Bob Sohigian

Baby steps and spontaneity

An ode to a semester in the books

Taking my first hazy steps onto the streets of Bangkok nearly 7 months ago feels almost like a dream. With no inkling of what the future held, I was essentially more lost than I was in the States. Being disoriented as a newcomer in the chaos that is Bangkok is somewhat of a typical feeling, but I was at ease with it. That is not such an easy thing to do when traveling to a country at the opposite end of the world - a country that you have only seen in pictures and heard of through the wild world of the Internet.

Most notably, for a Westerner who has never experienced an eastern culture, Bangkok will make your head spin. The quick cadence, coupled with the hustle and flow this Thai city encompasses is not comparable to that of a large American metropolis (i.e. New York City). Sure the packs of wild dogs will be an uneasy regularity to comprehend initially - along with whizzing tuk-tuks, chatty street vendors, an extreme spectrum between the wealthy and impoverished, as well as the tonal banter of the Thai locals - but with an open mind and spirit, you'll hop right into the swing of things!

Everybody has different needs and wants, along with different comfort levels when leaving their home turf. Specifically, teaching in Southeast Asia can be intimidating when leaving your family, friends, and Western standards behind. Your head may very well explode the first time you are handed a spoon instead of a knife - just take a deep breath and slowly allow yourself to adapt to Eastern culture.

French fries can be found in big cities, but you will now become well acquainted with variants of the noodle and rice family. Familiarize yourself with the term: "mai pen rai" (no big deal/no worries) - not only will you hear it daily, but any time any sort of stressful situation arises in Thailand, the only remedy will be the use of this phrase.

Buddhism flourishes throughout this culture, and even if you are not a religious person, the philosophies are expected to be maintained in daily life. So, your best option is to laugh it off when you get a flat tire on your motorbike in the middle of the monsoon season causing you to be an hour late to work. Odds are, someone will come running over to help you with a big smile on their face, fix your bike faster than a pit stop in a NASCAR race, and send you off, sopping wet and on your way. Yeah, you'll be late for work, but so will everybody else if it's raining - mai pen rai buddy!

One thing I will say for any aspiring teachers who are even mildly contemplating the idea of hopping over the pond to teach is this: Give it a shot! I for one am 25 years old and despite being here for 7 months, am still wildly unsure of what I want to do for a career. Teaching English as a foreign language, especially in Thailand, is an amazing opportunity for anyone looking to take on a leadership role. Yes, you are an English teacher following a curriculum given to you either by your school, your agency, or a combination of both, but once you step foot into the educational gauntlet that is a Thai classroom, you will quickly find out that Thai education is light years away from Western education.

If you are looking for a break from your 9-5 lifestyle, if you're an aspiring teacher looking to gain classroom experience, if you're a traveler looking to make some cash, or if you are like me and want an opportunity to work in a new environment while gaining knowledge and experience, you will not be disappointed if you decide to make a move in the TEFL direction.

Some things that are often overlooked in a teaching position overseas are the entrepreneurial qualities that come along with it. Initially, first impressions of a teaching position in a public school over in this neck of the woods can be quite daunting and you may find yourself questioning your decisions. As with many public school scenarios, many of the classes come in a supersized form with no organization or structure.

You can find yourself in hot, stuffy classrooms with rickety old desks, a whiteboard fully equipped with grapefruit-sized holes, and students covering an entire spectrum of levels. You will most likely be thrown into this carnage with simple instructions from your higher-ups: Teach the kids English.

If you're not told right off the bat, you will find out that Thai students like to have fun. They are loud and respond very well to an enthusiastic, charismatic classroom leader. So if you weren't informed in your contract, you will be part Hollywood actor/comedian and part educator - it is your new mission to change the world by teaching these enthusiastic Thai-kids how to speak English!

Your first few lessons may go swimmingly - that game of "Telephone" was a smash hit with your Matyom 1 students and your M5's loved hearing about all the cool places you have seen in the world. Your first week might be liberating and although your newly tailored dress shirts and pants need to be wrung out at the end of every lesson, you feel like you can leave work everyday with a check mark in the "job well done!" column.

Well boys and girls, just like in every new relationship, it is imperative to keep things invigorating and exciting - after a couple of weeks, those somersaults and cartwheels that killed it initially, will begin to generate half-hearted and wise chuckles from the crew of football guys that sit in the back of the room. The initial infatuation that magically wooed your entire slew of students may seem to weaken as you try to transport English knowledge from your mouth to their brain.

