Every once in a while I get frustrated with my students. Yes that's right; I'm not a perfect teacher. Even though I sometimes get lampooned and lambasted on the open forums by those who would like to put me in my place, I'm the first one to admit that I experience the same pitfalls and frustrations that befall all EFL teachers.
The person I should really be frustrated with, however, is me. On those days when I'm not getting through to my students; on those days when many of my students seem ‘tuned out', I should take a long look at myself and see what I'm not doing right. There has been days like that; more than I care to admit.
One day in particular recently when many of my students where just not with me, (and probably not feeling like an essential part of the class), I told the students a story. It was a story I heard a while ago, but I amended it to suit my particular classroom situation. I titled the story, "A Teacher, a Wise Man, Two Punks, and a Chicken." Here's the story.
A Teacher, a Wise Man, two Punks, and a Chicken
Once upon a time there was a teacher who came to Thailand to teach English. He was young and idealistic. And he was handsome too, like a movie star. He liked his students and he wanted his students to learn. But the students were teenagers, 15 and 16 years old. They were very nice and some of the girls were really pretty.
While some of the students studied very hard and did what the teacher told them, most of the students were not very interested in learning English. Many of them just wanted to play games, ride their motorbikes, and talk amongst each other. This frustrated the teacher and made him angry, but the teacher persevered. He wanted his students to do well. After all, the teacher went to Thailand to help the students achieve their dreams and have them reach their full potential.
One day the students were particularly uncooperative and rambunctious. He didn't want to lecture the students. He told the students that he couldn't make the students learn, but he could show them how to learn. "It's up to you", the teacher said. "You are responsible for your own learning." So the teacher told the students a story. It was an old story about a teacher, a wise man, two punks, and a chicken. The story went like this:
"There was once a wise man that was so smart, he knew everything. The townspeople would line up on Sundays in front of his hut and would ask him for advice. People from all over the province, from all over the country, would make a special pilgrimage to seek the wise man's advice. Young women would ask him when they would meet their soul mate; young men would ask him how much money they would make; young couples would want to know how many children they would have, and old couples came to him wanting to alleviate their pain and suffering. And for each question, he would know the answer.
Then one day there were these two boys from the village, punks they were; bad boys who liked to fight and swear. They wanted to trick the wise man and humiliate him in front of everyone. So they stole a chicken from one of their neighbors and said to each other, ‘let's do this. Let's put the chicken behind our back, like this. We'll go to the wise man and say, is this chicken alive or dead? If the wise man says that the chicken is alive, we'll wring its neck and give it to him. And if he says it's dead, we'll throw the live chicken in his face.'
So the two punks walked over to the wise man's hut with the chicken behind their back and stood in line. When the two punks finally reached the wise man, they looked at him and asked, ‘wise man is this chicken behind our back alive or dead?'
The wise man looked at the two boys and said, ‘the answer is in your hands.'"
I then handed out photocopies of the story so that the students could read it. There were reading comprehension questions as well as questions where my students had to give their own opinion as to why they thought the teacher told his students the story and what they learned from reading it; more on that shortly.
"The answer is in your hands." I like this story. I like it because it's all about responsibility and learning to become accountable for your actions and behavior. When the wise man tells the boys that the answer is in their hands, he is telling them to stop relying less on others and to start relying more on you. He is telling the boys to think before they act; he is advising them to reflect. The old wise man is saying, "grow up and be a man."
While I was telling my students this story I looked at many of their faces. I noticed that many of them, especially the upper level students, were listening attentively, almost in rapt attention. This probably had less to do with my story telling skills than with their keen interest in punks and chickens. But, for the most part, I was happy with how the story telling session went. As for my students expressing brilliant and insightful opinions as to what they had learned from this story--- well, that was a different matter all together.
