Christmas abroad is hard. Not only are you missing your friends and family, but you miss the traditions associated with the holiday too. So, naturally, I was quite disgruntled to have to work on Christmas this year. I was homesick, cranky, and dreading the normalcy to come when I arrived at school.
I currently have the privilege (or some days, the burden) of teaching the all-male students of Wat Benchamabophit Matthayom School:
Wat Ben is a high school, so the students are aged 12-18. They are all males, though we have a healthy population of sassy lady-boys (and I mean, sassy!) I only teach grades 1-3 (ages 12-15) but I still get warm ‘HELLO TEACHER!’s from the older students. I teach Math and Science in English, which most days is a struggle but also a lot of fun.
For example, I had to teach Sexual Reproduction to a bunch of 13 year-old boys. Naturally, it turned into us laughing for 30 minutes straight – me, because they kept saying ‘wageena’ (vagina is near-impossible for them to say, those pesky V’s!) and them, because their female teacher was saying ‘penis’.
There is a lot of pride in our school, because it’s located on the grounds of a famous wat – Wat Benchamabophit. The temple was built around 1900 by a famous king of Thailand, King Chulalongkorn. Real marble was imported from Italy for the grounds, hence it’s nickname, the Marble Temple. It’s so infamous, in fact, that it’s on the back of the 5 baht coin! (Yeah, I bust out a 5 baht coin whenever I proudly state where I teach, don’t judge me!)
Despite our prestige, the school itself is unexceptional. The students perform at the average level and there are some major organizational and disciplinary issues. That said, the kids are a joy to teach and always surprise me. They are my own culture and language teachers and at the end of the day I’m really grateful to be their teacher.
At every Thai government school (and probably most private schools), you have a Thai co-teacher that sits in on all of your classes. Their role is mostly to assist you if there is a language barrier or try to quiet the kids down when they’re getting crazy (all boys here). Some Thai teachers may give you advice on how to teach differently or more effectively, but most will just let you do your thing. I have math and science co-teachers with varying levels of English. Most of the time they just hang out and do their work, but sometimes they help explain my topic to the students.
So why should you worry about getting on good terms with these teachers? Well, since they watch you teach, they have some input about how well you’re doing. And, according to one of my co-teachers at school, they are often intimidated by the foreign teachers. Think about it: Many co-teachers struggle with or are insecure about their English. A new native speaker comes in and can judge their speaking abilities right away. It’s intimidating! They’re speaking with a pro. Sadly, this intimidation can sometimes be met with attempts to find problems with your teaching style, lesson plans, disciplining, and even your appearance (I got in trouble once for having no back strap to my shoes…) So, to ease into your new school and minimize the awkwardness and intimidation, follow these easy steps!
*Every school and group of teachers is obviously different, but from the few schools I’ve taught at, these aspects have made the biggest difference in getting on good terms with my co-teachers.
1. Look the part: I can’t stress enough how much stock Thais put into personal appearance. I have seen great teachers fired because they looked ‘messy’ on the first day and never got a chance to redeem themselves afterward.
For women, dress modestly with dresses and skirts to your knees and a collared top if possible. NO sleeveless tops and absolutely NO cleavage. Yes, it seems a bit absurd when you consider the booty-hugging pencil skirts and see-through blouses most Thai teachers wear, but that’s how it is! Also, closed toed shoes are a must (I prefer flats, though most wear heels).
Men, shirts must have a collar. Your best bet is a long-sleeve, button-up collared shirt with slacks. Shirt must be tucked in, and if you don’t wear a belt, the teachers will think you’re crazy. A tie is a nice touch, but not necessary. Closed-toed dress shoes are a must. Facial hair is acceptable though the Thai teachers seem not to like it. Also, piercings seem iffy on men.
Side note: Whenever I wear really Thai outfits, like a collared top in a pencil skirt, all the Thai teachers make a big point to tell me how beautiful I look. I think it’s their way of trying to encourage proper clothing choices.
2. Make an effort: Although it can be intimidating, seeking out the Thai teachers for conversation and help can really solidify positive relationships with them. Bridging that initial awkwardness is crucial on the first few days. Thai teachers are shy to talk to native speakers, so if you show them you are approachable and non-judgmental they will be less shy with you. If you are one of those English teachers that hides out in the office and is afraid to talk to the co-teachers, on your own head be it! But I would recommend against that course of action. The Thai teachers can be really enjoyable to socialize with and an invaluable resource when you have questions about culture, language, apartments, food, etc.
3. Attend lunch and other activities: Sitting with the Thai teachers at lunch solidifies the idea that you are ‘one of them’. Meals, like in all cultures, are very important and social in Thailand so make the effort to enjoy them with your co-teachers. This is also a great way to learn the names of your favorite Thai dishes, or get some recommendations for new ones. If you are invited to participate in activities at school, definitely do so. Not only are they usually fun but you also earn the respect of the co-teachers who unfortunately are used to English teachers being really flakey and uninvolved.
