Phil Roeland

Heaven and Hell

Tips for teaching kids


Pandemonium. Utter chaos. Those are the most appropriate words to describe the state my classroom was in the other day. Kids running around shouting. A boy kicking the wall. A boy kicking another boy. A boy scaring girls. Girls starting to scream. A girl running out of the classroom crying hysterically. Materials scattered everywhere. Get the picture? Well, at least Teacher wasn’t supposed to clean up the mess…

Sounds familiar? Maybe, maybe not. That’s why I think it’s eliciting time. Where do you think this happened? What kind of school was it? How many kids were in the classroom? What was the classroom like? How old were they? What do you think happened afterwards? I’ll give you one minute. Set? Go!

All right, time’s up. Stop thinking and read on to see if you were on the right track. Contrary to what some of you might have been thinking, it didn’t happen in a Thai elementary school and no, there weren’t 40 kids in a hot, dilapidated classroom. No blackboard with good old chalk. No kids shouting “Good morning Teacher!”.

It happened in a respectable language school, in a small, modern, air-conditioned classroom where five and six year olds come every Saturday morning for their weekly English class. There were seven of them. Yes, that’s right, just seven kids. If you are wondering how on earth a handful of kids can create a situation like that, you’ve obviously never taught kids.

It had all started very well at nine ‘o clock. The sky was blue, the birds were singing and I was in a good mood. It was my first week working for the school and this was the first day I was teaching that particular group of “elementary young learners”. I replaced another female teacher who had apparently quit her job halfway through the course, although some teachers claimed she was just having a break. Other teachers had never heard of her and were even amazed to find out we had a female teacher on the staff. My guess was she’d quit. Maybe she didn’t like teaching kids. Maybe she didn’t like teaching obnoxious kids. Maybe she didn’t like teaching at all. Maybe she had a nervous breakdown. Maybe she’ll turn up in a klong somewhere, wrapped in a plastic bag and cut into pieces. At least then she’ll make the front page of the Thai newspapers, most probably with a close-up of her severed head. Thais love stuff like that. We’ll probably never know. Moving on…

At nine o’clock sharp I welcomed the kids, said hello to just a few of the parents and started the lesson. We playfully reviewed some of the language they’d learned before (or were supposed to have learned) and I started eliciting and introducing new words. Topic of the day was clothes. After an initial period of cooperation that lasted for about twenty minutes, it became quite clear that it would be a gruelling three hours. Although I’m a born-again atheist, I profoundly thanked Buddha for the two 15 minutes’ breaks.

The group consisted of three nice girls, a shy boy, a normal (regular? ordinary?) boy and two Problems. Minor Problem was a very bright boy, in fact way too intelligent when compared to the others. He didn’t want to be there, except to play and have a good time. Major Problem was a big, fat, supersized Thai bully (I’ll call him BB or Big Bully) whose command of English was above average and who was only interested in playing, shouting, wreaking havoc and encouraging the other, good kids to do the same.

After those first twenty minutes, I realized I would be in for a rough ride. What do you do when kids just don’t listen to what you say? They don’t want to do what you say. They don’t want to sit down (although you know the instruction in English and possibly Thai, just to make sure). They don’t want to do the activity you prepared. They’re not interested in your game. They want to play their own, in their own language. They don’t want to be quiet when you’re asking someone a question or when you’re explaining something. They start running around. They start tampering with the cassette player. They start writing on the board. They take your pen and notebook. They take the markers. They get physical. They kick you. They lie on the floor. They fight. One hits his ear on the table (or has it hit for him) and starts crying. One takes a nap. A few play with a Spiderman puppet, have an argument and in the end a girl starts crying hysterically and run off to find her mummy. A few others draw stuff on the board. Not really pictures, just lines, dots and other nonsense, making sure the markers will be as good as useless next time. A few still sit at the table, a bit shy, but will join the rest soon.

