Joko MacKenna

A seemingly innocuous language activity

I wasn't prepared for the stories I was about to hear.

High school. Secondary education. For many of us, it was the best of times. Glory days, so to speak. Education is also a fertile ground from which to draw TESOL language lessons. We need source material, right?

Recently, I was teaching an IELTS prep class here in Yangon and the unit's theme was education. The grammar focus for the day was superlatives, and the two were combined in a speaking practice board game activity called "The Best Time of Our Lives". In the game, the players moved around the board and had to speak at length regarding various aspects of secondary education. Who was your best teacher? What was your most memorable moment? What was your least favorite subject in high school? That sort of thing.

It was a small class. I only had three students which made the board game very manageable and allowed me to be very involved in the process. Turns out it wasn't their best of times. It was the worst of times.

Indonesian International School?

Student One was a big girl, and you could tell from her appearance that she was of at least some Chinese descent. When she described her high school experience, she described her time at Yangon's Indonesian International School.

Firstly, I'm surprised that an Indonesian international school even exists here in Myanmar, which isn't really a neighbor of the archipelago. Who goes there? How does Indonesia, which isn't a truly developed country, have its own international school? Anyways, her experience there was a living hell. The Chinese are not well liked in Indonesia. She described how she was bullied because of her weight. She was ridiculed for not being able to speak Indonesian.. She was ostracized and didn't have any friends in high school.

Oh. Umm. Well, maybe this isn't the best game for us to play.

Hell in Chin State

Student Two talked about his experience at a Catholic boarding school in Chin State. Chin is Myanmar's westernmost province, bordering Bangladesh and India. It's land locked, mountainous, difficult to access, very poor and also very Christian. He talked about the discipline he had to endure, the daily humiliations and pointless rituals. He described the abusive priests and teachers.

It sounded more like a prison camp than a school. He actually looked pained as the roll of the dice forced him to recount a time of his life he surely would prefer to forget. When his turn came, he didn't want to pick up the dice.

Uggh. Well, there's one more student.

The Memorable Commander

I knew Student Three was politically active. She had told me how she was involved in supporting ethnic minority rights here in the Golden Land where the dominant Bamar ethnic group lead to this country once being called Burma. Hopefully, her high school experience would alleviate the extreme awkwardness that had taken over the classroom.

Student Three's high school experience had started out well. She lived and studied in a village of the Pa-O people of Shan State. She had good teachers and facilities even though a separatist insurgency swirled around her. One day, in her 3rd year of high school, the Myanmar military took over her village. She looked away while describing how they closed down the school and burned the village. She told us that her brother was killed defending his village. She didn't get to finish high school until years later.

When asked to describe her most memorable teacher, she asked me if she could describe her most memorable person from her high school time. I said, of course, the point of this activity is speaking practice.

She went on to describe the commander of the forces who razed her village. As I said, nowadays, this woman is an activist for ethnic rights. She described how she had recently been at a conference in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar's capital. There in the hotel ballroom, she looked across the room and saw the military man who commanded the troops who had burned down her village. He's since risen in the ranks and landed a soft job in the civil service.

I asked her if she'd confronted him. She hadn't.

Regardless, you could hear the hatred in her voice as she described the vile officer who goes unpunished for his viciousness.

From an IELTS teaching point of view, that emotion is effective. Yes, the examiners are listening for speaking that isn't robotic and monotonal.

As a teacher in what has been an authoritarian dictatorship and now a flourishing democracy, I've had several students over the years who've been political prisoners at one time or another. Certainly the situation in this country six years ago was such that the context generating content of any TESOL coursebook becomes completely inapplicable.

High school days are the best days of our lives? For these three students, the answer was definitely not.

I also have a YouTube page with lots more stuff about the teaching lifestyle in Myanmar



I'm not aware of any upper age limit. At my language center, we've employed teachers in their 60's.

As for where to look, I'd start right here at I've seen several Myanmar job posts here, and it's where I found my job.

By Joko, Myanmar (4th November 2016)

Hi Joko, Thank you for this article which certainly points out the need to be prepared for the unexpected when teaching in a foreign country. I have taught English in China and am interested in possibly coming to Yangon or elsewhere in Myanmar. If you don't mind, would you contact me with some advice and especially where to best look for jobs. Also, is there an upper age restriction for teachers? Thanks, Colleen

By Colleen, Canada (1st November 2016)

Sometimes when you prepare a lesson you don't get what you expect to hear but remarkably it works in some other ways.

By Josh, Davao City (25th October 2016)

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