Living in Thailand, Teaching English at the University – Part 2

How many classes do you teach, and how big are they?  At CMU, I usually teach five classes per semester, which means five classroom hours a day, three days a week.  Usually I have two or three sections of the same class, which means if I have a good lesson plan for one section, I can use it over again in the later sections of the same class.

On the other hand, sometimes I have a terrible lesson (it happens) in the morning class, and later I improve on it. Or, sometimes I have a plan that works really well in the early going, but by afternoon all that magic has somehow gotten out of focus like the previous night’s dream.  Lesson planning is not a static thing; it’s very organic.

My classes at CMU usually contain from twenty-five to thirty-five students. Once, by some twist of fate, I got a class of only thirteen students, but that’s very rare.

What is it like to work with Thai students?  Thai students can be very shy, even at CMU. This goes especially the freshmen, many of whom are away from home for the first time. Outwardly, they are very respectful, and sometimes the entire class will stand when I enter the classroom and greet me, saying, “Good morning, teacher!” in unison.  The first time this happened to me, I was speechless, I was so surprised. They seemed so formal, so polite, and so adorable. But when I call on the students to participate in class, I often find that they hold back. This is either because they don’t know the language well enough, or because they are shy about speaking English in front of their teacher.  Sometimes when I ask them a question they won’t respond at all, and the entire class looks as if it were on a lifeboat drifting across the North Atlantic: they smile, look down, look at each other and giggle, but nobody speaks.  I have to find a way to get them to come out of their shells and open up, so they can learn something. One thing I have learned to do is put them into small groups of three or four students and let them do their exercises that way, sort of like a workshop.

Then, I can come around and check how each group is doing.  This is a standard teaching practice at the university. It’s less threatening for them than doing everything in front of the whole class, and the stronger students can also help the weaker ones in each group. Sometimes I try to say something goofy, to inject a little humor into the lesson.  Instead of saying “The dog bit the man,” I might say, “The dog bit the teacher.” It helps when I haven’t had enough sleep, because then I am more liable to do something wacky.  Sometimes I draw funny pictures on the blackboard and make them laugh.

The Thais have a word for this: zanuk, which means being lighthearted and not too serious. It is one of the most important concepts in Thai culture. If I can make the lesson zanuk, the students begin to loosen up, and presenting the lesson is much easier and participation is much better.

What are some other factors affecting how you relate to the students? Students often don’t have a lot of self-confidence. Freshman university students are not in class with people they have known for a long time. They come from different backgrounds, and different places in Thailand.

Some of them may be from a small town where very few people ever went to college. And although they may have had six years of English insecondary schools, most likely it was with Thai teachers who were not good models for spoken English. The students may be very insecure about their English, and even whether they are good enough to be at the university at all.

Many Thai students have not encountered a native English speaking teacher before they came to college. They may not have ever had a farang friend. They think that we farangs are very strange people, and even though they admire us from a distance, they are afraid of us up close. Our direct manner is threatening to them.

Working with the Thai students requires a balance of energies:

the teacher must be active enough to stimulate the student’s thinking, but gentle enough not to threaten their personal and cultural boundaries.

Thai students will often do their homework or in-class exercises together, so that when I inspect their answers I will see six, seven or more exact replicas of the same sentence for each question. I usually don’t try to change this, because I figure it’s better to have them working together than not working at all.

But I do try to ask them lots of questions, and if one student has a unique answer that is a good model, I will have them write their answer on the blackboard. Asking them to write on the blackboard can have its own set of hazards. Sometimes, I ask students to write sentences on the blackboard, only to find a minute later, when I turn around, that they are still sitting in their seats, asking the students around them what they should do.

Another thing that happens is the student will have the right answer in her book, but somehow she decides to make it better when she goes to the blackboard, and puts up a wrong answer. Getting the students to go up in front of the class can have many benefits; it can boost their confidence, and let them show off in front of the others. But it is always unpredictable, and it can be time consuming as well. There is cheating on exams, as there is everywhere. I hope that I never catch any of my students cheating, because being caught can mean being expelled from school, which is very bad for them. Nevertheless, I still get many duplicate answers when I grade my exams. This is okay if it’s the correct answer, but when it’s the wrong answer, then I know something is going on. But so far, I haven’t reported any of my students for cheating.

