Saturday, December 6, 2014

What a Foreign Teacher Can Give

I hadn't had a truly shitty day of teaching in a while. As a foreigner at a school in Thailand, that's something. Last week though, my roughest class was just too much. The rowdy boys would not stop pestering me as I tried to test their friends individually. I had to spend the bulk of my time trying to keep them in the classroom so that they didn't run around the hallway. Yet this effort was, like so many others, in vain. I had to give up. There were simply too many kids running a muck at the same time. I had to continue my testing and let the rowdy boys out, so that the other students, the majority working in their books, could finish in some semblance of order.

Needless to say, the experience ruined my day. After a year and a half teaching in Thailand, I've mostly learned to accept how limited my options can be here. I thought I was well beyond the point of letting the antics of the students bother me personally. Usually I can shake it off. But on that day, for whatever reason or reasons, it was simply too much. I felt rotten from the moment I left that room until the moment I fell asleep listening to a Louis CK stand-up in my apartment.

And there was a thought that kept running through my head: “They're really not worth it.” these disrespectful boys who inhabit every classroom in Thailand. “They're just not worth it.”

The next day proved much better. All my periods went well and the rowdy boys in my worst class were more submissive and for the most part did what was asked of them. The following weeks have also been better as I've tried some new organizational techniques I saw in another teacher's classroom.

But I know there will be other days much like the cluster-fuck that was Thursday fifth period on the twentieth of November. I feel better and I believe that I will finish this year on a good note. Nevertheless, the problems I described continue to make my workdays far from pleasant at times.

From an outside perspective someone might think that perhaps I wasn't hard enough with these boys or that somehow my techniques just don't work. It's a logical point of view and there's some truth to it. I will be the first to admit that I am far from the best or most experienced teacher. However, even veteran English teachers in Thailand I've met here have told me stories that are just as bad if not worse as the one above. And teachers who are far more experienced here than I will readily admit that there are just some class days where your students will be unable or unwilling to do anything asked of them.

The truth is, if you are a foreign teacher in Thailand your day is plagued consistently by a number of issues which can make your relationship with your students difficult.

I've put two of the most important factors below.

First, (and particularly acute at my level) are the long hours students spend at school. My first graders spend between eight and nine hours a day at school. While they aren't spending every single minute in a classroom, they do spend a lot of time there and eventually their energy and attention span runs out.

Second, if this were China or Korea, where students were deeply pressured by their teachers and families to memorize facts and perform well on examinations, this type of system might work in at least forcing students to know lots of fact. But here, and especially at the school I am at, students are not held accountable for their actions of lack of action. The culture of Sabai (letting things go) is a very strong philosophy in many walks of life here. Many students regularly do not turn assignments in on time and if they do they are often incomplete. Many go through the entire school system without knowing more than a few words of English or a few math equations. Even if a student fails all of his final examinations (And there are many final exams even for first graders) he or she will still get passed on to the next grade. The students pick up on this at an early age, which I believe is one of the reasons why classroom management is so difficult in this country. Even if we yell, threaten them with failure or to call their parents, the students know that no matter what they will still move on to the next level. Once more, if a teacher applies stricter measures for students it can lead to that teacher having complaints hurled against them by parents and administrators.

This sort of environment is a grueling one to work in for both Thai and Farang (Foreign) teachers. It's why so many of us coast or take a slack approach. I've done the same with certain classes throughout the two years I've been here, including the one I mentioned earlier.

With that said though, “They're really not worth it.” is not the right conclusion to draw. We Foreign English teachers will probably never be able to achieve the unrealistic aims of our administrators to make our kids English fluent geniuses. That's impossible with thirty eight to forty students, some with severe learning disabilities some with prodigious brains all thrown together in the same room. But what we can do is give them at least a few good experiences with the English language and a positive encounter with someone from another culture and country. As someone who has spent a great deal of his life living outside the country of his birth, I can tell you that one of the best learning experiences a person can ever have is by knowing someone who has a different culture. Knowing someone from another place expands the heart and opens the mind. It allows individuals, including children, to touch a world beyond their own and can help them realize that the world their strange Farang teacher, neighbor or travelling companion comes from is one that is not all that different from their own.

When I play a learning game with my students that they love, when I give them a high five, when I intervene to stand up for a boy or girl being bullied, when I dry their tears, when I help a bully understand a difficult worksheet, when I let them give me a hug or when I answer some questions they have about sloths, the Giza Pyramids, the Loch Ness Monster or about the distant country I come from I'm creaking open new doors for them, doors that might lead them to new possibilities somewhere down the line. More importantly though, I'm allowing them to see someone different from them in a positive light.

As foreign English teachers in Thailand, as foreign teachers anywhere, I believe this is the greatest we can give our students. If they learn some English along the way that's fantastic too. But if nothing else, we can take some comfort that some might say a year or two or many down the road, that they knew a Farang, a Farang named Teacher Sean and he was good to us.

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