Teacher, speak Thai! Teacher, go home!
These are two phrases that came up a lot in my classroom while teaching English in Thailand. When students first started shouting out ‘Teacher go home!’ in class I thought it was because they didn’t like me or my class and wanted me out of their school, out of their town, out of their country. It made me feel pretty terrible for a while, actually. Then I learned that they weren’t telling me to go home, they were asking if they could go home. Wow, was I embarrassed for thinking they were telling me point blank to get the hell out of Thailand. Though, I found they could actually be pretty blunt, so my feelings weren’t completely unfounded. Along with ‘Teacher, go home’ my students also frequently would point to their watches near the end of the period telling me ‘Teacher, time.’ The period before lunch was always the worst, with choruses of ‘Teacher, hungry!’ going on all forty or fifty minutes. Typical teenage students, they always wanted to get out of class early, regardless of how late they came to class in the first place. Sometimes they’d go ahead and leave of their own accord without my permission. The too-cool-for-school boys in the back were notorious for taking off right after roll call.
Another student-ism I came across was ‘Teacher, speak Thai!’ This one usually came in the beginning of class with students trying to get out of actually doing the English activities at all. Also, because it was hilariously entertaining for them to listen to me try to speak Thai. For a few weeks when one of the kids would yell out ‘Teacher, speak Thai!’ I’d try to be nice and answer it politely by telling them that we were going to practice English because this was English class. Then I started telling them that Teacher no speak Thai. Only English. These responses did nothing to stop them from trying to speak Thai every day, so finally when one girl (who was constantly telling me to speak Thai) shouted it out while I was about to begin class I turned to her and just as loudly and insistently replied: “Student, speak English!’ I got a few laughs for that one, but unfortunately it didn’t really deter the kids from continuing to try to make me speak Thai during class. Ah, well, couldn’t win them all.
I had a little more success with the ‘go home’ issue. Whenever a student shouted out ‘Teacher go home!’ I’d be all pleasantly surprised and tell them: “Teacher go home? Ok!’ And then I walked out of the classroom. That got them all up in arms (no, Teacher!) and they eventually learned that asking me to leave never got them out early.
Overall, discipline in my school could prove a bit of a challenge. My school was where a lot of the country kids from surrounding farms and little villages came, and many didn’t put a lot of value in learning English. They were far from any tourist destination and rarely saw foreigners (farangs) outside of the foreign English teachers. Thus, a great deal of the kids had very little motivation to learn English. Some were motivated learners, but the majority of classes entailed a bit of struggle on my part to get lessons across. Once my students got comfortable with me they started talking in class, a lot, but rarely in English. If I had a partner speaking activity I’d hear only Thai chatting until I came over to a pair and made them do the conversation for me. This could be difficult to pull off every class, since I frequently had over forty students in one class.
Like any classroom, I had the kids who would do nothing, the kids who always did their work, and the ones that didn’t want to do anything and would cause as much ruckus as possible so no one else could get anything done either. It was a big learning curve for me as well trying to figure out how to handle these small hordes of Thai adolescents. The majority of my management and control issues were with the Mattayom 2 students, who were around thirteen or fourteen. They were loud, they were always throwing things, and they would say things in Thai to me that they all knew I didn’t understand. They also knew they could get away with a lot since I was not allowed to fail them. However, some teachers in my country school still believed in caning and all teachers believed in reprimands involving physical tasks like push-ups or squats. I knew a few English teachers in other towns who adopted this method of classroom control. I never actually wanted to yell or hit my students, but I would sometimes grab some kind of stick left in the classroom and carry it around, just to suggest that maybe I would use it if I had to. One of the most effective methods to control things when they got out of hand though was threaten to turn off the fans. Without air conditioning in any of the rooms this was usually quite effective. I avoided shouting out threats, though, because most of the time they don’t care or don’t understand. So I would just walk over to the controls and place my hand on the dial. Immediately students would start clamoring ‘Teacher NO! No!’ and yelling at the other kids to start behaving. No one wanted to sit in one of those stuffy rooms without any air flow.
Attendance and lateness issues, however, were harder for me to control. If it got bad, I was told to notify the Thai English teachers. When I did, they’d get verbally reprimanded pretty harshly (at least to my ears), and they’d all be there the next week at an appropriate time. There were still those who only showed up to get signed into the attendance list, and then they’d be gone. Even with large class sizes I started recognizing these boys. So I’d make a little mark next to their names, and check again at the end of class to see if they were still there. If not, no attendance point. Some classes I’d take attendance through the activities or worksheets. I’d have a dialogue or speaking task for them to do and would only check their names on the attendance when I heard them speak. Same with worksheets. If they didn’t turn in a worksheet, they were marked absent.
During games, if kids were refusing to participate or take their turn, I’d threaten to give the other team an extra point or erase one of their team’s precious points. Their classmates would then get all frenzied and yell at the slacker until he or she got up to take their turn. Only once through the whole semester did one kid actually stay seated and let his whole team take the hit.
Occasionally one needed more severe threats or punishments, of course. When a student would get particularly on my nerves or do something unacceptable I would have them go sit outside the room alone. If I felt it was especially unacceptable I’d go and speak to them individually, usually just to make sure I got their name correctly so I could inform their Thai teacher who could speak to them more effectively than I could. A few instances I made them stand in the corner of the room in front of the whole class by themselves, or make them clean up the entire room when they started throwing papers. Some of the other foreign teachers would make them stand in the front of the class and perform a dance or recite a poem or something in English. Students usually hated to be the one called up to perform in front of the class, but loved seeing classmates forced into it.
They taught us various methods in my TEFL course and my Thai Culture Orientation for creating order in the classroom, but ultimately it’s something you have to work out on your own based on your own teaching style and classroom. Especially when in a foreign culture, some things may work better in one environment than in another. You can prepare as much as you want for dealing with discipline and management in the classroom, but ultimately it will be something best worked out through time and experience. As our instructors told us in my training classes, you will have to learn to pick your battles. You will not always win clashes with students, and you will have to learn to pick which ones are the most pertinent to retain control throughout the course. I am certainly no expert in the matter, I just have my own experiences to go on, and what worked for me in Isaan, Thailand, may not work for me in any other classroom. The key is to not give up and let it overwhelm you. Kids will be kids. There will be bad days and good days. Don’t give up!