The Thai teachers at my school, especially the veterans, are uncomfortable with the excitement and commotion during the lessons by the foreign teachers. They view it as an inability to control our students. Of course, we view it as involvement and participation.
Last week, I let my students create and tell their own stories. The result is one of my most enjoyable and memorable classroom experiences - and an absolutely riotous atmosphere.
When I opened the floor for stories, the first student to raise her hand told a traditional fairy tale story. She talked about a princess and a castle and horse and various people and animals.
Well, the more of this story she told, the louder and harder the other students laughed, until surely their voices could be heard at the other end of the hall. Turns out all the names in this story were the names of her classmates.
She ended the story with the frog kissing the princess. (No, not the princess kissing the frog.) She had set the tone for the rest of the lesson. Thus, every student started their story with, "Once upon a time" and ended it, "And they all lived happily ever after."
Another part of the lesson was group storytelling. I would start the story, then each student would add a sentence.
I wrote, "I went to the pet store and saw a dog. The dog said to me..." They continued, "Buy me and take me home." "Hey, you can't talk, you're only a dog." From there, the dog would be a magic creature, the result of a lab experiment, or an alien.
One of my students - not surprisingly the same one who would later set the classroom atmosphere on fire - was the first one to raise her hand (again, not surprisingly) and volunteer to move the story into the next phase.
But she said, "Then the dog bit my head off." I replied, "Wow, you just made this story really short." So she tried another approach, "Then the dog followed me to my school and bit everybody's heads off." I thought, "You have a career waiting for you as a horror writer." I would soon discover she also had a career waiting for her as a comedian.
If my students are practicing their language skills uninhibited and having fun, I view that as a positive. But uninhibited should not mean unstructured. It is the teacher's role to maintain this balance by preventing the students from slipping into silliness and anarchy. Let them engage in their favorite activities, but provide them with meaningful curriculum and keep the lesson on track.
That doesn't mean every lesson should resemble an hour on the playground. The previous day, I had them choose a story from the textbook, stand up, and read the story aloud as I helped them with pronunciation. No motion, no noise. Just hope the Thai teachers who are particularly stuffy are there to witness the more traditional lessons.
Most of my students in China were English majors and the majority of them were studying in teachers colleges. After they graduated and started teaching, they would ask me for advice on how to control their students. In China, class sizes are 50 plus, so classroom management is a major issue, especially for less experienced teachers. I told them the story about "The Teacher from Hell."
My first job in China was in the most famous private school in Beijing. One of the teachers in this school delayed my first lesson with her students because she was busy chewing on them.
I couldn't understand what she was saying, but I had a pretty good idea: This was their first lesson with the school's newest foreign teacher, so they'd better make a good impression on me or they'd regret it. She'd call their parents or give them extra homework or stand them in the corner or send them to detention hall or whatever.
It was obvious from the way she was carrying on that she dealt with the students in this manner on a regular basis. And it was obvious from the looks on their faces that they were terrorfied of her.
Even though she did not remain in the classroom with me, there were no behavior problems whatsoever. Every face was aimed straight ahead, all eyes and ears were focused on what I was saying and writing, every brain was concentrating on the curriculum and the exercises.
In other classes, I had a few or several students stand up and rehearse pronciation of the vocabulary. But in this class, I was so surprised at how good their pronunciation was, I continued til every student had practiced. Almost all of them pronounced every word flawlessly and confidently, whereas in other classes, the students stuggled. They grasped, indeed mastered, the curriculum after one lesson, whereas other classes required an additional lesson or two of reinforcement.
I asked my Chinese team teacher what was special about this class. Did they have higher intelligence? Did they have higher test scores? Did they have private tutors? Did they attend language institutes? Did they have access to native speakers? Had they lived abroad? No, my team teacher told me, this class had the same background as every other student in the school. It was their homeroom teacher who made the difference
She was "The Teacher from Hell." She was not popular with her students. But she maintained a standard of discipline and an academic standard. Did I advise my former students to imitate "The Teacher from Hell"? No, but I did point out to them that she got results.
Fast forward to Thailand a couple of years ago. My Thai teacher went to a meeting during one of my lessons. When the cat's away, the mice come out to play. They students started taking more liberties than usual. A veteran teacher - one of the "Teacher from Hell" types, not on the kind, affectionate grandmother types - passed by my classroom and saw that the students were getting out of control.
She took the worst offenders out into the hall, stood them at attention and scolded them while I went on with the lesson.
Then I had to go to the bathroom. On my way to the bathroom, I noticed she had them on their knees, faces down, palms on thighs. It looked like a prison scene.
Do I advise foreign teachers in Thailand to be as strict as this veteran Thai teacher? No, but I do point out to them that however strict they are, they won't be near as strict at the Thai teachers.
Hey, in Korea, my Korean team teachers would slap the children, grab them by the ear, and drag them to the principals's office...