Although a few of them said, "I now know about the teacher's feelings", and "I learned that the teacher wants the students to learn", I got the feeling that the students already knew this. Nothing new or original was expressed. Far more common was "I learned ...." That's it. "I learned...." The rest of the answer space was blank. It's not that they had no opinion or had learned nothing. Many of my students had no way of appropriately expressing what they learned. As far as believing that Thai high school students have no opinion about anything, no one in their society has ever told them that it's okay to have an opinion, let alone express an opinion to a teacher.
Me: So Somchai, why do you think the teacher told his students this story?
Somchai: Because the teacher wants the students to learn.
Me: Okay. Porntip, how about you?
Porntip: (Looking over at Somchai) because the teacher wants the students to learn.
Me: Good, Porntip, but Somchai already said that. Kwankanok? Why do YOU think the teacher told the students this story?
Kwankanok: (Looking over at Porntip) because the teacher wants the students to learn.
I was about ready to smack myself in the head. While the answer may be technically correct, the teacher does want the students to learn, I wanted my students to go beyond the typical response that was expected of them by their teachers and from their society. I didn't expect thought-provoking and sophisticated answers such as
"The teacher told his students this story because the teacher, like the wise man, is challenging his students to envision their future: A future beyond their present environment and circumstances; a future that can be brilliant if one believes and acts upon the reality that your life is truly in your own hands."
Wow Somchai, you get an A plus for that! That was an incredible response. Your parents must be very proud.
A deeper understanding of Thai society and culture may shed more light as to why Thai students take so much comfort and solace in repeating the same answer: Fear. It is not so much that they will be ridiculed by their peers. Thai students take pride in seeing a classmate excel and hearing someone express a differing opinion from the prevailing point-of-view. I've seen it. As long as it's not them that must express it. Most of them are terribly afraid to stand out. People may be watching. The walls have ears, you know. And people hear stories; lots of stories. Like these found in a column of the Bangkok Post by Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University under the headline "Thailand and its hybrid authoritarianism" published September 27, 2010. In his column, Pongsudhirak speaks of a particular high-profile case of government censorship, but claims that
"It epitomizes a plethora of other cases that have found little voice because of the climate of fear, intimidation and coercion attendant with civil-military hybrid repression. These cases include the persecution of university students who have been gagged, harassed and made to undergo psychological tests for their political beliefs. A professor of a well-known university has been detained at an army barracks for a week with neither charges nor apology on his release. A youthful aspiring entertainer was pressured to withdraw from a reality TV show because he had criticized Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. A high school graduate was denied a place at a leading university after passing the national admissions test because of political opinion.
Thailand's world of academe has never sunk so low under ostensible democratic rule. Lecturers in these parts typically resort to all manner of inducements to generate student views and opinions from basic encouragement and pleas to veiled threats of point reduction on final grades. When the young speak, we should listen with encouragement and constructive reply. But this period of soft repression, ironically presided over by a PM who was once a lecturer, the younger generation has been suppressed.
The list of the suppressed is not confined to the young. In rural Thailand, many dozens of individuals who act on officially unsanctioned thoughts are languishing in jail and army barracks. Many are on the run. The air of intimidation and fear is pervasive. And it works.
What is perhaps more dangerous than official censorship and suppression is self-censorship. The fear is such that penmanship is voluntarily curtailed and spoken words become more muted and subtle. Such an environment has led to a double asymmetry in media coverage of Thai politics."
In an editorial published on September 28, 2010 in the Bangkok Post headlined "Persecution in the media" the newspaper discusses the current government crackdown on the Internet and certain media outlets.
"The most obvious is the continual use of the Computer Crime Act to intimidate and silence websites, blogs, videos and other forms of legitimate media. The thousands of times this law has been invoked are telling. It means that authorities either cannot or will not bring normal legal charges. It is enormously discriminatory. If an article, a photo or a video appears in a newspaper or on a TV station it is legal; but because it is on the internet, it is not.
