Matt Smith

Teaching at my university

What does holding down a university job entail?


What is it like teaching my university classes in Thailand? Well, there's been a ‘before' and ‘after'. Before was when I was a very poor teacher, with very little understanding of what my profession was all about - my activities did not teach specific skills and knowledges, mainly because my own knowledge of the mechanics of English was very limited. My materials were very poorly presented, or were given to students on a piecemeal basis, and lacked any guiding format or instructions. And my administration of classes was very haphazard - there was no sign of me following any sort of a comfortable routine in the way I organised things, or indeed that I had it fixed in my own mind where things were heading. In combination, of course, these things gave very little indication to students that there was anything either serious or genuine about what they studied in my courses - in these conditions, this is typically how classes went.

I'd stand out the front and explain something about some language I wanted them to be able to use - the vocabulary, usually, and whatever other vague feature of the nature and other organisation of the language I knew. Or, if I was teaching writing, I'd kind of do the same thing, I would write them or show them something, and then I would explain the most basic, or most general features of it. There would then be some sort of activity or game that got the students involved in using that language, be it speaking, listening to, reading or writing it - I'd only very summarily check how people were going with things, or was content usually if a good portion of students were able to show some understanding. Things went absolutely famously like this, I thought I was killing it - everyone was happy, it looked like people were doing what they were supposed to, and there was sufficient response from the group to make me think that everyone was learning.

In other words, I'd walk into the room (I was always a bit testy about punctuality, and so they were always there waiting for me), and all the students would stop their conversations with one another, and arrange themselves in their chairs. Before I could even say ‘hi' they would all be smiling fit to burst - naturally, it would make me smile too, and very easy to say a genuine hello. I'd begin explaining whatever was on the agenda, and they'd all lean forward in their chairs - I would ask questions of them periodically throughout, which they either answered, or which they solicited the help of their friends in answering. Thai people, in other words, if this is left unaddressed, are very quick to whisper to their uncomprehending classmates both what you said to them, as well as how they should respond - at first, I didn't think too much of this. During group or individual student tasks too, I'd wander around and see in general how people were going - I could see that some of them didn't have much of a clue, and I would try to help them, but seeing that as I didn't have too focused a grasp myself of what they needed to know and do exactly to produce the targeted language, or to understand what I had given them, it was difficult to know in what ways they were off track, and how exactly I should be going about getting them back on it. Consequently, I had to be very benevolent in the way I tested the students - some of them performed very badly in their exams, and it was necessary for me to give them special tuition, and to let them do exams again and so forth, so they didn't get in trouble with the university. I didn't make it easy for them, by any means, but I could see that their attendance or rejection of their studies were not factors contributing to their predicament, and I don't like to punish the students for ignorance when I'm supposed to be the teacher - it was figuring out what was going on here in particular, or the close involvement it gave me with struggling students, that shed the most light on what I should perhaps be doing.

Teaching older students, however, was a completely different story. While my young undergraduate students have always by and large demonstrated exceedingly civilised classroom behaviours, when I taught the mature age Thai students, I saw all the behaviours I have read other people complaining about. I wonder, in fact, how widely known this is - many older Thai people, in class, often even when they are teachers themselves (and it seems to be directly proportional to their seniority), pay about as much attention to what is going on as a group of Chinese tourists would pay to the recorded messages on the subway. They doze off. They talk with one another. They even leave their mobile phones on, and answer them in the class. Furthermore, the only groups of Thai people I have taught in which I had to combat blatant cheating were the groups of older students - I guess their peers were as appalled by this as we might be, because they have certainly done a very good job fixing it. Like I say, until I came to teach mature age students myself, or on the basis of the young people, I thought for sure that Thailand was the best place to teach - my young Thai students, as I have recounted previously, have always, while they are not in every case the most diligent doers of homework, nonetheless been almost unanimously an absolute pleasure to have in the classroom. As I remember someone on this site writing somewhere, they make your face hurt from smiling.

The thing was, though, that in early days, while it looked like everything was going well, it wasn't. I came to find this out because as I became more established in this kind of institution, and as I became more knowledgeable about the English language and about teaching, I fixed up my game. Or actually, I should say, I came to know this especially, because I was confronted with the Chinese. Like the mature-age Thai students (with whom, when I think about it now, they might be compared, there must be something of significance in this), being in any sort of state of under-preparation, if its is the Chinese I know you're teaching, is the end of you before you've begun - you need a well conceived sequence of learning activities, and an absolute will of iron to get people to stick to them in the way they are intended to be used (which means great confidence in what you are doing), if you want to run anything like what we would think of as a contemporary language lesson. Confronted with this change in my student population, in other words, and with a few basic ideas in place, it was high time to address the professionalism of my practice - I put the things I had discovered into practice by making decent course books, with decent activities, and with decent guiding structure, as well as established more formal systems of administration and classroom management.

