Mark Newman

The ten teaching English in Thailand commandments

Tips and strategies to make your life easier

If you are new to Thailand, the following guide may help you to enjoy your time here and your classes more. If you are a burned out, old pro, the following gentle ‘reminder' may reinvigorate your verve. Either way, it doesn't hurt to start off the new school year with a plan and the ideas here may help make your life easier for you and your students.

1 - Be predictable in the classroom.

‘Managing' your classes and students can be an uphill battle without a consistent pattern of teaching and a routine that students can quickly identify with. This is especially important if you only have each class for one period a week. It's easy to see the time slip away without you having accomplished much.

Typically, my classes start off with a ‘Q and A' session where I go around the classroom asking all the students a question or two. Next, I'll teach a prepared lesson with something on the board to hint at the subject matter. Finally, we'll spend a few minutes winding down with a game (Zingo is brilliant!) or a video.

I've asked other teachers for their ideas and some have been really helpful, explaining their ‘routines' and others have adopted a ‘surprise them with my brilliant new and crazy idea for this week' method.

It should come as no surprise that teachers with a consistent and predictable classroom approach have an easier time of it and get more teaching done.

2 - Lesson plans? We don't need no stinking lesson plans!

Actually, we do. But they need to have a purpose and not just be a template for you to kill time. Keeping kids busy is not the same as keeping them engaged and interested and I learned this the hard way.

As most of us in Thailand are not monitored, assessed or trained to do the job, it's easy to get carried away by filling up classroom time with a hodgepodge of enthusiastic ideas that ultimately lead nowhere.

Twenty minutes of grammar, twenty minutes of reading comprehension and finally twenty minutes of conversation... it's exhausting for you and your class.

Instead of this, choose one area that you want to cover, state it clearly on the blackboard and make sure that the students understand the ‘goal' of the class before you start to teach it. If you do this, you will learn to focus less on what the kids are doing in your classroom and more on what you want to teach them.

3 - Let's practice what I preach!

Teaching something doesn't mean that it has been learned. You can ‘teach' an aspect of the English language till the buffaloes get mysteriously sick, but if it hasn't been absorbed by your students, you've wasted your time.

Students have to practice what they learn and kids in Thailand have to practice a lot before they learn anything! To this end it's important to grade kids not on what you have taught them but what they have understood and practiced.

Once you embrace this concept, teaching in Thailand becomes a whole lot less maddening! Too many teachers are banging their heads against a brick wall because they have confused teaching something with kids learning something.

So when it comes to marking and grading the levels of students make sure they have had time to practice what you have preached.

4 - Meet the parents.

I spent many years teaching kids in Thailand and never even thought about anything outside the classroom. The idea of meeting parents wasn't something that I didn't want to do - it just didn't occur to me that there would be any value in it. I was wrong.

In my experience, parents in Thailand have high levels of anxiety and concern when it comes to education for their kids. And it doesn't help that they feel alienated by the process and powerless to find out what's going on in the classrooms. Parents are well aware of the shortcomings of a public school education in Thailand and you can help to reassure them with a few friendly words about their children and about yourself.

If the parents are not afraid to approach you, this will go a long way to alleviating many concerns and questions they have about you and what you are doing for them.

This is easier said than done when you don't speak the language and parents are naturally reticent about making the first move to get your attention. But there are endless opportunities for you to get out there and make yourself approachable and recognizable as someone who can be trusted with their kids.

It's one thing for your classes to say how wonderful you are - it's a new level of accomplishment when the parents feel the same way.

5 - Keep your distance.

This for me is very important. Never meet your students, their parents or other teachers (especially Thai teachers) outside the school for any reason whatsoever. I'd go so far as to say, do your shopping in another town to avoid being seen.

Let's be clear... EVERYTHING you do or say is a part of your ongoing resume. Every Facebook post, every time they see you in Big C shopping in your dressing gown and every time they see you in a bar. It's all ammunition that can be used against you.

The biggest single career mistake teachers make is to get too friendly with the people around them and this always leads to trouble. I can regale you with anecdotal evidence that proves my point but I won't... just don't do it!

Your carefully crafted image as a professional educator can disappear in a second the moment you are seen doing something (anything) unprofessional in your own time. Many times your behavior may seem innocuous to you but every little thing you do can be misconstrued and re-interpreted by an observer. It's all ammunition.

Keep everything you do outside the school gates as private and as invisible as you possibly can.

6 - Boundaries in and out of the classroom.

As much as we want to be seen as a popular teacher, there are boundaries that your students should be very clear about from day one.

Some of these should be common sense. Inviting your students to your Facebook page just screams disaster, right? But social media is also a very good way of extending your professional relationship with your students, too.

I have created a Facebook page just for my students (past and present), fellow teachers and parents. No family and no foreigners. It's set so only my Facebook ‘friends' can see it and only I can post on the timeline.

You should set your Instagram and Twitter to private, too. Like I said, everything about you online is a part of your resume and can be used as ammunition against you.

At school, your students probably feel comfortable around you. Some will be more affectionate than others. But let's be clear... you are not their social worker, favorite uncle, friend or confidante. None of your interactions with anyone you teach or work with should be either overly familiar or worse, secretive.

If troubled kids start to share their personal hells with you, redirect them to Thai teachers or someone in the office. If you are alone with one or two students then leave the door wide open. The stink of suspicion of impropriety never goes away.

7 - Teachers are learners, too.

If you're new to Thailand and teaching or just nervous about your ability and talent, don't keep it to yourself. The answers to all your questions may be in the next room, but you'll never know if you hide in your classroom.

