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.