Megan Swanick

Are Thai teachers actually helpful?

Or is the foreign teacher better off without them in the classroom?


In the year and a half I spent teaching in Thailand, I've had a wide range of experiences with the co-teacher system.

Before beginning my experience as a TESOL teacher in Thailand, way back when I was a newbie farang taking my TESOL course on Phuket, I was repeatedly assured by indifferent agencies and instructors not to worry because you will always share classrooms with Thai teachers that are there to help you.

And when contemplating the task of controlling a classroom full of rowdy students that barely (Or don't at all) understand English, the idea of having a local teacher always there to help me was incredibly reassuring.

There are good and bad

Flash forward a year and a half, and I look back on the co-teaching situations that I have been in with a range of emotions from love and appreciation to resentment and shock at how some of them behave. I've had co-teachers that were godsends - patient, helpful, welcoming. And believe me, when you are teaching in Thailand it is damn near essential that you have a helpful co-teacher.

I find it important to stress that in 18 months, the majority of the time I've encountered lovely co-teachers - sweet, smiley, helpful. But there are those, and I had this problem in particular at my first school, that seem to be taking out some unnamed vengeance on you for some grand scoping hatred of farang, a farang that went before you, or the system of English teaching.

'Resentment'

There is a palpable resentment coming from some of them, emanating and stifling the classroom from day one, for apparently no reason at all. Unsure of what you've done, and certainly without them ever telling you as is the Thai way, you will be the target of their resentment, and counterproductive obstruction to learning in the classroom for as long as you are there. Because that's what always happens when the Thai teacher and the farang teacher don't get along - everyone suffers, especially the children.

The Thai teacher suffers because, well, she's apparently miserable. The farang teacher will suffer because Thai teachers reign supreme, and so anything they tell the students will be done and what you tell them will not.

And that situation, where you tell the students one thing, and the Thai teacher will contradict or override your instruction happens often in cases with the nastier of the Thai teachers. I originally thought it was just me, or that it was just this one case, but as I befriended and encountered more farang teachers in Thailand (both while there and while teaching in other countries) I've found that the majority of us have had an experience of that sort.

You tell the students one thing, the Thai teacher tells them another, you try to get some sort of sovereignty in the classroom, and they override you, the class of six year olds is going crazy and you need help and they just sit smirking at you in the back. Though I suppose there could be some lost in translation bizarre reason for this behavior that we are too farang to understand, I don't think so. It feels more like spite, like some assertion of power or dignity, like revenge for wrongs done to them by other farang or the understandably frustrating system of English teachers receiving higher pay than they do.

Who's got the power?

Whilst teaching in Thailand I've shared a classroom with about seven different Thai teachers (In various situations as a homeroom teacher or as a floating teacher). And from that total I really had only one that behaved this way. But my god did she make a difference in that classroom. Pretty much nothing ever got done with those poor students because she was constantly contradicting or obstructing anything I tried to do. And I honestly have no idea why.

I even approached her once to ask what she wanted me to do differently, and how I could change whatever it was that upsetting her, and she just walked away with an angered look on her face - like she was mad I had brought it up to begin with. And then never answered my question, but continued to be miserable and visibly upset with me.

I had another friend who for the entire year she shared a classroom with a female teaching assistant - this woman refused to acknowledge her. My friend would bring her gifts, wai her every morning, go out of her way to try to amend whatever rift was placed between them - but to no avail. The most she ever got was a complacent smirk.

Cheated out of money

Another friend of mine was repeatedly asked to cover extra afternoon classes, and was routinely never paid for it, only to find out later that another Thai teacher- who had nothing to do with the extra class - had been receiving the money instead. When my friend inquired as to why this was happening, she was told: Because her brother is sick and she needs the money more than you do.

Another of my friends routinely had to herald students back into the classroom, because each time she showed up, the Thai teacher would stare her down and then turn on a film or send the children out to do something else. My friend would then have to say... "Um, no no, not movie time, not play time, everyone please come back"

With experiences like mine, and similar ones I've heard from so many of my friends and acquaintances I've met, what do you think? Are Thai teachers helpful or a hindrance?


If you would like to see more of my writing and photographs, etc then please pay a visit to my blog 'Nomadic Megan' and also my Facebook page.




Comments

Nationality shouldn't get in the way of the subject for those who are good in a job and those that are bad in a job who just happen to be called teaching assistants.

The main issue is how an employee can handle a working environment in any job. I have worked with Thai's and Western teaching assistants in Bangkok. They all have similar traits when they stink in the job or when they excell in the job. As a teacher our job is more akin to a manager and to manage the classroom's or outside of the classroom's to obtain an increase in learning for students and a decrease in bad behaviour. To do this job well you need to a good team in any working environment.

