As a follow-up to my last post: What It’s Like to be an ESL Teacher in Thailand
Like most people wanting to live abroad post-graduation, I turned to Google to help me. I was looking for a position that would a) pay me (these are important things here, people), b) allow me to move and live abroad without too much hassle, c) inspire me and challenge me, and d) offer me the flexibility that would allow me to travel. Welp, here I am… currently working as an ESL teacher in Thailand, in a position that offers me all of the above. And while I would be amiss to tell you working as an ESL teacher allows tons of flexibility to travel during the semester, I currently sit here daydreaming about my upcoming trip to Bali (one that will occur during the summer break). I can’t say I have too much to complain about.
And yet, while working as an ESL teacher may sound like a dream come true (you may be thinking: Teaching abroad is a joke, right? Anyone can do it!), it can often be a position that is frustrating and exasperating. While working as an ESL teacher, it’s easy to feel inconsequential and irrelevant. Disrespected and disregarded. Sometimes you feel as if your time would be better spent pulling out each. and. every. hair. on. your. head. rather than watching as one more student blatantly disregards your directions to complete a worksheet, and sometimes you can’t help but to roll your eyes as you are forced to explain yourself five more times. …Don’t even get me started on the students who remain completely indifferent to your presence.
Here’s the thing, though: it’s a natural human response to feel frustrated when things don’t go the way you expect them to (yes, this tends to be magnified by a language barrier), and each of us has our preconceptions and idealizations and even prejudices. When reality refuses to match those entities, it’s not surprising we feel a little disoriented—exemplifying itself in our frustrated rants… in our angry sighs… in our baffled tears. Perhaps one of the most wonderful things in being an ESL teacher, then, is that it does a damn good job at making you question everything.
When I first arrived at RWB, I was afforded minimal guidance. The interim head of the English Department handed me a schedule with the names of the four courses I was to take over, and then she shooed me out of her office. There were no course outlines and no curriculums. No past tests or papers or worksheets. “Good luck!” she told me cheerfully.
At the end of the week, I received the following input: “Your teaching style is too relaxed. You play too many games. You need more worksheets. Midterm exams are due on Monday.” I felt as if I had been sucker-punched—thrown off the deep end and left for dead. It felt like a personal attack. I distinctly remember going home to my empty apartment and crying—messy tears that left me short of breath and gasping for air. I felt frustrated and angry and upset. I remember thinking: what have I gotten myself into?
As if the past week of getting to know my students and their proficiencies hadn’t been stressful enough, I now had a long list of things to fix. Coming into a full-time teaching position with solely the hands-on experience gained during my TESOL course, I was at a loss, and I had no idea how to remedy the situation rather than to put my nose to the grindstone and create more worksheets. So I did.
One month into teaching, I was in the midst of one of my M1 classes. The school-day was almost over (cue crazy behavior from all of my students), and I had just finished presenting on the importance of social media. “Ok,” I told the class in a slow, measured voice. “Use this worksheet (#worksheetgamestrong) to survey your classmates about how they use social media. A survey is used to collect information from different people.” After a decent amount of cajoling, all of my M1s were up out of their seats asking their classmates: What is your favorite type of social media?
All of them… except M.
M—a seventh grader who towers over me—had decided that “survey your classmates” meant “duct tape your friend to the wall.” As I glanced over, M was in the process of taping his friend’s (who was now beginning to resemble a starfish) second wrist to the whitewashed wall. “Boys!” I said sharply. “M, no! Take your friend down now!” I was waving my arms around like a madwoman trying to get my point across. “This is NOT OK. Hallway NOW.” M smiled as if this was the best news he had heard all day.
As he unstuck his friend from the wall, he gestured to the rest of the boys in the class, and they all proceeded to follow him into the hallway. I now had twelve boys in the hallway, filming each other with someone’s GoPro, and all the while, the rest of my students were up out of their desks attempting to survey each other about social media, often screaming over each other to be heard, or screaming “Teacher! Teacher!” if they needed guidance. Put softly, it was utter chaos.
It was at this exact moment when the new head of the department decided to make an appearance. “Hello,” she greeted me, taking in the classroom in front of her. “Please explain what you’re doing.” As I began to explain: “They are surveying their classmates…”, M and his crew burst through the door, the GoPro duct-taped to M’s hands, his friends laughing like hyenas. “M, no,” I said again, shaking my head forcefully. “NOT OK.” The head of the department grimaced at me before excusing herself.