What kind of stuff do you teach at CMU?  I teach English language skills – grammar, reading comprehension, listening, and writing, to all the university students who are non-English majors (the English majors are in a separate program). I have students from engineering, general science, biology, foreign languages, accounting, and many other disciplines. English classes are required for all science and humanities students.  These classes cover the first two years of study. As many as 1500 students may be enrolled in a particular English class during a semester. That means that there are probably about fifty or sixty sections being taught by twenty or twenty-five ajaans, each with two or three sections. Some of the lessons involve listening to a tape, and on certain days you can hear the same lesson reverberating through the hallways, as different classrooms play the same tape at the same time, but not quite in synch with each other. Or, you may hear a humanities tape and a science tape mixed together in the air. Charles Ives would have been proud. The curriculum is pretty strictly controlled; that is, the lessons are already mapped out fairly well in the textbook, and we have a pretty tight schedule so we can’t afford to get behind. The English department at the university designs all its textbooks; none are brought in from the outside. This leads to some interesting situations, such as the lesson on the topic of constipation that included a cartoon drawing of a man sitting on the toilet trying very hard and not succeeding.  Some of the farang ajaans are put off by this, but I say, just go ahead and teach it. The Thais don’t object to it, and we’re in their country, so why should we? The courses for science students focus a lot on reading and understanding technical material. They learn to read scientific texts, and to write about processes such as making paper or beer, or to talk about environmental problems. The humanities program deals with topics like politics, social issues, personal relationships. It is a little more oriented toward entertainment. I have taught lessons about prostitution, child labor, the diary of Anne Frank,  Michael Jackson, and the current military regime in Burma (SLORC), just to name a few. This semester, I am teaching a conversation class for the first time at CMU. This is a new and welcome challenge; the course curriculum is much less strict, and the object is to get the students to loosen up as much as possible. If I can get my students to write a dialogue, stand up in front of the class with another student, and deliver it, then I will feel that I have accomplished something.

So, how do the students handle the curriculum? They handle it like children trying to figure out how to drive a car: the whole thing is a little out of control most of the time, and some of the time it is completely out of control. English grammar presents many problems for Thai students, as it does for many other foreign learners. Grammar mistakes are to be expected, simply because of the vastness of English grammar compared to Thai grammar: “John is very falling in love with his girlfriend and he thinking to ask her to marry him,” for example.  Or, “Stop to do” (instead of “Stop doing that”).  Sometimes the confusion results from using the correct root but the wrong part of speech: “Keep me in your remember,” (instead of “Keep me in your memory”), or “Eat vegetarians for a healthy diet.”  Students may misuse the passive voice: “It is recommended that you don’t eat meat, but you can be replaced by beans, seeds, and nuts” (instead of “… you can replace meat with beans, seeds, and nuts.”). But the bigger problem, besides grammar, is what I call cultural thinking.  When you study a foreign language, or you live abroad, you learn that life is simply not understood in the same way by people from different cultures. Sometimes students don’t understanding the real objective in a situation even when they can use the grammar correctly.  So, when given the task of writing a statement of advice about the dangers of salt consumption (“Don’t consume too much salt” would be a good answer), a student writes, “Don’t consume unclean salt.”  His grammar is correct, but he has missed the point in his health advice.

Organizing ideas of argumentation into pro and con, or advantages and disadvantages, is not a sure thing with Thai students.  Sometimes they mix them up, and I can’t tell if it’s a problem of understanding the English or a problem of understanding the concept.  But Thai students can follow a model, if it’s not too big.  So, for writing a dialogue between a salesperson and a customer, they can make the salesperson present the advantages of a product (“This camera takes clear pictures”), and then have the customer state their objections (“I already have one.”)  But again, sometimes they follow all the rules but still don’t get the right feeling.  One student had the customer say, “Not everybody needs a camera that takes clear pictures.” Sometimes I get the feeling that I can’t change anything, and that maybe I shouldn’t even try to.  After all, who am I?  Just a visitor. Thai culture has been around a lot longer than I have.  When I start feeling like this, then I know it’s time to take a vacation.

Excerpted from “Working at the University: Living and Teaching In Thailand” in Escape From America Magazine, Issue 11.