By Sash, Bangkok (9th March 2018)

I have taught English for 24 years at a Thai government school.....I have always gotten along with Thai teachers..never ever had to share a teaching class with them. I also speak perfect Thai and own my own language school.. Enjoy Thailand...try teaching English in the west..where many teachers due don't last long due to politics....especially feminists who hate men!

By John Smith, Bangkok (31st May 2014)

I have six teachers with me. (One for each level that I teach.) They are all different and they all need to be treated differently.

One of them watches my lessons attentively and is up like a shot to help me through something if she thinks my class doesn't get it. We work well together as a team.

Another teacher considers this another 'free' period and doesn't ever even show up! The remaining four have levels of involvement in between these two extremes!

I work well with all of them and don't have any problems at all. The reason is that I work with what they give me. If they want to get involved then they can and if they want to slope off and hide, then that's fine too.

Farang teachers usually create their own problems with other teachers. Often they don't see how bloody annoying they are! They stumble through their relationships with other members of staff because they don't think that other staff members are important. Or they think that they know better in the classroom and eagerly embrace every opportunity to prove it.

Occasionally there may be genuine cases of personality conflicts, but I've never seen one where the Thai teacher was the one being a dick.

The original poster spent a very short time teaching in Thailand yet it didn't occur to her that actually THAT may be the reason for some of the resentment she received.

The point is that Thai teachers are what they are. They vary wildly in terms of ability and commitment. You learn to work with the tools in the toolbox.

By Mark Newman, Thailand (27th May 2014)

I would just like to share my views on this.
I work in a large Government School in bangkok.
There are 4 more farangs from an agency.
From day 1 1 encountered rude and unhelpful Thai teachers. Of course there are some very helful and frindly teachers at the school. i was told always be polite, Thats no problem i have been raised to be polite,
but when you wai and say good morning to someone and they either ignore you or grunt. it becomes very difficult to remain polite. I thought it was just me they despised. but all the farng teachers come and go have the same problem. Ive now been here over 2 years and they are the same. i have overcome this by thiinking I dont have a problem they do so i say good morning to everyone I meet as I have always done. sometimes a lovely smile and good morning sometine the grunt or nothing, as the thai way it's up to them.
It is a shame that Thai and farang teachers cannot get along and help each other for the benefit of the students. This resentment is something i have only found on this scale in teaching.

By Derek, Bangkok (11th May 2014)

Wan't over the top at all Joe. If someone is being unreasonable as I believe Jim was, then they need to be told. Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. The truth is what counts and Jim was being unfair. There are no set rules when it comes to criticism.

By Paul, Bangkok (6th May 2014)

Geez Paul, if you're going to criticize the way somebody criticizes others then don't do it the same way as the person you are criticizing. That was way over the top.

I definitely am a firm believer of being the boss of ones own classroom. All of these experiences make us better teachers.

By Joe, BKK (5th May 2014)

Hi,

In my school, they're required.. and that's OK by me.. At first, I heard horror stories about them.. but I chose a slightly different tact.

Before the first day, I took a small bag of cookies and invited each Thai teacher, one by one, to coffee at the canteen - alone, just the two of us.

Not one said no..

During that time, I laid it all out. I told them that I am sure they've had foreign teachers come in and do (what they thought) was a bad job, and some that were great.. I also asked them for a favor - please give me fair chance - let me be judged by me, and not based on others before me, good or bad.

I asked them, what did they think I should be doing? What would make me a success?

Surprisingly, I got a LOT of really good ideas..

I also told them what I thought the role of the assistant was and what the Thai teacher was going to do, or was expected to do.. I also them what they saw the roles to be.. Again, a few surprises were found -- and thankfully addressed..

So, in the end, when I hit the first day of classes, both of us were very much "on the same page" and knew what each one of us were responsible for, and what our roles were.

Not all of my assistants are the same, some are more active, some more passive in how s/he goes about it, but in the end, I have a good and productive working relationship with each - different, but more than workable.

By Mike, Bangkok (30th April 2014)

Nice article, Megan.

I've had the same teaching assistant for four-years. We always request to work together for the new terms. Do we get on like a house on fire? Absolutely not. We barely speak to each other.

We both know exactly what we're supposed to do. We do our roles well and our kids love us both. I'm an assertive person who takes control of my class, and I have a take-no-shit attitude when people are being assholes.

I had numerous complaints at the beginning from other Thai staff members about being mean or being 'aggressive'. My assistant soon learnt that I didn't respond well to moody and rude staff - but if you're polite and professional, I'll be exactly the same back.

