A funny thing happened at my Thai school today

No two days as a teacher were ever the same and on most days something funny happened at school. From swimming lessons and possessive pronouns to pranks and bewildering names, life in the classroom was never routine.

Swimming lessons without getting wet

One month I prepared a set of lesson plans that focused on sporting activities and over a few weeks, my classes studied different types of sports. Thai people love football which was popular with the students as were badminton and table tennis.

Eventually we got to swimming and it quickly became obvious very few students could swim. In fact, I asked the students in one class if they had ever been swimming. No one had.

I did some research and to my surprise, the biggest killer of Thai children isn’t disease or road accidents – it’s drowning.

Having come from New Zealand, every child learns to swim and grows up splashing around in lakes, rivers or the sea. But this doesn’t happen in Thailand where there isn’t a culture of swimming lessons. Certainly, in regional and rural areas there aren’t many facilities or opportunities to learn.

I had carefully prepared a lesson plan on the different swimming strokes in the Olympic Games and I was reluctant to waste my efforts. So …. I conducted swimming lessons. In the classroom.

Butterfly Swimming Champion of Bang Pahan

I started to teach the students to swim by lying across the top of the teacher’s desk and demonstrating the different strokes myself. The students loved it and started ‘swimming ‘on top of their own desks – shrieking with laughter. Arms and legs flailing around.

The other teachers heard the commotion and someone alerted the School Director who strode in as I was in full flight (very red and perspiring) doing the butterfly stroke across my desk. He didn’t speak and left abruptly but I gathered that he wasn’t amused. Oops.

Eventually I got back in his good books by standing alongside him in the sun for an hour at the official ceremony outside the temple when his son was ordained a monk. My role was to smile at the camera.

Naturally swimming lessons were cancelled for the remainder of the school term.

There’s nothing quite like a good possessive pronoun!

Occasionally I would have a student hell bent on disrupting the class. Usually they encouraged their pals to join them and soon there would be a small group causing mayhem.

Initially I would send them as a group to sit on a bench in the corridor outside the classroom and everyone would resume the lesson. That was until one day, I glanced out the window and spotted the unruly offenders climbing over the fence and escaping into the market. Which was not what I (or the school) wanted to see.

The upside of travelling home after school on a really slow bus was that it gave me time to think about things – like devising a plan to deal with the troublemakers in my classes.

So, I started teaching my classes about possessive pronouns. Words that demonstrate ownership.

Teaching students about possessive pronouns certainly isn’t unique and I imagine most English teachers in Thailand do this. But possessive pronouns were a key part of my plan to reduce the disruptions during lessons and it was time to start.

Is this your bag?

It was great fun for everyone, especially in the early stages as the students slowly began to understand how these words worked and how they could use them.

I’d write some simple possessive pronouns on the board. Like, ‘is this your …’, ‘is this her …’, is this my … and also ‘yes it’s my ….’ and ‘no it’s his …’ etc.

Then I’d walk up to a student, pick up their pen from their desktop and ask “is this your pen?”.

If they didn’t know how to answer they would guess and if they said yes – I’d put it back. If they said no – I’d put it in my pocket and walk off.

I’d repeat this with several students until I had collection of pens, with howls of concern from those who had lost theirs and laughter from the students who were watching on. Then I reversed the process- offering back a pen with the question ‘Is this your pen?’

Slowly the students began to understand and we broadened to exercise to include more objects (including their school bags) and added in additional words. The students loved learning about possessive pronouns because there was an element of fun, it involved activity and it was fairly simple.

Back to my plan. I had noticed that the troublemakers didn’t like to be isolated from their audience and were quite docile on their own.

So, one morning I walked up to the first disruptive student, picked up his bag and said ‘is this your bag?’ He replied ‘yes – it’s my bag’ so I handed it to him and told him to take it and sit outside until I called him back in.

It wasn’t much fun sitting outside and it soon got worse when a passing teacher quizzed him on why the English teacher had sent him out and handed out his own punishment on the spot.

The student returned very chastened and the word quickly spread. When I did send a student outside, within a few minutes he (or occasionally she) would ask me if they could come back in, assuring me that they would behave.

The students’ behaviour did improve (slightly) and everyone learned about possessive pronouns in the process.