Mark Brown

An undeserved promotion

Foreign teachers are powerless to stop problem students advancing

Last year I wrote an article that listed twelve problems with the Thai education system.  

The first two problems on that list were related: students with very different levels of abilities are mixed together in the same class, and students are promoted from one grade to the next even when they clearly don’t meet the minimum requirements for graduation.  The second problem exacerbates the first.  

Back to work

I had an opportunity to observe these twin problems last week as I resumed teaching at the small primary school where I test my courses.  I teach a one-hour general English course to grades P1 to P6.  There’re about 100 students at this school, approximately 15 in each grade level.  Although I do have the routine challenges associated with controlling the behavior of young students, 99% of them are generally well-behaved, friendly, and eager to learn.  Even in P1, it’s easy to spot students whose parents have already invested in their kids’ education by hiring private tutors.  

It’s also easy to spot students who will in all likelihood perform poorly throughout their entire education.  I’m well aware of the harm that can result from forming preconceived notions about a child’s performance, but to a certain degree it’s inevitable.  Kids that perform poorly in lower level grades may blossom as they mature.  Conversely, kids that appear to be gifted at an early age may fall behind their peers as they get older.  We shouldn’t pigeon-hole them.  OK, I get that.  

And then there are some cases that are so extreme that they break the system.

A 'problem' student?

Last year in my P1 class I encountered a student named Oat (not his real name).  Within minutes of meeting this child it was apparent that he had some sort of behavioral problem.  I’m not qualified to make a diagnosis, but he appeared to be high on the ADHD scale.  He was extremely active, running from room to room, disrupting classes throughout the whole school.  The other teachers tried to control him but it was close to impossible.  

Whenever I handed him one of my meticulously prepared lessons he would swipe it off his desk onto the floor.  For some reason he loved me.  Whenever he saw me he would run up and grab my briefcase and insist on carrying it to class.  On the rare occasions when I could get his attention he actually performed acceptably.  

In a weird sort of way I liked him and would let him sit on my lap or crawl under my legs as I tried to teach the other students, but by the end of the school year everyone at that school, including myself, all the Thai teachers, the Director, and all the students, had come to accept his behavior.  He was a pest that we all put up with, a distraction that we learned to ignore.  

I often wondered about the root cause of Oat’s behavioral problems.  Was it organic?  Environmental?  Would Ritalin fix his problem?  What’s going to happen to him when he grows up?  And in particular I wondered if he would be promoted from P1 to P2 and continue to disrupt my classes.

Well, I didn’t need to ponder that question too deeply.  Those of you who have more experience than I with the Thai public school system already know the answer to that question.  Yes, of course Oat was promoted to P2.

No, his behavior hasn’t improved.  There’s a chair for him in the P2 classroom but he doesn’t sit in it.  He plays with toys from the Anuban class and continues to run around from room to room, grabbing papers from the other students, causing mayhem wherever he goes.  

Whose problem?

So what can be done about this?  It’s almost useless to propose solutions that the school could or should take.  The Director is a nice guy but I don’t expect him to take any sort of direct action until something drastic happens, like a child getting injured.  

I doubt Oat’s parents will do anything – they’re probably glad to let the school take care of him 8 hours a day.  I’ve learned to tolerate him.  I try to reinforce his good behavior by smiling and congratulating him, and I ignore him and don’t make eye contact when he misbehaves.  It’s just another thing to deal with as a teacher in rural Thailand.  If any of you have suggestions I’m receptive to advice.  Feel free to send me email at

But what about the larger situation?  What can be done about the cultural practice of promoting students who shouldn’t be promoted from one grade to the next?  Doesn’t this just compound the problem year after year? 

When I taught high school last year, the range of abilities among my M6 students was enormous.  Some were brilliant, a pleasure to teach, clearly on the path to a good university.  It was easy to imagine them years later as doctors, business leaders, or scientists.  Unfortunately, many more of my students were dullards, a chore to teach, by all appearances destined to work in low-paying jobs, or even worse, to have kids of their own shortly after graduating high school, thereby continuing the cycle of poor performance and ignorance.  

Teachers everywhere see this slow drama unfold year after year, yet it is sobering and profound.  As foreign teachers in a country that values our language skills but not our advice, our chances of influencing this system are close to zero.

There is a small possibility of a technological solution which I’ll describe more in my next blog article.  If you’ve ever seen kids play with Alexa, the intelligent assistant from Amazon, you can easily imagine how this tool could be used to teach students at home.  

Alexa, Siri, and Google never get tired, never get exasperated, and are immune to cultural pressures to promote kids from one grade to the next.  

Maybe Oat’s parents should buy an Alexa.

