Barriers to Teaching English in Thailand and How to Break Through Them

Whether you’re looking to get into teaching just to do a bit of travelling or to build a long-term career, stepping into your first classroom in Thailand can be daunting. I genuinely love teaching, which is why I’ve continued to do it for five years (instead of the six months I originally planned), but it has certainly been a learning process for me. Here, I’ll share some of the things I’ve picked up along the way so far. My previous post on teaching focused more on finding work, but this one is about overcoming the obstacles brought by cultural differences and problems within the Thai education system once you do.

The issues I’m raising here aren’t new, they’ve been written about lots of times before. Another ESL teacher in Thailand shared her perspective in ‘Why is English so Poor in Thailand?’ Kaewmala of Thai Woman Talks previously wrote about problems with the Thai education system in her article, ‘The Sorry State of Thai Education – Part 4: Dismal English Language Education‘. Unfortunately, while these problems are widely known, little is being done to change them. The methods being used in a lot of schools are not only outdated and ineffective, but also make students hate learning English. So, it’s no surprise that Thailand ranks very poorly for English ability in comparison to the rest of the world. In EF’s most recent English Proficiency Index review, Thailand was ranked 56th out of 70 countries. Here, I’ll explore why that is and what problems that can present for the first-time English teacher.

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When you walk into a classroom in a government school, you’ll hear one student shout ‘stand up, please‘, after which entire class rise and say ‘good morning/afternoon, teacher‘ in unison. When you ask how they are, they’ll respond with ‘I’m fine thank you, and you?‘ This is likely to be your first display of how they’ve been taught to respect the teacher, but also of how they’ve been taught to memorize robotic responses, and it’s rather telling. Surprise them by mixing it up and asking ‘how’s it going?‘ or ‘are you all right?’ instead and they might look at you like you’re an alien.

Students can be reluctant to ask questions because it could result in loss of face for the teacher, and since social hierarchy and respect for elders is so important in Thai culture, this is something they strictly avoid. Although this isn’t the case with many of my adult students, it certainly was with my younger ones. Students are generally conditioned to accept information without question, copy and memorize. It can also be very difficult to get a student to say ‘I don’t know‘. They don’t want to admit that they don’t know the answer to a question for fear that it will make them lose face and possibly result in scolding. Corporal punishment is not unusual here. In my last school, Thai teachers hit students with sticks and threw erasers (or on one occasion, a set of keys) at them, so they were understandably afraid of speaking out of turn. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve presented students with questions only to be met with blank stares. It’s not that they’re stupid, just that they’re scared. The idea that I actually want them to tell me that they don’t know so that I can help them is very new for them, so achieving that kind of openness in some of my classes has been a long process.

The same fear that stops students from saying ‘I don’t know‘often stops them from speaking at all. Thai people can be very shy about speaking English for a number of reasons. First of all, there’s the fear of not being understood and subsequent loss of face. Then, there’s the idea that they mustn’t make any mistakes. Throw in the fact that they’re not used to speaking English at all, and it’s no surprise that they’re so shy about it. When Thai students learn English with a Thai teacher, they generally focus on grammar. The method is very teacher-centered and students are given little to no chance to practice speaking, so by speaking English with a foreigner, they’re treading completely new ground and it feels like taking a big risk for them. In those classes, they’re told that their grammar must be perfect, so when they do speak, they might be first thinking to themselves ‘what tense should I use?‘ or directly translating from Thai. This will also make them very slow to answer. When you teach your first class of Thai students, you have to remember that for some of your students, it could be their first time ever speaking with a foreigner. This is also important to remember outside of the classroom. As a foreigner, you may find that some people will be so shy to speak to you that they avoid it altogether. To us, this is extremely rude, but it’s important to be able to dissect why this happens. Outside of school, I’ve had a few friends angrily complain that they’ve had to leave a restaurant after sitting in it without being served because the staff refused to acknowledge them. Of course, their complaints are justified, but while on the face of it, it appeared that they just didn’t want foreigners in their restaurant, it’s much more likely that it was because they were terrified of speaking to them. I’ve been in this situation myself and found that when I addressed the staff in Thai, they were visibly relieved and then happy to talk to me, though a little embarrassed.

For an idea of just how little confidence Thai students have in their English abilities, see the tables below, taken from ‘An Investigations of Thai Students’ English Language Problems and their Learning Strategies in the International Program at Mahidol University‘ by Ratana Pawapatcharaudom, when she asked them to assess their listening and speaking skills.

