
    Quote[/b] (Bec @ Aug. 27 2003,17:51)]Having had some interesting experiences as an English speaking exchange student in Thailand with English teaching, can I ask - are you teaching American English, or English English?
    At Sriwittayapaknam School (where Andrew taught for a while) we teach "international" English. Our students are aware that there are different ways to spell and pronounce words. They also know of words which are only used in certain countries. This is important for us as our students have penfriends from around the world. They need to know that when they write to an American they need to say "My favorite color is blue" and to an English person "My favourite colour is blue". Also, slang words that they picked up from Australian penfriends cannot be used with American penfriends and so on.

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Mar 2003
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    Strangerdoom is right. In Singapore we are taught English as what was invented in England, however we are also very aware of the differences inherent in English as it is used in other countries.

    But the best way to teach English is as Ajarn Richard described : international style.

  10. #10
    Bec Guest
    I'm pleased that there has been such a change in the way English teaching is approached. I have to admit, my exchange was some time ago, so I had expected a bit of a difference.

    I can't tell you how frustrating it was as the child (and grandchild) of English teachers to be told I was completely wrong in my spoken and written English!

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