First of all, I am not a certified teacher or not formally trained as one in the home land, that is, other than the TEFL certification course I took before I left. So, I went into teaching TEFL in rural northeast Thailand practically blind. Not only had I minimal classroom experience, I had no information about my students before walking into that room on Day One. No previous material covered, no idea what they knew already, what level they were on or what they were supposed to know by the time the semester ended. No class list to stat with either, even if I could read Thai. When I did acquire a list of my kids’ names in English they were near impossible for my American linguistic abilities to pronounce. If you’ve ever come across a Thai name, a full one, you’d understand just how daunting that class list was. After four months I still couldn’t remember the majority of my students’ names. I got some of their nicknames down decently, but not a lot of their proper names, and none of their family names.
The first day at school before the students arrived the other foreign English Teacher (H) and I left early and walked to school. Only problem was, it was the wrong school. We worked at Chonnabotsuksa, the local middle/high school. The school we thought was ours was actually the primary school with all the small children. After sitting there confused for a few minutes we talked to the director of the school who informed us of our mistake. Then he drove us back to the opposite end of town (a few minutes down the main road) where our actual school was located.
Day One of classes: H and I grabbed some infamous Thai iced coffees and walked to school, the correct one this time. In our school students were divided into six levels known as Mattayoms. They’re similar to grades or Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Senior status. Mattayom 1 consisted of the youngest kids, around 11-12 years old, while Mattayom 6 students were the Thai equivalent of high school seniors. Within each Mattayom the students were broken down further into individual classes based on academic performance. Mattayoms 1 through 3 each had eight separate classes. Mattayom 4 through 6 each had five classes. Thus, the best students in Mattayom 1 would be grouped in Mattayom 1/1, and the worst into 1/8. The best students in Mattayom 5 would be in 5/1, and the worst in 5/5. While this particular method of organization sometimes helped with all of the students in one class having a similar level of English ability, it also meant that there was a rather high concentration of “rowdy” kids in others. It also meant that there were thirty-nine classes and two foreign English teachers. I taught eighteen of them and H taught twenty-one. The way the school schedule was set up we only got to see each class once every week.
My first class of my first term was Mattayom 2. I walked into a room full of 30-40 Thai kids between 13 and 14 years old. The classroom was sparse, with wooden desks and chairs covered in white-out Thai graffiti, and a white board. There were cobwebs still in the corners and on the walls of the room, broken bits of chairs and desks were shoved into the corner. There were almost too many students for the room even, and they were all silent and staring at me; the giant farang lady. So, basically, it was terrifying. For me and them. To top it off, I was having a rather severe adverse reaction to the 7/11 iced coffee. Willing myself to stand up straight and ignore the writhing of my intestines, I introduced myself to the kids, passed around photos, and encouraged them to ask me questions. In response I got…absolutely nothing. A lot of blank, empty faces stared up at me. I fought back the panic and the bile rising in my stomach. Had I grossly overestimated these kids’ English comprehension? Hadn’t they been learning English for several years now? Did I talk too fast? Did Thai kids speak? What was I supposed to do next?! How was I going to conduct a fifty minute class with no reaction from of the students? Was this how the next four months were going to be?!
In an effort to get the students to open up and relieve some tension between us I decided to teach them the infamous O-H-I-O chant that my university in the States is famous for. I must have looked all kinds of crazy to those kids, waving my arms around in the air and shouting random English letters. They had no idea what I was doing or why, but there is now a small population of adolescents in rural northeast Thailand who know the ‘O-H-I-O.’
After that depressing, horrifying and literally gut-wrenching day, I was ready to end it all then and there. My intestines were trying to rip their way free of my abdomen and I was getting nothing but silence from all the kids I was supposed to be teaching. The first two days, the first two weeks, I was solidly convinced I was the worst teacher to walk into a classroom ever. I felt nothing but failure; the stomachache passed but the blank stares did not. My students wouldn’t speak, to me or at all, they didn’t seem to understand any of part of what I was saying, I didn’t know their names, and I had sixteen more weeks. Four months later I had maybe fifteen out of 400+ students names memorized and could not get them to shut up.
