Category Archives: Teaching

Teaching in Thailand: Mixed Level Classrooms and Classroom Behavior

Two of the most common complaints I hear from other teachers in Thailand are that the students are in classes well above their English proficiency level, to the point where their class seems “pointless”; and that the students can be very uninterested and misbehaved.

In my (limited) experience, there is some semblance of truth to both of these complaints, but I also think some of it is just stereotypical teacher statements that get repeated year after year. There is a “no fail policy” in Thailand where students are promoted to the next grade regardless of how much they know, or how they do on their exams.  The students also know that they can’t fail, which some attribute to low motivation for learning.

I have learned quite a bit about each of my 6 classes (Primary 1- Primary 6) that I teach for English and/or science at a small, alternative Thai private school.  This may or may not be the case for classrooms in Thailand in general, or for ESL classrooms in other countries, but what follows are observations from my first two semesters as a new teacher in Thailand.

Mixed Level Classes

Your class will not be one cohesive group with all of the students at the same level of English proficiency, behavior, educational needs, interest level, age, or maturity.  I’m sure most of these differences (aside from the extreme variance in English proficiency levels due to the  “no fail policy”) are fairly universal, and something teachers everywhere have to adapt to.  However, in Thailand I teach 6 different grades and in every single class I have a mix of the following:

High performers

These students sometimes have at least one parent who is a Native English Speaker (NES), but sometimes not.  Either way, the high performing students are clearly lightyears ahead of the lesson I am teaching and the rest of their class.  They either love this fact because they get to show off to the teacher (usually the younger kids), or they are very, very bored.  For example, there is no reason a 6th grader who can hold entire conversations in English about just about anything should be spending 50 minutes learning adjective opposites.

Low performers

In every single class there is at least one, but sometimes a handful of students who know (almost) no English other than the “Good morning Teacher” and “Thank you Teacher” they say at the beginning and end of class.  Or they speak English at maybe a K3 or P1 level, but they are in a P5 science class conducted entirely in English.  They can usually repeat words back to you, but the lesson is far too advanced and you know they are not comprehending most, if not any, of what you are saying.

I do not know for sure how this huge disparity in English language proficiency within one class has happened, but Jake and I have a few hypotheses. Some students may have fallen behind way back in Kindergarten, P1, or P2 and then never caught up.   Then these same students may have even forgotten what they had learned previously, since they were so lost they stopped paying attention and speaking English months, or even years ago.  Or some students may have transferred into the school at an older age without any previous English language experience, and were therefore immediately behind and never caught up.  Or we suspect a handful of our students may not even speak Thai as their first language, and potentially their families came from Laos or Myanmar, or a hill tribe, and so they may be behind even in their Thai classes, while English is maybe a third or even fourth language they are trying to learn.

With graded language, the low performers in an ESL class can do really well with simple English lessons.  However, when trying to teach science or math concepts, even when only introducing a few new words in the entire lesson, you know there is a huge chunk of vocabulary that they should probably learn way before the English words to learn electricity, or cells, or photosynthesis.

Students with special needs

I also teach a number of students with special needs, which is common in many Thai schools.  Many students with special needs will be mixed in with sometimes 40+ other students per class in the large government or wat schools, where they can sometimes get lost in the shuffle.  The small, alternative nature of our school means we have a high proportion of students with special needs  who do much better with the school’s smaller class sizes, one-on-one attention, and Thai teachers who seem to really know how to teach and interact with them.

One child with autism will occasionally flip open her book and point to a random image, and will then repeat back the English word I provide to her.  These basic vocab words are never the point of the lesson for that day, but this is a way I can still teach something to this one child during the “practice phase” of the lesson (see here), and the few times I can get her to speak, and in English nonetheless, are priceless.  By going with the flow and doing something on her level, everyone in the class is learning something.  Seeing this child point to images and hearing her tell me the words I taught her the previous week without any prompts; and then receiving a big, wet kiss on the cheek immediately after, rates highly as one of my favorite teaching moments so far this year.