Which is where I immediately saw a whole new face of my Thai students. Suppose you start off as a good teacher, and walk into an ‘untrained' class (because the likes of me before didn't prepare them too well), and start trying to teach them something productive - this is what you'll experience (at least at my university). You begin by referring to last week, to give them a sense of the context in which this week fits, or to encourage their holistic understanding of the course - nobody will have thought about it in the meantime, and you'll be met by blank stares. This makes you feel somewhat anxious to begin with. Never mind, you remind everyone of where we are at, and you begin to explain what the next workout will be, whatever theory is involved, and whatever the students have to do - as soon as they figure out that this is the theory and instructions phase of the lesson (something you're trying to make plain to them so they can get with the lesson), a whole bunch of them immediately turn off. Maybe even some of them, as well as visibly beginning to fidget, or loll about listlessly, even begin to go down that slippery slope towards paying no attention whatsoever, and having a conversation of their own. This certainly made me wonder whether I had made the right choice of improvements to my teaching strategy when I experienced it - I desperately wanted them to think just a tad about what they were doing before they did it, and especially how they should go about doing it, to give them a better sense of what they were trying to accomplish. My inability to do this, or the thwarting of this ambition, certainly gave me doubts about what I was doing, as well as threatened the previous joviality of our relationship.

Having pressed on through this obstacle, you tell everyone to get in their group, and to begin. Nobody moves, they just sit there relaxing. Come on, you tell them, hurry up, let's get it all happening - they continue to smile benignly, and maybe a few will begin to rise. Oh, you realise, despite the many hours you spent at home trying to make the most potentially boring part of the learning experience interesting and meaningful, or despite the cunning bait you prepared to capture their interest, and to get them on board with the lesson, a lot of them don't know what's going on. So, you gently get them doing what they should be doing, which is making groups. Next thing, you discover, as you go around to closely check how everybody is going with the activity proper, is that some people still have absolutely no idea what is happening, and furthermore aren't even trying to find out - they're just sitting there, happily and apparently busily, but with no engagement whatsoever in whatever the activity is. At this stage, I thought my activities really sucked, because upon this close inspection, and with a very clear idea of what students should be doing, I found the level of participation was fairly low - still, you patiently try and get them to get with it, or to salvage the point of the whole learning experience from this quagmire into which the lesson has suddenly descended. Then you head back to your office with your heart in your shoes, and wonder was it the wrong approach, or was it too difficult, or was the whole thing boring, or all the other non-congratulatory things about yourself that teaching failure gets you to thinking - I can easily see teachers going so far as to imagine, even, that student-centred learning, or the communicative approach, or even Western methods of education, are not appropriate to Thailand, the textbooks don't mean anything.

The trick is, however, to persevere. I've talked about this previously - at first, trying to be a better teacher depressed me enormously, trying to give the students a greater appreciation of what they were doing, and how to go about it; and, having to go around and make sure that they all knew what to do, and were in fact doing it as it was intended (not just copying off their mate or something); was to begin with exceptionally arduous (making what I thought were massive improvements looked like it was making my classes fall apart). Just when I was ready to give up, though, I burst through the threshold - suddenly, the students got it, they realised the structure of lessons, or the ways I had in mind for them to learn, and embraced the concept, and everything was sweet. I guess the conclusion is, I mean, that the students at my university are not used to learning in the way we might rationalise learners would go about it, or according to the way contemporary instructional material is designed - rather than losing heart, however, or dumbing it down, or wringing your hands trying to devise new methods, if you just bear with their confusion for a bit, they soon get the hang of it. And, of course, are at the end of the day much better off for it, because if activities are designed well, and students are doing them, you have the basics of decent language education.

