More reflections on teaching English

I have been back in Canberra for three months now and am still reflecting on my amazing year. Being in Thailand for the last military coup made me abruptly aware of the power structures that exist there and the role of education in their maintenance. I still reel when I remember the regular use of the cane in the poor, rural high school I worked in.  Even the kindest teachers felt they needed to cane boys to carry out their jobs and one of the more up-front cane users entered my classroom several times to whack students, usually while my back was turned to the board. My preferred method was to work hard to engage reluctant class members. Some of my best memories are those times when those students succeeded, even in the smallest ways, and smiled with pleasure when they received good feedback. I realise now how lucky we are in Australia that our education system values questioning over subservience, that we can discuss politics openly and safely, and can learn that there are many ways we can view subjects, especially history.

But it is the role of English in keeping social structures intact that troubles me the most. The contrast between middle class, English speaking students and the rest of the population is stark. They, of course, usually get the best education that private wealth can buy, secure the best jobs, make more money and have a better chance of becoming powerful members of society. Vara: A Blessing  The same is also evident in India. In Dharamsala, I was lucky enough to attend a premier of the film Vara: a Blessing.  From the start of the film, there was a strange dissonance between the setting and the language spoken by  the characters, which was English. The audience members were mostly young Indians and the use of English was the subject of the first question asked of the great writer/director Khyentse Norbu following the screening. He openly expressed his own dismay and advised that the choice of English belonged to the producers. I also noticed upper class Indian families who were visiting Dharamsala using English with their young children and, meanwhile, probably ensuring that their offspring lose their parents’ first language. This was a phenomenon I also remember from Indonesia, particularly Jakarta.

So what is the role of an English teacher in countries where the use of English is controversial? I can tell myself that my role is to help the disempowered and then make sure that these are my students. Ironically, I strongly believe that part of the role of English teachers in these situations is also to help students to appreciate the immense value of their mother tongue and do all we can to encourage them to become literate in that as a priority. I found this story, How English Ruined Indian Literature, in the New York Times particularly interesting and hope you do too.


Counting down

Tibet World entranceThere are only 14 days to go before I fly from Dharamsala to Delhi to Sydney. I have settled into a routine here – going to work at Lha in the mornings where I help write responses to emails from volunteers from all over the world, taking a lunch break and then heading for Tibet World to teach students for two hours.

As I promised myself, I have been trying to help the students with their writing and they have responded well.  They are keen to hear what I think about their latest pieces of writing and are getting used to incorporating feedback into new drafts.  I gave a presentation about writing to the volunteer teachers at Tibet World.  The volunteers teach a range of languages apart from English so I tried to accommodate this and to make it relevant for all proficiency levels. There was a good discussion at the end, so hopefully that was a good sign.

The members of the English class seem much more relaxed now and even the most reserved students are finally smiling and contributing in class.  This has resulted in a much better atmosphere where they are participating and helping each other much more.  I am looking forward to our last two weeks and hope we get a few more good lessons in.

The picture of the class was taken while they were absorbed in writing.  We had studied a model and they were silently writing their own narratives.  They are all deep thinkers, and despite the limitations of their English, they all produce work that reflects their schemas.

monks writing - advanced class

In addition to covering the grammar items listed in the program, we have been working on areas they still find confusing, like question word orders.  I think next week is a good chance to continue to help with common errors, so we will try using Learning From Common Mistakes (Cambridge) .

So I am turning my mind to going home and tying up all the loose ends here before leaving. The University of Canberra has accepted my application to continue my studies and am looking forward to university life next semester. My TESOL studies have played a crucial role in the quality of my teaching and I definitely want to keep improving.

I am also looking forward to meeting up with other TESOL graduates who have started teaching so we can share our experiences. Who knows, maybe I can encourage other students to spend some time volunteering in Asia like I have.  There is so much waiting out there and I can guarantee that it’s a richly rewarding experience.

Teaching Tibetans

In the fascinating town of McLeod Ganj, India, my fifth week will soon be over. The Dalai Lama has been teaching this week so English classes were cancelled for three days.  Unfortunately, as soon as I started teaching I managed to catch a cold and coughed my way through most classes, so the break has been most welcome. Combining three hours a day coordinating volunteers with two hours teaching has been fairly demanding but I am better now and life is settling down again.

Tibetan monks - Sunday activities

Tibetan monks – Sunday is laundry day at the waterfall.

I am slowly getting to know my students. They are nearly all Tibetans although for the last three weeks we were joined by a lovely young Japanese woman who was visiting the area. About half the class are monks from different parts of India and even from Bhutan.  They have come here to study and I think it must be hard for them living in freezing guesthouses with few belongings and very little money.

They are here because they have a strong will to learn and the class is delightful to teach. It is great to have an advanced class and the challenge of guiding them though some of the complexities of English is enjoyable. I have a sneaking suspicion that they are more comfortable when I use more traditional approaches to grammar teaching, but despite that, they they are experiencing a variety of approaches. I still think back to the expression “an eclectic range of approaches” from lectures at the University of Canberra and that’s the way I have been teaching all year.

Over the next few weeks, I want to see them writing more. This skill seems to be a bit neglected by some teachers here. Maybe it is regarded as too hard or unimportant, but I disagree.  English is widely used here and being unable to write in English has the potential at times to leave many Tibetan refugees in a relatively powerless position. It is also the language mostly used in countries that they (remember that we are talking about refugees) often want to emigrate to, such as the UK, Canada, Australia and the USA.

On a side note, the issue of official and national languages of India is a volatile political minefield, but for now, English and Hindi are the (main) official languages of India.  Even though the Constitution states that English is to be phased out in favour of Hindi, Hindi is not universally popular, while English is widely used and sometimes is referred to as the national language. 

McLeod Ganj is a good place to live for a while.  Sometimes it is heart rending to think about the difficult position of the refugees here, always waiting and hoping for world support and a chance to return to their country.  Their spirit is amazing though and their Buddhist traditions help keep them strong.  This is a place no visitor could forget.

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.