The Ultimate Guide to Teaching English in Thailand | Free Book | Part 5

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Classroom Control & Discipline

I live on a soi where two tiny girls of three and four years get beat with a small bamboo stick on an almost daily basis. These poor girls are hit over and over and over, AND OVER sometimes for up to ten minutes.

I’ve heard the older brother, 12 years, of one of girls hit for twenty minutes hard, for something as simple as not walking the dog. I haven’t seen Thai parents hit their kids much over the years but these two are not shy about it at all – in private or out in front of their home.

While teaching English in Thailand you might become a little frustrated at the seeming complete lack of respect for you as a teacher, a person, and what we term in the west, an authority figure. You really aren’t any kind of authority figure in Thailand as a foreign teacher of English and the kids have probably already shown you that.

You can, of course, set yourself up as THE BIG DOG and that’s one route you can go. Some teachers look at it like this… Why let the kids do whatever the hell they want? I’m going to maintain control and treat the classroom like a boot camp. This technique works in the sense that the teacher has an easier time of teaching. There isn’t much clowning going on because the teacher is so strict. There isn’t much learning going on either because the Thai kids don’t learn in a classroom environment where there is not much leeway to be themselves.

Thais need to be able to be themselves in and out of the classroom or they aren’t learning. If they aren’t having fun then they aren’t learning much.

School is outrageously fun to Thai kids. It should be anyway. There are few Thai teachers that are very strict, those that are usually are over fifty years old and have had enough. They can’t deal with the clowning so they’ve either adopted a “learned helplessness” role like Pavlov’s dogs, or they’ve demanded respect in sync with their age. This still goes far among Thai kids in the northeast though not sure about the south and Bangkok areas.

The problem foreigners face when they arrive in Thailand to teach Thai kids is that the school experience is entirely different from anything we’ve known. Basically, there is no real control of the kids without the military dictatorship classroom-style because the big picture is something else entirely.

What is the big picture?

The big picture, as many expat teachers have found out the hard way, is that the Thai kids will pass your class regardless of what your point of view is as the teacher of your class. They will pass and they might even pass not only with a D (1), but they might pass with a C or B (2 or 3)! Thai school administration works magic with the grades and reports you give the kids each term. Some might call it voodoo.

The kids understand their education system a whole lot better than you. Each nutty boy that insists on clowning around in your class day after day understands the game of the Thai education system really very well. It’s the foreign teachers that don’t ‘get it’.

As teachers you really need to get it and live with it because contrary to what most Americans, Canadians, Germans, Brits, and Australians teaching here think – you cannot change the Thai system at even one school to make it better or more along the lines of the educational experience you received in your home country.

Who are you to try anyway?

Foreigners have a way of coming to Thailand and expecting Thais’ to act American, German, Swiss and everything else but what they are – Thai. Who of us, as a teacher in America, would listen to a foreign teacher from Thailand about how we needed to lighten up the atmosphere of the classroom so the kids can learn?

Why would we? Should we? Should Thai teachers and administrators listen to you here?

They placate you and then go about doing the same thing they were doing before you set foot in their country – and will continue it long after you leave. It’s Thai ways.

So this brings me around to the subject of hitting the Thai school children in the classroom when they’re really raising cane and you’ve stood them in a corner or whatever your usual method of discipline is.

Thai children, like adults, live according to face. While some kids, most kids, can be effectively controlled with using face losing techniques, many are immune or at least seem to be. They may go home and create play dough witch dolls of you they run bamboo slivers through and play screaming rock hate music that they scream into ‘your’ doll’s face to deal with the grief you gave them in class. But, these kids exist – there are always some kids that are just absolutely uncontrollable.

Should you hit the kids in the classroom?

In America, as most know, this isn’t possible. My parents have told me stories of having their knuckles smacked with rulers, and smacks with a huge wooden paddle at school. In the Catholic schools this was done even in the 1980’s… not sure about now but I think it’s safe to say that’s been phased out due to fear of litigation from parents.

In Thailand, it’s still commonplace. There are some (few) Thai teachers that bring a paddle into the class. Those classrooms are pretty damn quiet you’d notice and there is not much fun happening there. You’d also notice that the teacher enjoys quite a bit of respect gained from the threat of whacking someone across the back of their thighs or lower back.

