Ajarn Street

At least nobody died

Sometimes just be thankful that's as good as it gets

Uniformed guards whistle frantically, waving me through busy gates as I prepare to begin my third year teaching at a secondary school in Chonburi, Thailand. I park my motorbike, sign in and thread my way through students. As I make my way to the office, students and fellow teachers press their hands together and gently bow, waiing me as I pass.

Occasionally I'll get a 'hello, how are you', a ‘sawasdee krap', and I'll return their greeting with an exaggerated grin or a pat on the shoulder. It's hard not to feel special at this time of day.

Around 7:50 am, music signals students to gather in the assembly area. The flag will be raised, the national anthem sung, a brief Buddhist prayer will follow, after which teachers will address the troops in an attempt to inform, exhort or inspire.

You might be tempted to jump to the wrong conclusion as a first time observer-the haircuts, uniforms, precise rows, somber expressions and apparent order. Upon closer inspection, however, you'll notice a group of teachers brandishing switches patrolling the increasingly restless audience. Occasionally one will wade into the crowd. There will be the flick of a switch, an audible ‘thwack', a yelp, and a semblance of order will be regained.

Alas, the power of the switch is only temporary, and when they are dismissed the students scatter like birds.

A host of characters

The rituals may differ, but types remain familiar. Here, too, there are nerds, jocks, clowns, tough guys, loners, stoners, cheerleaders, show-offs and misfits to rival their American counterparts, though there's a definite lack of racial diversity, all faces being distinctly Asian.

Another obvious disparity is the number of overtly gay boys, but they co-exist better here. For some reason it doesn't bother anyone. Yes, there is good natured teasing, but I've yet to see any bullying. It is accepted.

Thai schools are also littered with enemies of the educational system - ‘techno distractions' such as cell phones and iPods - and consequently have the same problems with obesity and microscopically short attention spans that seem symptomatic of modern teens in the USA .

Booze, cigarettes and yaba (meth) are also concerns, though certainly not of the magnitude they are in the States, but this school is quick to identify problems, and there are daily random tests for anyone even suspected of using illegal substances.

Yes, technology has advanced, but many of the challenges are similar to what adolescents dealt with when I was in school half a century ago.

One of the benefits (?) of being American is we aren't required to learn a second language. We can go pretty much anywhere and encounter someone who speaks English. Most of the rest of the world isn't so fortunate. English has been a part of the Thai education system for over a decade now, but judging by my experiences the news hasn't reached the students yet.

In addition, with the emergence of the Chinese economy, Chinese has become a part of the curriculum, and Chinese teachers are finding many opportunities to teach.

Interacting with students

My first class, I ask my students,"Krai mai mee samong (who doesn't have a brain?)', urging them to raise their hands. Of course no one does. I give a huge sigh of relief and tell them I'm very happy everyone in my class has a brain. Then I urge them to use it. And so begins my third year teaching here.

I'm one of two native English speaking instructors here, along with twelve other Thai women in the department. Most take the job seriously and have a thorough knowledge of English grammar, though most will concede they don't speak English well. Most have decades of experience, have dealt with thousands of students, and many spend much of their free time coaching them. They (most) are a hard-working, dedicated bunch.

While I'm more comfortable with the routines and know my way around, when facing entirely new classes, whatever the nationality, one has to adapt and improvise. I'm still nervous, still uncertain and I'm still excited, because this is a profession requiring creativity, a sense of humor, patience and perhaps a bit of showmanship.

Over the past two years I've sang, danced, and joked with my students. I've pleaded, threatened, bribed, criticized and praised them. I've played basketball with them and made it plain I'll try anything short of nude dancing (that's where I draw the line) in the hope of of piquing their interest.

I've done most everything but use the dreaded switch in an attempt to stimulate and motivate them, though I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to bang heads now and then.

Hiding the frustrations

Because the biggest problem is the students themselves.

It's a well-known fact among teachers that most Thai boys are lazy, disruptive, lack motivation, and perform poorly in all subjects, though in reality most students here, boys and girls, have no desire to learn English. Their families don't speak it, their friends don't speak it, and outside the classroom they rarely hear it.

Still, many perform poorly in all subjects. Ironically, in the age of the internet, with all the knowledge of the world at one's fingertips, students are performing worse, schools here are in a state of crisis, and all the teachers here will tell you students have gotten lazier and seemingly more stupid.

In fact, EF (Education First), a leader in international education, indicated Thailand ranked 42nd out of 44 nations. In spite of all the resources spent, it was the worst Asian country tested. Yet teaching young men and women who have no desire to learn is the Sisyphean task English teachers here have been given.

At one time I was so frustrated I suggested installing chutes leading from the windows on each floor down to enclosures in the fields below the classrooms, giving teachers another option in dealing with disruptive students. Depending on abilities and attitude, these incorrigibles would be trained to sit, heel and fetch, or given appropriate survival skills and released into the wild.

Apparently they thought I was joking.

Many problems lie within the system. Most of my classes last year had in excess of 40 students - some close to 50, which pretty much eliminates any personal attention you might want to give. Another major obstacle is Thais don't fail students so pupils often advance regardless of performance.

Being slow isn't a crime...of course it isn't. Neither is being lazy, which many are guilty of. But what incentive is there to succeed if you can't fail?

This leads to another concern; these underachievers steal time from other infinitely more capable or hungry students. And time is precious.

