After 4 or 5 months after my last blog here at Ajarn.com I have decided to come back with a few more.
Some of the comments my last few articles received made me smile and grimace in equal measures. Such gems as ‘more butthurt from this guy’ to ‘Is he writing a book?’, as well as some nicer and more generous responses. To be fair, I’m not here to make friends, neither do I really care if my words come across as some form of tedious fiction. I’ll crack on as before until Phil tells me to sling my hook, hopefully not too soon eh Ajarn? 😊
I’m writing here about how we TEFL ‘teachers’ cope with making connections to our students, or not as the case may be.
For myself, I was totally green apart from a 1-year TEFL course at home and a 4-week course in Bangkok. I had a degree in English and was no wet behind the ears backpacker, but I had no clue that the most challenging part of teaching, at least for me, was to make a meaningful connection with the 50 odd students. Not just make them respect me, but also for them to listen to my lessons with some degree of interest.
That part of the job just wasn’t something that I learnt during my worthless online course back in rainy Oxfordshire. Oh hang on, this is starting to sound like a bloody book again. Sod it, this is how I write so if you are starting to feel like Mr Butthurt, please feel free to move on.
A new term, a new start
On my first day at school in Kalasin, I had no clue what my Director meant when he explained, at some lengths, that ‘Your students must love you!’ That just sounded bloody strange. But if any of you have ever walked into the classroom, or maybe they walked into your classroom, and absolutely none of the students even looked up and said hello, you will understand this 100%
Okay, I taught at a government school and for 20 lessons a week. Each lesson was around 50 minutes long. Every classroom contained around 50 kids, plus I walked to each lesson, so the students always had me on the back foot. There was usually five minutes between the teacher hand over. Every time I rocked up to the class, the other teacher was usually long gone.
Unless a Thai teacher was with me, I found it very frustrating to get the students to acknowledge me, let alone pay attention to the lesson. They would stand up when I came into the class and also when the lesson ended but apart from that, for the first two weeks, I was just an incidental bystander. Pretty soon I realised that my lack of real teaching experience was the problem. Walking past other classrooms, I could see that the other foreign teachers didn’t have this problem. It was me.
Two of the foreign teachers in particular fascinated me with their style. There was a retired US teacher who could create his own lesson plans out of thin air and, a few times, I walked passed the open door and could feel the excitement and joy emanating from his room as the class vied for his attention. Indeed, even the Thai teachers would refer to him with reverence. Ajarn Jim, he a real teacher! I made a mental note to ask him for help if my online tips didn’t work.
The second foreign teacher who caught my eye and ear was a French guy called Thierry. Obviously very experienced, he was a bit of a tyrant but his kids never spoke without being spoken to. I would walk past his classroom and not hear the slightest sound until ‘Whack!’ The sound of his cane being smashed onto a wooden desk. Yes, this guy was old school and then some.
On our first meeting he gave me some sage advice and whispered ‘Phil, you have to be strict. You cannot be their friend’ I nodded as he continued
‘If you start as a soft/friendly teacher, they will never take you seriously, even if you decide to be a strict teacher later in the semester’
Typically though, I’m not great at asking for help so instead of speaking to the Director or other more experienced teaches, I went online and found a site very similar to this one
I picked the first four tips and thought of ways to introduce them to my lessons.
The next day I kicked off with suggestion number one:
Get to know your students
Not rocket science but I wrote down three questions and handed them out to the M3 students at the beginning of the lesson.
Basic stuff like: 1) What is your name? 2) What music do you like? 3) What is your favourite sport?
The class were less than impressed but at least they started to come to the front, amidst jeering, and stood there for all of 30 seconds before the next one replaced them. Not a bad idea but, as there were over 50 students, this took the best part of 30 minutes. I drew up a desk map and noted their names best I could. This left enough time for the next suggestion:
Again, I wasn’t interested in being too adventurous and went with Hangman. This was pretty successful and before too long, the lesson was over. I requested this for the rest of the week and things were much better.
Week two was when I was expected to introduce the lesson plan, this is when I started to struggle again. In one class, the rowdy students decided to produce a football and that ended up in a 25-a-side mass brawl that wrote off the whole 50 minutes.
Several Thai teachers had heard the noise and came to see what was going on. I got a few stern looks and the Director was informed. The very next lesson was even worse.
