By John Routledge & Weena Kanadpon
Teaching in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand
I came to Chiang Mai just after the millennium celebrations. Before I left, I was working in south London as a software developer and had had enough of the whole 9 to 5 job culture (it was more like 8 to 6 every day). Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second city, in the north of the country, about a ten-hour bus ride from Bangkok. I had only planned to stay for a few months at the most and hadn’t considered teaching English. My sister was a teacher in England and from what she told me, it really didn’t seem like my kind of thing – lots of lesson planning, low pay and not much respect from the students. Four years and five months later, I’m still here and fully immersed in TEFL teaching.
The first class I observed was at the language school I’m still teaching at now. I’d gone in just to take a look around as I had decided to extend my stay and was unable to find any computer work. They really needed teachers then, which was good for me as I didn’t have a TEFL qualification or any teaching experience. The class itself was a typical one of the school, about 20 students, aged between 15 to 19 and mostly female. I was amazed at how attentive and engaged in all the activities the students were. This was due to a couple of key factors. Firstly, Thai students love to play games and have fun in class, which is a stark contrast to how they are taught in school – by listening and drilling whilst sat in the same seat all class. Any teacher who can bring some entertainment into the class will be well-liked. The second reason is that teachers have to grade the students at the end of each six-week term and a student can fail, which means they have to pay again to repeat the level. As most of the students are sent by their parents to study, they don’t want to let them or themselves down. This also means that teachers hardly ever experience any discipline problems in class and if they do, then a short talking to resolves the issue.
One of the hardest things was remembering the students’ nicknames. They are usually one syllable long and initially very amusing for new teachers. For example, a class might have a Ping, a Pong, a Porn, a Ball, a Wow, a Wee, a Pee, a Pooh, a Boy (who’s a girl), an Apple, a Peach, a Nut, a Milk, a Beer, a Gay, a Thing, a Cat, a Bird, a Tom, a Tik and maybe an Organ. It takes a bit of getting used to and, as you can imagine, seating order can produce some interesting combinations.
During my first year in Thailand, I had to get my visa extended every month. This involved a four hour bus ride up to the Burmese border and although something of a drag, I used to make a weekend out of it by going with a couple of colleagues and stopping off for a night in Chiang Rai on the way up. This routine wasn’t a problem until immigration started clamping down on people who had a large collection of stamps in their passport. The language school offered a working visa to anyone who signed a twelve-month contract, so that’s what I did. All I needed was a copy of my degree certificate and the school took care of everything else – including the mountain of paperwork. Almost every school I know of offers the same to any teacher willing to sign up for a year.
One of the biggest attractions of the language school I teach at are the working hours. I teach from 5 to 8.30 in the evenings, Tuesday to Friday and 9 to 4 on Saturdays, which is more than enough money to have a very comfortable life style. Teachers can expect to earn around 25,000 Baht a month (about 360 GBP) teaching part-time. On top of that, there are numerous opportunities to teach private classes or find some extra hours at another school. With so much free time during the day, I eventually decided to do just that myself. I found a morning job teaching at a business college for students aged between 13 and 18. I got the job without even stepping foot in the building – the fact that I taught at the private language school was a good enough reference for them. It felt like just a money making establishment rather than a place of education. The fees were very low, but the class sizes were very big – over 50 students per class – and their level of interest in learning English was almost zero. Most students spent the class either on the phone, reading comic books, putting on make-up or doing work for other subjects. They weren’t loud or disruptive; they just had no motivation to study. I worked there for a year and taught about eight different classes of students, all of which had pretty much the same enthusiasm about learning English.
After leaving the business college, I took a term off from the language school and went to do a CELTA in Bangkok. It wasn’t a necessity, more of an investment for the future should I want to work anywhere else. I really enjoyed the four weeks on the course and it filled in a lot of gaps in my teaching and gave me a better understanding of what I should be trying to achieve and how to achieve it in each class.
Armed with my CELTA, I decided to try one of Chiang Mai’s universities. I went for an interview and to my surprise they weren’t at all interested in my CELTA or my three years’ experience at the private language school. They were most interested with my honors degree. It didn’t really bother me, but it made me think of the other teachers who were working there, stepping into a class of undergraduates without having ever taught before or any teaching qualifications.