The average student

Hopefully, the majority of the class falls into this third category, which is the level I aim for my lesson to be taught.

After a few minutes presenting the new material with carefully selected graded language, we move on the practice phase of the lesson (see the 3P’s lesson format I learned from SEE TEFL here).  I have made practice a much larger part of my lessons than we learned to do in the TEFL course, because the practice phase is when I can give extra help to the low-performing students, and teach something a little more advanced to the high performing students who finish their work in 2 minutes.  This results in as much one-on-one tutoring as possible.

I am fortunate in that I have very small class sizes where this is possible, and if you teach in a school with 50 kids/class it is unlikely you may even know who needs what kind of help, let alone have the time to make your way around the room at least once. But with the extremely varied English proficiency levels in all of my classes, and the small class sizes, this is the way I am able to do most of my teaching.

Our students are very uninterested in any sort of presentation up at the whiteboard, but they are very eager to practice and participate in games and activities.  And if some of the students didn’t hear a word I said during the “presentation” phase, the practice phase is a time to re-teach the lesson individually if needed.  This brings me to the next point…

Classroom Behavior

You will not have a class of children all sitting quietly at their desks, looking up at the board, taking notes, and successfully responding to modelling and drilling cues or instantly beginning the activity you introduced.

All of my teaching practices were with classes of fairly well-behaved students (others in my course were not quite as lucky), so this was the biggest change for me as a first year teacher.  It is not uncommon to have half of the class doodling in their sketch books or coloring books and claiming they don’t have books or notebooks for this class.  A third of the class will be playing some sort of game with a variety of interesting toys or objects that they find way more entertaining than notebooks and listening to the teacher.  This includes comic books, marbles, playing cards, toy robots, stuffed animals, slime, swords or bows and arrows made out of rulers and string, the list goes on and on.

In our TEFL course we learned to bring our energy above the class’ energy level, and that we need to become the most interesting thing in the room.  But it is honestly quite hard to compete with what the students are already doing when you first walk through the door.  I can put on a show and dance all I want, but kids know what they want to do, and as much as I try to trick them into learning with games and activities (I will have an entire post about the importance of games and activities soon!) and topics based on their interests, some days they are just completely checked out.

You figure out little tactics that help, and it varies from class to class.  For example, in one class I have started giving directions just one time and then I immediately start counting.  I then write the number of seconds it took for every child to do what I said, whether it was “quiet please!” or “everyone; stand, please!”, on the board.  This saves my sanity in that I only have to say it once, and the students respond more to pressure from one another to do what I said than they do to me constantly saying the same thing.  They then want to get the number I wrote on the board lower and lower every time—so following directions becomes a game.  However, I also know that this tactic would not work even the slightest bit in other classes I teach.

Another class responds well to a “game o’meter” (copyright Jacob Geller 2015 :-)) drawn on the board, that starts off class full.  If they are misbehaving during the (already limited) presentation, I will erase part of the meter so the “game levels” begin to drop.  The students in one class really, really want to play the game (which is actually the learning activity for the lesson anyway…but they don’t need to know that ;-)) so this class responds really well to this tactic.

Another tactic I stole from Jake is to assign points in the game for various behaviors.  This has worked tremendously well for one very competitive, usually very rowdy class in particular.  If the team answers the question correctly they get one point, but if everyone on the team was sitting—bonus 5 points!  If no one spoke Thai and they only discussed the answer in English—another bonus 5 points! If everyone on the team was quiet (other than discussing the answer)—more bonus 5 points!  This tactic had almost magical child-behaving powers, and made a normally very loud class all sit quietly in their seats and speak English throughout an entire 50 minute class.  This works for them because they are very competitive and love team review games.  In another class this wouldn’t work at all because for that other class the points don’t really matter, and whoever wins or loses this game doesn’t matter, and they would rather just play with their slime and robots.

So you find what works for each individual class. 

You also learn which battles to fight, and which to let go.  If it will take 10 minutes and all of your energy and attention to convince one child to give up a toy, or to sit in their seat—it’s not worth the time or the effort and it will affect everyone else’s learning for 1/5 of the lesson.

