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1) Roll with the Punches
Muay Thai is one of the biggest sports in Thailand, and in a lot of ways you have to act like a boxer to be a successful teacher here. Ok, so you probably won’t have to throw any left hooks, but you do have to be able to think on your feet.
As a foreign teacher at a Thai school you are put on the spot constantly. Sometimes you may be asked to do something as simple as sing a kaoroke song in front of your student’s parents, and sometimes you may be asked to make grade reports for every individual student you have the day before they are supposed to be submitted.
It can feel like a flurry combo of left, right, left, elbow coming straight at your face, but unexpected issues and events arise all the time at Thai schools.
Mastering the art of jai yen, and keeping a cool head through the frustrating spontaneity of the Thai school system is necessary to be a prize professor.
“Float like a butterfly, speak like a B….a spelling B” – No boxer ever…
2) Always Have a Back-up Activity.
You lean back in your chair, crack your knuckles, pat yourself on the back, and promise that later you’ll go get that sweet green tea you deserve because that’s right, you’ve created the best lesson ever. It’s fun, it’s engaging, and your students will love it.
Then you strut confidently into class and start explaining the directions. You turn to write something on the board and your confidence begins to wane as you notice the rows of students with faces blanker than an award winning modern art painting.
You start speaking faster and faster, waving your hands about emphatically as your students become more and more confused at your spastic gesturing, losing interest faster than Rose kicked Jack off the raft.
Oh my god, your golden all-encompassing lesson plan is failing. What do you do?
Well I’ll tell you what to do, it’s easy. Revert to one of the backup activities you came up with.
It doesn’t matter how great you think your lesson might be, there’s always a chance that it might not work. Even if one class understands your awesome game or activity, there might be another class who just stares at you like you’re some freak skinny Santa Claus.
It’s a good idea to have some simple stand by games, or vocab activities that can be applied to any lesson, and are easy to understand with little explanation.
Having a fallback worksheet is another solid backup plan in case your Sistine pronunciation exercise turns into a misunderstood, mumbling meltdown.
3) Start An Attendance/ Grade Book Immediately
My third day of teaching I was handed a student roster for two of my classes… I had 19 different classes. Oh, and everything was written in Thai, which I can’t read.
With 19 classes and around 40 to 50 students in each class, it was beginning to feel like I was trying to catalogue the blades of grass in the courtyard outside.
Thankfully I was able to come up with a simple record system that worked.
I printed off an attendance sheet and a grading sheet for each class, and then had the students sign their names on each sheet next to their corresponding student number.
Next I made a binder that contained both the grading and attendance sheets for each class inside, and I arranged it by the days of the week. From then on, each time a student participated in an activity, I just walked up to them, asked their name and number, and wrote down points on my grading sheet.
Not only did this help me keep accurate participation records, but it also allowed me to learn the student’s names easier, and it motivated the students because they could actually see me keeping track of who was participating.
I put my record sheet on Excel, and wah lah! I had digital and physical copies.
4) Be Aware of Cultural Differences and Respect Them
This one seems like a no-brainer, but sometimes it can be more difficult than it sounds. Don’t touch a Thai person on the head, don’t point your foot at anyone, always take your shoes off before entering a department head’s office, never forget to wai one of the higher ups—there’s a long list of cultural rules that are pretty easy to follow.
But I’m talking about the frustrating cultural differences.
Most Thai people will also go completely out of their way to avoid the slightest confrontation or loss of face. This often times results in nothing being communicated to anyone, which has the potential to culminate into last minute shuffling and completely avoidable disasters.
From a western perspective, where the littlest things are blown into huge proportions, and people can’t stop checking their work emails from their cell phones for thirty minutes during dinner, sometimes it can feel like you’re watching two trains heading right towards each other in slow motion.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, the important thing to note is that Thailand has been operating in this style for a long, long time, and showing frustration at these miscommunication meltdowns only makes you the oddball. So just roll with it baby.
5) Some Thai People Might Not understand What’s Considered Impolite in your Culture
What I found even more difficult than following the cultural customs here however, was not getting angry when a Thai person did something that was rude in my culture.
For instance, one day, a fellow teacher and friendly acquaintance came up to me in the hallway, poked me in the stomach, and said “whoah you’re getting so much fatter.”
Excuse me!? Your cheek is about to get so much fatter after I slap my open palm across it… is what I wanted to say, but instead I just laughed it off, no use getting up in arms over a onetime offender.
But then, it was like every time I passed this guy, he was shoving a finger right in my belly button and snickering, like I was some giant white Pillsbury Doughboy.
I was just about to go talk to some other teachers about the incident, when one of my confidants turned to me and committed the same offense! I was seriously starting to feel obese, and I was getting irritated.