While teaching is something that comes easily to some, many of us will need some guidance to steer us in the right direction. Inexperience is nothing to be ashamed of. We have all had to do our apprenticeships, right?

When asking for help, though, be specific. Identify an issue that needs resolving and then ask questions. ‘How can I be a better teacher?' is NOT a good example of what you should be asking. Instead, try ‘I'm supposed to be teaching the past progressive tense... how would you do it?'

At the end of the day, we do want to be better teachers so what's the best way to do that... besides teaching? Yep, that's right - watching other people teach.

When I started out at a language school, I asked other teachers if they would mind if I sat at the back of the class and observed. Oh boy, this was an eye-opening experience. The teachers usually put on a good show and I managed to cherry-pick my way through loads of helpful information that helped to make me the teacher I am now.

However, just as important as the positive things I learned, were what I discovered NOT to do in the classroom. It's only by watching other teachers teach, that you can learn what not to do in your own classes.

The biggest tips on what NOT to do that I picked up from watching other teachers were things like...

...not paying attention to the students and looking too much at the blackboard or screen.

...using interjections like ‘all right', ‘very well', ‘fair enough', ‘moving on', etc. These annoying words may fill up the silence but they distract and confuse your Thai students.

...I also learned to never assume that what I was teaching was actually sinking in. I was amazed watching teachers who seamlessly skipped on to new areas and unknowingly left behind confused and annoyed students.

Your awareness of yourself in the classroom is important. Take a video of yourself teaching and play it back... you'll be surprised how much you can teach yourself!

8 - Know your subject.

Much of your confidence and skill as an English language instructor will come from how well you know your subject. If you're part of the Thai public school system, you may think that being a native English speaker is enough... and it usually is enough if all you want to do is coast through the work week.

But knowing your subject well helps you to be able to distinguish between what is important to teach and focus on and what isn't.

I'm not saying that you need to be a linguistics expert. You certainly do not. But what you teach and how you teach it becomes a whole lot easier if you know why you are teaching it and have a good grasp of the ‘science' behind it, so to speak.

Thailand has a legendary reputation amongst capable educators who have had to un-teach things that students have picked up as a result of the disastrous impact of misinformed and poorly equipped teachers.

If you think back to your own school days, I'll bet the teachers you most admired were the ones most knowledgeable in their subjects. If you know your subject well and can break it down into bite-sized, learnable chunks, you'll be fondly remembered long after your students have left you and your school behind.

Don't depend only on your English speaking ability as your ivory tower of competence. Know your subject.

9 - Feel the burnout!

Teaching in Thailand requires a lot of time and energy. It's not a profession that is well rewarded, either. There are frustrations and obstacles that will test your verve. (See, I used that word twice. Because I bloody like it, that's why!)

It's vital that the values that you were raised on don't get the better of you in Thailand. They don't apply here and you won't change that by getting angry.

Don't get caught up in the mindset of other teachers. Misery can be contagious!

Learn to (respectfully) say ‘no'... or at least learn to lie and say ‘yes'!

"A meeting on Sunday at 7 in the morning? Sure, I'll be there. I'll bring the donuts!"

Don't go. You won't be missed and even if you are, you were sick, right?

There are symptoms of burnout... like exhaustion, detachment from your work, feelings of being under-appreciated and of non-accomplishment. You won't wake up one day with full-on burnout... but eventually it's likely that working in Thailand with all its pros and cons, will eventually bring on these symptoms.

There's plenty of advice on the internet on how to deal with work burnout. But I'd say - most important is to make yourself and your well-being number one.

10 - And, so finally...

I'm an English teacher, not a maths teacher! Isn't nine enough to be going on with?



On Point #6 Boundaries . . .

That is a safe strategy for some.
For me, I immerse myself in the community. My students and the Thai staff run into me everywhere in this small town - - at the supermarket, the evening or morning fresh markets, most town events, the garden plants center, Big C. I always dress nicely, almost the same as I do at school, so that I always still look like their teacher and I always go to them when I see them, rather than try to hide. I have no bad habits for any of them to witness; heck, everyone at the supermarket and the local little shops know I don't drink or smoke; the security guard at my apartment knows I live alone and don't "dates" home (and his wife works at my school and one of his kids is a student there). I have nothing to hide. I think they appreciate that I'm just doing what they do on any average day when not at school.

In my school there's a teacher from the Philippines who chats up everyone on campus, from the gate guards to the director of the school. Great personality and great networker. His department did have some office politics and they did try to make a move against him, but thanks to his networking, the director told them to forget about it; he supported the teacher and that was that.

So, yeah, your advice in #6 is one good tactic, but I have seen more open strategy working too.

By John, Small town outside Chiangrai (28th May 2016)

Nice Work Marko,

So many people talking about research this and learning outcomes that but very few people actually talk about the classroom.

Relevance to students needs over a generic fill in the box attitude to education is so refreshing.

Have fun

By t mark, chantaburi (24th May 2016)

With the pretentious title I was prepared to dislike the article, but after reading it I think it is filled with a quite good advice although I could quibble with one or two minor points, but I am not in the mood to nit-pick.

By Jack, In front of my computer (23rd May 2016)

Thanks Marko, some great pointers. Even with twenty years teaching experience some reminders are needed. Always learning.

By Nigel Quinn, N.E Thailand (23rd May 2016)

This is one of the most helpful articles I've come across on this website, well done and I agree with 99% of what you wrote.

By Danny, Bkk (23rd May 2016)

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