Generally, I’d be pretty laid back in my classes. I found that Asian students, at least Koreans, were ashamed of making mistakes and that it made them “lose face” and that the best way to help them overcome this fear and aversion to speaking up and trying to talk, was to create a caring, relaxed and fun atmosphere in the classroom.
Establishing ground rules
In ESL classrooms, there’s a lot of “edutainment.” Many teachers end up being clowns or dancing monkeys, sometimes entertaining more than teaching.
I’d try to balance joking around with a healthy dose of actual content and useful info, correcting students’ grammar and pronunciation tenderly, and here and there speak and mangle a little of their native language, to show that it’s okay to make mistakes and that we can learn from those mistakes. Mostly, I’d done well with this approach. I’d avoided conflicts with students, staff, and had very few problems.
But it was quite clear that things would be different at this new school. I didn’t appreciate the students talking over me or using my classroom as their relaxation time.
So I switched my approach and slapped hard on my desk to let them know, in no uncertain terms, what the rules for the class were. No talking when the teacher or a classmate is talking, no playing on phones, do your class assignments when told - and don’t be late for class!
I informed them that anyone breaking any of these rules would have two points deducted for each rule infraction. (I had a similar set of simple rules for my classes in Korea, though I rarely had to deduct points as the students were quite well-behaved).
I wrote the rules on the board and had the students read them aloud as a class, and then had one (of the few who could speak English) translate, orally and in writing, the rules into Thai.
Then I went into what I’d planned for introductions. Using this same approach cleared up most of the behavior issues. Some classes were better than others and didn’t require too much prodding.
The attendance rates were terrible though. I thought I’d scared them away but Mumbles told me his classes and everyone else's were the same. Most of the students dropped out. In fact, out of 200 or so per group, only around 20 graduated.
But how could that be? All they needed to do was be there. Sit there and they’d be passed on. Even English majors didn’t need to speak English.
Mumbles, the Brit, and Postal Stan, who’d all been in Thailand for 5 years or more, told me that the school mostly targeted students who didn’t pass or take the government issued college entrance exams.
What was most upsetting though was that many of the students had taken out loans to come to this school. The loans could often be too much for their families to repay and they’d need to drop out for financial reasons, and end up leaving the school with no degree and a staggering pile of debt that their families would struggle to repay. The whole scheme made me uncomfortable and reminded me of a string of for-profit colleges in America that were shut down for predatory lending and deceptive business practices.
Many of my students, despite their unruly classroom behavior at times, turned out to be quite lovely people, and in talking with the few who could speak English, it seemed many of the students were misled to believe they’d be attending a prestigious international school with state-of-the-art facilities and modern dorms.
In reality though, the dorms were dilapidated and full of roaches. There were constant power-cuts and water-cuts that could last up to one week. The students sometimes moved out of the dorms into nearby housing as quickly as they could.
It felt like the school had placed them in majors they didn’t want and forced them into classes they didn’t want to attend.
Many of the students were not only very friendly but outgoing, too. Contrary to Korean students, who’d be shy and difficult to motivate or to stand in front of the class, do role-plays, presentations or play games. The Thai students relished it, were fantastic performers and were extremely creative, especially talented at drawing and handicrafts. Many were left-handed too, which I rarely found in Korea. Once you got past the initial rowdiness, had the right group, hit them with the right material, lesson plan, they could be a fun bunch.
The school had a handful of international students, 4 or 5 Africans, one or two Filipinos, a couple of Indians, a Lebanese and one American girl who was part Thai. The American girl, despite being born and raised in America and only coming to Thailand for college, was placed in basic English speaking, reading and writing classes, as were the other international students. Although they’d flown 8, 10, 20 hours to study here, whoever in the admission dept seemingly hadn’t checked their transcripts, had tailored their schedules accordingly. I had the American and an Indian in my English classes and decided to make them into de facto assistant teachers and had them help me and their classmates.
A run-down school
The state-of-the-art facilities didn’t pan out either. The classrooms were in poor condition. The whiteboards were warped and stained. The projectors often were not working. There were wires hanging from the ceiling. and there were amps and audio equipment that looked like they came from Radio Shack or the year 1996.
Desks were broken. There was graffiti on the desks, chairs and walls and green and black mold on the floors, walls and ceilings. Occasionally a stray dog would run in.
A chair I sat in once collapsed and I’m only 5’9, 160 pounds.
There were no computers inside the classrooms. Teachers were required to bring their own laptops but often the projectors were unreliable or too old to connect with newer laptops. Mine required an adapter the IT dept didn’t have and I had buy the adapter myself, so the first week of class I wasn’t able to use my laptop.
I used the board and sent out assignments via email and social media groups I created for each class. But the school wi-fi often ran slow or not at all and uploading could be a chore.