So this is what my classes are like now. As mentioned, my Thai students are all very punctual - we actually implemented a penalty for lateness in our faculty, so there is this added incentive, but in fact this was specifically introduced to counter the lateness of the Chinese, and I think that just asking the Thai students to be punctual was enough to bring this about. I mention this, in other words, because if you haven't taught in Thailand, and you don't mention it specifically and harp on it just a little, Thai students will not be punctual, or will drive you crazy with their lateness - this is the first major structural fault in their perception of what their classes are all about, that it doesn't matter if they miss the beginning, it can't be all that important, with this particular thread unravelled getting them to picture things at all differently is very difficult. They are, however, with the exception of some of the mature age students, who simply become defiantly late, amenable to trying a new outlook, you just have to get on their back a bit about it, or make it quite plain why, for the good of the class, it is a good idea - this is not something that was ever a pressing issue to me, or a problem I found it notably difficult to resolve.

The students are in there, therefore, when I arrive - in the case of the classes of mixed nationality, which in many ways are the most interesting to observe (although, because of the international students, by far the most difficult to teach), the Thai students will be seated in a little group on one side, and the Chinese on the other. Or, in the case of the latter, because they live to push the limits, hurriedly and damply, on account of their freshness from the shower (I'm thinking of a morning class), trying to get in their seats and get organised. They still look at me a bit nervously because they know that, having had my morning coffee, I am going to want to talk to them, and there is still that lingering anxiety that they're not going to understand what I am going to say, and that I will persist with the process of making them figure it out (which is a vast improvement on being afraid of the situation where they don't know where to begin figuring out what I was talking about) - while I talk with them, and become befuddled in my organisation of the equipment, because it is difficult to concentrate on two things at once, they very kindly help me get the plugs in the right places and everything turned on, and if not enjoy then at least give a little of their own input into the conversation. The Thais, while their marks are usually not the best in the class, are much better at conversation than the Chinese - they are more confident, and give much more creative input than the latter, as well as are really the only ones that ask me questions, and that give other prompts to continue the discussion (another point of interest here, I mean, is that they are the ones progressing most rapidly in terms of their reflexivity to situations, and the depth of their response).

In other words, after a relentless crusade to make this chitter chatter a part of the before class routine, as engaged teachers and students who are juggling interesting stuff, and who are on the lookouts for things in the broader world that bear relation to it - after innumerable awkward lockups on the behalf of the students, whose panic in the face of this normal exposure to language, and whose inability to understand and respond made the act far more of a torment than anything like a light-hearted prelude to lessons - now the students are fully speaking English. They became competent at dealing with the situation, and now for me this kind of communication serves the primary purpose for which it is intended - it is interesting for me to discuss things with my students before our respective roles become more formal, they're nice people, and they have a lot of interesting things to tell me. What was, I will repeat, horribly awkward and difficult initially has become kind of comfortable, and our relationship has benefitted - they feel more involved with my lessons, because they can see that I wasn't trying to get them to speak to force them to speak before it starts (laying on the pressure right from the word go), I was saying stuff that was genuinely, dare I say it again, ‘human'. Perhaps I could draw a comparison here with my own experiences in Thailand, people were always saying things to me unsolicited in the shops, and at the ATM machine and so forth, and before I could understand what they were saying I wondered what their problem was, why they couldn't just mind their own business - it was a fundamental realisation to me, as I accompany my non-Thai speaking wife through Thailand, to see that in fact Thai people go out of their way on many occasions to tell you something really helpful, like how you have to queue up, or get a ticket or so forth, in a really practical way (they're really empathic in the way they know what's going to be an obstacle for you). When I saw the full purpose and meaning of what they were doing, I mean, my anxiety turned to appreciation, because I suddenly saw how they were just doing normal, and indeed very friendly things - henceforth I felt comfortable with it. The point is, anyway, the students have a bit of a chat with me before the class, and this is all now very pleasant.

When I begin whatever we are doing, they all pay attention to the theory and instructions, and now look kind of keen to find out - I'm just getting used to this, it marks a remarkable, and very wonderful, divergence from the past. When I talk to them about what's going on, if they can't answer a question they don't just sit there like a stunned mullet anymore, or as if I've just sentenced them to the guillotine - after telling them a million times that this was our only recourse, they say ‘I don't know', and we move on, they listen to somebody who does. Better yet, they ask a few of the kinds of questions we might expect of people who are trying to turn things around the right way in their minds, or get an adequate grasp of a concept - all this seems rather mundane when I describe it, but actually it was very hard-won ground, the most difficult thing to turn around was to get the struggling students not to be a spanner in the works, or to raise them to the standard where they were no longer, as we say in Thai, ‘mai roo reu-ung' (lost the plot, no idea). When we do the activities, they all actually do them, and if they cannot they employ strategies by which to find out how - the ones that didn't understand don't just sit there hoping they will in due course anymore, they realise that rather than staying out of things the onus is actually on them to try harder than anyone else to get with the picture, so that A. Matt doesn't have to return to the same point so repetitively (they realise that by no means will I give up and go away these days, I won't be content until everyone is up to speed). And, that it doesn't take much to do this, by communicating your desires and difficulties, you can just get somebody to explain.

