Or maybe joke of the class? It’s hard to tell when you don’t speak Thai!
My teaching experience hasn’t received much press time on this blog, but considering that I spend 40 hours each week immersed in it, I think that the time has come to change that. Teaching, as loyal readers will remember, was pretty nervewracking for me at the beginning. This is understandable when you take into account that I was thrown into a classroom after a three week training course (hardly sufficient!) and that, for those who know me, I don’t have the most commanding presence out there. I’ve never enjoyed being in charge (vocally that is – I love running behind-the-scenes shows), and I’m certainly not comfortable in a position of authority. I always hated babysitting and teaching teenagers in Thailand (everywhere?) is exactly that – babysitting.
The nerves settled after a few weeks, though it honestly took quite a bit longer to hit the point where I genuinely didn’t mind getting in front of a class and ‘teaching.’ I still can’t say that I enjoy it per se, but it’s become much easier to swallow and every day has its charms. The time is flying and whereas at one point I was doubting my ability to finish my contract, I am now aware that it’ll be over before I know it.
The problems with Thailand’s educational system are well-known, widely published and nowhere near being solved. I won’t go into a lot of general facts and theory, as these are easy to find (thanks, google!) if you’re interested, but I will discuss them in terms of my own short experience.
The number one, all-encompassing problem is the lack of critical thinking and creativity. Thai schools use rote teaching methods in which the Thai teacher sits at the front of the class, talks on a microphone and the students write down what she says. Their sole task is to memorize these things and then spit them back out on a test – there is no such thing as participation or critical thinking or questioning, it is what it is. This runs more deeply into Thai culture as a whole, but I won’t get into that right now. Basically, there is a formula and the point of school is to learn it – not too unlike what is happening in American schools with such a huge focus on standardized testing. School is less and less about thinking and more about memorizing that magic formula to pass the test that will determine the futures and salaries and budgets of those in charge. The end goal is the piece of paper, not an expanded mind. Considering that Thai schools are profit-hungry businesses, it makes sense.
Anyways, this has translated into a relatively frustrating experience. It is nearly impossible to communicate to these kids that you want them to be creative, be funny, think of something new! It’s not that they’re incapable, but that school as they know it is a place for right and wrong, black and white. Give them an open-ended question – where do you see yourself in 10 years? They will just stare at you, perplexed, waiting for a clue as to what “the” answer is. Of course there are exceptions and occasionally you have a student who GETS it (and makes my day!), but overall, straying from the textbook is futile.
With that said, many of my students can write sentences quite well, have impressive spelling skills and all of them have flawless handwriting. What they can’t do is put a sentence together in spoken form! They can often manage to get the point across, but I honestly don’t think that I’ve ever heard one complete, grammically correct sentence come out of any of their mouths! It’s a shame, but they are so reluctant to speak English (they’ve spent their whole lives memorizing how to write it) that there’s no way they can get better. It’s surprising when you realize that all of these kids have been studying English for the past 5-12 years.
Moving on. The system flaws are not helped out by the fact that most of these kids have no reason to WANT to learn English. A handful of them do, of course, and they understand that it could open up some doors for them. Most of them, however, don’t see the point. Thailand is not a fully developed country and only a small percentage of the population will ever cross the border; travel is not something that is finacially possible or even a consideration for most Thais. This is an extremely nationalistic place (more on that in another post) – many of my students just don’t understand why a second language matters or how it could possibly affect them.
Not wanting to learn English, when coupled with no-fail policies (we wouldn’t want anyone to stand out!) naturally contributes to all sorts of other issues in the classroom. Tardiness, as I’ve mentioned before, is the norm. This is partially due to “Thai time” (meaning any time different than what was specified) and probably isn’t helped by the fact that I don’t discourage it – I love getting out of some teaching time!
The other major issues are the talking, the primping and the cell phoning. These things, again, aren’t helped by my severe lack of disciplinarian skills, but they seem to be the norm for all foreign teachers. These kids can talk at unimaginably loud levels, they never get tired (this is the birthplace of Redbull!), the girls (and many boys) must consult their mirrors every 3 or 4 minutes and the cell phones are pretty much an extension of their bodies. A typical class will have the 7 studious kids up front, trying to take notes, the group of too-cool guys slouching in the back row, no textbooks in sight, the 10 ‘princesses’ scattered throughout, constantly smoothing their hair and applying lipgloss and about ten cellphones being ‘secretly’ utilized at any given moment, by any given kid.
The difference between here and what I remember from my school days is the lack of defiance. The second that you shoot them a look, ask where the textbook is or why the cellphone is out, they will immediately look embarrassed, wai you (bow) and fix whatever it is they were doing wrong. This doesn’t mean that they won’t resume within five minutes, but Thais don’t do confrontation and it’s evident in the classroom. When class is over, they’ll all thank you, say ‘see you next time,’ and will wave enthusiastically at you outside of class, yelling the all-too-common “Tee-cha!”
Strangely, many of my students are my age and a few are older. I have one girl who is 29, in an intro class with a bunch of 16 year olds. Age is an ambiguous thing here – no one ever looks their age (especially not while wearing a school uniform!) and the maturity rate is so different from the west. A 20 year old Thai is like a 15 year old westerner in terms of maturity – I have a group of 23 year old girls and I cannot process it in my head. They giggle and idolize pop stars and gossip like high school freshman. Most will live at home until they are married, if not longer, a result of limited finances and very tight-knit family units.
Cheating is another major facet of Thai education. They ALL cheat, shamelessly. Tests aside, it’s not necessarily seen as a negative. The attitude is more that of, “You asked for the correct answer, so here it is!” Give them an assignment out of the book? The two smartest kids will finish, show me, then everyone else will promptly crowd around and then excitedly show me the exact same answers. Write about yourself? Strange, all 24 kids have the exact same life! And they wonder why no one ever learns…
They know better than to cheat on a test, but oh, they will try! I’ve got to admit, they’ve got some clever tactics, but luckily I’ve done my research. There’s the ridiculous method of just blatantly talking amongst each other, then there’s the “holding my paper up to ponder my answers but really I’m showing the girl behind me” method, the trick where the kids who’ve finished stand outside the door and signal answers through the window and many others. Every student, even the smartest, straight-A kid, will have wandering eyes during a test. It’s something genetic, I believe…even if there’s no chance of seeing anything due to distance or if it’s the worst student in the class, they will look. Test day is almost as stressful for me as for them!
This seems to be a post full of complaints and criticisms, but that really isn’t my intention. There are a lot of enjoyable aspects of it, and I do as best I can with what I’ve got. I know that I have no right to call myself qualified, though I’m not sure that “qualified” makes a difference here. All of these issues have becomes less bothersome as time has passed, largely because I’ve realized that it’s useless to care too much when the kids don’t. The ones who do (and I do have some) will let you know and they will talk to you outside of class – those are the ones that make this enjoyable. I’m sure this is a common sentiment of teachers everywhere, but it’s interesting to look at it in light of the culture you’re dealing with.
It’s a shame that so many of these problems persist – there are articles in newspapers and whatnot all of the time, but nothing is ever done to change things. These kids aren’t dumb, they aren’t slow and they aren’t lazy, but the school system certainly sets it up so that they appear to be in certain realms. I think it’s a big reason why Thailand isn’t developed yet and doesn’t seem to be getting any closer. If schools don’t teach critical thinking, responsibility, consequence (aside from being hit with a stick) and awareness of the outside world, then your population will be without. When it comes to English, at least, they could start by not employing crash-course “teachers” like myself!