I’ve seen the director of a government English program whack some kids. She didn’t play around, she hit them good- boys and girls alike. The kids resigned themselves to it. They knew it was coming and each stood in line (she had a queue of about 30 kids from different classes, not all boys either). Girls and boys would cry. These were 13-16-year-old Thai kids. Some were tough boys and she knew it and really swung it with some speed. I’d watch through the tinted office window and she might hit them once or five times. One kid got ten, he wasn’t in such good shape afterward.

Over the years I saw teachers hit five-year-olds on the head and knuckles with rulers, pencils and aluminum markers. It worked wonders in some, and others were still victims to their own wild id impulses and never did grasp the simple concept that loud outbursts or hitting others led to getting whacked. Usually, the boys were much worse than girls.

Is hitting the kids going to make teaching easier for you as a teacher?

Yes. That’s the reality. It will make it easier to get control of the kids. You might even be able to control the whole class that way. They likely haven’t been hit by their parents ever in their lives. Though I have seen Thai kids hit at home on my soi, the usual Thai parenting technique doesn’t include physical hitting much.

Thai parents don’t typically hit kids, They let them run willy nilly all over creation and ‘anything goes’ seems to be the parenting style. It’s different from the USA – is it wrong? Not to me. It’s great to see kids doing whatever they want, wherever they want. Outside the classroom.

Inside the classroom, I’d like to see things change but I’m not naive enough to think they will in my lifetime. I don’t believe strongly enough in the educational system I was brought up in to attempt to force it down Thais throats. How presumptuous.

I notice that most foreigners don’t assimilate into the country. They bring their own country with them and try to make everyone else conform. It’s ludicrous for one person to try to enforce a completely different lifestyle and reality on 65 million inhabitants of a foreign country they are visiting. You’ll see teachers attempting this – you might even try it!

Maintaining Control in the Thai Classroom. Using a Token System

The first-semester teaching Mathyom 3 level kids at a Thai high school I treated like military boot camp. I was very strict and didn’t let the kids get out of hand very far at all.

Thai kids are used to speaking when they want. They do not stop when the teacher says quiet, shut up, silence, ngee-up, etc. They keep right on talking. They will talk whether you are quietly asking them or yelling loudly. Makes no difference to them. They have some mechanism inside that has been created over the years of living in Thai society and dealing with only Thais. Their brain tells them – when someone tells you to be quiet, it doesn’t really mean be quiet. It means – be quieter, and don’t talk as much. But, if you do anyway – the person giving you the command is not all that serious about it anyway – the mai pen rai attitude (nevermind) prevails in nearly all circumstances.

So, a foreign teacher that was brought up believing that someone talking while he is talking, is rude and showing disrespect, doesn’t understand Thai culture and must somehow either change that culture in the kids that are in the class, or change himself to adapt to the culture and mai pen rai everything too.

I am stuck somewhere between the two.

I know that the yelling and being very serious and strict doesn’t really work for the students. It works for me – in the short term, but at the end of the day or semester when I sit and think about whether it was fun to teach the kids, and whether the kids had fun – I have to answer truthfully… no!

I don’t enjoy yelling at the kids, yet, I believe if they aren’t silent while I’m teaching, then they can’t learn. Then I’m not able to do my job – which is unacceptable.

I varied my teaching styles dramatically from semester 1 to semester 2.

So, here’s what I did during this second term.

I told them I was tired of yelling and that I wasn’t going to do it much anymore. I told them that I was not going to hit them with the ruler or whiteboard markers anymore. There were gasps. They thought I was on drugs I’m sure.

Instead, I implemented a daily token system of sorts. Every day each student would get 3 points that went toward their grade at the end of the semester. These points, when added up among 40 classes for our basic math over the term – added up to 120 points that were possible for the whole semester.

My tests are all worth 100 points. That meant that kids had an opportunity to score a perfect 100% on a 120 point test each semester just by being decent kids. This would help some quiet kids immensely, and hurt others that might be good academically, but clowns in the classroom. I was OK with that.