What I am getting at with all this being that, in conclusion here, if you want to teach university classes like mine, in particularly regard to Thai classes, if they are school leavers they're really as good a bunch of starters as you could ever hope to get. If you try and teach them in a systematic way, you will encounter difficulties - difficulties that might, at first, be inclined to plunge you into the deepest depths of despair. But, don't wig out, the problem is that the students are just in the preliminary stages of learning by doing, very few people look like they are enjoying themselves when they are having trouble trying to understand. Actually, they very rapidly get the hang of things, and soon make comprehension-checking and helping with the activities much easier routines for the teacher to perform - then, teaching them is more rewarding than ever, with a decent pedagogy in place they all perform well in their tests, and on top of that are very interesting and entertaining people. The more I find out about how to teach, and the more effective improvements I can get in place - and don't imagine for a second I see myself as the ‘good' teacher I mentioned earlier, the best I could lay claim to is that things are in many ways much better now than they were when first I started teaching - nonetheless, the more improvements I make to my practice, the more satisfaction I get from teaching here; I've said it before, and I will say it again, the project is so interesting that, for me at least, it makes up for the extra money my wife and I forsake from working somewhere else many times over.

January Extra

Working At My University - What Are the Conditions Like?

I thought I might talk a little bit here (a little bit more, because this is now in addition to the other article I posted previously, which was hastily penned and submitted because I couldn't find where the file for this one had got to in my computers) about what it is like working at my university in Thailand. Why? Well, because it is a job that is increasingly growing on me. Not everything, as I will explain, is what you would call perfect. However, I live in a marvelous place, my job is really interesting, and my Thai colleagues are very supportive, and so overall I have become very contented with my lot.

The worst thing about working at university in Thailand is, we know, the money. I don't know what it is like elsewhere, but my experience of university salaries is this - at one institution I worked, you could make a flat rate of 27 000 baht per month, year in, year out, with no chance of a pay rise, with no end of year bonus, and regardless of your qualifications. On top of which you had to pay your own air fare, and for your own visa and so on. At my present institution, things are a little better - in recognition of the lack of incentive such a scheme offers for people to stay on and develop their careers here, they have adjusted the salary scales, and things really are improved. Now, as a starting rate, if you have a Bachelor's degree, you get about 29 000 baht a month. If you have a Master's degree, you get about 33 000 a month. And if you have a PhD, you get about 40 000 a month. This is reviewed yearly and, provided you pass your performance assessment, it will be increased annually by about 1300 baht per month. As a base rate, you also get a month's bonus, minus the housing allowance (8000 baht per month I have already included in the figures quoted here), at the end of every year - that's not quite what you take home, because you have to pay for health insurance and a bit of tax, about 1500 baht per month, this is automatically deducted from your salary.

Then, there are extra courses to teach during the week, and, unless you are firm in your refusal, in the evenings and on the weekend (teachers are hard to come by in the country); you get 300 baht per hour to do extra lectures in the week, you usually get paid from 5-600 baht per hour to work in the evenings, and for teaching on the weekend, I'm not sure what the hourly rate is, but for teaching one course, on Sunday, for sixteen weeks, I just got paid around 30 000 baht. If you can publish articles, you get between 500 - 5000 baht a pop as well. And, there are cash bonuses for other types of academic work sometimes, like making course books or editing articles, these types of activity can be very profitable also. I don't really count the beans, but I guess my wife and I together take home about three thousand Australian dollars a month, without teaching any privates - that's why the money is the bad news, obviously this is but a fraction of the combined income we would make elsewhere.

But, it doesn't bother us. For a variety of reasons - to begin with, the cost of living here is very cheap, so we are able to live very well off a very small portion of our salaries. So cheap, in fact, that secondly, we save up enough so that if we did decide to go back to either Korea or Australia, we don't feel like by staying here we are entirely forfeiting our futures. Whether or not I have enough money, in other words, is never an issue that concerns me, although quite obviously I'm not in line to, in the near future, become the owner of a mansion and a yacht - the advantages so greatly outweigh this and the other disadvantages I will mention here, that the question of the Thai salary has never, quite frankly, caused me to lose a wink of sleep.

