Changing lanes – two very different English camps

Currently lessons at Thungmaprao High School have been suspended while the students play sports and undertake other activities for a couple of weeks. So this week I taught at two contrasting three day English camps. Both were for government school students, but the first was at a five star resort and the other was in a primary school located in a very small Muslim village.

The camp at the resort was for the most proficient English students from a large high school in Takuapa. The other camp was the first one ever at the little primary school and you can see from the tears in the farewell picture (top left) that it was something very special for the children. The younger children were fascinated and were often found watching at the door and, at the end, some of the mothers were there too.

Both camps were wonderful experiences for me and I have picked up a few new tricks from some of the other teachers.  The pictures show that the students enjoyed themselves too.

I have just found out that I am required at Thungmaprau on Monday morning to attend an event and give a speech.  As long as no-one puts a microphone in front of me and asks me to sing “If you’re happy and you know it” again, I should be fine. Anything but that, please!

And I am back to regular classes on Wednesday.

I hope you enjoy the pictures.


Week 5 – Wai Kru Day

Last week the high school celebrated Wai Kru day. This is an an event where the students pay their respects to the teachers by presenting floral arrangements and kneeling down while the teachers pat their heads and whisper sage things to them. All the students came together in their hall for several hours and displayed remarkable patience and joy, although the M1s and 2s gradually became restless as time wore on. I have included a picture of the boys fidgeting.

I enjoyed being given flowers and incense and found the ceremony very uplifting. It seemed to be a morale booster for the hardworking Thai teachers as well. However, it was back to normal in the afternoon when classes resumed.

Wai Kru is held on a Thursday, which is meant to be auspicious for teachers. I haven’t personally found Thursdays to be particularly auspicious as it is the day we have the heaviest workload so I am usually quite stressed. Last Thursday before I left for work my toilet blocked up, I locked my key inside, the driver was late and then we couldn’t get into the classroom.  Surprisingly, the lessons went reasonably well.

At school, I am gradually getting more and more used to the students and they seem to be relaxing a little. This week will be the sixth and we have covered quite a bit of territory. I am trying to keep up with the syllabus (in a simplified way) for the large classes and have tried lots of activities with the smaller speaking and listening classes. We even did a dictogloss last Friday and it was interesting to see that some of the key words were not understood even after group collaboration. We are doing plenty of group work and it seems to be working well. We are also trying to engage the students who appear to have spent years of English classes learning very little. They often sit at the front now so we can try to keep their attention.

The next two weeks are only four days long due to a couple of Thai holidays and, after that, I am off to Penang and then Phuket where I will have a few days with my son and daughter. Fortunately, Ros, an Australian high school teacher with TESOL quals, is stepping in to help. I am hoping she will stay on and co-teach with me when Clyde leaves in a few weeks. We get on well and I think I could learn a lot from her.

I hope you enjoy the beautiful Wai Kru pictures. It was a moving event.M6 (final year) students Wai Kru Senior student Teacher and student The boys are getting fidgetty Floral arrangement

Teaching in Thailand – Five early observations


They look sweet but are rascals.

Today was my seventh day teaching in a high school in Phang Nga Province in Southern Thailand.  I will be there until the end of the term in about four months. I went to the school a couple of weeks ago to meet the Principal and the English teachers and was allocated  eleven classes ranging from ten to forty students in size to teach. The classes range from elective speaking and listening through to final year  preparation classes for the national examinations.

My placement was arranged by Volunteer Teaching Thailand, an organisation set up after the tsunami that hit this region very hard in 2004.  “Uncle” Ken Hyde and Sunny provide a great service, liaising with local schools, and placing and supporting volunteers.  It is a non-profit organisation and I recommend it.  I am classed as an independent volunteer so I  look after myself outside school hours and the arrangement suits me well. Clyde, who is an accountant from Texas, is joining me until the end of July and we are settling into a good working partnership.  I have been designing most of the lessons to ensure that we are following the syllabus and teaching to the right level, but there is plenty for both of us  to do in terms of preparation  and trying to make sure students get the help they need.

At the high school we are greeted in the corridors  by  students happily saying “Hello, teacher!” and I feel like I might be starting to settle in.

