Phil Hall

Those first time teaching nerves

How not to prepare for your very first class


My previous Ajarn.com Blogger articles have attracted more than a few comments about my writing style. One individual in particular, a well known ‘contributor’, has mentioned that I appear to be writing a book.

Partially correct.  For the most part, previous content has been direct excerpts from one of my books. I was asked by Ajarn Phil to take a few snippets from it for this column.

Apologies if the previous content hasn’t fallen in one with the expectations of regulars readers, this particular article was written on the fly and hopefully it will be of some interest to those who have had a similar experiences to mine – Thanks 😊

‘Good Morning Class!’

Those 3 words still make me shudder as I remember the very first time I belted out that well-worn phrase. Depending on how your own experience went, you might have a different set of memories.

For me, it was a harsh introduction to teaching in a Government School in North East Thailand.  I won’t bore you with the way that the class of 60 odd fifteen year olds reacted… you can probably guess.

One thing that I was thinking, shortly afterwards whilst nursing my mental wounds, was that no matter how much preparation I had undertaken, it wasn’t anywhere near enough to prepare me for that moment, not even close.

A little background:

Me: a 40-something from the UK with a background in IT and a little lecturing experience in India, also IT related. I held a BA from the Open University and had completed a 120 hour online TEFL course back in the UK as well as a 2 week course in Bangkok that included around 10 hours of classroom teaching experience. I’d also spent a week in a countryside school observing an experienced American teacher.

The School: Kalasin Pittayasan School. With over 5000 students and 200 teachers, this was larger in population than many of the surrounding villages combined. Typically, each classroom contained up to 60 students and teachers were required to come to theses rooms as opposed to having the students visit them. Quite the task when there was a few minutes between lessons and up to 1km between the furthest buildings.

Something I’m sure many of you still have to deal with every weekday. I’ll break down my ‘preparation’ into 5 parts discussing the merits, if any:

1. Online TEFL course– This was a very cheap and cheerful course provided by a well known brand in the UK – I got top marks and a shiny certificate but very little else.

2. TEFL course in Bangkok – Cost around 25 thousand baht if I recall correctly and although fun, it didn’t prepare me for the path ahead. In fact, I stupidly was led to believe that most schools would require this particular credential for teaching in Thailand. The 10 hours of real classroom experience were okay but I had the feeling that the students had been instructed on how to react to us would-be teachers.

3. Bachelor’s degree from OU – This was required for my work permit, during interviews it raised a few eyebrows until they confirmed it was a ‘recognised’ University. 

4. Lecturing experience in Bangalore – I was in front of 50-70 disinterested employees for up to 7 hours a day – ideal preparation really 😊

5. Week in countryside school with Ajarn Jim – This gave me an introduction, albeit gentle, to what lay ahead. 

Ajarn Jim

The week’s experience in Ban Nong Soh school, just outside Kalasin, was the result of asking around on various Thai teaching forums and websites. This was about a month or so before I started my real teaching job and I was introduced to a very experienced and charming American known as Ajarn Jim. The school was around 800-1000 students and the largest class was no more than 30. I was surprised at how friendly everyone, including the teachers, were to me. 

Jim was an old hand at teaching and he told me that, as a retiree, he spent 2 or 3 months a year here in Isaan and he gave his services for free. The school paid for his accommodation and meals during the week. He was an excellent teacher and a complete natural, I was so impressed to see how easily he dealt with any classroom situation and he could teach for hours without any books or worksheets to follow.

After a few days, I started to feel that I could do a similar job and when he asked me to take a 30 minute lesson, I was confident that it wouldn’t be a problem. I had scrawled down a few notes and was ready to make my debut just after lunch.

To cut a medium story short, it was a bloody disaster.

Most of the lesson was based on the student response and interaction but this was pretty minimal. They were used to his American accent and my English tones didn’t seem to hit home. Also, my body language soon let them know that I was no teacher.

'Advice'

At the end of the lesson he gave me some much needed advice which basically told me not to copy him. His repertoire was the result of over 40 years of teaching and his included years of charity work for ‘bad kids’ back in Detroit.

After this week I did my best to prepare for my first lesson and that brings me back to ‘Good Morning Class!’ The results weren’t dissimilar to my Ban Nong Soh nightmare. Only this time it was a paid job and I needed to adapt or die trying.

It was only after a few weeks that my confidence returned and I made it through the first year with some dignity intact and a proper love for teaching here in Thailand. I changed my style, watched how other foreign teachers coped with such large classes. Asked questions and tried my best to connect with this massive audience. I also followed the teaching materials, despite advice from external influences.

The rewards from eventually getting through to my class, not always the case, far outweighed the meagre salary that I received.  Being recognised years later by the parents of my students were really positive signs that I may, possibly, have made a small difference.

I’ve read about how some of you love this work whilst others almost sneer at the very suggestion that we teach for the love of it. This article isn’t from a book and hopefully it will amuse a few of you. It was just a short recollection of how I really failed to prepare for what was one of the most challenging jobs of my life.

Those first time teaching nerves.  I’d love to hear how your first day went…


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