Mark Newman

Who gets the call when their arms are raised?

Which student gets the teacher's questions and why?

There's something endearing about a group of youngsters in a classroom that are so desperate to answer a question posed by the teacher, that they use one arm to prop up the other while they wait for the nod.

I'm a primary school teacher. I see about 800 kids each week.

I'm not trained to do this job and I've simply picked it up as I have gone along.

I've been teaching for over 25 years and been working at my current school now for five years.

During the first month or so of teaching the new Prathom 2 class, when school starts in the new year, I quickly establish a few things about the students and group them (in my head) accordingly.

Sometimes as the years go by, students will shift from group to group and that's fine. Hopefully it's from a lower group to a higher group.

So here are the five groups.

Children who want to learn English and do so quickly.

Children who want to learn English and do so eventually.

Children who like the class but not the subject!

Children who will never in a million years have a use for learning English.

Children with learning (a language) difficulties.

Every child falls into one of these groups.

A word or two about each group, first...

Children who want to learn English and do so quickly.

This group is almost all girls with a couple of swotty boys thrown in.

They focus their eagle eyes on everything you do and have their arms braced to a secret booster in their shirts ready to fire upwards the moment it looks like you're going to ask a question. Even for the students who have broken boosters, their eyes betray them.

I can look at an entire class of kids and tell just by looking at their faces, who knows and who doesn't know the answer. These students are more artistic and are more forgiving when the subject matter doesn't conform to strict rules the same way that other subjects do.

Children who want to learn English and do so eventually.

This group is about half boys and half girls.

They approach learning English like learning mathematics. If there are rules to follow then the answer can be established logically. You can see the expressions on their faces as they work through the information they have been given and arrive at a conclusion. These students get the bulk of my attention.

(In an attempt to keep things simple I bury parts of English learning that may clash with certain 'rules'. There are many reasons for this and I have faced criticism for doing it. But the way I see it, my students are too young to take on board the anomalies of the English language and it's also a time consuming distraction in my class that further education at a higher level can confront in the future.)

Children who like the class but not the subject!

All the students I have enjoy my classes without exception. Not because I'm a particularly skilled educator or even an entertaining teacher. It's because they are kids and they find joy and entertainment in everything they do.

The kids in this group (usually boys) are the biggest distraction in the classroom and need to be identified. Because it'll be this group that will determine your success and ability as a teacher.

Children who will never in a million years have a use for learning English.

These are the boys who sit near the back, eyes glazed over, hiding behind a bigger classmate and often struggling to stay awake!

They are the noisiest in the playground and somehow a force of nature (thankfully) silences them in the English classroom. These are the kids that will keep bar owners in business. They'll be driving the motorcycle taxis and tuk tuks around town. They'll know the exact price of domestic whisky.

Children with learning difficulties.

Out of the 800 kids I face each week, about 5% of them have serious learning disabilities. The Thai teacher will point them out to me and say "She's not normal!"

It's difficult to tell the difference between the disabled kids and the ones who are just lazy! After a few weeks though, it gets clearer.

Let the games begin...

Captivating the attention of a large class of kids and teaching them is a complicated psychological game. It's exhausting and by Friday afternoon I'm beat. Which is why I value my weekends alone and sheltered from any kind of distraction.

Also, my time is valuable. I spend an average of half an hour with each student a year! That's not much time. (45 minutes for each class - 32 classes a year - 40 kids in each class... that's about half an hour for each student each year!)

So, who answer the questions in my classes?

Well, the answers may surprise you and you may disagree, but here's my take on this:

Children who want to learn English and do so quickly.

All of these kids will answer a question at least once. I know that they know the answer. But to keep them attentive, included and motivated, they will all get at least one chance to be heard. And they can enjoy the moment and act smug and smart with their chums.

Children who want to learn English and do so eventually.

These kids will get the most chances to answer questions. Hopefully multiple times. You can almost see the colored clockwork cogs ticking around in their heads as they assemble the answers for you. Also, this group is just as likely to get the answer wrong, which gives you the opportunity to offer further explanation and 'prompt' the correct answers from them and other members of this group.