Sometimes kids sitting on the floor are actually the most engaged students in the room.  They are actually looking up at me, the teacher; answering questions; and getting excited to show me what they know.  So why waste time trying to get them to go back to their seat where they will be less engaged, and pay less attention?  To have some semblance of a typical Western classroom where all of the students sit at their desks?  It’s a battle not worth fighting, at least for me, in certain classes.  In other classes though, if I let that slide, then that child, and everyone around him, would be completely disengaged for the entire lesson—then it becomes a battle worth fighting.

One student with special needs will roam around the room, building various objects, but I know he will listen and respond if I call on him throughout the lesson.  So even if he is not modeling and drilling like the other students; or looking at me, or the board; I can ask him questions throughout the class and he still learns as well as everyone else who is sitting at their desks and looking at the board.  Again, another battle not worth fighting, because he is still learning, as is everyone else.

You will get to know your class and how they all interact in order to figure out what is worth fighting, and what is worth letting slide and just moving on.

Teaching in Thailand is definitely much more difficult than a TEFL course advertisement with a picture of a 20-something relaxing in a hammock on the beach may lead you to believe (I’ve seen a number of those on Facebook, and they make me laugh). But the students (at least the ones I teach!) are incredibly sweet, wonderful little people.  More to come on teaching in a Thai school, and my students in general, very soon.

How does this compare to your experience?  Do you have any tips for me or other teachers who struggle with mixed level classes or behavior issues? Leave a comment below!

Morning Assembly

Every morning between 8:10 and 8:15am (we run on Thai time) Jake and I walk over to the courtyard of our school to attend morning assembly.

Before we begin, all of the students line up around the courtyard first by grade, and then  with boys and girls separately in height order.  They form a square around the courtyard, with one student who will lead today’s assembly standing at the front.

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P3-P6 lining up for assembly. The students do wear uniforms that vary from day-to-day, but they are dressed here for Friday morning exercise.

We begin with all of the students and teachers standing at attention and singing the national anthem, while 2 students raise the flag.  Next, all of the teachers go to the middle of the courtyard and the students wai and greet their teachers.  The teachers then return back to their spots on the outside of the square, and the students wai again.

The student in charge of the music this morning  then plays the school song “Lok Nayoo” which is about “our beautiful world”.   The students (with the help of one of their teachers–a monk turned musician turned teacher, and an extremely kind man) wrote, produced, and recorded this song all on their own last year.  It’s extremely catchy.

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This morning’s student DJ

During Lok Nayoo the students put their hands behind their backs, sway from side to side, and sing along with the recording (although as expected, the younger the student, the louder they sing).

When the song ends we applaud and the student leader says “Teacher, please”.  At this point either Jake or I (we alternate) go up to the front of the assembly area to tell the students a “3 minute story”.

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Me telling a 3 minute story about an imaginary trip to Bangkok to discuss transportation (bicycle, train, and airplane) and comparative adjectives (fast, faster, fastest). Also note that this was on Scout Day–the students and Thai teachers wear scout uniforms every Tuesday.

The “3 minute story” is not exactly a story, but more an opportunity for the students to hear some English and practice speaking (we do a lot of questions and answers) first thing in the morning.

Each morning we talk about anything at all, but we come up with a new topic every day.  Some of our 3 minute stories are a big hit (jobs and what the students want to be when they grow up was very popular, although so was a 3 minute story about watermelon).  Others kind of crash and burn.

We have learned that props definitely help the 3 minute story, or at the very least, actions and motions.  Silliness is also encouraged.  And we’ve discovered it’s better to make the story too easy and keep it simple, than to have it be too hard where we are left hearing crickets and seeing a bunch of confused faces.

After the 3 minute story, the students line up and head into the library where the activities that follow vary depending on the day of the week.  However, they always start with prayer, which includes third level wais to the Buddha statue and chanting, followed by quiet meditation.

