In our zeal to teach the three ‘R's, reading, ‘righting, and ‘rithmetic, we are neglecting to teach another very important ‘R': Responsibility; responsibility for oneself and responsibility for others. In many countries around the world, especially here in Asia, the obsession with getting students to score in the highest percentile in their schools, communities, and countries, has become almost pathological; something akin to a mental illness, or at the very least, a mental blockage on the part of many parents, teachers, school administrators, principals, supervisors, and director's of studies.
While it is very important for students of all ages to learn to read, write, add, and subtract it should never become the be-all and end-all of their educational experience. Our focus on tests and examinations, many times taking up to 25-30 percent of the students' time during the school year if you include revisions, takes away from them the precious time needed to become more fully human, more socially adaptable, more psychologically healthy, more emotionally stable, and more spiritually secure. In our zeal to make better students, are we at the same time, helping to produce worse people? By focusing on academic subjects--- math, science, geography, history, English, etc., with all of the stress that studying for exams and passing them inevitably causes, are we simply producing robotic students who do little more than spit out the answers that we want to hear at the expense of showing us how truly brilliant they can become?
I ask because these are serious questions that deserve serious answers. More than that, these questions should be demanding from us some serious thinking and serious consideration in order to come up with long lasting and positive solutions.
I spent three years in the Korean public school system. The Koreans, like most Asians, are obsessed with their children getting the highest grade in their class, if not the whole country. Proof of that is that South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Hardly a week went by when I didn't hear about two or three 15 or 16 year old boys or girls throwing themselves off 20 story apartment buildings. In Korea and Japan today, suicide pacts, especially among teenagers, have become a pandemic, and we all seem at a loss for solutions.
Thailand is not immune to this kind of academic pressure. Take a look at this recent article from The Bangkok Post
The last thing I want to hear about or see in Thailand are students hanging themselves because they have failed an exam. Fifteen year olds should not be hanging themselves or throwing themselves off apartment buildings whether it's because of a failed exam or a broken heart. Children do not fail in school; schools fail children. Students are not failing the educational system; the educational system is failing students, and failing them miserably.
It is a miracle to me that many students do pass and do succeed, given the fact that so many teachers, administrators, principals, supervisors, and directors of studies have no idea how to teach students properly. Students do learn, they do succeed; not because of us, but in spite of us. In spite of our incompetence, in spite of our ignorance, in spite of our stupidity, in spite of a rigid structure that keeps students in chains, many students do succeed in school and in life. That, to me, is a living and breathing testament to the resilience, ambition, and potential of students everywhere.
I must confess something here: I like to sit in the teacher's office and watch my fellow teachers, both foreigners and Thai, go through their student's workbooks to correct mistakes. As many as 75 to 100 workbooks are stacked in three or four piles on their desks. They will spend their lunch hour, (actually 50 minutes), pouring over them; some will remain at the desk long after the teaching day ends. Dedicated teachers? Yes. Inefficient teachers? Perhaps.
I have never had stacks of workbooks on my desk to correct and I never will. Why? I have four Mathayom 4 (grade ten) classes of around 20 students each: M4/1, M4/2, M4/3, and M4/4. The first three classes I have put into groups of four, (a couple of groups have five students, and one group of three.) I have assigned each group a "student-teacher." I have chosen the student-teachers based on several criteria, including their maturity level, their interest in learning, their social skills in how they relate to their classmates, ability to efficiently perform certain tasks, and their record of academic achievement. (Admittedly, it has taken me time to determine all this.)
This is how it works: I have rules and I expect the students to follow them. Among the rules,
1) You are responsible for your learning;
2) Work hard;
3) Be nice;
4) Be ready to begin learning before I come to class;
5) Always keep the classroom clean.
Do my students always follow these rules? No, but we are working on it. I walk into class; I say good morning/afternoon. I take attendance. I usually, but not always I'm afraid, write the class objectives and tasks of the day on the board. I then say, "Teachers, stand up." All five of my student-teachers stand. I tell them to keep their students quiet. They do. We go over what we are going to do that class. When it comes time for the class to open their textbooks or do some exercises in their workbooks, they work together in their groups with the student-teachers at the helm. Whatever the students didn't understand from me, they will understand from the student-teachers. My students know that in my classes, we don't have one teacher and 20 students; we have 21 teachers; or to be more precise, six teachers and 15 students. We are all learning from each other, and we all take the time to teach one another.