The other thing I did so that the kids got a better feel for what was going to happen for each class is I came in and wrote 2 numbers on the whiteboard. I wrote the word “Seriousness” and under it put a level from 1-10. If we had a lot to learn that day I put an 8 or maybe a 9. I tried to usually have 7-8 on average. Some days were 10’s.

If a kid opened his mouth on a ’10’ day – he was outside with his nose on the wall quickly because we had too much to cover to let someone start getting out of hand. ’10’ days were no fun. But, the kids understood that ’10’ days were NO FUN. If they didn’t act accordingly they lost their 3 points for the day, and possibly up to 9 other points for 3 more days depending on if they wanted to push me further after putting their nose on the wall for 15 minutes outside.

A student could literally lose a whole grade level in one day depending on how far he wanted to push it. I say “he” because it was always the boys pushing it. Girls, while they got out of hand occasionally seemed to know when to get a grip on themselves.

The other word I wrote on the board was “Lines”. Under this, I wrote 2 numbers. The first was usually 100, and the second usually 200 or more. This was the number of lines they’d have to write if they screwed up bad. The first time – 100 lines. The second, 200 or more.

The kids never knew what I’d do if they screwed up during class. That’s a little secret to the effectiveness I think. They never knew, would I make them write lines or take away their bonus points for the day. They knew something would happen though. Enforcing the system is VERY important for it to work. Since I didn’t like looking at lines and thought it a waste of paper I chose to drop their points most times.

An example… The kids knew by the 2nd semester that they are never to talk while I’m talking. So, if I was talking and writing on the board and I heard someone I was able to identify – I just wrote their name on the board with a -1 or -2, or -3 corresponding to the number of times I heard them talk.

You must be fair – never carrying over bad feelings for certain students to the next class. You must treat everyone the same. If a bad kid or a good kid spoke out inappropriately they both lost the same number of points. Thai kids want fairness. If they don’t get it they’ll raise hell behind your back. For Thai kids to call you “unfair” as a teacher is a real blow since it is something they have very high on their list of priorities for a teacher.

So, the results of this experiment in teaching 15-year-olds math during the semester…

Nobody had to write lines except one boy that irked me good. He lost 9 points for failing to do what I told him to do (repeatedly) in one day. Then he refused to write lines for homework saying, “I don’t have time at night – I have a special class!”

He gave me this excuse 4 times as each time I increased the number of lines he was to write. When we got to 400 lines and he said it again we marched down to the English Program director and set him straight.

The director was a push-over in almost every instance of discipline and never wanted to call the parents of the student for any reason. The kids knew this and also refused to do what she wanted. That’s when she brought out the paddle. I wisely handed over the discipline to her to save face myself – because all the kids in the class saw this kid’s blatant refusal to do what I told him… The director made him write just 100 lines total.

So – I saved face. The director saved face. The boy saved face and got what he wanted – to not do the 400+ lines. But, he also lost 24 of his daily points just over that episode and got zero out of 20 on the “Responsibility” assessment in his end of year pink book record which the parents do see unless the Thai teachers changed it after I handed it in. He got a “B” that term instead of an “A” because of the incident. Many other kids got much better grades than they did the semester prior.

So – nobody else had to write lines but we had a handful of troublemakers go from A’s to B’s and from B’s to C’s and from D’s to F’s on their final grades for Semester 2 because they couldn’t control themselves in my class (or anyone’s class). We had some students go from a B to an A and from D to C and F to D also – which was nice since they understood and exploited the system for their own good by being much better behaved than during the previous term.

For the extra point system which added up to 120 points in basic math…

Out of 100 students, 83 got an “A” grade resulting from the extra points. There were 15 F’s. Only 2 in-between. So – 83 students got a better grade because of this system, and 15 got a worse grade. The other 2 – about same as the first semester.