Back in the days of the Thaksin government, the public was assured that the Computer Crime Act (CCA) was necessary to protect against, and to prosecute, online crime. The purpose of the law was to ensure that e-commerce would be reliable, and that cheating consumers would be rigorously policed. Instead, successive governments have used the CCA to compile a list of more than 110,000 websites that must be blocked from the public's view. The list is secret, the reason for each website's ban is secret, and there is no appeal. This cannot happen with newspapers, magazines, books, and TV and radio stations and so on."
Or in the schools either. Over the last eight decades since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy, she has seen 23 military coups, countless demonstrations from the communist and ‘Red Shirt' north, a Muslim insurgency in the south, and thousands detained, tortured, and killed along the way. This is no different from any other country that yearns for freedom with all of the inevitable growing pains that comes with it.
But as history shows us, freedom comes with a hefty price tag. And teachers don't teach in a vacuum; they can't. It would be foolish for a teacher, not to mention dangerous, to tell your students to live freely when everybody else around them is in chains. It is incredibly naïve to think that students will freely speak their minds in your classroom when everywhere else in their society they are forbidden to do so. Thai society is no different from any other society that believes, or once believed, that children should be seen and not heard. Thai students will think independently, speak freely, and gladly give their opinions when their society allows them to do so. Freedom of thought, like freedom of speech is both an art and a skill. It is a skill that is taught and nurtured in schools and encouraged by all other institutions in society, including government. It is an art because freedom of speech is not an absolute. Any society that encourages freedom of thought and speech will have creative, intelligent, and brilliant students in the classroom and out.
I wish to make something very clear. I am not, in any way, advocating social change through revolution or rebellion. That would get me thrown out of this country and put on a ‘black list.' Any social, cultural, and political change in Thailand must originate from the Thai people themselves. I do not have any political say in what should change or how things should be changed, nor should I. As a foreign English teacher, my job and personal mission here is to teach English to the best of my ability and to touch the hearts of my students as so many of them have touched mine.
Having said that, it seems obvious to me that one of the teacher's main responsibilities to his students would be to mitigate any fear the students have. Fear of speaking their minds; fear of making mistakes; fear of ridicule; fear of revealing what's in their hearts, and fear of reprisal. Yes we must use appropriate punishment and classroom management techniques for those students who misbehave, but to have students live in fear from oppressive governments or misguided administrators or egotistical teachers robs students of any true learning moments they will potentially have. To make of the classroom a sanctuary, however temporary and seemingly artificial, where students are encouraged to express their own opinions, thoughts, and feelings, especially on issues that affect them personally without fear of reprisal, is one of the most caring things a teacher can do for his students.
I am reminded here that the word ‘educate' originates from the Latin ‘educere' meaning "to bring out; to lead forth." Far too often we in the teaching profession tend to concentrate on stuffing our students full of facts and information at the expense of allowing them to simply tell us what is already inside them. We focus on pumping them full of stuff which we expect will be regurgitated on the exams. We so easily forget that many of our students know more than they let on, and much more than we, and their society, allow them to express.
I get the feeling that many of my students are dying to tell me what's really inside them, and I am disappointed in myself because for the first 20 weeks I haven't given them much of an opportunity to truly express themselves. Sure there have been moments in writing and reading exercises, but they have been few and far between. As their teacher that's my fault. In fact, if I were to grade myself for the first semester I'd have to give myself an ‘incomplete.' I have focused too much on the ‘garbage in, garbage out' part of education and not enough on the ‘to bring out; to lead forth' part of it. That must change next semester.
Even though I have about a 70/30 split in favor of students achieving a passing grade after the first semester, (two terms), that should not be seen as good enough. It isn't good enough for me. Sure I'd love all of my students to pass, but that's not realistic. The students at my current school must take a speaking test, a listening test, and a grammar test which includes a reading and writing portion. These exams are written by myself and my teaching partner, and are given four times a year, (every 10 weeks.) That's a lot of grammar pounding and test time. I am also given some leeway in the way of discretionary marks for the students: Homework, conduct in the classroom, and participation should and does count for something.
