Seth Leighton

Tips for the Thai classroom

How to survive it


1. Start of class

At the start of every English class, the students will rise and say in unison "Good morning (or afternoon), Teacher". It is your duty to respond with "Good morning (or afternoon) students, how are you?" which will elicit the rote response of "Fine, thank you, and you?" Say "fine, thank you, please sit down" and then get on with the business of your lesson.

As part of Thai culture, the students are required to show their respect for their teacher, and somewhere along the line they came up with the previous exchange. While it is a bit ridiculous to have a large group inquire together about your well-being, this phrase has been beaten (sometimes literally) into every Thai student from an early age, and thus is impossible to change. The aim is to mimic the Thai custom of simultaneously praising and thanking the teacher at the start of class, and, while certainly not an exact translation in meaning, it is best to simply accept the intention.

2. Wais

The Thai wai can be a tricky business for the incoming foreign teacher. This prayerlike gesture of respect is ubiquitous in Thailand, and has a different convolution for each type of encounter. Through LanguageCorps, I found a Thai host family, who gave me the lowdown on proper wai etiquette. The younger, or lower-status, individual must initiate the wai, with hands at a different level according to the relative social prestige. Sound confusing? Damn straight, but luckily the Thais accept that you most likely don't have a clue about it, and thus appreciate any effort with the classic Thai bemused smile.

Due to several superstitions, it is better to simply nod when a student gives you a wai, as you could inadvertently take seven years off his life. However, it goes a long way with older Thai folk if you give them any form of wai. In particular, you should be sure to wai the principal of your school, no matter what you may think of him personally. At my school, nearly everyone talks behind the principal's back but pays him the utmost respect to his face, a form of ingrained politeness that has its roots at the very foundations of Thai society.

3. Classrooms of bad students.

The Thai educational system stresses grouping students into classrooms of like ability, and then paradoxically gives them all the same lessons and tests. For the farang teacher, this can mean going from room of forty eager young learners to forty who can't yet read English, and certainly don't appreciate you trying to teach them.

The Thais place great emphasis on maintaining a jai yen literally a "cool heart", so losing your temper with an unruly class is virtually unheard of. Be aware that the Thai educational system places the responsibility for learning on the students, so that teachers are not held accountable for their pupils' failures. Instead, teachers will complain that the students are lazy or naughty, removing any possibility of poor teaching from the equation. This cuts both ways, as you are absolved of most blame for a poor lesson, but any successes can also be attributed to the strengths of the students.

In general, the best method is to take it easy, maintain good humor and not take it personally when a class isn't interested in English. This is much, much easier said than done, but your Thai colleagues will quite frankly be bewildered if you as a teacher worry over or take great responsibility for your students' grasping the subject.

4. Late Students.

This is what Thai people do, and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. The Thais have what may be generously described as a "flexible" sense of time, meaning that nearly everything outside of Bangkok, from buses to meetings, are ten minutes behind schedule. If the students coming late really screws up your lesson, then you simply teach a bit past the bell, as most Thai teachers do that already (making students late for their next class, and perpetuating the whole damn scene)

5. Unique student-teacher relationship

For starters, when asking a teacher a question outside of class, the student will sit on the floor, almost prostrating himself. If a student walks by a seated teacher, he will bow his head and shoulders slightly. This stems from a Buddhist urge not to be higher than anyone else's head, and is actually done by most Thais without thinking, as automatic as breathing. Students are taught to revere their teachers as second parents, and there is an entire ceremony known as Wun Wai Kroo that enhances this relationship.

Most Thai teachers treat their students with a mixture of affection and condescension, accepting their role as both educator and parent. The typical Thai teacher thinks nothing of telling a student to erase the board, carry books and bags, and even to run simple errands. Despite the insistence of my colleagues, I haven't been able to bring myself to do this, and thus end up doing most of my menial tasks myself.

6. Kreng Jai

Don't be naïve, but keep open the possibility that, Thai people want to help you. The concept of kreng jai (being considerate) is a key facet of Thai culture, and many Thais will consider it their duty to help a foreigner in their care however possible. I already had LanguageCorps providing additional in-country support, so I turned down far more offers of help than I accepted.

For a new teacher, this can seem a bit overbearing at times, as many of your colleagues will feel obligated to tell you to eat at this restaurant or stay at this hotel, no matter what you might think. A balance must be found between showing appreciation for the advice and making your own decisions, but an open heart can often lead to new adventures and untold rewards.




Comments

You most certainly can change the greetings and farewells (for the gate and the classroom). I couldn't have them saying them the way they were at my school! Don't assume it's not possible to change this. Just be prepared to put in the time to educate them on the new greetings and farewells. Anything is possible!

By Jiminy Cricket, The lush countryside (16th July 2018)

I have been teaching in Thai classrooms for 5 years now.I have a lot of energy in the classroom and I don't think of myself as being a bad teacher.
The thing is , about 80 percent of the students don't care about the lessons. I have tried so many techniques and I don't have any left.
It is important to just go with the flow. Do your lesson and if they learned something good. If they didn't listen just don't take it personal.

I need to gather my energy because I have another day ahead.

Good luck to all you teachers.

By Dawie, Trang , Thailand (21st May 2018)

I enjoyed reading your script on everyday teaching, and was most pleased by your ability to conjure an attitude amongst yourself and the Thai people that made me very relaxed about this experience. Don't get me wrong, I am having a whirlwind of emotions, but I truly appreciated your antics and casualness of the situation at hand.

Cheers!

By Dani Abate, Connecticut (10th September 2011)

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