Greg Hill

Notes on a semester

What lessons can a teacher learn from a difficult semester?

Let me start with the negatives first so I can finish on a positive note. This year I have failed my students. My Social Studies (note that is not English) lessons have been repetitive, too difficult and unengaging for the students. Many of them have learned next to nothing this semester.

This isn't an easy thing for a teacher to admit. As the old saying goes, a bad workman always blames his tools and teachers always blame their students, colleagues, school, the noodle seller outside or anything else that can absolve them of blame. The fact that I am passionate about the subject just makes the failure even more disappointing.

I have my fair share of excuses lined up too: I've been given no course book for my course, exams are "vetted" by a non native colleague in another part of town and with whom I am forbidden to even e-mail, let alone speak to. What's more, the curriculum is translated from Thai and photocopies of any worksheet take a minimum of five weeks to return and outside photocopying is forbidden (I have no idea why).

But none of this absolves me of blame. A little extra preparation could have made all the difference. Revising my worksheets and simplifying the language could have made the subject mater more accessible to the pupils. A lot more imagination and forethought cold have made each class less predictable. The list goes on.

So why have I failed? If I'm aware of some of my failings - which surely is half the battle won - why have I not changed them? Perhaps the answer is something many teachers can relate to, it's just too damn easy NOT to make an effort in Thailand. I've noticed that many 'long term' teachers in the Kingdom sink into a pattern of work, it seems like the longer we are here, the more futile we feel it is to actually get anything done. After all, why bother trying to clarify the course curriculum for your class when it's such a Herculean task to even contact the responsible person? It's far easier just to do your own thing anyway, blow the curriculum.

And of course the inevitable language barrier can blind a teacher - especially a teacher of any subject other than English - as to how well or badly he is doing. Students are so used to being confused by the language that they don't really give away their feelings towards any class, they just go through the motions, stuck in their own little rut, I guess.

And that's what it all comes down to: a rut. I've seen it take hold of many long term teachers and I don't want to let it get me. If that means I have to make twenty phone calls to contact Miss Siripong, head of foreign languages, only to be told she is out of the office for the next three years then so be it.

So what can be done? How can I or any teacher that feels he's underachieving turn things around? I doubt there is any magic formula, but I've come up with a few ideas. Many of them are blindingly obvious but it's often the easy points we miss during difficult classes.

* Talk to the students. Not just during the class, but at the end of the class too. I've taken to speaking to a few random pupils at the end of each period and just asking "What did you learn today? Is there anything you want to ask?". Of course I ask this to the class as a whole, but I find students are far more willing to speak frankly when the conversation is more private.

* Don't be too proud to ask students for their advice. I think a lot of teachers see this idea as a sign of weaknesses or unprofessionalism. I think it depends on the approach. I try to chat with a few bright pupils and simply ask them like adults: "How do you feel about your class? Is there anything you would change?", etc. More precocious students can often supply some useful ideas.

* Prepare in advance. If possible prepare months, not days, ahead. This may seem to be another shockingly obvious point - and indeed it is - but I feel the longer teachers stick around in LOS, the shorter their preparation becomes. This year I'm hoping to prepare at least one semester's worth of worksheets before the term has even started, thus avoiding my problem of waiting at least one month for photocopies to come back and thus killing off one more problem. It should also allow me to plan the lessons more effectively and make any amendments in advance as the course progresses.

* Observe other teachers. This one comes naturally to new teachers but those with more experience equally naturally drift into their own way of doing things. There's nothing wrong with that of course except that classes can become predictable for students, who then switch off more quickly. I've found that by watching my colleagues every now and then, I can pick up some new ideas for an activity or exercise and try out in my class. By changing my style every once in a while, students are kept alert.

* Talk less. This is a golden rule of teaching of course, and the one challenge I am having real trouble with. The more difficult a class becomes, the more I try and talk my way out of it. The more restless students become, the more I speak up to try and settle them. It's a vicious cycle but it's important to try and break it. It's rare to see an effective foreign teacher who talks at length in classes.

So this is my plan right now. Any more suggestions or tips are welcome. I've heard it said that teaching in Thailand is like a dog chasing its tail or playing football with a ball and chain on one leg. But I have no plans to become another teacher who blames all and sundry except himself for poor classes. I know that if I can make my classes even a little more effective despite all the obstacles in my path, then I can be pleased not only for my students but also for myself. That makes the extra effort worth while.


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