Teaching English in Thailand
“Students please stand up!”
I hear myself commanding in this classroom full of tiny people with big eyes. As I say this I am using both arms in a sweeping motion to help communicate with those who don’t understand the verbal direction. The students (now my students!) are uniformly dressed in light blue shirts and dark blue shorts or skirts. They have all taken off their shoes, which are neatly lined up outside the door of the classroom.
There is a delayed clatter of the chairs pushing back as first a few, then slowly every student in the room stands up, looking at me with a mixture of fear and wonder. I am the new teacher, and from the looks of it, the first western teacher these students have seen in their short educational careers.
“Good morning students!” I say with a huge smile on my face. It’s hard not to smile at the wonderment on each kid’s face. Tentatively a few reply “Good morning teacher.” I try to make eye contact with each one who replied as I exclaim, “Good job students!” I say it again, “Good morning students!” This time I’m cupping my hands behind my ears, the universal sign for louder. This time a few more students join in, and again I try to reward them with eye contact and a hearty “Good job students!” One more time, and almost everyone in the class responds. Not good enough, but I’m patient.
The students are still standing, and the more I praise and smile, the more I catch glimpses of their smiles.
After all, that’s the goal here, to get them to relax. To get them to have fun. To have them feel safe in this classroom; safe enough to dare speak English, and safe to make mistakes. But it will only work if I can get them to be brave enough to speak.
That’s what teaching English in Thailand is all about. It’s finding ways to get these kids to come out of their shells and dare to try. This is done by taking measured steps forward, starting with basic vocabulary. It’s done by packaging everything up as a game, and then getting the students to play. A good teacher plays the roles of mime, coach, referee, game show host and cheerleader in every class. Good teachers are funny, goofy, confident, patient, charming and happy. Thailand is nicknamed the Land of Smiles, and a teacher who can genuinely maintain their smile while teaching is always going win.
Smiles come with confidence.
Confidence comes from success. That is why it’s so important for teachers to have an opportunity to get in front of real Thai students before commanding their own classroom.
I had this opportunity going through my TEFL course, and it was paramount to me believing that I could actually teach ESL. During the last week of my course with ProTEFL, we ventured out to a school about 45 miles south of our Chiang Mai classroom and got in front of students of all ages. After spending two weeks in a classroom that taught us how to approach Thai students on lesson plans we had refined through practice in front of an expert trainer and our fellow students I discovered (much to my relief) it was actually pretty easy to teach ESL. Easy, that is, if you follow the training.
I’m often asked if you can teach in Thailand without going through TEFL training. My answer is invariably maybe, but not well. Even to veteran teachers like myself, the lessons taught in a course that focuses on teaching in Thailand, along with the opportunity to prove that those work by visiting a real Thai classroom were worth the price of admission ($950 USD). In my class we had a handful of former teachers like myself learning alongside young adults right out of college.
The class became a team as we worked together to hone our lessons and find our teaching voices in class, and discover Thailand after class let out. I’m still in touch with most everyone in that class through Facebook. Most are scattered around Thailand teaching English; some in large schools that have multiple western teachers, and some in small schools where they visit every grade level once a week. A few went home after realizing quickly that teaching abroad is real work and not the vacation they had envisioned. The connections I made in my TEFL class became a lifeline I never expected, and never thought I would need.
A good TEFL certification course not only teaches you the basics of teaching English as a foreign language, it teaches you about the host country you will be working in.
My TEFL course included immersive weekend trips, basic language lessons, and an entire day focused on the Thai culture honing in on understanding how to teach Thai students. Those lessons are what brought me to this place, with two dozen faces staring at me, finally shouting at the tops of their lungs, “Good Morning Teacher!” in unison with broad smiles on their faces. Ah yes, I can do this…