4. Don’t talk down to your co-teachers: This is a tough one. There is certainly a large gap in the English speaking abilities of the Thai teachers and the abilities of the foreign teachers. Thailand unfortunately has a pretty low standard of English, which means the English teachers sometimes struggle with the language too. But once you get used to it, you learn how to grade your language. Don’t talk loudly or in ‘Caveman English’ to your co-teachers, like some of my lovely coworkers like to do (WHERE I GO NOW?). Just find ways to simplify your language, slow down your speech, and when that fails, think of different ways to say what you mean.
Me: Ajarn, why is there no assembly today?
Me: There are no kids here today. Where are they?
Ajarn: Because, finished already blah blah blah…. (you get the point)
The worst thing you can do to alienate your co-teachers is act frustrated, arrogant, or like they are stupid/children when you talk to them. This is completely unnecessary and unfortunately I see a lot of foreign teachers do just this. Please don’t be a dick, remember that you are speaking in YOUR native language and respect that your co-teachers are speaking a language that is structurally completely different from their own. Give them a break, man.
5. Make a lot of jokes: In my experience, Thais love to joke around and have a good time. If you can keep things light and fun and not take your job too seriously, you will fit right in. Enjoy it!
Have any recommendations to add to the list? Can you relate? Have any of these worked for you? Let me know! Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
As a foreign teacher new to the Thai classroom, the cultural norms can be a bit overwhelming (and contradictory to what you’re used to). Here is a quick guide for things you should and should not do in your own classrooms to get you into a more comfortable flow (for you and your students!)
You should learn as many of your students’ nicknames as you can. (Trust me, they’re much easier than their Thai names!)
You should not call your students hurtful names or pick on them.
You should let your students get up from their desk during class. I was completely insulted the first time this happened and tried to phase it out, but I soon realize they are going to do it anyways! The students just get confused if you tell them to stay in their seat, because the Thai teachers allow them to get up and ask a friend for paper, pens, liquid paper, etc. during class.
You should not sit or stand on desks or tables. If you need to for some reason (and you will), wipe it off afterward as a sign of respect. Even the kids take their shoes off before standing on a chair!
You should be affectionate with your students. The student/teacher relationship in Thailand is very different than most foreign school systems where it’s considered wildly inappropriate to touch a student (i.e. put your hand on a student’s shoulder). One of my friends even gets daily hugs from her younger students! I find patting kids on the back or putting your hand on their shoulder builds trust and reassures them when they can’t understand what you’re saying with words. Obviously, this depends on your own level of comfort and personal boundaries as well.
You should not hit the students. This is a tricky one because a lot of Thai teachers carry bamboo sticks in the government schools to discipline students with (especially in my all-boys high school). I find it is much more effective to hit desks or the board to get the students’ attention, rather than hands or bums (yeah, it happens). Since I do teach all boys, I’m not afraid to swat them lightly with a book as a joke, but you have to be very careful with personal boundaries. Never hit a student out of frustration or as punishment.
You should use a lot of multimedia in your classroom: videos, books, magazines, movies. A lot of Thai classrooms are really well equipped thanks to a huge education budget, and all of my Thai co-teachers love when I play short videos or clips for the students. They even scold you if you use too many lessons straight from the book! My science classes in particular love Bill Nye. They have begun chanting ‘Bill, Bill, Bill!’ along with the intro song.
You should not walk into class without a lesson plan. This is a personal pet peeve of mine because foreign teachers often think they should put zero effort into lessons. The students’ level of English may be low and you may be able to get away with ‘winging it’, but it doesn’t mean you should! Your kids will learn more and you will have a smoother and more successful class if you come prepared. If your students aren’t learning, it’s your fault. Make it easy on yourself by making the effort!
You should use a lot of worksheets. Thai teachers love worksheets, the kids love worksheets and you get a well-earned break from teaching. I like to have some extra games and word searches on hand in case I run out of things to do during class. The kids go nuts for word searches.
You should not be surprised if you are going through the material faster than the students can understand it. Unfortunately, your school often holds you to a ministry of education schedule that is prioritized over students’ actual learning. Perhaps private schools are different, but I have found this to be the case at most government schools (and most private ones too). Better to accept it now than to fight it. It will save you a lot of frustration and stress. That doesn’t mean that you have to accept mediocrity for your students though! Plan some awesome lessons to get them excited to learn and practicing the material.
You should play a lot of educational games. Whether Thai teachers like it or not (some do, some don’t), my students love to learn through games. It is a great way to practice English and get the students involved, and you build a lot of rapport with them this way. Not to mention it’s great leverage during class (Oh, you don’t want to do the work? I guess we won’t get to play hot seat at the end of class then….)
You should not get frustrated when your students cheat. For some reason, it is completely accepted, nay, almost encouraged in Thailand! Students here just have no concept of cheating being morally or ethically wrong. This was such a shock the first few weeks I taught that I ended up ripping multiple tests in half in frustration and disgust. Things have changed as I’ve seen Thai teachers turn the other cheek to cheating during midterms, but I’ve created my own balance: Lax with copying homework or ‘working together’ but an absolute no-cheating policy with testing. It’s the best compromise I could manage for resolving our two education cultures.
Have any other recommendations from your teaching experiences? Do you disagree with some of these suggestions? Do you have any questions about classroom do’s and dont’s? Let me know in the comments or e-mail me at email@example.com