Mark Brown is a retired Senior Course Developer from California who writes English courses as a hobby.  You can download free PDF versions of his courses from his website California Accent.  The website has over 300 lessons in 14 courses that cover conversation, pronunciation, vocabulary, and science.


why do you believe that students should graduate each year and not simply move up through the grades, as one poster already said?

Some have suggested making those who fail re-sit the entire year. How impractical. You would massive numbers of kids, some possibly teenagers, in p1 and p2 and only handfuls of students in the upper grades.

Back when we were at school, we had sets, and everyone moved up through the years, irrespective of test results. A lot of mates hated school, got bad O levels... and went on to be very successful, and even rich, doing other essential and well paid jobs that don't require knowledge of a gerund, a prepositional phrase etc.

I believe the Thais simply over test their students. Mid terms and finals each semester, scores, grades etc.

I'm not sure where this useless and damaging desire to test kids at every single step of the way came from. It's not holding kids back or mixed abilities that are the problems, they're merely the cause.

Most Thai students will be poor at English and go through their lives just as well or as poorly as if they'd never had their one hour a week with Ajarn Farang. My mate, now a very successful electrician, doesn't recall an ounce of French even though he had to study French at secondary school. They don't all need to become fluent. Do what you can, and breathe.

By James, China (13th October 2018)

Mark, this student has an extreme form of ADHD. I have a son who experienced a milder form of ADHD, but also "destructive" in the domestic and school environment. The latter manifested itself in concentration problems, being seriously stubborn and difficult to handle at times.

We refused to use the chemical way of treating ADHD, and made use of the alternative methods, i.e. applying structure to his life ( homework, keep promises made - both sides - etc) among other. At school he was assigned a (free) remedial teacher and looking back now, many years later, we can say that he made it.

“ Your case” seems more serious and I foresee a long and difficult road for the parents. I would advise the school/parents to contact the Department of Mental Health website at or the Rajanukul Institute website or call hotline numbers 1667 or 1323.

By Dirk, Udon Thani (29th June 2018)

Tracy: You got me, Jack, I must be a racist.

Jack: If you plan on continuing as an English teacher it is suggested you try to gain a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the meaning of a number of commonly used words and phrases found in the English language. I never called you a racist.

Back to the article, do you support Mark’s views and suggestions because of his expertise and sophisticated analysis supported by detailed empirical evidence or do you support his simplistic ethnocentric viewpoints because you intuitively like to see your own biases confirmed and are not interested in actually analysing his suggestions and viewpoints?

By Jack, Not where I was last week (5th June 2018)

You got me, Jack, I must be a racist. How well you know each and every poster on here. A part-time psychologist, you are. As a white female, can I be as racist as a white male? I don't know what your rules are. Also, if you imply every poster whose views you don't like are racist and overuse these terms, do you just trivialize their meaning? Can maybe you respond to certain points instead of blanket statements aimed at discrediting people?

Now time to get back to Mark's article. And to paraphrase Princess Elsa "Let it go, Jack"

By Tracey, Bangkok (4th June 2018)


It is always interesting to see how defensive and illogical some posters get when their ethnocentric and xenophobic worldviews are challenged.

Why posts promoting more tolerance, understanding and respect of the culture we have chosen to work and live in ignite such passionate hostility remains a bit of a mystery.

If a person comes to Thailand or other parts of Asia and intends to rely on his or her race and nationality, as opposed to skills, qualifications and experience, to achieve success and credibility I suspect this person will almost always end up disappointed and will either leave or join the ranks of the bitter old TEFL lifers who can't ever seen to really "make it."

The days of the British Raj are long over and while a white face and a Western passport still carry some privileges and advantages throughout Asia, these privileges and advantages are limited and are probably shrinking each and every year.

By Jack, Someplace productive (1st June 2018)

That might be the least unpleasant/abrasive comment I have ever seen the below poster give on the subject of foreign teachers...

By Jbkk, Bkk (1st June 2018)


Since you have displayed openly your contempt for Thai culture, I assume we have in common the fact we both prefer to work someplace other than a Thai government school.

If you really hate Thai culture and don't fit into the Thai educational system, you made the right choice and are following my advice in making a living doing something else instead of continuing on teaching in a Thai school and whine and try to change the country and culture (at least you are not posting yet another list of whines about Thailand).

We are in agreement on the path someone like you should follow, but not everyone has the same opinion about the desirability of teaching in a Thai school. I am sure not everyone will take your advice and many teachers will show up for work tomorrow at Thai schools, you might think these people are "wrong" while I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with teaching ESL in Thailand if you enjoy it an generally care about your students.

By Jack, Still away (31st May 2018)

Great article, Mark.

