A few weeks ago I wrote an article for this audience which listed more than thirteen problems with the Thai education system.
The reason I wrote that article was to ask for your contributions to the list, but beyond that my intention has always been to seek solutions to these problems.
I described myself as a compulsive fixer. Contrary to some of the negative comments I received, I don't want to simply criticize the Thai education system, nor am I suffering from the delusion that anyone in a position to implement any solutions would actually listen to advice from a foreign teacher. I do however want to start addressing some of the problems that ESL teachers routinely face with the aim of actually fixing some of them at a grass-roots level.
OK, so let's start with a big one: the lack of discipline in the classroom. This was number four on my list.
A lack of discipline
Oddly enough, the august report compiled by OECD and UNESCO that Jack recommended, doesn't even mention lack of discipline as a problem but this issue really struck a nerve with several of the TSL teachers who responded to my earlier article. That's why I facetiously refer to this as the 800lb gorilla sitting next to us that's conveniently ignored by administrators and Thai teachers.
A near total lack of discipline in the classroom seems to be deeply ingrained in Thai culture. So what if anything can we do? Again, I don't want to simply complain about the obvious. I'm hereby urging you to contribute your suggestions, techniques, and observations about this serious problem.
If we could make even a small dent in the magnitude of this problem, or even if we merely provide a thoughtful analysis of it, this could have lasting positive impact on the Thai education system. Sometimes it's easier for outsiders to propose solutions to what seem to be intractable problems by virtue of their outside perspective. Maybe we can see the forest as well as the trees.
Perhaps the most time-honored solution to a lack of discipline in the classroom is corporal punishment. The teacher or some delegated administrator can knock heads or paddle butts. We all know this works, at least to some degree, but it's a controversial and inelegant solution to say the least.
When I was in junior high school the Vice Principal's main administrative function was to administer paddlings. He had the physique of a linebacker and the mere threat of being issued one of the special red hall passes to his office was enough to terrify me and my fellow students. All a teacher had to do was mention Coach Wilson's name and order was instantly restored in the classroom.
He used custom-made wooden paddles from the wood-working class that were about 2 feet long with holes drilled in the face to add a little extra sting. Operant conditioning is an amazing thing. The mere sight of one of those red hall passes caused a fear reaction, so let's not dismiss this traditional approach - it works.
Thailand v The USA
I'm not advocating physical punishment as a means of controlling students but I'm unable to suggest a good alternative. In the U.S. these days teachers aren't allowed to touch their students or they'll be sued by the student's parents in a heartbeat.
Some people think this restraint has adversely impacted the entire U.S. educational system and the result has been chaos in the classroom. We know the rules are different here in Thailand. Thai teachers can and do use physical punishment on disruptive or misbehaving students. But should we? Maybe we could ask a burly Thai teacher to sit in the back of all classes and act as the "bad cop".
Every Thai teacher I've ever talked to has the same complaint. They don't know how to control these little monsters either. This problem causes a lot of stress and unnecessary burnout. We feel like we're wasting our time trying to teach a bunch of juvenile delinquents. In reality 10% of the students are actually well-behaved but the 40% that are out of control are disrupting the entire class, and by extension the entire Thai school system. The problem seems to get worse in high school. It's somewhat easier to control prattom students.
Driving a teacher to drink
On more than one occasion last semester when I was teaching at the local high school I walked out of classes because I wasn't able to control an unruly crowd of 35 teenagers. I always put a lot of effort into preparing my lessons and I look forward to teaching, so when I'm completely ignored it hurts.
Sometimes it seemed like they were having a party and I was talking to the wind, so I simply stopped speaking and walked out of the room. I did this to preserve my sanity and dignity, however this drastic (and frankly unprofessional) tactic only had a limited effect. The students were somewhat better behaved the next time I met with them but only slightly.
This caused a lot of stress for me and I always felt bad for hours afterwards. On those days I would leave school as soon as possible, go home and have a drink to calm down. I have a lot of respect for teachers, both Thai and farrang, who endure this day after day.
An easier life for now
This semester I've stopped teaching high school and now I only teach part-time at a small primary school across the street from my house. My decision to quit teaching high school was partially due to the discipline problem.
Prattom students seem to be easier for me to control, or at least I don't get as mad at them as I would at the high school students. I keep a small whistle on my keyring that I occasionally use to regain control over my P2 - P4 students. For those of you who teach high school you might want to try the Fox 40 emergency whistle which produces a high-pitched, ear-splitting 115db sound that can be heard up to half a mile away.
Lack of discipline in the classroom also impacts other students, especially the quieter ones, mostly girls, who are well-behaved and actually want to learn English. It breaks my heart to see little girls crying because they tried to write on the board but were forcibly pushed aside by other more aggressive students. I saw this twice today which is why I'm compelled to write this article.
I don't know what happened but I saw one of my best students in P2 sitting in her chair, quietly crying. There's another smart girl in P4 who gets bullied regularly and cries as a result. On more than one occasion I've seen students sustain minor injuries in class, including cuts and bruises. Last week I saw a student with what looked like a stab wound from a pencil that was bleeding.
So please tell me your ideas in the comments section for this article. If you want to contact me directly my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. It might be cathartic to share your horror stories as well as your success stories. Tell me what you've seen and above all if you have any suggestions on how to maintain discipline in the classroom, for the love of God and Thailand, let us all know.
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