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Testing is a big source of frustration for NES (Native English Speaker) teachers in Thailand because they are often told that students simply must pass, regardless of their skill level or attendance. If they don’t, the solution is for them to come back to the teacher during free time and re-do the test again and again until they do. During my first mid-term exams, I remember being horrified by this.  When I expressed how vehemently against this I was, one of the more experienced teachers in the staff room sighed and said ‘believe me, you’re better off passing them‘. I didn’t take his advice, but went on to learn that he was right. As he’d tried to tell me, rebelling against the idea wasn’t worth the time because it didn’t benefit anyone. Re-testing didn’t help the students to learn; only to memorize the answers, so going through that process achieved nothing. So, while I didn’t agree with the process, I eventually had to fall in line with it. Besides, a lot of students don’t retain the knowledge they use in these tests because they aren’t given a chance to use it again afterwards. I once had a student finish his midterm test, stand up and walk to the back of the class and then give it to his friend to copy. When I called him out on it, he didn’t seem to understand what the problem was. That just goes to show how seriously some students take examinations.

As you might gather from the assessment method, critical thinking is generally not taught in Thai schools, especially in government schools. Problem-based learning is a very new concept here, and you might find students simply asking you for answers because they’re unwilling to work it out for themselves. In many cases, this is just what they’re used to.

A lot of schools operate IEP (Intensive English Programs) whereby ‘gifted’ students have increased periods with a foreign teacher and sometimes learn other subjects in English. While some of these students are placed in the class due to their ability, students with a lower English level may still enter if their parents pay the fees. This was evident in one of my Matthayom 3 (9th grade) classes. I’d asked the students to use the small library at the back of the class for research to help with the activity I’d assigned them, and when I went around to check their work, I found that one student had copied an entire paragraph from a German book. Apparently, he was completely unaware that it wasn’t even English, and wasn’t concerned that he didn’t understand a single word he’d written. I struggled for a moment with what to do, at first wondering if I should ask him to try and read it aloud to the class. However, I quickly realised that it wasn’t entirely his fault and decided to leave it. He had absolutely no understanding of English but had been placed in a class well above his ability. In an attempt to help him, I went to the Head of Department to discuss my concerns and suggest moving him to another class. She listened and nodded but ultimately, nothing was done. Since that boy’s parents had paid for him to be in that class, he would stay there regardless of whether or not it was beneficial to him. As they say, money talks. In retrospect, this also showed how much I had to learn about Thai culture at the time. In Thailand, making such a suggestion to your superior may suggest that you are telling them how to do their job, which is a huge faux-pas. While she responded politely, she probably would have preferred for me to ‘stay in my lane’, especially as I was a foreign teacher who was very new to the school. I now realise my mistake, and that the response I received from her was a typical one.

Speaking of Thai culture, in order to keep good working relationships, teachers will have to navigate it carefully. One key point to keep in mind is that confrontation is to be avoided at all costs. One of my British colleagues failed to do this when she disagreed with a new policy that was being introduced at our school, which meant that we would have to write much longer lesson plans (which nobody would read anyway). She was right to think that the policy was a bad one, but handled the situation terribly. She spoke out quite strongly against the idea, raising her voice and speaking very directly to our manager while all the other foreign teachers were in the room. This was very uncomfortable for the rest of us, and no doubt rather embarrassing for the Thai boss. It was unsurprising that at the end of that semester, that teacher’s contract was terminated.

Another obstacle facing teachers in Thai schools is the huge class sizes, which is unfortunately due to lack of funding. In government schools, it’s not uncommon for classes to have 50 students in them, which is why many Thai teachers resort to using microphones. Keeping the attention and control of a class that size is a huge challenge in itself, before you even begin to teach your lesson. Foreign teachers will usually have a Thai teaching assistant for their classes to ease the stress of that, but its very difficult for the students. Those who genuinely want to learn have to compete with the rest of the class for their teacher’s attention, and it’s impossible to give each student what they need. Lack of sufficient funding and support also means that some of the Thai teachers English ability isn’t up to par. For instance, I remember once watching one of Thai co-workers teaching students to say ‘when the new year come in Chinese?‘ The Thai government has plans to improve the language abilities of their teachers, but they haven’t been well-received by all. Surasak Glahan of Bangkok Post wrote one rebuttal here. As I’ve seen time and time again, it seems to come down to good intentions but poor execution. In my first school, I was required to teach the Thai teachers after school on Friday afternoons, but with their already heavy workloads, most of them weren’t able to join in. In a particularly useless exercise, foreign teachers had to give weekly speeches to my entire school in English. Each time, a Thai student was assigned to read out a previously translated version along with them. Of course, none of the students were paying attention, anyway. The school was genuinely trying to increase their use of English among both staff and students, but their methods were completely wrong. For more in-depth information on the challenges that Thai English teachers face, see ‘English-Teaching Problems in Thailand and Thai Teachers’ Professional development Needs‘ by Sripathum Noom-ura.