At the end of the day, I received another message. “The head of the department thinks you need better worksheets,” the coordinator told me (better worksheets, I assume, being code for getting my act together). Luckily, at this point, I was much more comfortable and confident in my teaching abilities, and I recognized that she had walked into a situation that was not the norm. A suggestion for “more” or “better” worksheets was no longer taken as a personal attack, but, inevitably, the frustration was still there. How do I control a room of unruly boys who have no interest in learning English? Who have no interest in even attempting to understand me? Who would rather be anywhere but in the classroom? Who would rather be doing anything other than filling in a worksheet? These are all tough questions, and even three months later, I’m still trying to answer them. In my case, mastering classroom management, as well as gaining students’ respect, has been something that takes a considerable amount of time and patience.
As most of you already know, there is so much more to being a teacher than creating, distributing, and grading worksheets. As I’ve come to find over the past four months, however, being a teacher, in fact, is about creating and nourishing relationships and connections. It’s about creating a safe and nontoxic environment where everyone can feel welcome and accepted, and it’s about fostering a love of learning through smiles and laughs. It’s about helping students in one-on-one situations even when there are thirty other students in the room. It’s about sharing and expressing a common interest in seemingly-menial things such as Snapchat filters, and it’s about using Snapchat filters to teach about social media. Being a teacher is about asking the important questions like what do you like to do? and tell me what’s important to you and what do you want to do in the future? It’s about offering advice and telling stories about your travels and your life at home in another country. It’s about listening to your students’ stories about their lives here in this country. It’s about being relatable and kind.
And while I can’t lay claim to being an excellent educator, I have witnessed my fair share of them, and I truly believe being a “good” teacher and providing a “good” education means offering students a multitude of perspectives and opinions. It means allowing students to formulate their own ideas and opinions, while simultaneously pressuring those ideas and opinions. It means arguing that the “British way” and the “American way” are both the correct way. It means teaching beauty is so much more than outward appearance—especially when they compare their darker skin to yours or when they ask to touch your lightened hair. Being a good teacher means presenting on the importance of social media before making your students create a list of reasons as to why social media should be used less. It means teaching about Thanksgiving and Christmas and Valentine’s Day, and it means listening to students speak about Loy Krathong and the King’s birthday and Songkhran. It means instilling an interest in “whatever else is out there.”
Being a good teacher means practicing kindness and respect in every situation—inside or outside of the classroom. It means being receptive to those around you. Being a good teacher means being open-minded and tolerant and progressive. It means witnessing as many opinions and perspectives and ideas as possible so that you are able to share the greatest perspective possible. In fact, being a “good” teacher is a lot like being a student…
In working as an ESL teacher, your students will never fail to surprise you. Those who appeared to not be listening during the last class will answer your questions with conviction the next time you see them. Your M3s (while mimicking you far more than they should), will finally understand how to give a presentation: Good morning, everyone. My name is __________, and today I will speak about __________… Please let me know if you have any questions. They will understand the difference between an introduction and a conclusion, and they will understand how the two entities work together. Your M1s, while insisting on duct-taping each other to the wall, will greet you in the hallway like you’re their favorite celebrity (and in English nonetheless!).
Perhaps the most rewarding thing of all, however, is just how much your students will teach you. Your students will defy you and challenge you and inspire you. They will impress you, and they will astonish you. They will coach you in how to order delicious food in Thai, and they will teach you how to properly use LINE (communication through stickers ONLY). Your students will make you think (and think and think), and, I promise you, they will offer you a previously-unseen perspective. They will teach you kindness and acceptance, and they will teach you just how easy it is to fall in love.
This world is home to 7.3 billion people (and infinite opinions and ideas) and oftentimes, its challenges feel huge and insurmountable. You look at people like Donald Trump and listen to racist, sexist, homophobic commentaries, and it’s easy to feel discouraged and disgusted. It’s easy to look at the news and the media and feel pain and horror at the thousands of violent tragedies that occur against people around the world every day. All of this, and it’s still so easy to feel guarded and sharp-edged about people who look different than you do or who do things even the slightest bit differently. It’s easy to remain dedicated to your ways just because that’s all you’ve ever known, and perhaps no one has ever encouraged you to think differently.
And yet, all 7.3 billion of us have the capacity to learn. In fact, we are always growing and learning from those around us (whether we know it or not), and it’s for that very reason that everyone deserves equal access to a “good” education—no matter your skin tone or your location on a map. Not matter your history or your culture… no matter your gender or your socioeconomic background. A good education, in fact—whether you are the student or the teacher (although aren’t we all just students of the world?)—introduces you to all of these geographies and cultures and ideologies. A good education allows you to see that there is no one right way and that we are all just human. A good education is about perspective.
While I can’t say I’ll be creating worksheets for the rest of my life, I am ecstatic that I decided to move to Thailand to work as an ESL teacher. I’ve come a looooong way since those first few days at RWB, and I strongly encourage anyone who’s even thinking about teaching abroad to take the leap.
Feel free to reach out or let me know if you have any questions! xx