The same old problems

We have 50 minutes weekly to teach each class. Roll call takes five minutes. Stragglers eat up another ten. Finally there is the time spent policing the class, which leaves about 30 minutes to communicate and engage each of the 40+ students with dramatically different abilities so they have an opportunity to actually listen and speak - all the while knowing once they walk out those doors it will be forgotten by most.

The textbooks, many put out by English publishers, don't help either. Few, if any have Thai translations, nor do they have locales, celebrities, or history any of the young people can relate to. Most students I teach haven't been out of the city, let alone the country, and have more chance encountering a pig on a snowboard than they do of visiting America.

Learning a second language is difficult enough without burdening them with geography, history and personalities of no use or interest to them. We (farangs) are here to teach conversation.

And then there are the tests. Every one of the standardized exams measuring student's English abilities I've encountered has had numerous errors. Here, at least, the Thai teachers usually bring them to us to correct before giving them to the students.

Putting myself in the students' shoes

On my part, I've been attempting to learn Thai for the past 5 years with modest results, so I can appreciate the problems a student has learning our language. There are profound differences.

To begin with, the script bears little resemblance to the English alphabet. The structure of written Thai is also dramatically different. First, there are no tenses;'go' is always 'go', for example--no 'go' 'going', 'went' or 'gone'.  Next, Thai script has no punctuation. Imagine this article minus capitol letters, spaces between words, plurals (teaching students to add 's' for plurals is a major hurdle) and no indentations for paragraphs, and you begin to get an idea of what they're up against.

But the reality is many of the students have given up on learning. They don't believe they can learn. Others don't want to learn. What truly amazes me is given the environment, given all the obstacles, some students actually do progress. Some actually do make an effort and learn, which is small consolation, but it's something to build on I suppose.

'Well, how'd it go?' I asked Alan, my British counterpart last year.

'Nobody died,' he replied with a tired grin.

We clapped high fives as I passed him on the way to my next class, because at times 'nobody died' is as good as it gets.

Don Coppock


don, i have been trying to reach you about teaching in thailand, to get advice. I have a friend with a daughter, who wants to do it. Can you get in touch via email or Facebook? thanks Gil Gaus

By Gil, usa (23rd October 2014)

Ok, Del, there are tenses. But where Thais have laew to cover virtually every verb in the past tense, American verb forms change. Thais need only to learn the basic verb in their own language where English requires learning all the irregular verbs as well as the regular ones. For the future, which more often is covered by the present continuous than will, Thais use only 'ja'. Yes, I try to point out the similarities and there are many, but the differences are also numerous and profound. It's not an excuse, and I tell them that. Bottom line is whatever the differences I expect them to at least try, and I let them know I'm willing to help whenever I'm available.

By don coppock, chiang mai (24th June 2014)

In reply to Don's comments, only a language teacherwho has learnt a second language him/herself can truely empathize with students. It doesn't matter if it's the students' language or not. Just going through the process and understanding the difficulties gives a bilingual teacher the edge when it come to empathy.

In my reply to your article I tried to correct a popular misconception, that Thai doesn't have tenses. I fail to understand your rationale that because a main verb isn't conjugated it isn't a tense. Not only does your misconception make excuses for Thais learning English, it also makes excuses for foreigners learning Thai - as if we didn't already have enough!

By Del, Thailand (23rd June 2014)

Thanks. Thought you had access to the name. And thanks for publishing it.

By Don Coppock, Chiang Mai (23rd June 2014)

Oh, and regarding the tenses, words don't change (do, did-eat, ate-win, won-buy, bought) according to tense. Past uses base verbs plus 'laew'; as in 'tum laew (did or done is do already), gin laew (eat already, not ate or have eaten), len laew (play already, not played). I've tutored doctors and lawyers, very bright people, and none is comfortable with the English past tense. As for future tenses they use ja instead of will or the present continuous (which confuses them further). I do, of course, recognize the similarities, but as you mentioned 'bpai' never changes in Thai. In English you mentioned all the variations they're expected to learn.

By Don Coppock, Chiang Mai (23rd June 2014)

I'm not sure why Alan Manning is credited for this article. I wrote it 2 years ago for the Waterbury Observer in America and submitted it last week. But thanks for your comments. As for making excuses for the students, I felt it was more empathizing with them.

Ajarn.com - Alan Manning was a nom de plume. We felt it best to use something rather than leaving things blank, because when you submitted the article to the website you didn't supply us with any name at all.

By Don Coppock, Chiang Mai (22nd June 2014)

I liked your article until I got to the "Putting myself in the students' shoes" section. I felt it was more of a "making excuses for my students" section! Of course there are differences between the 2 languages, but things like paragraphs. capital letters, spaces and punctuation actually make English easier for them to read than their own language.

Also, it is a common misconception that the Thai language doesn't have tenses, they are just formed differently to most English tenses. The main verb doesn't change, but all but the most complicated of english tenses can be expressed in Thai by the use of modals. Similar to the english modal verb "will", for example, will go = ja pai.

So go is not always always go although "pai' never changes, by using modals it can form most tenses including go, went, have been, have gone, am going, was going, have been going, will be going, will go, should go,might go have to go etc!

I find it better to point out the similarities between the languages, rather than focus on the differences eg in the first example I gave even the word order is the same as in English, I(pom/chan) will(ja) go(pai)/ I(pom/chan) will(ja) not(mai) go(pai). By doing so your students may have a few more Eureka moments!

By Del, Thailand (20th June 2014)

Nice article

By Del, Thailand (20th June 2014)

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