When the students finish the exercises in their book, the real fun begins; correction. I love this part of the class because it gives me the chance to see my educational philosophy of student cooperation in action. This will also tell you why there are no student workbooks on my desk. There are a few different ways I go about correcting the student's work depending on the time, the level of the students, or the particular dynamics of the class. This one seems to work best. I take a few moments to walk around the class and correct the exercises in the books of the student-teachers. Then the student-teachers correct the books of their students. As we all know, the propensity for Thai students to copy from each other is legendary. Not a day goes by where I don't catch a few in the act. They'll copy from each other even if the answers are wrong! As a teacher this behavior is maddening. Admittedly, this behavioral pattern will be very difficult to break, but I am working on it.
Another way of correcting is to put five or six examples from the exercise on the board based around common errors, such as confusing the past simple with the past continuous or omitting articles like, ‘a' and ‘the.' As a teacher you have the option of pointing out the grammatical errors, or allowing the students, in their groups, to find the errors themselves. I prefer having the students find the errors, and then I have the student-teachers come up to the board and re-write the sentences. They then make the corrections in their own books and explain it to their students.
Having stacks of the student's workbooks on teacher's desks and spending hours correcting them out of sight of each student, I must ask a couple of important questions: While the teacher is doing this,
1) What is each student learning?
2) Where is the responsibility given here for each student's own learning?
Remember, we are not just teaching English; we are also teaching responsibility. Give students more responsibility, especially over something as vital as their learning, and most of them will show you that they are indeed responsible. By responsible, I mean "able to respond", which is the true meaning of responsibility. This, for the students, is a very important lesson in life.
Another way I am teaching the students to take more responsibility for their learning is through the development of effective reading strategies. For many of the students their reading comprehension and their ability to find answers to questions in reading exercises is very low. I noticed this a few months ago when students looked all over the page for an answer to a question they clearly didn't understand. So here is my effective reading strategy. All of my students know it and use it.
1) Know it. (What is it? What do the words mean?)
2) Locate it. (Where is the answer approximately?)
3) Identify it. (Where exactly is the answer?)
4) Document it. (Write the answer.)
I wrote this on the board. The students wrote it in their notebook. I went over it word for word. The students looked up the words they did not know in their dictionary. Now before every reading exercise I do this,
ME: Teachers, stand up. (They stand.) We are about to read a story from our book. So what will we do? (Dead silence from the students.)
Okay, so it's no perfected yet. Let's try it again.
ME: Remember our effective reading strategy. What is number one? (The students furiously flip through their notebooks.)
STUDENTS: (A little shy.) Know it.
ME: Yes. What is "know it?"
STUDENTS: What is it? What do the words mean?
ME: Yes. What do the words in the questions mean? What's number two?
STUDENTS: Locate it.
ME: What is "locate it?"
STUDENTS: Where is the answer approximately?
ME: What is approximately?
STUDENTS: (They say it in Thai.)
ME: Good. Number three.
STUDENTS: Identify it.
ME: What is "identify it?"
STUDENTS: Where exactly is the answer.
ME: Good. And number four?
STUDENTS: Document it.
ME: What does that mean?
STUDENTS: Write the answer.
ME: Good. Teachers sit down and let's begin.
Eventually I want the students to know this effective strategy inside out. I want them to recite it in their sleep. This strategy works not only for reading. A bit of tinkering and we can make it work for vocabulary and grammar exercises as well. Not to mention testing situations: Instead of students taking 30-40 minutes to do a reading exercise, with this strategy, many of them will get in done in less than half that time. The "skimming and scanning" technique is well utilized in this reading strategy.
The promise I have made to all my students is as simple as it is important. I will never treat them like children. They may be 15 or 16, but each one has a small adult in them just waiting to burst out. Each one is full of dreams, hopes, goals, and potential. Many times I have heard teachers ask in regards to their students "Where do I begin?"
This is where I begin: I step into the classroom and the first thing I see is the student's potential. (Okay, sometimes I see empty plastic water bottles and crumpled up paper on the floor, but that gets cleaned up in a hurry after I give them the ‘evil eye' and remind them of the class rules.) I see their potential and I begin from there. I know where each of my students wants to be 10 years from now, and there is where I begin.
During the first week of school I had all my students write me a letter telling me their future goals and dreams. On the back of that paper I had them draw a picture of their dream. "Draw a picture of your future", I told them. "Show me your future and together we will work towards it."
So they did. They drew beautiful pictures of themselves wearing doctor's uniforms, nurse's uniforms, businessmen carrying a briefcase, and of teachers standing in front of the classroom complete with a whiteboard and a wooden pointer. I look at those pictures every now and then as a reminder of why I am here and why my students are in my class. Periodically I remind the students of that as well.
