Let's have a natter with not one but two female TEFL course instructors. Both Robyn and Emma are teacher trainers at Chiang Mai University. It's not often I get to chat with two young ladies so rest assured I'll be making this last as long as possible.
A very warm welcome Robyn and Emma to the ajarn hot seat. Can I start with you first Emma? Tell us a little about yourself in terms of where you are from, how long you've been in Thailand and what you've done in the past. You know - the usual stuff
I am from the UK, Manchester more specifically for 13 years prior to coming to Thailand. I studied Environmental Science at University there and went on to do a PhD in Agro-arachnology (using spiders for pest control in crops). My PhD was unfunded and as a result I began to teach at the University to fund my studies. By the time I had completed my studies I was teaching almost full time, and teaching the degree that I originally did. Anyway, to cut a long story short, things began to change at work and I decided to take a leap into something that had been on my mind for a number of years - teaching English in Thailand. I moved here in August 2010 and began teaching at CMU about 2 weeks after arriving.
And what about you Robyn?
I studied theater and French in university and put the two together for my first job with a bi-lingual theater company that toured the USA performing and bringing the French language to life for middle and high school students. After a few years of working as an actor in New York I got into teaching, first with volunteer work and then made it my full time job. I went back to school and earned a master’s degree in intercultural communication. I wanted to try teaching outside of the US so I did some research and chose Thailand. I moved here in February 2010 and was working at CMU by April.
Emma, I noted that you have a passion for spiders on your website profile. Apart from already being a recognised arachnology expert, you're currently writing a book on the spiders of northern Thailand. How did this unusual obsession begin and secondly, why did no one tell me there were dangerous spiders in Northern Thailand?
Haha, the reaction I get from people when I tell them about this ranges from terror to confusion, for me it is normal. As I said earlier my PhD was in spiders and I have been researching them ever since. My most recent work was in Belize working on the Mexican Redrump tarantula. This involved micro-chipping them to try and work out something about their ecology as they were caught and sold for the pet trade, almost resulting in extinction.
Now I want to provide a book of the most common spiders in this area and some information about them - such as that most of them are not dangerous. I would also like to provide education about the spiders in the area and try to change the attitude of those who still kill and eat tarantulas.
Robyn, it says in your description that in your free time you enjoy nothing more than relaxing by the pool with a smoothie. I presume that that's 'smoothie' as in 'blended fruit drink' as opposed to a rather oily foreigner whose intentions are dubious. Is there anything else you like to do when you are away from the teacher training room?
Oh, Phil. I’m really talking about fruit! The best fruit in the world is found right here in Chiang Mai. There is nothing more relaxing than a fresh mango smoothie, a good book, a pristine swimming pool and sunshine! Chiang Mai is also a good town for live music, with restaurants and bars featuring music most nights of the week. I like exploring the markets and blogging about what I find there. When we have a week between TEFL courses, I usually plan a trip out of town to visit somewhere new. There are many lovely small towns, great national parks, caves, hot springs, all just a bus ride away.
OK, let's talk about TEFL training courses. Do both of you teach the same course? Do you teach alternate courses? Does one take over when the other one needs a lie-down? How does it work?
Robyn: There is no time for a lie-down! We work as a team. Before each course starts we make a color-coded chart showing who will be teaching what input sessions and which nights we will be observing the teaching practice. We like to change the topics that we teach to keep things fresh. Of course, if something comes up or someone gets sick, we are there to cover. Luckily this doesn’t happen often!
Emma: We certainly do work as a team and I think we are very lucky in that we think in the same way about a lot of things. We also believe that we both have different skills and experiences so to have us jointly running the courses ensures the students get the best, most well rounded experience we can give them.
Let's look at the anatomy of the typical TEFL course. If you take into consideration the current course you are teaching or if not, the last course you did, how many participants did you have and what was the ratio of young to more mature, male to female, native speaker to non-native speaker, etc?
Robyn: Our last course had six trainees. Five men, one woman. Four native speakers, two non-native. We had three more mature trainees and three young people.
Emma: We tend to get a real mix of people as Robyn has said.
I'm always interested in this question if I get to meet with a group of TEFL course participants and I'm not exactly sure why - how many participants planned to stay on and teach in Thailand and how many intended to move on and ply their trade in another country?
Robyn: This always surprises me – many of our trainees say that they want to stay in Chiang Mai and teach here. Then something comes up and they leave the country. Of course, quite a few do stick around since Chiang Mai is a great place to live, but a surprising number do not pursue teaching in Thailand at all.
Emma: I agree with Robyn, this always surprises me. But in reality if you are considering teaching English as a Foreign Language then learning to do that in a foreign country is by far the best way to experience the reality of it. Even if you were not planning to stay why wouldn’t you come to Thailand, it’s beautiful here.