Overall the semester proved to be quite up and down for me, as is to be expected. Moving to a very foreign country on the opposite side of the world, to an area where you stand out solely because you are one of only two foreigners in town, and you know basically zero of the local language, it can be rough. We drew a lot of attention to ourselves just for being white. H and I weren’t just two white American chicks, we were really pale white chicks, and in Thailand the more fair your skin the more beautiful they deem you. They put bleaching agents in their beauty products like Americans put tanning ones. My students were always comparing their arms to mine and telling me ‘Teacher beautiful!’, while I was only worried about sunburn or accidentally buying body wash with 50% more whitening! and subsequently having my skin sizzle off.
The language barrier of course was probably one of the most difficult aspects. The Chinese teacher spoke better English than most of the Thai English teachers. I struggled sometimes with trying to understand what was desired of me by the school and other teachers. I’d try to ask a question for clarification and they’d take it as a statement of fact. No, no, that was a question. You tell me. Just tell me what you want! In reply they’d say ‘Don’t worry about it. Do whatever you want. Just have fun.’ The general philosophy was that students learned better while having fun. We were to focus on conversational English with the students, and make them comfortable with speaking and listening – because they can’t read or write very well. So as long as we created a fun environment for the kids to practice in, they would acquire a more positive association with English, and that seemed to be the only thing our Thai teachers wanted. The first few weeks sounded mostly like this:
Me: What topics should I be teaching?
Thai Teacher: Mai bpen rai, don’t worry, whatever you want!
Me: …Um…ok? What are you teaching this week?
Thai Teacher: First month, I think, just review, because students not very good.
TT: Just have fun!
We played a lot of games in my class.
As the semester got into full swing, I noticed attendance became a bit of an issue.
Me: Half of my Mattayom six-slash-three students didn’t come to class today. Or six-four.
TT: Oh yes, me too. They are very bad students.
TT: (walks away)
Communication between the school, the Thai teachers, and us was pretty hazy in general.
Me: My students didn’t come to class today.
TT: Which class?
Me: Mattayom six-slash-two.
TT: Oh, Mattayom Six has activities today.
Me: Oh. I guess we’ll just do that test next week then.
TT: I am telling you good news! Mattayom five and six will be at temple in Khon Kaen this week.
Me: All of them? All week?
Me: So…no class?
TT: No class!
I rarely had a good grasp on what was going on in the school. I had to learn to just accept it and go with the flow, because if I kept resisting it and letting it frustrate me, there’s no way I would have survived. This was the Thai way, and there was no way we were going to change it. While it did stress me out sometimes that I didn’t have any structure, it was actually kind of nice too. I could do whatever I wanted in any of my classes. Sometimes, I admit, when only four or ten students out of forty showed up, I’d throw any plans I made out the window. I’d sit there and just talk to them. Attempt to have just basic little conversations with them. Sometimes I’d ask them what they wanted to do, and we’d do that. I found that they frequently liked to play Hangman.
Games were usually a big hit. Maybe because the majority of their other classes required them to sit there, copy, and recite. Team activities tended to motivate students, they liked their competition. Or the candy I’d sometimes give them for winning. Games could get pretty crazy, though, too. I had some classes that would get so into it, they’d be on the desks or running around and screaming in really high pitched voices. The lady-boys were typically the most involved, and the screechiest. The games weren’t always as dialogue focused as they could have been, but they allowed for the students to feel more comfortable in the classroom to use English. I used a lot of games also because I did not have a great number of resources. There was a projector in one of the rooms, but it broke part way through the semester. I made worksheets sometimes too, but since we were a conversation based class I tried to stay away from too many written activities; also because I had an uncanny ability to only encounter the high volume copier when it was out of service.
Games helped break down the barriers between me and my students too. They helped all of us relax, and once I stopped being so worried about what to do, what the kids thought of me, classes went a lot smoother. I think the kids started to like me more when I let my guards down as well. I’d be silly sometimes, not so serious, just trying to be fun. Thai kids are notoriously shy I learned, so they weren’t all mutes when I started teaching, they were just nervous and shy, like me. Once they got used to me, and I started taking role call every morning so I could learn their names (and always messed them up), classes went a little smoother. There were days and certain classes that were rougher than others, of course. Some kids were so rowdy that I just couldn’t get to listen to anything. Some would completely ignore me. Some wouldn’t ever show up. I had one kid who liked to play his guitar in the back of class. Some classes would just chitchat with one another. One way to get them to start paying attention was to just casually go over to the ceiling fan controls and threaten to turn off the fans. Without air conditioning in Thailand, this was a big deal. When I placed my hands on the dial there’d be an immediate chorus of: Teacher NO!
