I should start by stating there is no “typical day” teaching in Thailand. Every day when you get to school something has changed or is different; this is especially true right now as the entire country is on edge with the recent elections and continuing protests. Also, my “typical day” has a few things that are strikingly different than many of my peers that also teach in Thailand in other provinces. However, hopefully this will give you some idea of what to expect in your day-to-day life at work.
I begin by waking up and having some instant coffee and maybe a slice of bread for breakfast. I am not a morning person, so I am often rushing out the door with my bag half packed and other things in my hand. I jump on my scooter by 7:20am and start my 25-minute commute to school. This is one of the biggest differences I have found between my job and others. Most other foreign teachers live very close to their schools, many walk or jump on a songtaew (Thai public bus) for a short ride. However, I live in Hat Yai city and my school is in a village called Thunglung about 20 km outside of the city. I made the choice to live in the city and commute to work instead of living in the village. There are pros and cons to this decision, but in the end, I do not mind the drive because I have already listened to about 8 books on my smartphone in a few short months.
I arrive at work by 7:50am and greet students and teachers with many “Sawatdee kaas” and nods. I head to my office to drop my belongings off before assembly starts at 8:00am. I am required to attend assembly, which can last up to 30 minutes, but sometimes it is shorter. There have been a few mornings I was greeted by another Thai English teacher with the statement of “This morning you speak to the students about….” Five minutes is about as much warning as I have received, so having a smartphone with easy access to wifi has helped in those situations where I needed to talk about the history of Christmas or the importance of Children’s Day in Thailand.
After assembly finishes, I again rush to my office to get my belongings for the upcoming classes. On a good day, I only teach 4-5 classes and on a bad day, I teach 7! I have found this is another big difference between my fellow foreign teachers and myself. I teach a total of 25 periods a week and within these periods I teach a total of 31 classes. Some periods mix together two or three classes to ensure that I teach every single student in the school. This is quite mindboggling to me still, I see over 900 students, once a week, for 50 minutes and I am expected to help them learn English. Most other English teachers I know teach between 18-22 periods a week, but know that most contracts indicate you can teach up to 25. Be sure to advocate for yourself though, I initially had 28 periods and informed my agent. My agent communicated with P Juliette, a Thai English teacher, the director of the school, and the head of the English Department. They fixed the problem of me having 28 periods promptly… but the solution was to just put more classes together. So in the end, I just made my class sizes larger, but at least I have a few more free periods to plan and breath.
As I was saying, after assembly I head to my first period class for the day. I do not have a curriculum, any English books, or any specific topics to teach. On my first day of teaching I was told to help students with conversational English and pronunciation. I inquired about their prior lessons from the previous foreign teacher and the lessons they were learning from the Thai English teachers. I was not provided with any insight into their proficiencies or what topics had already been covered. Instead, P Juliette told me the ages of the students (they range from 12-21 because I teach at a high school and college) and which classes I could teach the same lessons to. Basically I teach one very basic speaking lesson to my youngest 5 classes. Then I teach a different basic speaking lesson, with more interesting topics to the rest of the high school classes. This means I teach the same lesson 18 times in one week! I then teach a different speaking lesson on the same topic but with more difficult vocabulary to the college classes. So in the end, I only have to create three lessons plans a week and this is quite manageable. The challenge is implementing these lessons to all the classes and creating appropriate tests relating to the topics.
In a productive class, I do a quick word game to engage the students and allow the stragglers to enter before the lesson begins. Then I quickly go through attendance and few students are absent. I present the vocabulary for the lesson and the students work on producing the appropriate sounds and giggle when I over annunciate /ch/ or /r/. Maybe a third of the students copy the vocabulary and dialogue into their notebook. Then we move onto practicing this vocabulary with a question and answer dialogue. The students pick up on this quickly and we toss around balls marked “Q” and “A” to elicit the conversation. Most students have an opportunity to ask or answer once in the dialogue before class is nearly over. I grab back the balls and lead the students in a group Q and A series. Then either I assign some homework to reinforce the vocabulary or we play another quick word game. However, usually the bell rings before any of this can happen and I have to rush off to the next class. This repeats in each class.
Some are less productive and in these classes the majority of the students skip class or come very late. When I finally take attendance after 15 minutes, only a handful of students are present. Then as I present the vocabulary, it is very difficult to encourage the students to say the words and stop working on other homework, talking to their friends, or playing on their smartphones. No one has their English notebook, let alone a pen, so we move on after I have presented all the vocabulary. It is even harder to elicit the dialogue without feeding the students the language word by word. However, at least they catch the ball and repeat after me. Usually the balls get thrown out the window or into a friend’s head, but at least they are attending. Before more than 5 or 6 students ask or answer a question, the bell rings and I lose any attention that I had. At this time, I just collect my things and tell them there will be a test next week so they should copy the information off the whiteboard.
Around 11, sometimes not until 12, I am free to have lunch. I walk through the campus and across the railroad tracks to the canteen. Along the way, many students call out “Teacher Laura” and gesture to ask, “You eat rice?” I maneuver through the crowds in front of the kitchen stalls and find my favorite food vender. She’s very sweet and helps me practice ordering in Thai. For just 30 baht, I typically get a plate of rice and three different dishes on top. I get a mix of chicken and vegetable dishes; sometimes I am adventurous and let her choose for me. Other days I splurge and spend a bit more to get Som Tam (green papaya salad). Most days other teachers eat at the same time as me, even if some of the English teachers are there, they talk amongst themselves. I sit and listen as I eat, sometimes I can pick up a word or a phrase and I catch someone’s eye. We share a smile and then the conversation resumes. I do not mind this, as I usually want to finish eating quickly so I can finish preparing for the rest of the day.
I finish my afternoon classes, much as the morning ones, but by the afternoon most of the students are even less interested and engaged. On top of their exhaustion, I am usually quite tired of teaching the same lesson, so my patience has worn thin. Typically my last class finishes at 2:30 and I was very fortunate to have my agent arrange for me to be able to leave after my last class each day. Other teachers have to remain at their school until 4. I think because of my heavy workload, I am able to leave early. Most days I will spend at least a half hour in the office: grading tests, marking homework, lesson planning, or recording attendance in the books.
To demonstrate how there is no “typical day” when teaching I will give a few examples of what happened just this week at school. On Monday, I was informed I had to cover 2 periods for a Thai English teacher who was absent. I had nothing planned and so had to spend time coming up with speaking games to engage the students for 50 minutes. On Tuesday, a large group of students left for a school trip to Bangkok. I found this out when I went to my first period class and only 9 students were present. They informed me their peers were in Bangkok. My second class had only 3 students! No students even bothered coming to my last period class. I am assuming those that did not go to Bangkok figured they could just skip school because so many students would be absent. There seems to always be something happening that requires the students to miss class: preparing for a performance or Buddhist holiday, attending a seminar with a guest lecturer, traveling, visiting schools to help younger students, studying for competitions, or taking standardized tests.
I am still learning how to adjust to this. It is very difficult to teach a lesson to half a class and then test those students the following week, while still teaching the half that missed the lesson! I am required to administer 7-10 tests throughout the semester totaling to 100 points. I have to create them myself and grade them. Often my desk is filled with stacks of tests and the grade books for my 31 classes. One of the most frustrating aspects of this job is that all students must pass English. They cannot fail, and the students know it. If they fail a test, I have to re-administer the test to them at a later date! I have yet to find out what will happen for the students that repeatedly skip my class.
As this semester is drawing to a close, I have learned some valuable things about teaching in Thailand.
Read more about Laura’s experience teaching English in Thailand on her blog, The Wandering Unicorn.