I'm proud to say it but Thailand is almost becoming the centre for TEFL course training in Asia. It's certainly a competitive business. Why do you think so many choose to take their TEFL course here?
Robyn: One reason is the cost of living. Most people who are doing a TEFL have quit a full-time job or haven’t started working yet. A little research into the cost of an apartment, food, transport, etc. will show that savings from the West can go quite far in Thailand.
Emma: I think Thailand attracts people for numerous reasons. The cost of living, the different pace of life compared to most western countries, the climate, the people and the ease of living here. Thailand has it all, and more
From my limited experience, one of the more 'harrowing' parts of a TEFL course is when an inexperienced trainee has to stand in front of a group of students for the first time. How do you best prepare the teacher for this 'ordeal'?
Robyn: We don’t! No, just kidding. Honestly, I think that the less time a new teacher has to worry about what they are going to do, the better. I’ve watched nerves build up for a whole day about a 10 minute lesson and I decided to find a way to minimize that. So, our trainees get up on day one. At about 3:30pm we announce that teaching practice starts today and each trainee will lead a 10 minute “getting to know you” warmer or game. This method seems to work well for most trainees.
Emma: I think this is a hard one because although many trainees have either given presentations or similar things, but this is very different. As Robyn said we ease them in with a very short activity that they have to teach. This seems to give them a bit of a confidence booster and it seems to work well.
Have you ever had a teacher who has absolutely been unable to get through it and run out of the door in tears?
Robyn: Thankfully, I can honestly say that we have never had tears! Maybe we’re doing something wrong??
Emma: No, as of yet this has not happened. Maybe we are doing something right!
TEFL courses are often said to be so intensive that there is little time for entertainment. Do you actively discourage participants from going out and burning the midnight oil?
Robyn: I don’t discourage anyone from going out, but I do encourage them to prepare their lessons and do their homework!
Emma: I actively encourage students to take one whole day off at the weekend. If they feel that they can burn the candle at both ends then that is their choice, sadly I am no longer able to do that and still function properly the next day.
In general, which part of a TEFL course do participants like and dislike the most?
Robyn: I think most trainees find the teaching practice sessions to be the most rewarding time spent on the course. Thai students are wonderful, fun and enthusiastic students and I’ve watched trainees form really nice relationships with the students over four weeks. I think English grammar is the least popular part of the course. We try not to spend too much time teaching the grammar itself, but teaching methods for teaching the grammar, if that makes sense.
Emma: I totally agree with Robyn about the grammar. Students find this daunting and many do not remember being taught it themselves. But I believe that we give them the tools to teach it. As for liking, well their trainers of course (only kidding), I think they enjoy the real experience they get with us.
How do you handle a situation when you have a course participant who is clearly going to be difficult? Perhaps he or she is a bit of a know-all or a show off or they're just being a pain. I'm sure you get them from time to time?
Robyn: Sure, of course, you will run into difficult people in every industry, including TEFL. As a teacher, I think it’s important to treat every student with courtesy and respect, no matter how difficult they are.
Emma: This is something that we would deal with as a team to ensure that the other TEFL students are not affected by it. We also try to make our teaching sessions interactive and student centered so it is possible to make sure all students get to input into sessions, rather than allowing anyone to dominate.
As a TEFL course trainer, what's the most satisfying thing about the job for you?
Robyn: I get really excited when I see students excited about learning. When a trainee is able to inspire their students, it makes me feel warm and fuzzy. To see trainees really taking on the role of teacher and succeeding is an awesome feeling.
Emma: The most satisfying thing is probably seeing the penny drop on some of the more difficult teaching tasks and watch the trainees grow and develop. It is also extremely rewarding when you see ex-students out and about being teachers and loving it.
I presume that you both really love working and living in Chiang Mai and for sure it's one amazing city. What do love about the place most of all? Secondly, what do you think makes teachers want to work there when the teacher salaries are lower than say Bangkok?
Robyn: You know, it’s tough to compare the cities based solely on salary. Chiang Mai is much less expensive than Bangkok, so you don’t need to make a high salary to live here quite comfortably. There is always work for a motivated teacher and many teachers are able to save quite a bit of money. The thing that drew me to Chiang Mai was the people. Most are very open and helpful and willing to share their culture. It’s a small city with small city values. Coming from New York, I find it really charming.
Emma: I think that Chiang Mai has that big city, little city thing going on – what I mean is there is everything you could want here at your finger tips but it does not feel like a big city as it is not dominated by high rise buildings. I also think that the climate up here is preferable to many westerners, especially the cooler winter months. I also fully believe that quality of life here is higher than in Bangkok, despite the lower wages. It is easy to live well on little here and still have an amazing time. Further to this is the people, they are very friendly, welcoming warm and helpful.