I'm sure I still get complaints now, but they seem to fall on deaf ears. I get on very well with my kids and their parents. As long as the kids and parents like you, you're left alone and trusted to do your own thing. (In my school and humble opinion)

I see lots of new teachers are too nice and polite. They have their assistant dictate how they manage and teach their class. If you allow someone to boss you around, they usually do. Also, if they feel they can tell you how to teach your kids a subject you've been chosen to teach, they might be of the opinion you don't actually know what you're doing.

I find Thai staff will respect you more for being your own teacher. If your assistant doesn't reciprocate your being nice and polite, they're a lost cause. Don't take it personally, ignore them and just focus on your kids.

I have fellow teachers with great assistants because of a mutual respect. Some new teachers come in bright eyed and bushy tailed and soon become jaded. "I'm being so nice to my assistant, but she is being so moody" "I wanted to take them to the library but she said 'cannot'. You can imagine the rest.

I'm writing purely about my experience of bad assistants. Most assistants I've come across have been good. Like my own.

By Liam, Republic of Mancunia (23rd April 2014)

Jim,

Nastiness is uncalled for.

I had the same experience with a Thai teacher. I got on famously with the assistant as I have with other Thai teachers and assistants but not this one.

Thais are people, just like the rest of us, and some are not nice people, just like the rest of us.

I have spent years working with Thais and got on well with them with this one exception.

It is a frustrating and depressing experience that left me questioning myself. Until I met other people who had also dealt with this teacher and had negative experiences.

Will I generally agree it is better without but not with really young (Anuban) kids in a crowded classroom, for me at least that may well not be true for others.

By Jill, Lampang (22nd April 2014)

Jim, that was an extremely harsh, ignorant and wholly inaccurate response to a very real problem. Firstly, they are there to assist, not hinder. You are in charge, not them. If you had actually bothered to read her article, she was extremely (probably more than was required) culturally sensitive to the moron disguised as a teaching assistant.

The foreign teacher is not there to learn Thai, Jim. The students are there to learn English.

Your last sentence is spiteful and utterly racist. "You are a visitor to this country. They didn't ask you to come" - this is the kind of bile you would expect from the National Front in the 1970s - so unhelpful and missing the point completely. As schools openly advertise for foreign teachers, this completely destroys what you said about not being invited.

Retrogressive, knuckle-dragging attitudes likes yours only support the failing Thai education system - you should be thoroughly ashamed of yourself!

By Paul, Bangkok (21st April 2014)

Great comment Will. I've been here since 1995 and never had a Thai assistant and never will. I've turned down some excellent jobs because they mandated that I have a Thai 'assistant' in my classroom despite my experience, fluent Thai, and a Masters in Education. Though I love my Thai teachers I work with dearly, I do not need them in my classroom for discipline, control, or whatever reason the admins deem it necessary. Will is right - you are the 'boss' of your classroom and one teacher is enough!

By M.Ed., Surin (1st April 2014)

Jim, I have one question for you - why be so nasty in the comments section?

It's one person's opinion based on teaching assistants that Megan has worked with and she clearly infers in the blog that she has got on with most of them.

And where exactly in the blog does it say that she hasn't bothered to learn the language or learn about Thai culture? Or is that just assumption on your part?

Anyway, if she doesn't like it, then I guess she knows where the airport is. See, I've saved you the bother.

By philip, (31st March 2014)

What a stereo typical newbie blog.
So you have been here for a year and a half and its the assistants fault. ( Boo Hoo, get a life)
Did you ever stop to think that the assistant does not fully understand you or your English language. The assistant is only doing what she has been taught.
Your blog only shows how naive and immature you are.
Why have you not bothered to learn the Thai language ?
Why have you learnt nothing about Thai culture ?
In answer to your question. Thai assistants are a great help,although only if you are culturally sensitive to them.
Remember you are a visitor in their country, they did not ask you to come.

By Jim, Chiang Mai (31st March 2014)

Its a sad but hardly a surprising situation. Thai people are on the whole going to react as other people would in a similar position. Imagine you spend four years at university doing a degree in education only to be told that you have to now assist a foreigner who is invariably younger, less experienced, less qualified, cannot speak the language and is on three-four times as much salary. Thailand is a nation built on hierarchies based on age, class, education and wealth, so these unfortunate situations make those assigned to assist feel like they are losing status as well as face.

I personally think you are better off in the class on your own as there is no confusion over who is the boss, students learn quicker if Thai isn't used and it makes you a better TEFL teacher in the long run as you have to use your creativity to get your teaching across.

By Will Holloway, Lancaster, UK (31st March 2014)

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