I was offered a job, mainly on the back of my degree, and started teaching four mornings a week (along with the work I was doing at the language school). I’m still teaching there now and really enjoying it. The Thai staff in the English Department are great to work with. They are very keen to develop the various courses taught and are well aware of the need to move away from teacher-centered to student-oriented learning. The students themselves are great fun to teach and they really appreciate any fun activities that give them a break from their heavy workload.
My students often ask me why I live in Thailand, as do most of my friends back home whenever I talk to them. There are numerous reasons; most of which were things I wasn’t happy with when working and living in England. Here in Chiang Mai, I have a job that I really enjoy and find very rewarding. Unlike working in London, I never wake up dreading going to work (unless I’ve been up until 3am watching an English Premiership football match which, unlike in England, are shown live on TV here). What’s more, I have enough free time to be able to enjoy the money I earn and all the recreational pursuits that I followed back in England.
Teaching English in Thailand
When I was a student, about to attend upper primary school, my father told me in advance not to ask him anything about English and Maths for he couldn’t give any explanation. I remembered that well and prepared myself every minute to face the situation. Unfortunately, as the first child of the family, I did not have any older siblings to ask or consult.
In the old days, most Thai people were first introduced to the English language when they were in grade 5. My parents’ knowledge was merely fourth-grade level so such warnings were completely true.
Later on, my first English class began as expected. The young-lady Thai teacher of English started the lesson by politely commanding her students in Thai to “read the sentences on page 1, please”. All pupils but me chanted loudly, “This is a book. This is a chair. This is a desk. This is a door.” I was totally amazed and wondered how they did that!
Time passed. Gradually and eventually, my instinct for survival, endless curiosity and intensive English exposure accumulated and taught me to adapt and adopt the input provided. I got through six years of student life in school and four years in a teacher’s college. I vigorously managed to learn and master the language with great confidence and self-esteem. However, I later realized that my theoretical competence in English was a different matter than my practical performance. In fact, what I had learned and mastered might have been more fruitful and meaningful to me if communicative language teaching had been introduced and applied at the time.
In the Thai educational system, English has been considered one of the core school subjects, along with Thai Language, Science, Maths and Social Studies. Students have to study very hard so that they can pass the university entrance exam that includes an English paper, created specially to use with contestants nationwide. Teachers work extremely hard to present and drill their students with as much of English as they can – mainly grammatical structures, vocabulary, reading comprehension and previous exam paper exercises. As a result, students are unavoidably over-loaded. Pressed with unreasonable demands, many suffer emotional depression. This all contributes to chronic learning styles for most smart students. They are unlikely to enjoy learning but to compete seriously and bitterly. Such constraints will be released later. A few minutes after the examination, every chunk of English will be gone (with the wind) for good, except for a few students who willingly further their tertiary studies in the relevant field.
The so-called competition has nothing to do with any language skills except reading and choosing the correct answers. Once the total scores are announced and are high enough as designated, the testees are allowed to attend their first choice faculty; otherwise the second or third choice for substitution. They will be spending a semester or two studying basic English at university as a compulsory course.
Not surprisingly, most graduates involved in various professions usually complain about their practical English competence, especially in everyday face-to-face communication skills – listening and speaking. They admit to insufficient concentration, confusing learning styles and lack of full attention while being exposed to the subject at an early stage. Had they been in a learner-centred environment as the curriculum indicated, they would have been more successful and fruitful in their chosen careers than ever.
The National Curriculum was reformed in 1999 and every school subject was planned to involve learners through classroom activity. That helps promote a learner-centred atmosphere throughout the country. English has been formally indicated as a foreign language (EFL) in the new Foreign Language Subject Group. For two years, some state secondary schools both in the capital city and upcountry have tried out “English Program” in the first grade for the first time. Almost every subject is instructed in English. Teachers are native speakers and some are Thai who are fluent in English. These programs are being extended year by year towards the highest level and spread to more institutes. Hopefully, teaching English in Thailand can be viewed as a more dynamic process, producing more effective learners in the near future.