Richard McCully

The joys of teaching Thai adults

Why they are so much more rewarding than kids

When I was looking at TEFL qualifications the one that stood out above the rest was the CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults).

I completed my CELTA in Bangkok and then decided to find a job. Looking here on in the jobs section I found most of the jobs to be at government high schools. Having just completed a course aimed at teaching adults I was a bit nervous about teaching kids but I jumped at the security of having a job and accepted a job at a government high school.

There are some people who love kids and enjoy being around them - I'm not one of those people. I don't hate kids but the problem is they drive me crazy after a little while. I was teaching M1-M6 grades (12-18 year olds) but was assured by my agency that the students would be well behaved and respectful towards me....

To be honest the students in M5 and M6 were fine. Maybe they didn't really want to learn English but they behaved and didn't cause too many problems. However, M1-M4 were a nightmare. Screaming, shouting and throwing stuff at me. The promised teacher's assistant never showed up to any classes and after a couple of months I was looking for a way out. That's when I saw the shining light of teaching adults at a language centre.

I've already written about the reasons I chose to teach at a language school so won't go into those details again. I would like to give more information about teaching Thai adults and why it might be a better option for you as a teacher.

Just to give you a bit of background my youngest students now are 16 and I would say the average age is mid to late 20's. So what makes Thai adults better to teach than Thai school students?

Attitude: I instantly found that 90% of my adult students really wanted to learn English. Admittedly some of them weren't learning for fun but they knew how important it was for their future. This means that when I teach a class I have people who want to be in the classroom and are motivated to learn.

Teaching M1 classes where 40 of the 45 students are running around screaming and leave the classroom is not fun. You can talk about classroom control but in my opinion unless you lock the classroom door and strap the students into their chairs you will be struggling to get much control over younger students.

Teaching Topics : Teaching adults means you get to teach a wide range of topics and have actual discussions about these topics. My background is in business so I run many business themed classes and get to have interesting role plays and in depth discussion and analysis with my students. I can talk about pretty much any topic I want and am not held back by a school syllabus.

Teaching classes M1 - M6 I was surprised to see that the teaching topics were the same for all levels. For example I would have to teach M6 about rooms in their house and how to use 3rd person - the same topics that M2 had. This just meant having to do the same class again and again and many students looking bored and frustrated.

Ability: There is a wide range of abilities when it comes to Thai adults speaking English. I have some students who could easily live in a Western country and communicate only in English. There are also other adult students who would struggle to do anything but say their name and where they are from. On the whole though I would say Most have a low - mid intermediate level and you can talk to them about a number of topics.

In a high school class you will normally find a couple of students who can actually have a decent conversation with you but then the majority will only be able to tell you their name, a few swear words and sing the happy birthday song. The students are actively forced to focus on grammar and writing so their conversation level is very low. As a native teacher you are most likely employed to teach conversation but shyness and poor learning styles will limit the progress you can make with the students.

Respect: When I was offered my job at a high school I was told by the agency that the students would be well behaved and respectful. As I said M5-6 were fine but the younger students caused so many problems. Ok, kids will be kids and I remember I wasn't the perfect student but I never threw stuff at my teacher or started fights in the classroom.

Every M1-3 class was a battle which I dreaded. It is quite funny to hear and see things the students do at first but after a while it will wear you down. I'm not saying the all students act the same and in fact some were very well behaved but discipline is far worse than I remember in my school in the UK.

With adults I am sure there are times when they maybe don't enjoy my class or don't find it interesting but you never get the same reaction as you would from a child. I never dread teaching a class based on the behavior and actions towards me from an adult class. Adult students appreciate your input and will thank you for your class and give feedback.

Progress: High school students learn a lot of grammar and if you give them a written test I'm sure many of them will do ok. If you speak to them it will be another matter. With 5+ years of English classes it is hard argue that they are making good progress. 50 students in a class means that there isn't much opportunity for them to practice and progress is difficult for them.

Next we have the issue that no student is allowed to fail so you have to pass even the worst student who can't do anything - there is no motivation for them to even try to progress.

With adults you will be teaching smaller classes. My average class size is 3 people so they get ample time to practice and progress. Within a month you can see people have learnt new skills and are confident to use them in the classroom and in real life.

Hearing about students who have got a promotion because of their improved English or have been accepted to study a Master's degree in the UK is really rewarding and a clear sign that you have made a difference for them. You can also give adults feedback and tell them how to improve - you don't need to always tell them everything is perfect.

Class Atmosphere: The first week I taught in a Thai high school I had a great time. It was refreshing to see children laughing and keen to talk to me as the new teacher at the school. Playing games and meeting new students was great and left me thinking that I would have class after class of fun, interested students.

However, after the first couple of weeks I got to see how students have been molded by Thai teachers into a bunch of copiers who wait for you to talk and make notes. It led to some quiet classes and it was difficult to get a good atmosphere after that first week.

With adults I do have a few "copiers" who are waiting for you to tell them things but there are many more students who are willing to question what I say, give their opinions and ask questions to each other. It is refreshing to have a class which is interactive and positive. These people want to study English and try to make the most of it rather than just sit through a class because it is on their timetable.

If anyone was coming to Thailand to teach I would recommend they teach adults as it will be a much more rewarding experience for them. You will also have lower stress levels and enjoy talking about a range of topics with students who, on the whole, want to be there.

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I think it's just a different group. Not better. Not worse. Just different.
I hear tons of horror stories from friends who are teachers at the M1-3 levels --and to a great degree, they mirror your experiences as well.
My take is that, like you said, you need to know what you're good at and interested in. Not everyone is good with or interested in working at the M1-3 level. In the same manner, not everyone will like the adults level either.

Each group will have their own unique challenges. I am at the university 1 (first year) level and I find that my students still have some traits of M5-6 behaviors, but are also starting to show much more "adult" thinking, logic and planning skills.

Have I taught M1-3? Yes, but only on an impromptu "fill in" basis. I look at M1-3's and see myself at that age. While this does not say I condone "bad" behavior, I recognize that it is largely is a part of the maturation process - so I try to go with it if you will, and less about fighting it. I don't condone throwing things and that kind of thing, and agree that discipline at that level will be a larger part of the total teaching experience. However, what I do is try to keep them engaged, interested and use what's relevant and material in their stage of everyday life.

Adults, even my university 1 students, I find personally the difficulty is that there is a 'wall' between you, as a teacher, and them, as students. Meaning that at times, I don't get a real answer. I get the answer they think I want to hear. By contrast, I've found that M1-3's don't have that same kind of feeling - they just say what they're thinking without the use of a "socially accepted filter" first.

Mark made an interesting comment about "rewarding" and I think that a part too. I teach because not only is it employment that fulfills an economic issue, but I do so also because I truly want my students to get better; and I take pride and satisfaction when I see it. To that end, I've found that it's easier to see this take palace at the lower levels.

By Michael, Bangkok (2nd May 2016)

Thanks Mark. I think to be honest if you can find a job teaching M4-6 with less than 30 students per class in a good school then you could have a decent job. However, I think there aren't too many positions like that available.

Overall I think I'll stick to adults, far more reliable and consistently better than teaching Thai kids.

By Richard McCully, Nawamin (22nd April 2016)

I also prefer teaching adults. However, I have found that teaching teens, even M1-3, is rewarding, if the students are motivated, because they want to go on to study at universities. For that reason, you might find that teaching English to M1-3 in a top level government school or an EP program where class size may be a max of 30 students might be enjoyable. Good article and good luck in your teaching career.

By Mark, Bangkok (22nd April 2016)

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