After entering the classroom to a much improved reception than the previous week, I sat down and noticed a lot of smirks. The seat felt a bit damp and when I tried to stand up, I discovered some little scallywag had spread glue all over the seat. There was laughter and more laughter until the students were in tears. My 300 baht trousers from Tesco Lotus were ruined.
I must admit that I lost my cool at this point and demanded to know who the culprit was. The smallest boy in the class was offered to me as some kind of sacrifice and I left the class, frogmarched him to the Foreign teachers room. He was read the riot act and I was allowed to go home to change.
By the time I returned, the Director was waiting for me in the corridor and he was accompanied by the French guy Thierry and Jim, the real teacher. ‘Philip, you need help and these experienced teachers will come to your lesson this afternoon’ I nodded, resigned to the fact that I was soon going to be heading for the door. Maybe I could go and teach kindergarten?
Give 'em some stick!
Thierry walked with me to the next lesson. Carrying his stick, which was really no more than a wooden ruler, he told me in no uncertain terms that he would ‘show zem who is the boss’ With a few less than PC ‘facts’ about Thai students, I learnt that he had never taught students over M1 level. ‘But these are M3’ I started to explain, but he just smiled as he bent the wooden ruler, almost proud of its’ suppleness. ‘Kids, zey are Kids’
When we entered the classroom of 3/1, the students seemed a little unsettle to see I was not alone. Before I could introduce my colleague, he was already strutting around the class. Far slimmer than I, he weaved his way through the 50 odd desks, giving a timely whack of the ruler on the desks of the sleepier students. ‘You see Phil, they have just eaten so they are now very lazy’
The room was close to 50 bloody degrees and with nothing more than a crippled ceiling fan, it was fair to say that I wasn’t exactly on top form. ‘Afternoon Class, I am here to help your new teacher’ ‘He tells me you are bad students’ Hang on, I thought, that’s not going to win over hearts and minds. But I decided just to sit down and watch the Maestro at action.
‘Students, please count to twenty and then back to zero’ They started strong but after reaching the summit, most of them either lost interest or genuinely couldn’t count backwards. ‘No, you must not stop!’ Thierry’s eyes were bulging out of his tanned head and he went to work with the ruler. Like a demented human ferret he went berserk with the tool, crashing it down onto the hapless students desks for at least a minute until there was a different sound as the ruler from hell snapped into two pieces. This was not lost on my students and they all erupted in laughter and start clapping with such volume that even Thierry’s megaphone of a voice was drowned out.
‘Eet’s broken!’ He snarled and carefully picking up the severed half, gave me a thumbs up and scuttled out of the door. For about a minute, I felt 50 pairs of eyes bearing down on me as I tried to figure out my next move. But before I could mange that, I heard a deep and calm voice at the doorway ‘Hey Ajarn Phil, how did that work out for you?’ It was the real teacher, Ajarn Jim.
The student’s expression visibly softened as the American entered the classroom. He greeted at least 20 of them with their names and the transformation was incredible. Handing out what turned out to be simple crossword puzzles he asked me to come outside where we sat on the low wall and told me a few tips that stayed with me to this day. In a nutshell Jim explained that, in his opinion, no two teacher’s are alike and we must find our own way and style of teaching.
The students need to feel comfortable as well as to be able to express themselves.
In his opinion, Thierry was just a bully who could only intimidate the younger students. ‘Find something unique that the kids are interested in, then you will be halfway there’ I brought a guitar to the next lesson and invited a few of them to play their songs.
My son was also at the school for a year and he was so popular with the girls that I admit to asking him to come to a few lessons to help. I did, eventually, work out for myself that foreign teachers in government schools have to be able to perform to their students. I did a Father Christmas skit on stage with a few other teachers in front of 5000 kids and that went down well.
I would never call myself a professional teacher because I was never really trained. I guess we are there to make the school look good and it’s a bonus if we can teach a little during our stay. My school would usually only keep foreign teachers for a year, Jim and Thierry being notable exceptions. But I hope I made a tiny difference to just a few of my students, I guess I will never know.
I’m now back in the UK in a great paying job and, in my 50’s, will probably never get a chance to go back to that school and ‘teach’ again. And to tell the truth, that makes me a little sad.
Kudos to Mr Butthurt and co, this really does read like a book instead of a journal, but it’s how I write and was pretty much as it happened, or at least how I remember it 😊