But I've been thinking recently about all of the time and effort that teachers and students put into these exams. Writing them, editing them, giving them, proctoring them, correcting them, and going over them with the students. All for a 70/30 split? The ratio of students who pass compared to those who fail is really not the issue here. A 50/50 split, a 70/30 split, or a 90/10 split. It doesn't matter.
What's the point of my students scoring a 70 percent, an 80 percent, or a 90 percent on the English grammar exam when I hardly know anything about them? What's the point of beautiful "Pat" acing the speaking test when she can't speak to me about what makes her laugh and cry? What's the point of "Moo" scoring 90 percent on his listening test when I haven't taken enough time during the semester to listen to what's really in his heart? Good teachers may help their students pass their academic exams, but great teachers take the time to listen to their students and help them pass the tests of life. What this first semester has taught me is that, as a teacher, I still have a long way to go. In future blogs I will share what I am planning to do in the classroom to help my students become more than just students. The answer is in my hands.
The chicken story serves as a lesson to students about accountability and personal responsibility. But EFL teachers can learn a lot from it too, as well as school administrators, department directors, and principals. Over the years I have been fortunate enough to work in schools where there has been a plethora of excellent and dedicated teachers; people who truly cared about their students and wanted to teach them well. I continue to meet and work with teachers such as these.
But I have also met some real losers; people who couldn't care less about the students or the teaching profession; people who were and are in Asia for the booze, the girls, and the work visa; people who were just passing through. We have all met some of these people. Many of these people sit day after day in teacher's rooms all over Thailand, and other Asian countries, ridiculing the students, insulting the staff and administration, gossiping, and generally causing trouble. There are times when I honestly feel that the worst place to be is the teacher's room where the negative energy is so thick, you can almost poke holes through it with chopsticks. I have heard far too many EFL teachers over the years complain about ‘sleeper classes' and ‘lazy Thai students.' This kind of negativity poisons an atmosphere where every teacher should not only be doing the best they can for their students, but taking responsibility for things that go wrong in their classes. Do I have lazy students? Yes I do, but they are MY lazy students and I will deal with them. They are my responsibility. The answer is in my hands.
I have 83 students in four classes this year. Grade 10 students, 15-16 year olds, many of whom have hopes and dreams like 15 and 16 year olds everywhere. Do I have students who, at times, don't pay attention? Of course I do. Do I have students who spend time in my classes daydreaming about riding their motorbikes, or kissing their girlfriend? I sure do. Do I have students who try to use some of my English lessons to catch up on lost sleep? You bet I do. But I also have students who work hard, do their homework, and get good grades. My students are no different from teenage students in any other classroom. They are human, after all, and it's what you do with your students after you wake them up that will determine your mettle as a teacher.
You can scold your students or you can teach them. You can ridicule and excoriate Thai society or you can try and understand it. You can call your students ‘stupid' or you can try and remember what it was like to be a child or a teenager. While I realize that some of the ridiculing of Thai students and society by foreigners is done in jest or to blow off steam, there is no reason for this ridicule or criticism to be voiced in clear view of Thai teachers or the administration. Unless there are flagrant personal or work-related violations against foreign teachers by the administration or the powers-that-be, such as a refusal to apply for a work permit or repeated late payments, it is best to keep quiet in the workplace about ones frustrations of being a foreigner in Thailand.
What many foreigners in Thailand don't seem to know (or remember) is that to teach another parent's child is both an honor and a privilege. It is also a challenge; a challenge which must be met daily with patience, educational skills, humility, love, care, respect, responsibility, sacrifice, determination to get it right, the intelligence to learn from mistakes, toughness when needed, and an unyielding resolve to see to it that your students continue to move forward.
Doing all of this requires wisdom, the ability to keep your mouth shut, minding your own business, and keeping a low profile; something far too many foreigners in Asia seem to have a problem with. It also requires taking responsibility for your teaching because, in the end, the old wise man had it right. The answer really is in your hands.