Do you think I’m exaggerating? Unfortunately I’m not. I really don’t want to scare would-be teachers away from the profession. I think this is a rare worst case scenario. Well, not that rare to be honest, but not very common either. Teaching is often a tiring and difficult job. But also rewarding and reasonably well paid according to Thai standards.

Now back to the classroom. What happened next? I tried to teach a number of new words as well as I could, using the kids as live models (the topic was clothes, remember), I had them colour a number of memory cards, draw their own set of clothes and then we reviewed the words. Obviously, the main problem was that towards the end of the first period and during the whole second period, all discipline was completely gone. Nothing I did or said mattered, never mind the intonation or facial expression I used. No one seemed to remember their parents told them to listen to the teacher and be good. The classroom had become the Bounty and they were a bloody bunch of mutineers, with Sergeant-Major Big Bully and his second-in-command Minor Problem in charge.

After two tiresome periods I asked for a bit of advice and feedback from a few colleagues (and really started worrying about the physical and mental health of my predecessor). They basically told me to be a good babysitter and grin and bear it. However, I interrupted class in the third period and went to see the head teacher. I asked him if it was possible to remove an extremely troublesome student from class (BB of course) or have a chat with his parents. As it was, that kid was basically wasting the other parents’ good money because he was the main reason why no learning was going on at all.

Head Teacher accompanied me to the classroom and asked the kid “to be good boy and listen to Teacher” (yeah, right). This may seem useless, but his presence made a difference because I then told BB to go into the hall for a few minutes with Head Teacher to continue the chat. I asked him to leave the classroom. In English. In Thai. In Thaiglish. He didn’t want to. He really didn’t want to leave. In fact, he was scared shitless. The look on his face was priceless.

One of the reasons why he was extremely reluctant to leave the classroom could be the loss of face. Another reason could be that he was afraid to face the music when his parents saw him being accompanied out of the classroom and subsequently having the problem explained to them by the head teacher. That might have caused loss of face for the parents as well and BB surely would have lost the ability to sit down for a few days or been forced to wear sunglasses.

Although I’m not an advocate of corporal punishment, I think that’s exactly what he deserved. But no, Head Teacher decided he could stay in the classroom if he listened to Teacher. Discipline did improve afterwards, but BB soon forgot all about his promise and became his obnoxious little self again. I had to remind him a few times of the possible consequences of being a bad boy. Luckily for the both of us, the class came to an end and lunch break started. I got it all of my chest during lunch with a couple of colleagues while BB was probably bragging to his folks how much he’d learned during class. He’ll have to watch out. I’ll get him in the end. I don’t know how, I don’t know when, but I’m planning my revenge.

Or maybe I’ll just forget all about him. Time makes you see things differently, put things in perspective. Kids. Aaaargh. Boy am I glad I’ve never had any of my own. Never have, never will, that’s for sure now. When I was his age…


In the afternoon I had exactly the same young learners’ class on my schedule, but this time there were only four students. They were all girls. A very shy four year old, a shy five year old and two ordinary six and seven year olds.

We reviewed the previous lessons. I elicited and introduced the new words. All the kids were very smart and knew a lot more words than I had expected. They were eager to cooperate. They repeated when I wanted them to repeat. They answered when I asked a question. They sang when I asked them to sing (although not wholeheartedly, but they did). They sat when I asked them to sit. They sha… no, not that. They stood up when I asked them to stand up. They jumped when I asked them to jump. They coloured when I asked them to colour. They cut and pasted when I asked them to cut and paste. We had fun, it was great, it was a dream class. The three hours just flew by. By the end of the class the two older girls were already becoming a bit forward but they never really misbehaved.

