Ben Bartee

Stumbling blocks

What I didn’t learn in my 100-hour online ESL course


I recall an illustrative accompaniment to my 100-hour ESL training course, taken when I was a younger man in the waning months of 2010. 

The stick-figure teacher is at the head of the class with a pointer stick, giving instruction. The students are seated, faced forward, with good posture, paying full attention, receiving said instruction. It is a beautiful diagram of efficiency, wherein the teacher and learner commune in uninterrupted, flowing exchange of knowledge.

April 2011:

I have long since graduated from my 100-hour online ESL program, which had allegedly prepared me for a long and successful career in foreign language education. I am now “in the field”, so to speak, in a 4th-story classroom in the rural southern Thai town of Ranod, Sonhgkla in the hot season. A water buffalo wanders the school grounds outside near the flagpole.

First of all, there is no AC. The mercury in the little thermometer by my desk sits at 38 degrees Celsius. There are six fans spread across the ceiling but only three of them work. 

On top of the natural heat of the land is the stifling, humid human inferno of 40 bodies plus mine crammed into this relatively small room. I can see my skin through my dress shirt now because the thin layer of fine linen is totally soaked through. In short, it’s too hot to care about anything academic. 

Thinking back to the ESL course that I took in my mother’s suburban Atlanta townhouse, it had never occurred to me that ESL instruction might take place somewhere without environmental controls.

It is too miserable for my students to consider the merits of academics either. Even in perfect weather, motivation is often a challenge for some of them. It is nearly hopeless, it seems, in the present state of things.

Onward I plow. I know the administration is not going to cancel class and I get paid to teach. These kids love hangman – it’s one of the few times most of them pay attention. It’s my go-to move for overcoming bumps in the road such as 38-degree weather in a classroom with 40 people and no AC.

The hangman has a head, a torso, and two legs when I hear the familiar strum of a guitar.

Turning around, I behold my naughtiest student Chevrolet (it is not uncommon for Thai children to take English nicknames after multinational car corporations, or deities, or dairy products, etc.) playing his guitar for his friends. They look amused.

In the theoretical, sanitary world of ESL education, as envisioned by pictographs of stick figure students sitting at attention, no one ever takes a guitar out and begins playing folk Thai songs mid-lesson. I certainly had received no training in handling this particular eventuality from my 100-hour online ESL class.

“Wow” I say. “That’s a nice guitar.”

Chevrolet smiles. “Thank you, teacher.”

“Really. It’s very beautiful.”

“Thank you teacher.”

“Can I play it?” I mimic strumming on an air guitar.

“Yes, teacher.”

Chevrolet carries his guitar to the front of the class and hands it to me.

“Very beautiful” I repeat. “You’re a lucky man.”

“Yes, thank you teacher.”

I walk to the window of the fourth floor, where the water buffalo is still grazing by the flag pole outside, and hold the guitar over the ledge by the neck.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no” Chevrolet panics.

I make him beg (in English) for a couple of minutes while he pleads to save his guitar. After I relinquish it, I make him write “I’m very sorry I was so rude with my musical instrument and it will never happen again.”

My students learn the new vocabulary term “musical instrument” and today will be the last time Chevrolet brings his guitar to my class.

Lesson completed.  

April 2019

Modern Day:

Technology is good. It aids the learning process in countless ways. My 100-hour online ESL course emphasized that. But they never addressed the pitfalls of technology, especially as it relates to short attention spans of students.

Having long since left the rice fields of rural Ranod, after repatriating for a dark period of my life to the US in the early 2010s, remaining unemployed with idle hands for a time, then delivering pizzas for soulless megacorporation Better Ingredients Better Pizza Papa John’s©, then discovering a career path writing grants for NGOs, then returning to Thailand in hopes of landing a paid NGO gig with one of the many in Bangkok, then -- having little luck in that arena -- falling back on easily attainable employment in the ESL field, I find myself once again teaching here in the Kingdom of Thailand, this time in a university.

Aom is talking to someone on FaceTime, in all likelihood to her boyfriend. I know because she is staring into her lap and appears to be conversing with herself. Indeed, if it were not for FaceTime and other such applications, one would just assume she was schizophrenic.

“You’re talking to your mother, Aom?”

Aom looks up, startled.

“Huh? Uh, yes, teacher. My mother.”

“And she must be very ill?”

Aom doesn’t understand the term “ill”. So I try my elementary-level Thai on her.

“Mai sabai?”

“Yes, teacher. Mai sabai.”

“She must have had a motorbike accident?”

Aom doesn’t understand “accident”. Back to the Thai.

“Oo-bah-dee-het?”

“Yes, teacher. Oo-bah-dee-het.”

“An accident! That’s terrible, Aom. I hope she’ll be okay.”

“Yes, I hope she is okay too.”

The reason I know that Aom is talking to her mother who is not feeling 100% on account of a motorbike accident is not that I’m clairvoyant. I have no special powers of discernment; this was merely my best educated guess. 

Every student who is using his or her cell phone to video chat whom I have ever interrogated is always, without fail, speaking to a family member, usually his or her mother, usually about an emergency situation that has befallen the family.

God help the mothers in Thailand. Will fate ever smile upon them?

Once again, I recall with bitterness that none of the stick figure students in that one perfect, iconic graphic illustration of classroom harmony from my 100-hour online ESL course were using their cell phones to chat with their boyfriends and then pretending to talk to their mothers about family emergencies.

Some things you just have to learn in the trenches. 


Ben is a Bangkok-based American journalist, grant writer, political essayist, researcher, travel blogger, and amateur philosopher. 

See Ben's portfolio / Contact Ben on LinkedIn




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