I’d like to say that I didn’t have favorites, but there were two classes that were particular joys to teach. One of my favorite classes became a favorite largely due to one incident. I had them cleaning the room one week – the room was trashed and it was encouraged to have students clean the school – and a bunch of students kept asking me to go to the toilet: Teacher, may I go to the toilet? Since no one can ever go to the toilet alone, I had quite a few kids come up to ask me for permission to go to the toilet, all repeating the same phrase. Then one girl accidentally replaced ‘to’ with ‘in’ and that was it. I made a big show of saying ‘in’ (IN the toilet? In??), and got out a chair and demonstrated the difference between being IN a toilet versus TO the toilet. The class went hysterical. Every single class after that a few of the boys would walk in and ask me “Teacher may I go IN the toilet?” Priceless.
The “toilet” class was also one of the more academically motivated classes, so they were always good and did their work. They had a good overall sense of humor too. I feel like we were always laughing and having fun in class. One day they had a free period after my class, which was also one of my free periods, so we ended up playing student versus teacher Hangman for nearly an hour.
During my semester there I noticed that a lot of the Thai classes, especially the English ones, were based heavily on rote memorization. The Thai teachers would give the kids a set of words or phrases, say them, then have the kids repeat them. Over and over again. When they wrote things it was frequently just copying things. For instance, the students were taught a certain greeting to give the teacher every class.
Students: Good morning teacher.
Teacher: Good morning class. How are you?
Students: I’m fine thank you and you?
Teacher: I’m fine thank you. Sit down please.
Students: Thank you, Teacher.
If you deviated from this set conversation the kids would get confused and wouldn’t always recognize what to say. They’d just say what they were used to saying. The ‘I’m fine thank you and you’ line started to wear on my and H’s nerves after a few months. Anytime you asked ‘How are you’ it was always ‘I’m fine.’ So we started to refuse to accept that as an answer. I made a collection of ‘mood dude’ drawings out of crayon and a sharpie of a variety of emotions. Below the faces I had the English and Thai words for that emotion so they could learn some new things to say (hopefully). I taped them up on one of the walls and spent a day going over what they all meant. They’d point to the drawings and I would say the emotion and act out the emotion. The younger ones had fun with that. I think they just liked seeing me act out ‘angry’ and ‘enraged.’ Every day after that I made them use another word besides ‘fine.’
Towards the end of the semester I started to really enjoy the teaching. I still wasn’t convinced I was really great at it, but it was a lot more enjoyable. I became sad to leave. I didn’t think students would care much either way, but when they learned it was my last week they started to tell me that they would miss me and please don’t go. I spent my last week taking photos with all my students. All semester I caught them talking selfie photos during class, and the day I said ‘yay let’s take pictures!’ they all got shy and put their camera phones away. Of course. They made me cards that said ‘we love teacher’ and wrote little notes to me. One class made me a great big card with little Minions from Despicable Me on it! I love Minions! One girl gave me a little pouch that she had knitted herself. Another class gave me a bouquet of fake flowers and a new case for my phone. On our last day we had to line up in front of everyone and give little good bye speech. Then a group of students took turns giving us roses and other trinkets. It was all so nice; it was enough to make you want to cry. I didn’t expect to be so sad to leave.
There are plenty more little details about actually teaching I missed here, but overall it was a wonderful experience that now I wouldn’t trade for the world. I didn’t think I would love it as much as I did, but Thailand and teaching TEFL really helped me grow and change for the better. It might have been ridiculously hot, but it was an amazing learning opportunity and I hope to be able to return some day. Maybe even before my students graduate. To anyone considering a trip to Thailand, to visit or to try teaching English, it is a fantastic place to go, full of great people and great experiences.