Joko MacKenna

My first year as a teacher in Thailand

The highs and the lows and what I've learned.

My story is probably not all that different from a lot of others who've come here to teach in the Land of Smiles a little later in life. Early 40's. Divorced. Kinda stuck in a career that was okay, but not all that fulfilling. No kids, few ties and looking at the second half of my life and wondering: "what else is out there?"

So, I sold all my worldly belongings, jumped on a plane, got a TEFL cert and have been teaching at a Bangkok government high school for the last nine and a half months. I've lived in Southeast Asia before as a much younger man, so perhaps my culture shock was not as intense as some other new, farang teachers might experience, but I was totally new to teaching.

Now that this academic year is winding down, I reflect on my first year with a lot of mixed feelings. There have been a lot of awesome moments where I really felt like a teacher. I really felt like I was getting through to the students and I was the getting the job done. Both from an experiential and a sense of fulfilling my commitment to my employer, these moments of Wow! The kids are actually getting it have been priceless. It's a real high when those connections occur.

Then, of course, there have been the days where I've wanted to tear my hair from my scalp and storm out of the classroom in a huff. Would you please just shut up and listen to the teacher?! There have been moments where I've felt like I was totally unprepared and didn't know where to take the lesson next. I've occasionally gotten frustrated with the system, the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of the institution of education here. I've made a lot of rookie mistakes, and I think I've learned from them.

My hope is I can relay some of my experiences as a first-year teacher so that others might avoid some of the pitfalls I've encountered, and perhaps by expressing some of the joys of teaching, encourage a first year teacher who's got clumps of hair in his or her clenched fists (hopefully, their own).

What went wrong:

Insufficient Preparation: Things go so much more smoothly when you have your lesson plan, activities plan and materials ready well in advance of the bell. I was fortunate in that I landed in a school where my agency had all the lesson plans laid out for us already. I could have just used them verbatim, but the thing is, they were written by another teacher. That teacher had a different teaching style than I do.

There were different classroom dynamics involved. A canned lesson plan doesn't work. You can and should certainly use the preplanned objectives and materials, but I think a teacher needs to at the very least, plan their own activities. When I'd done that well ahead of time, things were great. When I succumbed to my occasional weakness for procrastination and found myself trying to figure out what to do for the next period 30 minutes before it started, my lessons ended up far too ad hoc and stilted to be effective. Students can sense when you're unprepared, and they don't like it.

How the Teacher Talks: I'm up there speaking in a foreign language. Despite the fact that they're paying me 2x to 3x what a Thai teacher makes so that I can talk to them like an NES, I can't address the class the same way I would speak to a class of native speakers. I'm not advocating speaking in pigeon or like a lot of Thais speak English (Thinglish), but when it comes to pace, annunciation and inflection, I had to learn how to speak to my Thai students so that they could understand me. Took me a few months to learn that.

Not Laying Down the Law: Half my classes were teaching M-1's (7th graders). I would say after a year of doing this, that there could be no more unruly lot of human beings in any situation than 35 twelve-year-old boys (I teach at an all boys school) who've learned they can walk all over the adult whose been put in charge of keeping them in line. I experienced watching assault and robbery right in front of me. Boys sustained injury while I was their teacher.

That was early on. Took me a while, but I learned how to use expulsion from the classroom (GO SIT OUTSIDE!), my tone of voice and facial expressions to instill respect and a bit of fear. I'm still not a master at classroom control, but when I was very new, I was perhaps a bit afraid to be the mean teacher. I wanted to be the nice, fun teacher that kids learned from because they liked me. I still enjoy being that kind of teacher too, and it is great when I can, but it's impossible to be so without first getting their respect, and yes, a little bit of fear.

What Went Right:

Enthusiasm for the English Language. I mentioned briefly my previous, unfulfilling career. I used to be an appliance salesman at a big department store. Was quite good at it for near on two decades. One thing that led to my success in that job was a real passion for what I was selling. It may sound unlikely that anyone could be fascinated and excited about the latest developments in laundry or refrigeration products, but as a peddler of those devices, I knew that if I were truly in love with this $2000 refrigerator, then my enthusiasm would rub off and my clients would come to feel that way too.

I've found it to be much the same 'selling' English. When I started, sure, as an occasional blogger and someone who enjoys writing, I thought English was pretty cool. Since I've started teaching it, however, I've gained a new fascination for that quirky, versatile, beautiful and occasionally frustrating language that I was fortunate enough to absorb as an infant.

Here's an example. At least once a week, in one of my classes, I will start my lesson with this little spiel: "Do you know what my favorite thing about the English language is?" By now, of course, they've learned that Teacher Joko's favorite thing about English is the prefix and suffix. They're amazing things! Tack on a couple of letters to a root word and you have a whole new word, and if you know what the prefix or suffix means, you know the meaning of the new word! It's formulaic! It's amazing! Now, I will admit, when I began using this motivational tool, I couldn't rightly say that prefixes and suffixes were my favorite thing about English, but having told that to students (who believed me when I said it), I've kinda come to feel that way.