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Waiting to give one of my weekly speeches with my student translator, Max. Since this was such a fruitless task, we made it more fun for ourselves by dropping lyric bombs for the other foreign teachers to spot. On this occasion, mine was a line from ‘Fat-Bottomed Girls’ by Queen. 

So, what can you do about it?

I’ve taught in various types of schools, starting at a very poor government school with a terrible reputation before moving on to an international school on the opposite end of the spectrum, but I’ve now settled at an English centre for adults, where students willingly come to learn English because they weren’t able to at school. During that time, I’ve taught students from aged 2 to more 60. I’ve had countless conversations with my current students about how their school English lessons fell short and how to work through the bad habits they picked up in them, and having taught in those environments makes me better-equipped to work on this with them every day. Here are a few key things I try to keep in mind when I teach.

I make all my classes as student-centered as possible. The less I speak, the better. I take this approach because the less I speak, the more they can, and the more opportunity they have to speak, the more engaged they are and the more they’ll improve. I never lecture. Instead, I spend as little time as possible standing at the front of the class, only talking to them as a group for as long as I need to elicit the activity I’m giving to them. After that, I’ll turn it over to them and give them something to do or discuss in small groups, then walk around and monitor each one, so I don’t need to stop the whole class just to help one person. This feels like lazy teaching, but I find that it’s by far the most effective and for the students, it’s a welcome change from the teaching style they’re used to.

To combat the fear of ‘I don’t know‘, I suggested to one group of particularly shy students that they could use a code word instead. If they didn’t know the answer, they could say ‘banana‘, because I’d rather they said that than nothing at all. It got them laughing and soon they realised that in comparison, ‘I don’t know‘ didn’t sound so silly. I try to keep my classes light and fun and not to take myself too seriously to contrast the environment they may have been used to learning English in. It also helps to make it less stressful for myself.

Earlier, I mentioned how some students may automatically ask you for answers if they aren’t able to work it out themselves immediately. They might also become deterred when you’re not able to give clear-cut grammatical rules to explain certain things. Before getting frustrated with them, remember that they’re not usually asked to do activities like the ones you may be giving them. Your teaching methods are likely to be very different from those of their Thai teachers, so allow them room to adjust. Learning a language requires students to take risks and get out of their comfort zones, and they won’t improve unless you encourage them to do that. It doesn’t happen instantly, so be patient with them.

This may be obvious, but remember that Thai is very different to English in many ways, such as the use of tenses, classifiers, tones and sentence structure. While it is not expected for foreign teachers to be able to speak Thai, even a basic understanding of the language is helpful when teaching because it enables you to see exactly why students make some of their most common mistakes.

More than anything, it’s important to encourage students that whether what they want to say is right or wrong, they can and should speak. I’m always trying to convince my students that it’s good to make mistakes because I can use them to correct them, but if their fear of failure or embarrassment stops them from speaking at all, I can’t help. This doesn’t mean I correct every single mistake they make (although some students would prefer if I did), because doing so might be discouraging. It just means that I try to make my class an environment where they feel free to speak without pressure to be grammatically perfect. Giving them the freedom to speak, make mistakes and ask questions will help them to build confidence, and create a better learning environment for them. Despite the difficulties that teaching can bring, with or without cultural differences complicating things at times, it’s an incredibly rewarding and enjoyable job for those who love to do it.

If you’re interested in teaching in Thailand but don’t know where to start, check out  TEFL Heaven’s Thailand Internship for April 2017. TEFL Heaven can help you to get qualified, meet other teachers and guarantee your first teaching job. You can get a discount of 50GBP (2500THB) if you enter the discount code ‘EMMAUNDERTHEROPES’ when you apply.

A few snapshots from my teaching work in Thailand so far:

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