I began teaching my Muttayom 5 English classes by following the course outline that I had been given, which was getting the students to use greetings and getting them to talk a little bit about themselves. All Thai school children know how to greet in English: “Hello, how are you, fine thank you and you?” I was expected to stretch this out for half a semester and I knew full well that most of my students would not be able to stand up in front of the class and (a) talk about themselves and (b) do so while the rest of the class sat there listening to them. I decided that I should first ascertain the levels of each of my classes and also identify the students who were the most interested in utilising a native English-speaking teacher to help them improve their English skills.
At about the same time a new teacher, Danielle, had been appointed by my agency to teach the Muttayom 2 students. She went to a lot of trouble printing handouts for her young students and was always busy making her own resources to use in the classrooms. She would often stay in the office until 5:00 pm when the last of the Thai teachers would leave. She was similar to me, in that she truly wanted to help her students to improve their English skills, but she was more outspoken about her problems, whereas I knew that it was best to shut up and say nothing. Danielle discovered very early that her students knew virtually no English at all and she was expected to use a course book that they just couldn’t understand and was at a totally inappropriate level for them. Danielle told the tired, old, formerly retired teacher in our office that she simply couldn’t use the book in class and offered to go back to basics and at least teach her students something they could understand and use. “You use the book!” she was ordered. “But they don’t understand any of this”, she argued. “You use the book!” was all the old lady would say. She didn’t seem bothered about the news that the students didn’t understand the book or even ask what it was that they had trouble understanding. Her job was to make the foreign teachers do exactly what she was told to make them do and that’s all she was interested in. The needs of the students never entered into the equation.
It didn’t take me very long either to discover not only how poor the level of English skills was with my students but also the almost total lack of interest they had for the subject. I expected the ladyboys, the beauty queens, and the tough guys to ignore me in class (if they bothered to attend) but the others, even though they were friendly and courteous, just automatically chose to complete work from their other subjects during my classes, which meant copying words from somewhere else into their notebooks. I knew that it would be virtually impossible for me to get them to be able to talk about themselves in English without becoming angry or strict and I wasn’t prepared to do that. For most of the time I just let them do whatever they wanted.
The one ‘English Program’ class that I had in Muttayom 5, I was surprised to learn, also came under the course guidelines as the rest of that level, which was ridiculous to me. These twelve students had their parents paying extra tuition so that they received all their lessons in English and in an air-conditioned classroom. A few in the class were very clever and I though it was insulting to them and their parents for me to be teaching them how to greet people and talk about their family and hobbies. That was fine for the few students in the non-English Program classes who were interested, but not for these ones. I took it upon myself to ask them exactly what they wanted me to teach them and we all sat around a table having an excellent discussion about it together. We came up with a list of the things they were truly interested in and wanted and needed to learn and I set about devising lessons and exercises for them to use in class. I was very happy about the outcome of our talk and my motivation was high. Instead of wasting my time I was about to undertake something with a real purpose.
I don’t know how it happened, but somehow the tired, old, formerly retired lady found out about what I was doing. She was most upset and demanded that I show her my copy of the course outlines for Muttayom 5, which I did. She pointed out what I was supposed to teach but I argued that this was the ‘English Program’ class and surely they were at a level well about the rest of the other Muttayom 5 classes. “You teach this! You teach this!” she told me, hitting the course guidelines with the back of her hand. I then argued that they already knew all of it but she wouldn’t budge. Again she never asked me what I had planned to teach the students and was not concerned about their interests at all, only that I did as I was told. I could see that she was not happy and so I assured her that I would do as she wanted and as I turned to leave she said, “Why do all farang give me the headache?” This really summed up the attitude of the entire department – we were not there to use our experience and expertise, we were there to do as we were ordered to do, to not ask questions and not rock the boat (which is exactly how the Thai teachers are expected to behave at all times). If we try to make suggestions or alterations for the benefit of our students, we are seen as troublemakers, and that’s exactly what Danielle I had become in the short time that we were there.
I returned to my next ‘English Program’ class, apologised to my students, told them that everything we had planned to learn together had been vetoed by the tired, old lady and began to teach them greetings. To my surprise my best student (who had been on a student exchange program to Brazil) stood up and told me that this wasn’t going to happen and he took the whole class to visit the tired, old lady in her office. I remained in the classroom alone for about half an hour and when they returned I was told that there would be a meeting after school in the classroom with all concerned plus a few others and they wanted to know if I would like to attend. I told them I would love to as long as they told me what was being discussed.
Several other Thai teachers attended the meeting, as well as the two tired, old ladies and it seemed that the ‘English Program’ students were far from happy with their other lessons as well, and that I had started something when I got them thinking about what they really wanted to learn. My best student did most of the talking and the body language of the Thai teachers, with their arms crossed and looking at the ground, showed how appalled they were by this show of defiance from the students. A few other students chipped in with comments here and there and my name was mentioned several times, later I learned that the students were saying how much they admired me for what I was trying to do.
The meeting finally wound up, I got home very late and the next day I was contacted by my agency to ask what had happened. Naturally, the reaction of the tired, old ladies was to have me replaced immediately but my agency managed to talk them around, explaining how difficult it was to find new teachers partway through a semester and all the rest of it. A compromise was reached which saw the tired, old ladies come out on top and me put in my place – my ‘English Program’ classes were given to a Filipino teacher and I took over his classes. I knew that I was never going to have my contract renewed at the end of the semester and I never spoke to either of the tired, old ladies again, not even to say hello. I did the absolutely bare minimum that I needed to do but I did manage to help a few of the more interested students in my other classes, which was nice.
The most disappointing aspect of the whole debacle at that school was that at no time, not even for the ‘English Program’ students, were the interests of the students taken into consideration. Two experienced, knowledgeable and interested native-speaking English teachers were at their disposal who should have been given free reign to do whatever it took to improve the English language skills of the students under their care, but the militarised, orders-must-be-obeyed attitudes of those two useless, old cronies prevented it. Danielle and I, in a very small way, could have made a difference at that school, we could have achieved something if we had been given the opportunity but (as I said in the first part of this article) the Thai authorities are not interested in that at all. Again, it makes me wonder why they even bother to employ foreign teachers in the first place and makes me glad that I’m no longer working as an English teacher in Thailand now.