These groups with a student-teacher at the helm work quite well in my M4/1, M4/2, and M4/3 classes and with time, patience, and practice I am positive that the students will learn so much from each other. This, in my opinion and experience, is the natural way to learn. Unfortunately, we may have forgotten that important fact in Kindergarten. Children have a natural inclination to cooperate with one another. It is adults, parents and teachers who screw them up by having students compete with one another, often to the detriment of the most important of life's lessons: The reality that each and every student is special and unique; any competition that takes place in an educational setting, must be within each student, between their past performance and their present reality; between the person they once were and the person they will eventually become. Teachers have the added responsibility to discover this in each of their students. We have the added responsibility to behave responsibly and to teach responsibility. And we must see our students as people first, with all of their vulnerabilities and potential.
I was reminded of this recently. It hit me square in the face when I least expected it. I stepped into my M4/4 class. This is my only class of the four which I have not yet put into groups with a student-teacher. They are not ready for it--- yet. Yes, some students must be left behind--- for now. When the students in M4/4 are ready to assume more responsibility for their learning, I will gladly give it to them. Although there are a few good students in my M4/4 class, many of them can scarcely speak a word of English; their listening skills are extremely low; ditto for the reading comprehension and writing ability. It's as if, as a group, they have given up. But I know that's not true. It's not that these students have given up; it's that people, (their past teachers?) have given up on them.
Students know instinctively when their teachers don't care. But I do. I let them know everyday that I have not given up on them and I never will. Because they may not have had dedicated and caring teachers in the past, the students have rebelled; not against their teachers, but against a rigid and uncaring educational system; a system made up of people who don't care. Who can blame them? My goal is to get them back on track; to get them "up to speed." I must first re-establish their trust. Before I can get them up to speed, I have to do something far more difficult: My goal is to make them fall in love with English. Through a combination of drilling exercises, communicative activities, journal writing, patience, and tough-love, these students will one day do better than anyone ever expected of them. They will surprise others, but more importantly, they will surprise themselves.
I walked into my M4/4 class one afternoon recently and noticed that one of the students, a lovely 17 year old young lady, looked very sad. I saw the sadness in her eyes as she began arranging some of the desks and chairs. I asked her what was wrong. She looked at me and said, "I miss my mom."
I knew that she wasn't from Khon Kaen. Many of the students at my school live in the surrounding villages, while others are from towns or cities four or five hours away by bus. Some live with Thai teachers or guardians, while those not so lucky are on their own. "You miss your mom?"
"Yes. I not see her for two years."
That got to me. I could see the tears in her eyes and I tried desperately to hold back the tears from forming in my eyes. I lost my mother two years ago and the pain for me is still very real. I asked her where she lived. The city she named was about five hours away by bus. Five hours away and yet her mother had not made the trip to see her daughter in two years? Had not sent her money so that she can make the trip herself? I have no idea of the circumstances behind this, but it does sound strange.
"Last night I cry. I cry a lot. I want to see my mom."
As I write this, as I get ready for the next two weeks of speaking, listening, and grammar mid-term examinations, I can't stop thinking of my beautiful student who just wants to see her mom. Yes it's important that students take these exams; yes it's important that they pass these exams. After all, this is one of the reasons why I'm doing this. I am doing this to see these students succeed; to become the doctors, lawyers, dentists, businessmen, and teachers that they drew for me.
I am, however, asking myself this: What is the point of "Little Somchai" acing his mid-terms if he is going to grow up to be just another lazy drunk? What is the point of "Lek" studying so hard if she may be pulled from school and told to go to Pattaya in order to contribute to the family? What's the point of pushing students to study so much and so hard, that they end up hanging themselves or hurling themselves off 20 story apartment buildings? These are tough questions, certainly, but are we really doing students a favor by focusing almost exclusively on academics when a 17 year old cries herself to sleep at night because she just wants to see her mom?
What the hell are we doing?
I confess that I don't have all the answers here. This is Thailand. To many foreigners it is a strange country with a troubled past and some interesting traditions. Great food and beaches too. But I am a foreign English teacher not wishing to step on any cultural toes.
The main thing that I can do is to see things this way: My students are students second. They are human beings first. They are human beings first because they have hopes and dreams. They are human beings first because they have plans and goals. They are human beings first because they have fears. They are human beings first because they want to be all they can be. They are human beings first because they have a family. They are human beings first because they really do want to please their teachers. And they are human beings first because they miss their mom. They miss their mom.
I am afraid that as teachers we tend to focus on academics because when students do well it makes us look good; it makes us feel good. We pat ourselves on the back thinking that we really do make a difference. Fair enough. Let's admit that, then try and make things better for our students. It's time to make the students look good. It's time to see them as human beings first. Education is about life, not just school. Teachers can never see themselves as a success in the classroom until their students become successful human beings outside the classroom.