After completing my teacher training, I’m successful in gaining a position in a high school in the rural village of Bang Pahan. It’s about 30-60 minutes by bus from Ayutthaya which itself is approximately 2 hours north of Bangkok.
A typical Thai High School
The Bang Pahan High School is relatively small by Thailand Government school sizes with about 1800 students aged from 12 to 18. They come from the surrounding villages (many travel on the back of trucks). They see me as a curiosity as I am the only foreigner in the school (and the village). For the first year students, I’m possibly their first farang teacher.
Having years earlier trained as an ESOL teacher to work as a volunteer tutor with refugee families, the four week TESOL training I had just undertaken wasn’t too difficult to handle and combined with a career spent that included a lot of public speaking left me feeling confident I could handle the challenge.
Day one is a revelation
I arrive at the school to be saluted by a security officer in full military uniform. A 38-piece student marching band is striking up a tune that reverberates across the school. Eighteen hundred students, excited at catching up with each other after a six-week holiday, and sixty eight stoic teachers gather on the sports field and take their place to start the school term.
First day of the school term and to me it’s organised chaos. The students are ushered into columns and kneel on their prayer mats. They face the dais, where the flags of country, province and school are about to be unfurled.
Behind the students sit the teachers in a long line of plastic chairs. Occasionally a teacher will move amongst the students and randomly administer encouragement to the unruly.
The formalities begin with the assembly standing at attention whilst the band playing a rousing National Anthem. The flags are solemnly raised.
Tai Chi – that’s something I’ve never done
This is followed by lengthy prayers which moved to a strange coordinated slow waving of arms and twisting of bodies routine. I assume it’s part of the Buddhist prayers.
I sat quietly and watch on with bewilderment. Several days later a Thai teacher politely asked me why I didn’t take part in the Tai Chi that followed the prayers. Ah – so that’s what all the arm waving is about. I take part enthusiastically from then on – much to everyone’s amusement)
Speeches from the School Director and other senior teachers follow. I have no idea what is being said. We’ve been out in the sun for about 40 minutes when formalities end. The band marches off and students and teachers move to their first class. At this point I am having second thoughts – and I have’t been in a classroom yet!
Bells started ringing. Class time.
The Head of English introduces me to my Thai Assistant Teacher for the day. She has recently graduated from university and this is her first teaching position. So, it’s a case of jumping in the deep end for both of us.
We walk into our first class – Matthayom One. There are fifty-five 12-year-old students in their first year of high school. The noise is deafening. The class monitor notices our arrival and shouts “Please stand up”
Good morning teacher
Immediately the noise dies and the class chants the “Good morning teacher” ritual – held in every English class across Thailand. It goes like this:
Students: “Good Morning Teacher”
Teacher: “Good morning students – how are you?”
Students: “I’m fine thank you – and you?”
Teacher: “I’m fine too thank you. Please sit down”
Students: “Thank you teacher”
Chair legs loudly scrape across the concrete floor as everyone resumes their seats and the class begins.
Suddenly I’m standing in front of fifty-five silent and curious students and if they’re wondering what will happen next – so am I. My assistant watches on respectfully and expectantly. I’m thinking this probably isn’t the best idea I’ve ever had. But I’m stuck with it. So here goes.
In my thinking, having an English teacher stand in front of a group non-English speaking students for an hour is going to challenging. I’m allowed to speak only in English. This is foreign to most students.
They’re mostly teenagers who probably have very little interest in learning this difficult language. It isn’t spoken where they live so there is little possibility for interaction with English speakers.
Engaging the students is essential
It quickly becomes obvious that if I don’t positively engage with the class immediately, I have sixty minutes of torment to endure and with five classes a day, five days a week for ninteen weeks, this isn’t an appealing prospect.
I need to have a plan.
Creativity is required
Material provided for English students in Thai Government high schools is basic. The students have a journal that they work on in their only other weekly English class. This is taught by a Thai English speaker so they can write and read some basic English but not speak it. I’m here to teach spoken English.
With over twelve hundred students a week it is impractical to copy and hand out additional material. So the blackboard and chalk (together with laminated flash cards that I soon produce and keep) are my weapons.
My role is to teach conversational English.
Working on the basis that if the students are interested, I have half a chance of keeping most of them engaged for the full sixty minutes. I devise some basic strategies:
- The students have to be engaged immediately and for the full hour
- There has to be an element of fun, spontaneity and be entertaining
- Everyone has to have an opportunity to take an active class role that suited their personality
- All students will be encouraged to speak English as often possible
Although my first week is a painful experience (for everyone) by the weekend I have identified some tactics I think will work and I spend the weekend refining them. Bring on Monday.