The first seven days have  presented many complex challenges and I have spent a lot of my time reflecting on the nature of my new classroom and school environment. So here are five early realisations.

  • I am a mime artist.   In English classes, Thai is normally the medium of instruction with only occasional snippets of English, so last week the students seemed to be in shock because we speak in English 99.9% of the time. Their comprehension of our English instructions and explanations is not good at the moment so much of the time I  rely on mime and the help of the more proficient students to get my messages through.
  • Expect the unexpected. Okay I concede that is normal for Asia, but my teacherly composure has been threatened regularly. For example, before I started, the smartboard in our classroom was working well but by day one it had ceased to operate.  In contrast, the new whiteboard isn’t attached to the wall and sometimes falls over, so it is held up by a plastic chair.  There are other examples. On day one, the driver took us to the wrong school, and on subsequent days we have lost whole classes and found them sitting in the wrong room. Every day there is something unexpected to contend with.
  • Yikes! Classroom discipline! I am accustomed to motivated adult learners.  Now I front up to classes of up to forty teenagers at a time and have discovered that  maintaining classroom discipline is demanding and exhausting. By the end of day one,  I needed a session on FaceTime with a Australian friend to practice my new mantra.  It goes like this. (Mary) “Who’s the boss?” (Me) I’m the boss!!!”  I have also been practising the Australian Foreign Minister’s death stare. The students will, however, not be sent up the line for bad behaviour because corporal punishment is the order of the day and we can’t bear that. Things are gradually improving.
  • I am spending a lot of time Thai-arising teaching materials.  The school text books are basically Americanish with Thai introductions so I have started writing exercises.  Some of the materials at the the volunteer centre  have been useful but they are mostly for younger students. As an example, for a lesson about nationalities today I sat up last night writing scripts for role plays between Fendy from Indonesia, Farah from Malaysia, Devi from Cambodia and so on. Did you you know that people from Brunei are apparently Bruneians?
  • The external English exams that are used in Thailand are terrible. I read about this on internet before I came here, but now  I have looked at a couple of examples and it is clear that they fail miserably in terms of validity and reliability.  I feel so sorry for the students.

What happened to my previous plans in Thailand?
In an earlier post I expressed my excitement about my plans to spend the next four months at a boarding school a couple of hours away, but  I only stayed  for three days.  Unfortunately my arrival coincided with some major  changes at the upper level and the manager who was responsible for selecting me was leaving.  I realised quickly that I couldn’t stay either and that, although the students and Thai teachers were lovely, this was not the place for me.

Now, looking back, I am glad to be here in Khao Lak working in a government high school instead. This is what I need to be doing.

Leaving Indonesia

My good friend and sponsor. At Mt Bomo

Ibu Yuni. My good friend and sponsor. At Mt Bromo

She kept me fed and was immensely kind.

Ibu Kusno. She kept me fed and was immensely kind.

My main class.  They taught me to relax as a teacher.

My main class.

Ibu Dila looked after me and answered my endless questions.

Ibu Dila looked after me and answered my endless questions.

non english major

Even the teacher in front seemed to be enjoying the classes by the end.  These teachers were great to teach.

Even the teacher in front seemed to be enjoying the classes by the end. These teachers were great to teach.

Farewell note from Prof. Dyah.  She gave me a cool PowerPoint pointer.

Farewell note from Prof. Dyah. She gave me a cool PowerPoint pointer.

My cottage in Ubud

My cottage in Ubud

Balinese offering

Balinese offering

Balinese picture

Balinese picture

Chilling in Bali . Neneh day one

Chilling in Bali . Neneh day one

Gamelan orchestra - Bali

Gamelan orchestra – Bali

Tomorrow I will fly to Bangkok from Indonesia after almost three months in Java and Bali and start the next phase of my year, but today I am still saying goodbye.

Finishing up in Bali has been a wonderful experience for me, especially because my daughter came and joined me for most of the time. In Ubud, where I have spend most of this Bali trip, there are many things that I will miss. Early morning walks in the rice fields, the endless offerings, the languid dogs, sneezing from spicy cooking smells (like now), the Balinese massages (of course), the music, art and dancing, and the beauty of the Balinese people in traditional dress.