You may well completely fail, but you wanting to try and make a difference is your business and your business only. If you wanna give up, go ahead! I'd persevere. Most students do recognize teachers who try. It does make a difference.

Don't be disheartened by people who are such egomaniacs that they think everything in life is either black or white. They're merely ideologues looking to appear right. People who have something to hide or wanna detract from their own flaws or failings.

Anyway, I'm off to hook up with some short white guy who thinks the best way to get people (usually girls) to like and respect him is by apologizing for his gender and race. I have a thing for creeps with zero charm.

By Tracey, Keeping out of trouble (31st May 2018)

How patronising (though entirely expected). Yes, I understand everything that you said; it isn't difficult to ascertain that the level of nationalism and will prevent any foreign voice being taken seriously, which is why I don't bother discussing it (save on platforms like this, where I might have a "whine" on occasion, but where I still get roundly mocked for by the naive or by those who sold out a long time ago).

Which is why I would advise any foreigner teaching English, or any subject, in Thai government schools to quit, if at all possible, and go to a place where they can make a difference (or at least get paid more to compensate for culture not allowing it). If you are a serious teacher, or even an unqualified but hardworking and caring one, you can have much better.

By Jbkk, Bkk (31st May 2018)

Re-reading the article, I am struck by Mark's confidence that some students may not have met 'the minimum requirements for graduation'. I wonder whether those were Mark's or the school's; and whether they were unambiguously understood and applied. My own experience in Thailand, which may not be representative, was that we teachers had with managers/directors little discussion, let alone agreement, over what should be tested, how, and the evaluation of results. Whether and how far that matters is open to question and debate. I would like to emphasise that, while teaching efl in Thailand was not for me, I really appreciated that the thai managers and directors left me to my own devices and didn't interfere with lessons or seek to impose additional duties on me.

By David, UK (31st May 2018)


I am not going to get into a debate about the overall quality of Thai teachers, as this is a subjective opinion probably influenced by the degree of openness to cultural differences each person has.

But even if you, Mark and other posters here truly believe the average ESL teachers are better qualified to run the educational system of the country and individual schools than current Thai administrators, you are not going to convince the majority of Thai teachers and educational administrators they and their culture are inferior to you and your culture.

If you take a step back and look at the situation from the perspective of Thai teachers and educational officials, you will see the complete ineffectiveness of average ESL teachers making lists of complaints and trying to run the educational system.

Well over 99.99% of people from wealthy countries where English is the native language find ways to make a living other than teaching English in a Thai school in Thailand.

No one forces anyone to come to Thailand and become an ESL teacher, it is an individual choice.

If a person doesn’t like the choice, one can teach in an international school, in another country, in one’s home country or do something other than teaching English.

I have seen hundreds of “Marks” come to Thailand without any specific skills, qualifications or position of authority and decide to dedicate themselves to changing Thailand and the Thai education system to meet their own personal expectations.

I have never seen one of them succeed.

Has anyone ever seen an “average” ESL teacher initiate a major change in the Thai educational system?

Will Mark succeed where thousands before him have failed?

Having to deal with all the issues of running an entire country’s educational system or even a single school requires a lot of time and effort, why do so many teachers try to take on these responsibilities while not getting paid for it nor having been asked to take on the duties?

While it is fine for a TEFLer to go out with the fellows and have a good whine after downing a few beers, but leave the negativity there. When you get back to school, work on what you have been given the authority to control, improving the English language skills of the students assigned to you.

Dedicating your time and effort to teaching your students instead of creating these silly lists and moaning about cultural differences will likely be best for both your students and yourself.

By Jack, On a trip abroad (30th May 2018)

"But to be fair to our Thai counterparts, why should they take the advice of the average foreign ESL teacher? Very few foreign ESL teachers have been educated in educational theory, have years of experience, speak the local language or have a strong understanding of Thai culture and governmental systems."

To be fair, warming a teacher's chair for years,and attending a more-or-less no-fail teacher "qualification" course, doesn't allow seemingly 99% of Thai teachers to have any more of clue either; also, the foreign teachers aren't more concerned with their side-businesses than with helping their students...

By JBkk, Bkk (30th May 2018)

“As foreign teachers in a country that values our language skills but not our advice, our chances of influencing this system are close to zero.”

You have found the answer. Teach English and let those paid to run the system run it.

But to be fair to our Thai counterparts, why should they take the advice of the average foreign ESL teacher?

Very few foreign ESL teachers have been educated in educational theory, have years of experience, speak the local language or have a strong understanding of Thai culture and governmental systems.