You may find students interrupting your lesson to blurt simple, random English phrases and comments that have near nothing to do with your lesson on the simple present tense. These comments may include, but are not limited to: "Teacher; go home!;" the notorious and cliché, "Teacher; play game;" or naively referring to you as any notably famous person sharing the same skin color (in my case, the three most popular are Justin Bieber, Mr. Bean, and Harry Potter - none of whom I show any resemblance to.). Just like the tides, if you roll with it and refrain from swimming against it, the end product will be a more favorable outcome.

There will be days when you drop down onto your knees and shake your fists in the air, bewildered that your countless hours of lesson preparation, perfectly timed jokes, and diversity of activities did not seem to stop the large majority of the class from chatting throughout your lessons. There will be certain instances, just like a parrot on the shoulder of a pirate, your students will repeat what you teach them, but any attempt at basic conversation will result in a vacant stare and a nervous Thai giggle.

Einstein has an interesting philosophy on "insanity" for situations like these - "Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." When you feel yourself perplexed and frustrated with your situation at school, take a deep breath. A majority of your students are at a very low level when it comes to the English language and instead of taking a bad lesson personally, do your best to take baby steps to victory.

Thai students cannot fail - it is impossible. If a student decides to lollygag around for an entire term, refusing to put forth even an inkling of effort, that student will still move on to the next level. Any Google Search conducted with the word "Thailand" and the phrase "No-Fail Policy" will produce pages upon pages of research papers, articles, and whiny blogs about how the Thai education system needs a face-lift as soon as possible.

The English level in Thailand, along with their test scores, are near the bottom of the spectrum, which adds a touch of fuel to the "whiny-blog-fire." As a foreign teacher coming into an education system with these policies, it is important to note that you will have students that don't try and no matter how unjust it may seem, these students will still pass your class. Although this can be frustrating, it is important to focus on the students that DO want to learn, while attempting to create curiosity within the others.

This is where the idea of being your own boss comes into play. Instead of spending your classroom time sprouting grey hairs on your noggin and barking out orders every time "Donut" and "Bam" are wrestling in the back of the room - engage your students. Show them that you want to be there and that learning English doesn't have to be copying notes from the whiteboard. Move around the room and involve everyone in some way, shape, or form. Change your voice, stand on a chair, crawl under a desk, make a funny face, play games - whatever you have to do to get the spotlight pointed in your direction, do it.

You will always encounter "the sleepers," "cell phone chatters" and "too-cool-for-school-ers." Turn your frustrations and failed lessons into experiments. Take notes on how students learn in different scenarios and try to diversify your lessons to keep things fresh and interesting. Have some fun along this Tilt-a-Whirl of a lifestyle you chose and keep the whining to a minimum.

At the end of the day, every student learns differently. When you are working in an education system that does not permit students to fail, the kids who are labeled "bad students" will take that as a Get Out of Jail Free Card and run down the halls with it - sometimes in addition to the card, they'll be carrying a dead reptile; try not to condone this type of activity in the halls and you should see students eventually lose interest in it.

You have to make these students crave class. They will need motivation to come in and learn what you are looking to teach them, so instead of being frustrated with failed lessons and a boring curriculum, use that entrepreneurial spirit and kick it up a notch. Remember, just like your significant other, flowers, candy, and a Hallmark greeting card can only work so many times. Why not try a self-written acoustic tune with some scented Yankee Candles? You may be tone-deaf, painful to listen to, and accident prone when you get too close to a flame, but the spontaneity will not go unnoticed.

Word will get around if you try new things with your students. The kids that were skipping class at first may give you a shot eventually. As a whole, you will hopefully see your relationships with students improve and your lesson-floppage percentage drop. After all, you're teaching abroad to have a life-changing experience, right?

Lighten up, take a risk, and try some new things. At the end of the term you may find that Thailand is still using their "Swimmies" to stay afloat with their English scores, but if your students leave your class with a smile and a bit more confidence using English than they had before, I'd say that's a baby-step in the right direction.



Great Article Bob!

For being in Thailand not so long you have wrapped everything up very nicely and have given good advice to the to be teachers in Thai schools. I've taught in Thailand for 7 years.


By James, Bangkok (27th November 2013)

Thank you for this well written, thoughtful article. It was like you were speaking about my own experience. This end of term break couldn't have been more welcome as I had become very jaded by my second year experience at a private school in OnNut. Your words brought into focus the positive aspects of my time teaching, and put into perspective this whole crazy TEFL game we are in. You certainly need time to have a break and take a breath, and not become too frustrated with the system. I have to constantly take a step back and realise that I cannot work miracles! It is a strain to be the class entertainer/educator every lesson, but slowly but surely some language sticks and that is what you have to focus on, not let your ego take a bruising when a class of 40 8yr olds decide they don't want to listen that day. I have to remember to laugh it off! Thank you for your inspiring thoughts.

By David, Bangkok (2nd October 2013)

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