This, for me, is the most important group of the class. These kids can be taught and respond well to logical explanations. The first group will have already absorbed this information and have less need of my attention.

These kids also derive the most pleasure from getting their answers correct.

Children who like the class but not the subject!

Well, I'll throw out a few bones to this group depending on their mood and how much time I have. It'll hopefully keep them from being too much of a distraction to the other groups.

This is the group who are most likely to move up a group in time and maybe one day find value in the classes. It's important to keep them included or at least enjoying their time in the class without letting them get disruptive. But frankly, they aren't a priority.

Children who will never in a million years have a use for learning English.

Toss them a blanket and let them sleep! Occasionally I'll ask one of these kids a question and here's why. If one of this group looks like getting a bit excited and disruptive then I'll fire off a question in that person's direction. He'll get it wrong or offer up stony silence. the other kids will have a good laugh at his expense and he'll be less disruptive for the next few minutes.

Children with learning (a language) difficulties.

Occasionally... and here's why:

I have a girl who comes into one of my prathom 6 classes each week. She is clearly dull. (Yes, that's an accepted term, not one I threw out there to ridicule her.) But the reason I ask her a question is that any answer she blurts out is going to be correct. And I tell her that and she feels included in the class. It makes her happy to think that I think she knows the answer.

But I don't do it for her. I do it for the girls who sit near her. You see, they have taken a maternal interest in this student and want to protect her. When they see her getting praise when she is quite clearly wrong, the other girls 'get it' and understand what I'm doing. It's like we have a secret arrangement to take care of this person.

The boys at the back just think that she's got the answer right and scratch their heads in disbelief!

Final thoughts...

Now, I've just scratched the surface here. There's a shitload more that goes on in each classroom. But you get an inkling about what it takes to engage the entire class and not just the ones with the arm boosters in their shirts!

The first group will learn English better and faster even without my undivided attention. They will also be the group most likely to find value in learning English in the future. But I focus on the second group more. Why? Well, it's the second group that can most effectively be taught new things while the first group will naturally absorb this kind of knowledge.

Mark Newman



"I'm not trained to do this job and I've simply picked it up as I have gone along."

And this is ultimately what the students are up against. Teachers who are not qualified to teach ... anywhere other than Thailand.
Doing something for 25 years does not make one an expert at it, look at parenting, for example. Pedagogy is not simply 'picked up'. How are kids with special needs dealt with? Is there a logical link between different parts of the lesson? How is questioning approached? What kinds of questions are there? And responses? Are learning styles addressed?

By Concerned, Bangkok (4th January 2016)

I pretty much agree but I must add that for the dull or students that have been left behind due to the acceptance of this learning method I must add that these students will often react to physical activities. I also do not teach grammer. i teach communication. It is very rewarding for a student that does not know how to create a full sentence can be understood. i suspect those that speak Thai will be told this be native Thai speakers. My Thai grammer is terrible but i am understtood through context of the sentence.

To the first comment by Jonny. i know exactly what you are talking about. Unfortunately nepotism and the inability of anyone of any race that has some kind of power to admit fault it will always be a problem. This also comes back to teaching communication instead of grammar.

Have fun

By mark, Chantaburi (14th December 2015)

What I find the hardest thing to deal with is the same attitude in Grade 1 as I see in Grade 9. I think by that age the passive aggressive approach is starting to come out and they have learnt not to say anything directly and so act up to show their disapproval of something. And so while you are wondering why this class I acting like this, they simply did not have the courage to tell you they are bored, or that they thought what you were teaching was not relevant. It does not matter if it is relevant, just if they think so.

I am now teaching Mattayom 3, and I realize that many have not picked up English and many will not use it or they think it is just not relevant. And so I just try to make the class fun Another thing which always amazes me is how they insist in a conversation class there should be no writing even when half the class is falling asleep.

By Jonny Jon, Bangkok (14th December 2015)

I used to teach the sweetest "slow" girl and used to write the answer on a slip of paper in Thai so she could say the right answer once or twice a month. Her eyes lit up like it was the best day of her life every time, as Im not sure she could remember the last time.

By Rob, Bkk (12th December 2015)

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