After meditation there are usually some songs (“itsy bitsy spider” is one we recognize) and then we finish with the students all laying on their backs in a savasana-like pose with arms and legs straight and their eyes closed, for more meditation.

After anywhere from 1-10 minutes of lying down meditation, the students are dismissed one grade at a time to go back to their classrooms and start the day.

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walking to the main classroom buildings from the library…time to teach!

How does this compare to how you used to start your school day?  If you are teacher, in Thailand or elsewhere, how does your school’s morning assembly and rituals compare?  Let me know in the comments.  And I’m always looking for new 3-minute story ideas!

How I interviewed without knowing it, said 6 words, and got a job

Once our course ended we took a few days off to go to Pai (more to come). When we returned to Chiang Mai we spent just one day visiting schools in person handing in application after application all over the city,  not speaking to anyone directly; and one day applying online before we got impatient and went to Ying.

Ying is the manager of EFL, the English language arm of SEE TEFL where we took our TEFL course (more on our TEFL course experience here and here). Ying told us during the course that she is an excellent matchmaker–for teacher jobs, and only for teacher jobs.  Ying gets to know the teachers who graduate out of SEE and has connections to many schools in and around Chiang Mai. She then matches up the graduates with a job opening that she thinks would be the best fit for both the teacher and the school.

Ying was set on finding us jobs together.  She said there was a great school about 30 minutes south of the city that had 2 openings and she would make a phone call to see if we could go visit, and maybe do a demo lesson tomorrow.  So we give Ying all of our paperwork (CVs and copies of our passport, transcripts, and TEFL certificate) and leave to go get a quick coffee.

When we come back, Ying runs outside and tells us the jobs she mentioned have already been filled but there is another school that has 2 openings, a better, nicer school, a little closer to the city, and we could go there at 2:00.  Today.  It is a little after noon now, so we quickly go home, shower, change into interview clothes, grab lunch, and come right back.

Back at SEE, we meet up with Por, one the Thai staff who would drive us 20 minutes to the school.  The school is very small, and absolutely beautiful.  Everything is traditional Lanna style and the school is built on a farm with big fields on either side complete with buffalo, cows, horses, and beautiful greenery.  As we pull up to the main building we see an organic garden, a small playground, and lots of beautiful teak wood.  Por walks us through the courtyard and says we can go meet the Director.

We meet the school Director, and the four of us sit down with me, Jake, and Por on a small couch; and the school Director across from us in an armchair.  Por and the Director immediately begin speaking in Thai to one another while Jake and I sit and smile.  After a while Por turns to us and asks if we could start on October 19th.  We answer, “Yes, of course” and continue sitting and smiling.

The two Thai woman continue speaking in Thai to one another until Por asks if we could start a week earlier to lesson plan and prepare.  Again, we say “yes, of course”.  Por and the Director continue speaking in Thai while Jake and I continue sitting in silence, smiling.

The school Director asks us this time if we could also teach science or math.  I answer again with “yes, of course” and that my degree is “like science” and Jake’s is “like math” (my graded language explanation for a degree in human physiology and economics respectively).  The Director is very pleased to hear this.

Por and the Director continue speaking in Thai to one another, this time for quite a long stretch of time.  Jake and I continue sitting, smiling, and having no idea what is going on.  Por realizes at some point that she is no longer translating so she turns to us and explains that they are discussing where we could live.  We smile and nod and realize that this interview, that we didn’t even know was an interview until it had already started, was apparently going really well.

After a few more moments of Thai, Por turns to us and says, “Congratulations, you got the job!  Can we take a photo for Ying?”.  We thank the school Director (and Por for doing all of the hard work!), take a photo, and try to steal  glances at each other to indicate what we are both thinking—I don’t know what just happened, but I’m excited.

From there, we say goodbye and go see the rest of the school before driving back to SEE.

When we walk in the front door at SEE TEFL all of the Thai staff at the front desk had clearly already heard the good news, and they all start applauding and cheering.  I told Jake as we were walking in that I couldn’t stop smiling, but this sealed the deal.  Thailand is awesome.  We went from hearing from Ying that there might be a job opening at about noon, to us both being fully employed about 3 and a half hours later.  The Thai way (or just knowing Ying) definitely wins.

