It is generally acknowledged that a teacher's life is often stressful and daunting and that pursuing a teaching career is not exactly the shortest path to fame and riches. This seems to be more or less true all around the world.
Nevertheless, legions of foreigners still end up on Thailand's shores each year, either competing for the most lucrative positions or contenting themselves with securing less demanding jobs. Schools, on the other hand, try to pick the cream of the crop in an attempt to sign up the illusive ideal teachers.
However, if school boards and parents keep insisting on higher standards, we teachers should at least be allowed to fantasise about the benchmarks for role model students. This blog doesn't focus on teachers and how to achieve near-perfection, but on what the ideal student would be like. Let's keep in mind though that nobody's perfect and that most teachers would probably be over the moon if only a slight majority of students showed some of the traits mentioned below.
These characteristics are not based on full-scale research among teachers but rather on personal experience. Also, finding an accurate yardstick valid for the whole student body worldwide is tantamount to looking for the Holy Grail as regional cultures and customs play a determining role.
Anyway, these are some of the characteristics I think ideal students should have:
You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. Even the best qualified teachers will have a hard time transferring their English skills to students if the latter are completely unwilling to absorb any of it.
Motivation is vital to doing well when learning a language. More information on how to motivate students can be found in one of last year's columns (March 2008).
It's very handy for teachers when students occasionally ask questions when they don't understand a word, expression, idiom, grammar point, etc. This not only shows their interest but also gives the teacher valuable feedback without solely having to rely on formal tests (on which lots of students try to cheat anyway).
Unfortunately, general lack of interest in learning English and possible loss of face often prevent students from doing so as in Thai culture, asking questions equates to admitting you are stupid.
It's always nice when students do what you ask them to do. Although this may seem self-evident, it not always is. By the way, I'm referring to basic classroom instructions which students understand but sometimes prefer to ignore.
Examples are 'Please open your books on page 27' (met by blank stares), 'Attention everyone' (students keep talking among themselves), 'Be quiet please' (students start talking more loudly), 'Please do exercise 3 on page 11' (students start moaning 'mai ao') and 'Please move your chairs and sit in groups of four like we've been doing for the last three months' (students look flabbergasted and remain immobile)
Let's just say it is far more pleasant to teach a group of motivated, energetic students than a bunch of loafers slouching in their chairs with boredom written all over their faces.
Unafraid to make mistakes
Teachers like students who try out the language they've just learnt when asked to. Controlled practice and free conversation are essential to internalise structure and vocabulary as well as improve pronunciation.
Many Asian students, however, have a deep-rooted fear of making the slightest mistake as in their respective cultures this is tantamount to losing face. Consequently, many of them are reluctant to answer oral questions freely or engage in discussions enthusiastically.
Learning a language involves making considerable efforts. In order to better their skills, students not only need to work hard, they should also be persevering and determined.
Nobody's active language skills will improve just by listening to a teacher. Teachers can teach, guide and assist students in their learning process, but they can never do the actual learning and practising for them.
Students who aren't afraid to share their opinions and experiences are a joy to have in the classroom. Being talkative is not only beneficial to students as it will help them progress at a faster pace but also to teachers as this will make their lessons more interesting and faster-paced.
For teachers, it is a welcome break from conversation classes in which trying to get students to talk is often similar to pulling teeth.
When students are learning a language intensively and practise often outside the classroom, their English skills will pick up quickly. Rome, however, wasn't built in a day, so it is important that students don't have unrealistic expectations when starting a course.
One can only achieve so much in a short time. It is impossible to be fluent after doing a 20-hour conversation course or fully prepared for devilish exams such as TOEFL or IELTS after signing up for a 30-hour prep course.
In my experience it is often the more zealous - but not exceptionally smart - students that can be a wee bit impatient. When they get stuck while doing an exercise they'll call your name or say 'Teacher, come here please' and keep repeating this until you actually go over and help them, even if it is clear that you're in the middle of helping one of their classmates.
Some of the more intelligent students who fall in the category 'quick finishers' sometimes turn into real teaching assistants, helping weaker students get through difficult exercises and actually explaining again the teaching point you wanted them to grasp.
Needless to say that this is a dream situation where you can easily overlook the use of L1 in the English classroom.
It is nice to have students who can think for themselves and try to solve problems on their own before asking assistance from either teacher or classmates. Classroom exercises, homework assignments and tests are often subject to blatant copying and cheating as well as any activity that requires critical thinking.
Independence is also important when it comes to learning and practising English outside of the classroom. Students who make an effort to do so will usually progress much more rapidly than the ones who constantly need their hands held or only respond to the carrot and stick approach.
While most students in Thailand perceive this as a negative quality, they only do so because they are referring to the wrong definition, i.e. unable to laugh, quiet, overly thoughtful. I'm using it in the sense of determined.
Students who are serious about learning English and willing to put in some serious efforts are obviously easier to teach than the ones who consider it a waste of time or even a joke.
Sense of humour
Using humour in the classroom can help teachers build rapport and create a relaxed and non-threatening atmosphere. Therefore, it's useful if the students have some sense of humour themselves, aren't awestruck by your every casual quip or don't try to dig for biblical meaning in your latest joke gone wrong.
However, teachers should never overdo the serious humour part as you don't want to be seen as the resident joker or turn your classroom into Comedy Central.
Although I have been teaching for years in Thailand, I am still appalled by the lack of basic manners that some students exhibit. Openly sleeping in class, playing computer games, texting, burping, farting, fighting and shouting are some that spring to mind.
Some adults aren't much better when they forget to turn off their mobiles or don't even bother going outside of the classroom when taking or making calls. I suppose it's a worldwide phenomenon and I should be somewhat grateful that at least most Thai students don't bring knives and guns into the classroom - and when they do it's not to hurt the teacher but to maim or kill students from rival schools.
Apart from behaving themselves in the classroom and refraining from being rude, unpleasant, cocky, crass, coarse, insolent, obnoxious, uncivil, snotty, ill-bred and vulgar, ideal students should also show some self-discipline when it comes to doing homework, taking exams, practising English outside of the classroom and making genuine efforts in general to further their language skills.
After all, their future may depend upon them.
Teenage and adult students who enjoy meeting new people and aren't afraid to use English during conversation are definitely a step ahead of their shyer peers, who recoil from speaking to any stranger, no matter what their nationality.
Although being gregarious is a trait that is worthwhile having for every language student, I feel it's particularly important when people study - out of their own volition - in a language school where the dynamics of a lesson often depend on the atmosphere and collaboration among all students.
This is not really an issue as most language learners wear uniforms. Most students dress in their obligatory uniforms, unless they take tutorial weekend classes.
Business students are usually dressed business-like, especially when coming from or going to work.
Many female university students are dressed in skirts so short and shirts so tight one sometimes wonders if they have lucrative part-time jobs. Although I am not averse to eye candy and prefer sexy girls to dragons and battle-axes, it can be distracting when teaching.
Although being affluent does not necessarily make learning English easier, it sure helps (both student and teacher) when expensive private lessons are about to come up for renewal.
Having the means to travel extensively and practise English along the way is another advantage. Up until now, however, I haven't positively witnessed any correlation between wealth and talent/motivation.
Although I am not averse to teaching students who are easy on the eye, teachers who think that ideal students are sexy and available are clearly crossing a line which is a lot vaguer than in most western countries.
Whereas socialising with students may be okay in certain situations (e.g. end-of-course get-together), striking up relationships with students can hardly be called ethical and can lead to immediate dismissal. Fantasising about students among colleagues may be technically legal, but it nevertheless turns my stomach.