Even if Mark and others really think they know what is best (because he and they were lucky enough to be born in a country where the native language is the world’s lingua franca?), it is doubtful this attitude will be appreciated by local school administrators who have degrees in education, speak the local language, and understand the local culture and governmental system.

From what Mark posts on here, simplistic criticisms and solutions, I am not surprised his schools want him to stick to teaching English and not try to override the authority of the school administration and management.

Sure, The Thai educational system is in need of improvement (I could say the same thing about the educational system in my home country as well) and use of some internationally recognized best practices adjusted for the local environment is likely to part of the improvement process but I doubt these improvements will be led by disgruntled ESL teachers.

By Jack, Back in the saddle again (29th May 2018)

Students are not "promoted" from one grade to the next, they progress through the grades.

By Steve C, Bangkok (27th May 2018)

As stated before, hat's off for caring. You seem like a clever guy and I'm certain have explored all your options. I'd simply change schools as the child might in disrupting your class for years. As for the student matriculating, as stated in another post, the student won't be better off repeating.

The system, for both similar and different reasons as the US and presumably the rest of the developed world has no time, money or patience to hold students back.

I like to think of it in other terms. Unfortunately, students with issues due to lack of faculty or maturity do not grasp this. It's definitely the way Education is moving these days -

Each student owns their own learning experience. It's up to them to develop themselves, to seek out relevant learning and to this end the teach facilitates this.

Therefore, students get 12 years of free education to do what they wish with the time they have. I can tell you myself, I wasted a good many of those formative years. That was my short sighted choice. Luckily, with hard work I made up for that lack of performance in university.

This student is different, he lacks focus and perhaps capacity. He imo needs specialized assistance. I'm no advocate of mainstreaming in general, but especially if the student is disruptive. The entire class suffers this child on a daily basis and that is wrong.

The child should be removed.

To finalize my point, about graduating students up and out - why is it the teachers, administrators, minders, etc role to hold a student back when 90% of them time the kids don't come to class, do the work, etc...? Holding a child back other than a wake up call and punishment have not addressed any of the issues that led to behavior that led to the student being held back.

Finally, returning to Oat. He obviously has serious issues which holding him back will do nothing to resolve. SO...what WILL resolve those issues? Medicine and/or another school that can meet his needs.

The students around him are suffering. It sounds like a private school, the director should speak with the parents and find a solution. If not, Oat needs to move on or risk jeopardizing the other students education.

Don't worry - six years will pass. Khrusapa will not issue you a full license despite your stellar effort - you'll be in China or Vietnam where they care about education.

By Jim Beam, The Big Smoke (27th May 2018)

Kudos for the hot topic. - I know a government ANUBAN with a "special needs" class. Usually, they stick even very problematic kids in "normal classes".

In Vietnam, I've noticed the astonishing transformation of a severly autistic boy into one appearing normal. Guess the millionaire parents got the best medical help there is? (I spoke to a family member and hope this triggered some action. He used to be "mentally absent" from time to time, displaying similar behavior but he was watching some inner movie at those times and wouldn't react to getting hit by other students etc.)

The director has been jeopardizing the success of that class - for what? To save face? Doesn't he feel an obligation to the many vs to this one boy?!?

By Chris, Lamphun (26th May 2018)

Credit to you Mark for caring enough to approach this problem and produce a clear and measured article. I sincerely hope you and others will discover solutions, but I find myself, after my relatively short but intense teaching of efl in Thailand last year, endorsing every word in Freemo's comments.

By David, UK (26th May 2018)

I've experienced 2 different gov't schools in Thailand (Surat Thani and Kabinburi). They were both a complete nightmare. The school in Kabinburi I lasted 1 year. In the previous 2 years I was there 21 teachers had come and gone. Can not imagine a school being much worse than that one.

By Bradley Haley, Korea (26th May 2018)

I have no doubt dealing with children with issues can be challenging, but what are your reasons in believing having the child repeat P1 over and over again will help him develop or make the lives of the teachers easier?

I am no expert, but I do know there is no consensus in the Western world on the benefits of having student's repeat a grade and assuming a controversial practice in one culture will produce exceptional results in a different cultural context seems to require a pretty big leap of faith.

By Jack, Near the beach taking it easy (25th May 2018)

As a public school teacher in the US, I can say that things aren't any better here. Problem children wreak havoc on the system here daily. Walking in and out of class, it's not uncommon to see a child being physically restrained by teachers who are CPI certified. What is happening to our youth?

By Gregory Duggan, USA (25th May 2018)

You hand out wordsearches to all the students that will never be graded. You stop caring and just try to keep from going insane. The truth is we are not teachers in Thailand; we're just babysitters. The quicker you understand that, the happier you will be!

By Freemo, Bkk (25th May 2018)

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