Otherwise, my complaints are very few. It's fairly annoying to be a foreigner sometimes, and to have people go all silly all the time when you just want to communicate with them like a normal human being (I speak Thai, by the way, they still do it, you can see how fixed a lot of Thai people's perception of the way you are really is). And, to be confronted with either the nationally constructed, or limited-experience/biased-sample stereotypes of what Western people are like. Also, there is the dimension that quite a few parallels could be drawn between present Thailand and white Australia, and of course the mere presence of my parent's generation, or the lingering-ness of the pre-information age, mass media formed, McArthyised mentality into my times was bad enough, let alone given having to live in a world that is more directly shaped according to those values - still, I find that conservatism, while you can't exactly avoid it, and while it does have some significant and tragic impacts on your academic freedom, isn't something that is as secure here as it tries to so desperately make itself. Or, that Thai people are a lot freer than we think, and that to offset that dreadful experience of being confronted by the self-important dogmatist (many of whom, to the misfortune of teachers here, it has come to my attention through teacher training are incumbent in Thailand's public schools, that's something I don't experience in the tertiary sector), there are always a few people around the corner who are a lot more enlightened about the state of their society, and who are going to make you feel a lot better. Look, the fact is, you do have to shut up about what it is like living on the other side of the historical fence sometimes, or keep the implications of our (critical, not pseudo) scientific traditions a secret, this can be very galling - I don't seem to experience too much more frustration here than I did working in Australia, however, in fact in many ways it's much less.

Like I say, or if I now expand upon what I said earlier, one of the principal attractions of working here is that my colleagues are cool. The university academics I work with, I mean, are really nice people, really nice to me, and really educated and interesting. I'm not always the best teacher, I can assure readers, but, rather than breathing down my neck all the time, they recognize I'm trying my hardest, and very sensitively support and encourage me - there's no way I'm going to throw this away, when I think about the other places I have worked at, where I was at best a chattel, and at worst a threat, if I did ever manage to do a good job, to the established teachers, who would thus treat less experienced teachers unhelpfully and unkindly, this is absolutely heaven! It's really easy to learn from the academics at my university, too, they know a lot of things specific to teaching English and other subjects to Thai students, and they are really dignified, and never condescending, in the way they help you out (I've never had a one come over and give me any pompous ‘advice', despite that there have been occasions when it would have been warranted, they are entirely collaborative) - this factor alone, or the fact that I do have the best of environments in which to develop my knowledge and skills, is pretty much of its own accord enough to tie me to this job.

In addition, as I also started out by saying here, my job is really interesting. My Thai students have really pleasant natures, and even the Chinese have now shown me a much more appealing side, and so they are by no means the most difficult of people to teach - in fact, I number them amongst the most pleasant. And I really enjoy the project, looking at where my students are on the path to knowledge, and how to take them further (how to contribute to helping them live knowledgeable, meaningful, happy, self-determined and socially and economically productive lives; how to introduce them to the cutting edge of human intellectual life) is something I can get right into. I mean, I have to research interesting and important things to teach my students, and then figure out efficient ways to make them get it - this is a fascinating occupation, as long as I haven't been stressed out by an extensive workload, at which times I tend to become a bit less effusive than you see me here, I just can't wait to get into my office each day and get on with it. The teacher, it has often been said, learns more from the act of teaching than does the student, because it is us who are trusted to become the authorities - I really like learning, it is what I would do if I didn't have a job, and so that it is my job seems to me to absolutely be a miracle.

So there you have it. You might not make a lot of money to send home. And you might meet a few people who wouldn't be out of place in Victorian England. Thai people are by and large more pleasant than a lot of cultures to begin with, however, and as is the case anywhere education only makes them nicer - so, overall, my university is a very nice place to work. Enlightened academic culture is less developed here, and so you have to make provision for this - like I say, though, the Thais are keen to learn, my students, if I do a good job, tend to be quick learners, and so bringing them up to speed is truly fascinating work. It's not all as gloomy, in other words, as some would make it out to be - let's not forget either that not only do I have a job that suits me, I also happen to live in one of the most environmentally appealing places in the world. Actually, I probably owe the Thais a lot more than they owe me, they also treated me famously well when I came here as an exchange student all those years ago - still, they're not resentful, the thing about Thai people is you really only have to make the very minimum of effort to try and do your best by them to have them absolutely glowing with appreciation.




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