Mother's Day essays

Making sure the right student wins!


It's that time of year again....

Every August, the Thai head of English thrusts a fistful of about two-hundred essays that all the prathom six kids have written about their mums. My job is to pick out the best three of them. These will be read aloud at some of the Mother's Day ceremonies we have at our school over the next few days.

I do this every year and it's really easy. The first thing I do is discard all the ones that were run through ‘Google Translate'. This is almost all of them, so I'm then left with about half a dozen from which to choose the best three.

I have no idea who the authors are as I don't know any of their full Thai names, but this year was very interesting. There was one particular stand out. The winning entrant contained mostly awful English but it was the English that he knew and it had obviously not been translated from Thai by a computer. It was also a genuinely open-hearted love letter to his mum that moved me.

So, I took the essays back to the head English teacher with my nominations (and corrections) and she said: "Are you sure?" In fact, she questioned me closely over and over and wanted to know if I would consider re-thinking this decision.

I learned my lesson.

Well, a few years ago, the first time I was given this dubious duty of adjudication, someone changed my decisions and the students that I thought were most deserving of the best essay award weren't the same students that were invited to the podium to read their work in front of the whole school.

That pissed me off and I learned my lesson. Now, each year, I go to the classes directly, identify the winners and we all have a big round of applause so the results can't be changed later in favor of more, er... 'deserving' kids.

Hey, if you don't want my opinion, don't ask me, right? I'm quite happy to be left out of the process if my input doesn't mean anything.

But this year was a real shocker, even to me. It turned out that the 'winner' was a lad who had been traditionally regarded as a 'slow learner' and was also a bit of a class clown. But of all the essays that weren't proof-read by Google, his was easily the best and I confess I took a guilty pleasure in seeing the faces of all the other kids in the classroom (especially the girls) who were visibly displeased that he'd risen to the top of the heap and won top honors.

Every year I make it very clear to the students and teachers that anything run through a translator won't be considered but this never stops them from doing it anyway. That's fine by me. It saves me hours of reading the essays!

Actually, I was tempted to throw in a few of the bizarre translations into this article just for the comedy of it, but you've probably seen thousands of similar English language comedies of your own.

Just roll with it.

I don't mind the cheating. It makes no difference to me how the students want to present themselves and their work. It certainly has no impact on what and how I teach. I feel a bit put out when they swear on a stack of voodoo dolls that their essays really are original and all their own work... then when I ask them what one of the translated words mean, of course, they don't know.

At the end of November, I'll get another two hundred essays to look at. This time, they'll be about dads. (Father's Day is on December 5th.) Most of them will be parsed through that great educator in the cloud, Google Translate.

If I'm lucky, someone will submit an interesting and heartfelt essay using only the English they know. If they do, that student will win the essay competition. If I'm really lucky the head of English will just stop asking me to judge these fraudulent testaments to a corrupt educational system.

In the meantime, I go to banging my head against the wall! ;)

Mark Newman


Comments

Paul
I see you refer to Thai teachers as being “bad” without allowing for any exceptions. Does becoming a teacher make all of them “bad” or do only “bad” people go into teaching? Or is it the fact they are Thai which makes them “bad?” How were you able to observe and evaluate all Thai teachers? Why special training or expertise do you have which qualifies you to place value judgements on an entire profession in a culture who are not from?

Of course there are problems with the Thai educational system, as people find in every educational system in the world. In Japan and Korea which produces the best test scores there are complaints about the students facing too much pressure to succeed and tests often focus more on memorization than innovation. In the USA there are always many competing versions of how education should be reformed, with no consensus ever reached. Teachers, both foreign and domestic, in every country, bitch and moan about “the system.”

While the test scores of Thailand’s students are far below the scores of more economically developed nations, they are not too far off what is seen in other developing economies. I am not praising the system, but one should be realistic about what to expect when working in a developing economy with an extremely different culture and political system than most of us are used to.

Having an ethnocentric worldview where one uses an idealized version of how things are “back home” to judge everything in Thailand will obviously result in Thailand falling short of expectations. But will all the moaning, complaining and expressions of cultural superiority help make your life in the country happier and you more successful on the job?

In my experience, admittedly mostly at the university level, I have had quite a bit of freedom to teach my classes in the manner of my choosing, and I have tried to do my best with the responsibilities given to me. I have been satisfied with my limited role and results I have achieved.

I have a lot of ideas of how to improve the educational system in Thailand, but so far no one has asked me to take charge to change the system.
In the extremely unlikely event someone asked me to reform the entire Thai educational system, or even asked me to work as a consultant on the topic, I would ask for much higher wages to take on this much higher level of analysis and responsibility. I find developing my own classes to achieve optimal results pretty challenging and would not want to added headaches with added compensation.

If the task were easy it would have already been accomplished, and I have my doubts hiring a couple of Western ESL teachers who post on ajarn.com to take charge and change everything would be an easy solution to the problems the country has in its educational system.

By Jack, In front of my computer (10 months ago)

I brushed on this in a comment to another of Mark's articles.

So many kids that really want to try hard and improve by doing the right thing with some help will succeed.

Unfortunately safety is very important to the Thai teachers these days. Kissing the directors bum is far more successful than creating change and progressing into many things the Amart do not understand but the students will need for their futures.

Great articles Mark and good to here you are clever enough to move within the system for the good of all the students. Lets have a beer one day.

By paul, Trat (10 months ago)

Go on Mark put a smile on my face (its 47 degrees here in the middle of a dust storm) give us an example of some prose from your google translate.

Secondly good on ya!

Steve

By Steve, Abu Dhabi (10 months ago)

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