I talked it over with some friends, and in Thailand, weight isn’t a rude topic like it is in America. Often times, people that are chubby adopt the name “ooaan,” which literally translates into fatty.
I still ended up talking with the teachers, and letting them know that I felt uncomfortable with them constantly poking at my two pack. No, that doesn’t bring good luck.
After I talked with everyone the fat attacks did stop, but it was definitely one of those situations I had to bite my tongue several times over, and not because I was chewing down a steak.
And for the record…Muscle weighs more than fat.
6) Deal with Behavioral Issues from the Get-Go….
Because if you let things slide, they can turn into a disastrous landslide.
I used to think cell phones in class wasn’t a big deal. I know, it sounds crazy, but you have to understand that I was dealing with students throwing scissors across the room, bouncing soccer balls against the back wall, and carving their initials into the cement walls of the classroom.
My thought was this, if a student is on their cell phone at least their glued into the screen, and they’re not disturbing any of the students who are actually paying attention and want to learn.
So I let the cell phone thing slide. Fast forward two weeks and every single student in my class has a cell phone out. None of my students want to play any of the learning games I had slaved creating, and no one is listening to a word I say.
On top of that, many of the students had started playing a fantasy, multiplayer online cell phone game, and had begun to scream and yell whenever one of their classmates slayed a dragon or got a new sword.
It was a nightmare, and the damage was near irreversible because I had tolerated the cell phone use for so long. I had made it seem like it wasn’t a big deal.
So straight away, my second quarter I made it known that cell phone use in class was unacceptable. I wrote the rule on the board, and I even had to collect a few phones, but you know what they say
You gotta crack a few eggs to make a frittata.
This is just one example, but the basic rule is this: it’s much harder to go back and try and enforce a rule that you have overlooked, then to nip it in the bud from the start. So do yourself a favor and deal with behavioral issues as soon as they come up.
**It will really help if you set some basic, easy to understand ground rules at the beginning of the quarter that you can refer to when students start acting up.
7) English Camps are an Awesome Way to Travel Thailand… but Always be Prepared
Straight up. I have gone to some of the most amazing off-the-beaten-path national parks, an awesome beach in Cha- am, and a host of other sweet markets, tourist destinations, and temples, all because I decided to go on some of the English camps.
The school wants you there, and most of the time will pay for all the expenses, plus usually give you some sort of extra compensation.
That’s right, I have never paid for transportation, hotels, or entrance into any of the parks or tourist destinations we’ve gone to. English camps can be a lot of fun, and they are a cheap and easy way to see some parts of Thailand that a lot of travelers will never get to see.
That being said, be prepared to host the events, and have tons of games and camp activities at your disposal.
The first English camp I ever did, I was told not worry about coming up with any activities or games, and that the whole thing would be hosted by a separate teaching agency.
So then we showed up… and of course, the teaching agency was nowhere to be found. That’s right, a two day schedule of camp activities fell upon my shoulders an hour before camp was supposed to start, just another example of the miscommunication phenomena of Thailand. Luckily, I had a rock star team to work with, and the camp ended up a smash success.
So in conclusion, take every opportunity to do an English camp because they are an awesome way to travel the country, but always be prepared to host, even if you are told you won’t have to.
8) Fun Is Your Biggest Motivator
They say save the best for last, but in this case I saved the most important for last. Using fun as a motivator is the single best tip I can give you, to be a successful teacher in Thailand.
The Thai education system has a no fail policy, similar to No Child Left Behind (thank you G.W whoo!) but on steroids.
As a teacher you cannot fail a student, and students know that. Since students know they cannot be failed, a lot of them won’t even try in English class. They are not worried about a grade, and they are not worried about being punished for a bad grade. Some of them might never even come to your class, but you still have to give them a passing grade.
By showing students that learning can be fun and that your classes will be fun, you can motivate the students to come to your class because they generally want to have a good time, and are not even thinking about the learning that’s happening.
Playing English games, tailoring lessons towards your student’s interests, and bringing things like music and pop culture into the classroom, are all examples of how you can make your curriculum more fun and more digestible to the Thai learner.
Not to mention, if your students are having fun, there’s a good chance that you’re having fun.
After working in the Thai education system for a year and a half, I can tell you that fun is the single most important element and motivator you need to make your classes engaging and appealing to Thai students.
Working as a foreign teacher in Thailand is a lot of fun, and is a great way to experience another culture, but it can be overwhelming. I hope these tips can help some of you to adjust to teaching here, and lessen that overwhelming feeling.
Comment below if you have any additional tips, strategies, or ideas to add to this list.
Thanks for reading