My point is that as a teacher of English, I've been a lot more effective in that role by fostering my own love of the language. Relative pronouns have replaced refrigerators. Transition words have taken over for dishwashers. Washers and dryers are now prefixes and suffixes. Love what you're teaching (or selling) and you'll do it a lot better.

Maintaining Engagement: Let me start by saying that I've encountered no experience more deflating and frustrating than realizing as you look out over 25 to 35 students to whom you're talking that not a single student is paying attention to a word you are saying. This has happened to me on many occasion. Up there, at the front of class, you can see them all. It's not a good moment when you observe that no one is listening to the teacher. Fortunately, those moments have not been that common this last year, but they do continue.Happened just today, as a matter of fact.

These excrutiating teaching moments are great motivation to learn how to avoid them What's gone right is that I've learned to use movement (you can't just stand in one place and teach), volume (vary it) and content (I'm a teacher, not a comedian, but there is a bit of entertaining in this job) as a means to maintain engagement. Ideally, education wouldn't be a constant battle between the teacher demanding things (I've run into teachers who treat students as 'the enemy' whom they have to beat) and kids who feel that the less they pay attention the more they 'win' in this power struggle, but we are dealt the hand we're dealt, and if I have to 'perform' 25 teaching hours a week, so be it. I've learned a few tricks on how to do that.

Learning to Teach All the Students: I think most teachers would agree that in any given classroom, 20% of the students are really smart, they care about learning and make teaching easy. 20% of the students are there because they have to be, maybe aren't all that bright, don't care and aren't at all interested in learning. The middle 60% could go either way. That dynamic can play a huge role in how the teacher coordinates the classroom.

The lazy teacher just teaches to that top 20%. I've done that, on occasion. The angry teacher fixates on the inattentiveness of the bottom 20% and lets that disrupt the learning experience of the whole group. I've done that too. Maybe it is best to concentrate on that middle 60% on whom the 'success' of the lesson plan hinges.

No, I've learned that if certain students (whether they be smart or dumb) start to realize that its unlikely that they'll be called on to participate in class, then they'll drift away. To their smartphones, to classwork from another course, what have you. One thing that I think I've gotten right this year is learning to use the Socratic method to the full class. Everyone wants to pay attention because I pay attention to everyone.

One year teaching is almost in the books. When it comes to any job, it takes three months doing it before you should be comfortable. It takes three years doing it before you're really good at it. I'm going to continue this until I'm really good at it.


Great summation ~ and I bet those professional educators might find some sound advice in here. I subscribe to your blog but am unable to respond due to the Great Firewall of China, so here I'll say: thanks, and keep up the good work and positive attitude~it'll be interesting to see where things go for you.

By Scott, near Shanghai (23rd February 2014)

Great piece, Joko. Makes me think of a quote:

"In the process of constructing narratives, narrators make sense of their lived experience; they understand it, give it coherence, make connections, and unravel its complexity. The converse, of course, may also be true; the act of narration can sometimes confront disconnections, dead-ends, and uncertainties" (from Barkhuizen "Narrative Knowledging in TESOL" TESOL Quarterly 45, 3, 2011)

Your blogged reflection both "unravels the complexity" of your first year of teaching and "confronts disconnections" in it. Crucially, even as you distinguish 'what went well' from 'what went badly' you find concrete, actionable 'lessons' can be drawn from both in equal measure.

This demonstrates a hearty appetite for analytic, critical reflection that many agree is one of the most valuable tools or perhaps THE most valuable tool in any teacher's resource stock. Valuable because productive: particularly in Thailand, the question is "where can we learn to be better teachers if not from our own experience?". After about a year, the answer to that question begins to sink in.

I wish you luck as you solider on towards being "really good at it"!

By Matthew, Boston (16th February 2014)

Thailand is a good place to stay also for teaching......many talk about there love experience with students and all.
Well i do enjoy.but the funny part is a battle with your so-call thai hard working English team teachers,posing in incubent power.
In my school,i was offered a good welcome party,from the student and evaluation is great within 3 month in my school.I thank GOD for the mind he gave me to use on the student,i mean controlling the students of somany characters.
I don't have support from my english thai team teachers,because i'm not from my english head teaching agency.she was not happy with my high evaluation record in school.
she brought 4 natives teachers and the school director rejected the within 3months of there evaluation but i'm one year now in the school,with love...since one year plus,there is no meeting with english teachers,no conversation.
I discuss with one of the thai-english teacher about some student in some of my classes and she told me never mind Ben.....sabai sabai.but she went down and discuss with my english head and what they did is to tell the class i reported about that ihate them.(1)How can a teacher hate his student,for what?.(2)How can a teacher tell students about a report of other teacher with lies,because director is not regarding them by names.With all there hatre,I still remain inlove with my student and teach them what they want to know.

By BEN KING, chumphon (15th February 2014)

Well written and an interesting sharing of experiences.

I hope year 2 goes well for you!

By Jack, On the road (14th February 2014)

Very nice summary of a first year teaching abroad, Joko. This could be very valuable to those "newbies" out there who are most interested in what to expect in terms of real teaching.

Your passion for the learning process and 2nd language acquisition is evident.

By Andrew Keller, Bangkok / Saudi Arabia (13th February 2014)

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