Perhaps the ominous warning of strange things afoot came when one PE teacher lost his sanity in front of onlooking parents, teachers and students during sports day practice. The teacher flew into a rage (apparently because the students had not heard him blow his whistle) and trashed the chairball equipment before storming off in front of a crowd stunned into silence.
But my problem had nothing to do with the mighty game of chairball. My problem was discipline. You see, I've been teaching for over four years and until today I had only received two complaints. One was from a girl who said that I spent too long on games in the class - apparently twenty five minutes out of three hours was too much - and I was ordered to stop. Needless to say, the girl did not win any friends amongst her fellow ten year old students! The other was from my very first adult class, who felt my lesson was too grammar focused. I took note of the constructive criticism and tried to improve.
It's notable that both those complaints came from private school students. In my two and a half years of state school teaching, I never received a single indictment. Last year, I moved to a well known bilingual school and began to teach grade seven and nine students from privileged homes. By then I was a confident and capable teacher, but a class of thirty hormonal students can test the best of us.
After a few weeks of trial and error, most classes were falling into place. However, there remained a small group students who just didn't want to know. Each day they would simply spend their time reading comic books, sending sms messages or even disrupting the other students.
In the end, I took them to the teachers' room during their lunch break to finish their work. Today, the parents of one darling little Somchai contacted the school to complain that I had "stopped Somchai from having his lunch". (Somchai doesn't look like missing a couple of lunches would do him any harm) What's more, Somchai had complained that I was showing favouritism to a female student in the class! The undertones of the second part of the complaint was what upset me.
Nobody likes dealing with complaints, especially malicious ones, but there is a strong chance they will happen to anyone who teaches long enough. In my case I knew I could rely on the full support of my admin staff and the Thai support teacher in the classroom (more on this in a moment). Somchai was eventually coaxed to admit the truth (he hadn't lifted a finger in months and the 'favoured' student had done everything). It was probably a bigger deal to me than anyone else, but at times like these, I always question my own use of discipline.
How does one deal with difficult students? Well, it depends very much on who you ask. In theory, every foreign teacher should have a Thai teacher in the room for support. The reality - as any teacher will tell you - is that Thai teacher support is a lottery. Some will be very supportive, most will do absolutely nothing and a minority will even encourage disruptive behaviour, either inadvertently or otherwise.
I always seek to strike a good rapport with my support teacher whenever possible, for they can be pivotal in the progress and behaviour of the class (not to mention the fact that they are usually asked to report on you, even if they can't understand a word of English). But again, any teacher will tell you that a minority of support teachers have decided they don't like you before you even start. You are an unqualified farang who has walked into the job and receive a higher salary for doing it. I can understand the sentiment, if not the reaction.
So let's say you have a delinquent horde of teenagers and a Thai teacher who simply wants to sit at the back and play Sudoku. What's the next step? How tough should you get?
One school of thought that is prevalent amongst TEFL teachers is to simply do nothing and ignore the disruptive kids. The rationale behind this varies but is often stated as "I'm the only that gets bothered by it, so why care?" or "Getting angry doesn't help".
Whilst I agree with both of these philosophies, I don't agree that they are applicable to good teaching. For one thing, as the person responsible for the education of the students, a teacher should be the one who is "bothered". To say "What is the point in getting bothered?" is equivocal to "What is the point in giving a monkey's about my job?". Fine if that's your attitude, but don't inflict it on those of us mad enough to actually think that even in the TEFL world one lone student might take some kind of benefit from a teacher who makes an effort.
The second line of "Getting angry doesn't help" is also correct. But again, I find some (usually new or just poor) teachers mistakenly link classroom discipline to loss of temper. This is, in fact, an oxymoron. Anyone who cannot control their rage should not teach, period. Good discipline - including a raised voice - is done in a controlled, precise and understandable manner.
Whilst many educators can and do use very laid back styles of discipline - or none at all - for good reasons, my experience has shown me that many use the aforementioned rationales as a smokescreen. That ostensible reasoning tends to hide a lack of assuredness that manifests itself as either a lack of confidence in using any kind of discipline or a fear that the kids will "hate" a teacher and see them as "serious" , the latter being the ultimate anathema for the farang.
Now I don't know about you, but even when I was a hormonal teenager, I had a well developed sense of right and wrong. Adolescent or not, I knew when a teacher was punishing me for something I had done wrong (how I wish I could track down some of those teachers and apologise for my behaviour) and which ones were just obnoxious (I recall one teacher who shook me by my ear until it tore and bled when I was ten years old. I had got out of my chair for break two minutes early).
Teenagers, on the whole, are fair. If a teacher is reasonable in warning students of their behaviour (or translating if the students' English is weak) and explains any disciplinary action and empathizes it is not personal, they will respond positively.
Indeed, many students come to respect this manner far more than the out and out clown style of teaching. I can think of at least one class where stern behaviour made me far more popular with the majority of these students who had become frustrated at the troublesome group in the class disrupting the lessons for everyone. Once the students know where the line is, you can lay back, enjoy far more jokes and games with them and have fun and productive lessons for everyone.
But just where exactly should a teacher draw the line? Is any copying allowed in the classroom? Should I ask little Jittiporn to turn that ghettoblaster down? Should I break up the boys' fight or wait until one of them is knocked out? Is an impromptu classroom football match acceptable? Should the teacher join in?
Limits and rules (if any) can only be reached through trial and error. Different teachers will work best under different circumstances. There is no single correct way to use discipline in the classroom but there are certainly some good rules to adhere by:
1) Never strike kids. Even if you have just seen a Thai teacher doing his WWE impression and smacking a kid with a chair. They can do it, we can't (and hopefully don't want or need to).
2) Always give students the benefit of the doubt. The first time you see them using their phone, give them a very friendly warning. I always give at least two friendly warnings for any student.
3) Use humour whenever you can, it takes the tension out of the situation. This works particularly well with students who are usually good but are having an off day. Instead of telling Somchai to stop or you'll give him homework, tell him to stop or you'll make him listen to Westlife singles for the rest of the week.
4) Don't ask things of the students you cannot deliver yourself. If you are late for class, it is totally unfair to punish students who do the same. Likewise, if you are delivering a lesson that is not going so well, don't expect the pupils to be on top form either.
5) Bear in mind that each class will develop its own personality, often defined by the strongest personalities or the behaviour of the smartest students. Try to get these students "on your side" whenever possible.
6) In a similar fashion, consider that different students respond to different approaches. Some need praise, some simply need attention and some will simply have behavioural problems that will not be helped by punishments.
7) Be clear and even handed when explaining punishments to students. Be calm when doing so and make a point of telling them you don't dislike them, you simply want to help them learn.
And that last point is what it all comes down to. After all, even if you believe you are just a hired clown, don't you want the kids to be watching when you do your tricks?