In 2006 I applied for a job in Phuket as a full-time English teacher of the staff of a very well-known hotel. I prepared diligently for my demonstration lesson (it was about plurals, if I remember correctly) and it went as smooth as silk. I had a great rapport with the adult students who attended and they really responded well to everything. The manager in charge of training was a fellow-Australian and as we walked back to his office after the conclusion of the lesson I was expecting him to simply say, "When can you start?"
We sat back down at his desk and he began by telling me how great my lesson had been and how it was exactly the kind of lesson he thought a teacher of my experience would have given (I had taught at a few other hotels before). "But why," he asked, "were there no games?"
I distinctly remember looking at his face for any signs that he was joking but unfortunately I saw none. I replied that I did not think that it was appropriate to play games with adults in a hotel environment and that it was better to spend time concentrating on improving their English skills instead. "Oh, but Thai people love playing games!" was his reply. He then gave me a lecture on all the ways that I could have made my lesson more fun by playing games with the adults.
I had taught adults before in the language centre that I worked at but had never played games with them, nor had I felt it necessary to do so. And none of my students had ever complained to anyone that my lessons were dull.
A teacher, not a clown
By this stage I wanted to leave as quickly as possible and considered for the first time in my life to walk out of an interview. Instead, I sat there poker-faced until the manager had quite finished and waited for the mandatory handshake and the "I'll be in touch" before leaving. I never heard from him again.
I remember riding back to my apartment wondering if there was something wrong with me but I was determined not to change my principles just because I came up against a bloke who had a different attitude towards Thai learners than I did. I firmly believed then (and still do now) that games definitely have their place in an English language classroom but only under specific conditions and for certain students.
Simply because we are English teachers does not, I believe, mean that we immediately become entertainers or clowns when we work in Thailand merely because Thai language learners "love playing games". A more cynical argument could be that Thai students also love sleeping in class, so should we get them all to do that as well?
Are science and maths teachers expected to play games when they teach? Why is it so necessary for English teachers to do so? Is it simply because we are able to and English classes lend themselves to playing games or because we are thought of as somehow less qualified to teach compared to our maths and science counterparts?
A time and a place
I do play games in my Muttayom classes but only under certain circumstances. I would much rather devote precious time in class teaching or showing students something new that they don't know or are not in a position to wonder about, such as why there is British English and American English or why there are so many French words in the English language.
To me, playing games just because Thai people are fun loving (and there's nothing wrong with that) is simply accepting the Thai way of teaching, which seems to be to prevent the students from thinking at all costs and to extinguish any curiosity in the process. But, as I said, I do sometimes play games.
I have had success with "20 questions" (because it forces the students to ask questions, for one thing) and it is useful for reinforcing ‘do/does' and ‘is' questions, which students very rarely think about. It's also interesting to find a student who knows someone famous other than Michael Jackson and Steve Jobs!
I also play "Hangman" using my laptop with the projector, which has animations and sound. I do not allow the students to call out letters but put the letter in a sentence, such as "D as in Food", where they must use correct pronunciation or I pretend not to understand them. These are two examples.
I don't have a problem playing games in class but I draw the line at using them in order to keep the students happy and smiling and awake. If I have already earned their respect they should be alert and wanting to learn and I like to think that I can do this in an interesting way without having to treat them like little children (which already happens in so many of their other classes) by playing games.
Games can reinforce what has been taught earlier in a lesson and can be used as a filler or as a reward for good work. But to expect foreign English teachers to spend the majority of their time entertaining students, especially adults, is, to me, just not right.