I will also miss trying to get my pronunciation right (which is easier than it used to be now that I understand something about linguistics) and talking to some of the more advanced English speakers about how they learnt and, sometimes, giving them a new piece of information about English to incorporate.

I probably won’t miss the people begging, pointing at their mouths, near the Ubud temple, like the woman with the goitre. None of them got any money from me, as I just couldn’t work out what to do. Finally, I decided this morning to donate some $$$ to a local healthcare service.

So, tomorrow I will be back in Bangkok and, in another four days, at Yaowawit School. I am looking forward to the next phase and being able to publish my next post from Thailand!

Next Stop Thailand

Thanks to WordPress blogger Cornish Kylie, I found out about a great school in Thailand in a small village called Kapong in the province of Phang Nga on Thailand’s west coast. It is where I am going next and I am thrilled about this opportunity to work on my teaching skills in a wonderful environment.

After reading Kylie’s post, I read everything else I could find about the school and contacted them to ask if it was too late to apply for next term which starts in mid-May. After several emails, an application form and two Skype interviews, I have been accepted and am arriving there on 8 May, instead of going to Chiangmai as previously planned.

Yaowawit school is part of a project founded by a German philanthropist following the 2004 tsunami. The Youtube video above tells you a little more about it.

The school is home for over 110 children from socially and financially underprivileged families. They have good quality accommodation for visitors too, which helps support the school and provides opportunities for vocational training. So if anyone wants to come visit that would be great.

Here is the post that made me investigate further and apply.

Meanwhile I will be staying in Bali until the last day of my Thai visa re-entry period.

Balandas and Bravery

Balanda  meaning N, People or person of European Descent. Balanda also refers collectively to the English speaking Dominant culture of Australia and all other ‘Western’ nations. Its origin comes the Macassan term ‘Belanda’ which is derived from ‘Hollander’ to describe the Dutch and is still used in Bahasa Indonesian today.

In Indonesia I am a Balanda.  When I heard the word I was surprised because I had encountered it before when reading about the Yolgnu people in Arnhem Land in Far Northern Australia in an amazing book by Richard Trudgen called Why Warriors Lie Down and Die. 

It has only clicked with me recently that the ‘Far North’ of Australia is actually the ‘Close South’ for Malaysia and Indonesia.

I haven’t seen another Balanda since I left the confines of the hotel in Jakarta. This has made me feel a heightened awareness of my Australian-ness, especially in the classroom.

Most native English speakers probably don’t notice the cultural nature of our language but language and culture are inextricably related. I have conducted a few very productive lessons with the English teachers that were explicitly about Australian and Indonesian customs, but mostly culture is integral to the language in every lesson and is more implicitly presented. For example, in most classes, amongst other activities, we have been working through Living in Australia, which is a very recent publication from NSW AMES.  The chapter is called ‘Now You’re Talking’ and the conversation examples are plausible and natural, and seem to be informed by discourse analysis. The examples of informal conversation are laden with Australian culture.

I have wondered at times about whether Australian English is suitable for these students.  For example should it be Global English, American English or some kind of combination of ‘Englishes’?  I have talked to teachers here and there appears to be agreement that, as our two countries are close neighbours, having an Australian teaching here is a good idea.

On bravery

I am pleased to report that the longer I teach here, the more relaxed the classes are becoming.  Sadly there are some people (teachers included) who find speaking in English in my classes too intimidating and so they rarely, if ever, attend. It takes a certain amount of bravery for Indonesian students and teachers to come to my English speaking classes even though I understand the challenges they face.  For those who are regular attenders, the benefits are showing. There is better communication, more smiles and laughter, and a discernible improvement in confidence levels. I feel better too, of course, as I observe the students understanding me more often when I am speaking and as I notice an increasing level of spontaneous use of English in class.

As I see the English Major students twice a week we have covered a lot of ground. They have examined and practiced the main elements of the informal conversations in the chapter and have now begun putting it all together in role plays.  It is demanding but they are clever, motivated students and so far the results are pleasing.  I am looking forward to seeing their progress over the next few weeks.