Thanks girls. Just what I needed. Boy do I like these like kids. I want to have some of my own. Right here, right now. Can’t wait. Come to think of it, does anyone know if it’s possible to rent them? I’m not rich, but I could teach them English for free… Uh-oh, something’s wrong here, stop, relax, breath, take my pills, think straight…

A few tips for teaching kids (from the very young to the grown-up kids

· Don’t think teaching kids is easy, it’s not.
· Tie everything down that’s yours. Keep it in your pocket, your bag, briefcase, socks, travel pouch, wherever.
· Learn to enjoy singing. A lot of books are based on songs and chants.
· Learn to draw, paint, cut and paste. Enjoy crafts!
· Learn how to use the REW, FF and PAUSE button on a cassette player.
· Try to persuade the manager/principal/director of studies to buy (and copy) the CD’s instead of using (copied) cassette tapes. We’re in the year 2547 (2004) after all. Do you know when the CD was invented? Exactly 20 years ago, in 1984!
· Don’t get frustrated too easily.
· If the kids don’t understand what you say, explain again. And again. And again…
· Use very clear instructions and simple language, based on vocabulary they already know.
· It’s unlikely kids will understand instructions like “NowIwouldlikeyoutotakeyourbookwhenyoure ready page forty-seven open it and colour all the pictures I think the crayons might be somewhere under the table you remember the word under don’t you it’s like next to and above”. Difficult to read? Well, that’s probably how the whole sentence sounds to them.
· Demonstrate, rather than explain.
· Mime, rather than explain.
· Point, use hand movements and facial expressions, rather than explain.
· Repetition is often, if not always, a key to success.
· Review material introduced the previous week(s).
· Don’t get angry. As with adults, it will probably get you nowhere.
· Remember that a number of elementary young learners should actually be called ignorant spoilt brats.
· Don’t hit the kids, farang teachers are not allowed to.
· It’s better to make the parents hit their kids if needed.
· However if you do hit one, make sure not to leave any marks.
· The teacher’s ultimate threat is to make a kid leave the classroom. Anyone threatened with expulsion will calm down and behave. This threat can be used more than once if needed.
· Reward good answers (a nice remark will do fine, no need to hand out hard cash to make yourself more popular, like some politicians).
· Try to understand that with very young learners, you’re not only a teacher but a (quite expensive) babysitter as well.
· If you’re paid per lesson, don’t take on too many lessons. Teaching kids 40+ hours per week can damage your health. You’ll just drop dead on your day off.
· Use strong students to demonstrate. Encourage weak ones to repeat.
· Encourage physically strong, good students to keep physically weaker Problems in line.
· Don’t cause major psychological trauma by making a shy girl sing a song in front of the classroom.
· Persuade the management to make casual clothing (jeans, tracksuit, coveralls, clown suit etc.) part of the dress code when teaching young kids.
· On the other hand, don’t forget that parents or relatives often wait in the school lobby and see teachers come and go. Appearances do matter in Thailand. If you’re not tall, blond, blue-eyed and if you come short in the hair or teeth department, I’d definitely stick to a shirt and tie.
· Try not to be late. However if you are late, make sure to have a good excuse like an accident and be able to show at least some nasty looking bruises or a reasonable amount of dried blood on your clothes to corroborate your story.
· Don’t take any sharp or dangerous objects into the classroom (sharp scissors, knife, gun, machete, acid). They can and will be used against you or anyone else present.
· Learn some basic Thai, but don’t tell the kids you speak Thai.
· Student’s books vary in quality, ranging from very adequate to utter crap. Be creative, adapt and supplement the teaching material if necessary.
· If the book you (have to) use is really worthless, it might be a good idea to convey your point of view in a tactful manner to the director of studies.
· Don’t be too hard on the kids. Many of them study English because their parents want them to. They’d rather be somewhere else.
· Don’t be too soft either. Their parents pay a lot of money for the English lessons so the kids should be learning at least something. Also, the kids themselves might start treating you like a soft doormat. Don’t think this is a figure of speech, take it literally.
· Don’t use Thai words when you’re eliciting or introducing vocabulary. Let them get used to English words and language. However if you’re determined to use some local lingo, be careful if you use the Thai word for banana (or any other Thai word really) unless you’re good at Thai sounds and tones. Watch out for the stand-alone form of the personal pronoun “he” as well…
· And last but not least, have a good time !


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