I rarely yelled during the second semester and I didn’t need to do much more than start writing names with minus the numbers of points they were losing as they talked to each other. When they kept talking I kept subtracting points. It worked really well because they all tell each other when they see someone losing points and the person doesn’t know it yet…

I believe this system was far superior over last semester’s drill instructor system. I also tried during this term to do some fun stuff that lightened everyone up. We had about 10 lessons with each class that were ranked at a “Seriousness” level of less than 5. We played some games and had some bonus point contests where I did a problem on the board and asked for answers to different parts of it. If someone raised their hand first and answered correctly they’d get a bonus point. Some kids that never raised their hands in class before started to do it – and got some bonus points. That was great to see!

Will a token or point system work for you? Probably. Experiment with it and feel free to let me know how it went.

The Best Teachers in Thailand will be Those That:

1. Get with the program. The Thai program. Teaching how you believe kids should be taught probably doesn’t mesh with the Thai system. You can’t change the Thai system, nor should you try. Thailand is doing fine without turning this into America, Germany, or wherever you’re from.

2. Are flexible – the schedule changes all the time on a moment’s notice. The easier you can say, “mai pen rai,” (nevermind, or “no matter”) the better.

3. Thai kids want to have fun when they’re learning. It’s an oxymoron to have fun and learning in the same sentence where I’m from, but Thai kids insist on it – since that’s what they had for all the years before you showed up on the scene. Day in the Life of a Private High School Teacher in Udonthani

0615 Wake up, shower, shave, iron shirt, eat gwit diao chicken noodle soup at a small soup shop near the school.

0730 Arrive at school, sign in using the fingerprint reader. Wai 15 teachers that look older that myself. Try to get some time on the copier which, inevitably breaks and is only fixed in time to make me start copying and then arrive late for flag ceremony.

0800 Nearly all the teachers in the school are supposed to go stand outside in preparation for the singing the school song and national anthem, a short meditation, and some words from the principal or other staff. As a group, the foreign teachers fight this daily and only barely make it out in time for the beginning music. This ritual is carried out across the country at 8 a.m.

0830 First class starts or I can relax and get coffee. Sometimes I surf online for an hour until class starts. This is of course when the internet is working which is about 25% of the time.

0930 First class of the day, Prathom 1 level, great fun these youngsters. Teaching the little kids (5-7 yrs.) is OK most of the time because what they have to learn is in small chunks and usually fun.

1030 Another class, M1 (13 yrs old) M1 and M2 are pretty good for me but I have to keep them on their toes and ready for a question anytime so they pay attention. Some days these are complete blowoff classes because the kids are all wound up from something that occurred just prior to our class. Sports day weeks are like that.

1130 Break until 1300. I usually go with a couple of other teachers – whoever is in the mood for the same food I’m in the mood for. We break up into groups like this for lunch. We walk outside the back school gate where there are some small restaurants and eat for 40 THB (about $1 USD) each. We’re a diverse group for sure. An Aussie, an American, a guy from Belgium, one from Canada and a girl from the Philippines. Sometimes the Thai female teachers will go with us – usually not because they didn’t take as long for their lunch as we, so they ate in their own group.

1300 Another class – I’m teaching Prathom 5, they are completely out of hand and not a fun class to teach. There are about 4 male clowns that just never stop. If they’re all wound up we start with seven minutes with everyone’s head on the desk so they get some quiet breathing time. It works pretty well but never good enough.

1350 Done with class and have a short game where they raise their hands to tell me what they learned today. If they actually name something I give them extra points.

Break the rest of the day. I plan out lessons for tomorrow, make copies, grade papers, chat with co-workers, and occasionally just surf online if nothing to do.

1630 We’re free to leave. We can leave 20 minutes earlier on occasion and usually nobody says anything. Problem is, the Thai teachers never leave early and so the foreigners look like spoiled brats if we always leave early. We’re making four times as much money as them, and we leave early. I guess it is understandable.

1645 Showering and running at the sports park in town – there are a couple of hundred people here exercising nightly.

1800 Eat with my friend. Usually, we go out to a restaurant for 100 THB, about $3.00 USD. Total. For both of us. Sometimes we splurge on 3-4 dishes and pay 200 THB.

Teaching Private Classes

It must be first said that teaching private classes on your own – at your house, a student’s house, anywhere you choose, is illegal and you could be prosecuted in a Thai court over it. Your work permit for wherever your regular job does not cover teaching your own private classes.

Does it happen that foreign teachers are taken to court over it?

Probably.

Often?

Probably not. I’ve not heard of someone being taken to court over this, but if you rub someone the wrong way and they know about your private classes – they could ask the police or some other official to give you an unannounced visit and check to see if you have the paperwork for owning a business in Thailand. It could turn into a court case. Usually, nobody has an issue with it and you might end up teaching the sons and daughters of policemen or well-known business owners in your private classes.

Despite it being illegal, many expat teachers choose to teach private classes to supplement their income. In Bangkok, 500 THB per hour is average, but 1,000 THB per hour and higher is not unheard of. Even in the northeast one can charge 350 to 400 THB per hour for one on one English lessons. I know teachers that were adding 30,000 THB to their income every month with private classes. The real money is in lining up a class of students, not just one or two. If you have a class of 8 each paying 200 THB per hour, that’s 1,600 THB for the hour. Contrast that to one student paying 400 THB and you’ll get the idea to fill the hours with as many kids as you can.

I knew a Thai teacher in the northeast that taught university classes during the day at a respected university, and by night had her own English school in town. She was pulling in 100,000+ THB per month just with her English school. Every time I visited her she had more than 10 students in the class. 100,000 THB part-time in Ubon? That’s success.

As I said earlier, when teaching Thai students private lessons at your house you’ll want to have a separate room set up for it and make it appear as professional as possible. Thais evaluate based on appearances. If your house looks like a dump, you’ll less likely gain many students.

On the other hand, if you have a six-story house on the main road in town with a large gate around it, huge yard, giant pillars that make the house look like the White House or better, you’ll have the crème de la crème of Thai students and you can charge nearly whatever you want. Thais with money will pay what you ask just for the bragging rights to tell others their sons and daughters attend the White House English School. Appearance is everything.

Thai students expect air conditioning in the classroom. If it’s really cool that day and you just turn on the fans, OK, but, you should definitely have air conditioning available. Thai students that are paying 400 THB per hour expect it! Don’t disappoint.

A word about pricing – if students are coming in a group they’ll expect a discount. Thais love a discount, whatever it is. University students that come to you about classes might have a little game going. They find an English teacher that will give them a receipt for the class for more money than they actually paid you in cash. In this way, they’re able to pocket a couple hundred baht from what their parents pay them! I was asked time and again to provide a receipt that didn’t match the fee.

The house you use for teaching your students should be located in a place that is easy to find. In a small town, everyone will know where you are anyway, but in Bangkok you might have a hard time lining students up if they can’t find you. Make it easy!

Finding Students

If you are teaching at a school you will probably have Thai teachers and parents come up to you and ask if you’re at all interested in teaching private classes. Thai teachers can be remarkably helpful in setting you up with a full schedule of students in some cases.

Another way is to head to the school supply store and pick up some yellow plastic board, 10 meters of fine, but strong wire, and some thick black permanent ink markers. Have a Thai friend write up your advertisement for your school. Usually just something like, “American English School” or “Business English” or “Conversational English – USA” and a phone number works great. Post these signs all over town using wire around telephone polls to hold them. Target schools and the business areas of downtown.

If you’re really creative you’ll cut your yellow plastic board into an interesting shape to catch the eyes of prospective students or their parents (fish, star, book, magnifying glass). Thais tend to read almost any sign they see though – probably quite different from your country, so in a short time you’ll likely have students for your private classes.

Payment

The best way to structure payment is like this: upfront, in full, for a certain number of hours. You might offer 20 hours for 6,000 THB and 50 hours for 13,000 THB.

I watched some teachers attempt the “pay as you go” model and it didn’t work – ever. What you’ll find is that Thais are bored very quickly. No matter what you do to have an interesting class, they will tire very quickly of it. Unless your students are driven to your house for class and dropped off, they might skip some of your classes. They might stop coming altogether after 10 hours of a 20-hour course. It happens quite often.

Requiring payment first and in full for a block of hours protects you from last-minute cancellations. Remember, there is no money-back policy in most Thailand stores. Chances are nobody will ask for money back if they stop coming either.

Some students, usually parents of students, are going to ask if you can travel to their home to give lessons to their children. These are usually rich parents that either don’t have time to run their kids around or want the prestige of being able to tell others that the English teacher from America with a master’s degree comes to their house to give lessons. Either way – it happens. What should you do?

In my own experience, I’d say don’t do it. Here’s why.

First off you’re in the child’s environment. Rich kids are spoiled in Thailand just like anywhere else, and they think they can get away with more disobedience if they’re in their own house. And you know what? They can. It’s not a very fun time and you’ll encounter students that are not keen on learning, they’re more keen to run in the other room and watch TV, go to the restroom for 10 minutes, play with the air conditioner, ask mom or the maid for drinks and snacks, etc. It’s just not a fun time. Though it might be tempting as you’re first starting out because the money is usually good for teaching these students – the aggravation isn’t’ worth it in my opinion.

Class Hours

Thais need to have fun and Thais get bored quickly, no matter if they’re having fun or not. Three-hour classes won’t work except for a small group of university students. Even then, that’s really pushing it. It’s tempting to setup up long classes so you can knock out the hours quickly, but it just isn’t going to work well unless you’re phenomenal at keeping students interested and happy.

Two-hour class length is about the max. Offer 10 minute breaks every hour, or more if you have young students.

The Best Money and Most Difficult English Class to Teach?

In the south, I was offered a part-time gig on the weekends for 2,000 THB per hour with 5 hours on Saturday and 5 hours on Sunday teaching English conversation over a university term.

The students? Masters and Ph.D. candidates that were honing their English conversation skills at this prestigious university. Most of them had taken countless hours of English in private lessons over the past ten, twenty and thirty years. Most of them were not at a very high level at all. In fact, I knew kids in high school English programs that could talk circles around them.

Why is this a difficult class to teach? Remember the section on Thai society and Thai face? The highest levels of Thai society – the Ph.D.’s, the politicians, the successful business people… these are the ones to whom face means everything.

How does a teacher in a room full of 30 educated Thais at the highest level of society get them to:

1. Speak.

2. Not lose face when they are at a low-level of English?

You don’t. It’s literally an impossible task that I bailed out on after one day. Sure the doctor that hired me lost a lot of face when I left – but, better that than me ending up dead somewhere for making too many military, politicians, and business moguls lose face during class.

Finding a Place to Teach

One consideration about the school you choose to teach at for your first experience – they should be helpful and offer to assist you in some of the many things you’ll need to do. Finding a place to live. Finding a motorbike or learning the songthaew routes (Thai pickup trucks with seats in the back). Finding your way to the border to renew your visa. Getting setup with your non-immigrant b visa and work permit. There are a lot of things you’re going to be clueless about. Choose a school that will help you through it.

Try not to choose a teaching position that requires more than 18-20 hours of teaching per week. This will give you time to prepare for lessons and not be running around blind. Some new arrivals don’t know any better and accept 30 hours of teaching per week for an extra 5,000 THB per month and run themselves ragged. Go easy on yourself!

Remember that your interview at a Thai school as long as you look very presentable and dress the part is probably a done deal. If you pass the “look” criteria, the job is probably yours. The interview then is more about you interviewing them and asking them everything that you need answered. You’re probably going to have your choice of schools and the interview is more about you weeding the school out than the school choosing you. Remember that, and don’t be afraid to ask all the questions you have. It’s your life!

What I did was I interviewed with the head of the English program, and then I saw some foreigners in the staff room – obviously already teachers. I walked over and introduced myself and asked one girl that didn’t look too busy if I could ask her some questions about what it was like working there.

She was all for it and I talked with her for 20 minutes. I had a really good picture of what it was like and I signed on immediately.

What to Expect During Your First Week at School:

Observation

You may be requested to teach for 10 – 20 minutes, or, on rare occasions teach an entire class on the same day you interview. The staff at some Thai schools want to see that you can interact with their students and how you handle them. With some schools it’s a requirement – so have some lesson ready for whatever age you’re planning on teaching.

If you don’t have an observation period on the day you interview you may or may not have one later, after you start with them. It’s nothing to fear – I couldn’t imagine anyone really getting a thrashing over it.

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