New TEFL teachers!
New TEFL teachers!

Observed Teaching Practices at SEE TEFL

Our first two weeks at SEE TEFL were spent in the classroom learning grammar, teaching skills, and Thai.  We also had a Thai cultural day, and a half day spent visiting a school and observing Thai and foreign teachers.

The second two weeks of the course are entirely spent preparing for and teaching at our six Observed Teaching Practices (OTPs), or student teaching.

Teaching 2nd graders about classroom vocabulary
Teaching 2nd graders about classroom vocabulary

The OTPs are a major reason Jake and I decided to take our course at SEE TEFL. Each OTP is in a real Thai classroom, so we get to see what it is like to teach in a real school, with the schools’ real classrooms and facilities, and with actual Thai students of various ages.

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View from my classroom at the final Observed Teaching Practice….I can definitely get used to this 🙂

SEE TEFL sets up the OTPs at 5 different schools around Chiang Mai, plus a one-on-one lesson at EFL, the English language arm of SEE.  The instructors  provide us with the lesson, grade level, day, and time we will teach for all 6 OTPs a few days before each one.

On the morning of the OTP, we arrive at SEE TEFL between 7:40 and 8:00am. Usually everyone is very early, but there are always at least one or two people finishing up last minute printing, copying, or other preparations. When it is time to leave, we pile into the back of either John’s truck, or a songtheaw to head off to today’s school.

We arrive at the school towards the end of morning assembly. At some schools we meet the Director and then are immediately shown to the teachers’ room or a common space were we wait for our turn to teach.  At other schools, we are brought up in front of assembly and each take a turn introducing ourselves to the entire school.

The first group to teach begin at 9:00am, so they rush off right away to find their classrooms and start preparing their whiteboards. The rest of our class waits in our teacher’s room where the school usually provides us with coffee, water, and some snacks.

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Sometimes crazy Kindergarteners try to storm the Teacher’s room…which turns into a pretty hilarious scene.
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but they’re not quite sure what to do once they actually get inside….

There is a real sense of comradery in our teacher’s room. No matter how class went, everyone comes back from teaching either exhausted or extremely excited, eager to tell their story (good or bad!), and almost always dripping in sweat.

When it is my turn to teach, my observer from SEE is either sitting in the back corner of the room, or  switching between two rooms next door to one another if they are observing two of us at once. Other than that, the class is mine to teach as if I was already a certified teacher, and they are my regular class of students.

"My" 4th graders after the final Observed Teaching Practice--my favorite one!
“My” 4th graders after the final Observed Teaching Practice–my favorite one!

During my observed teaching practices I taught Pre-K (2-3 year olds); Primary 2, 3, 4, and 6; and an adult intermediate level ESL student (an early  20-something intern at EFL).

Each of these lessons follow the “3Ps” methodology–Presentation, Practice, and Production.  For each lesson (except for Kindergarten) I prepare a detailed lesson plan, whiteboard plan, whiteboard images to be used during the “Presentation” phase of the lesson, a worksheet for students to complete during the “Practice” phase, and flashcards for a “Production” activity where students practice speaking and producing language on their own, without any support on the whiteboard.

Whiteboard plan, whiteboard images, flashcards, 10+ page lesson plan, and worksheet for my OTP with Primary 3 students
Presentation phase--Jake at the whiteboard teaching 1st graders about feelings
Presentation phase–Jake at the whiteboard teaching 1st graders about feelings
Practice phase--Jake reviewing his worksheet with the 1st graders
Practice phase–Jake reviewing completed worksheets with the 1st graders
Production phase--Jake offering praise for a job well done!
Production phase–Jake offering praise for a job well done!

More on the 3 Ps of TEFL can be found here.

Although we still follow the 3Ps, the Kindergarten OTP is slightly different. For kindergarten (where I taught farm animals), we sit on the floor in a circle, and there are no whiteboard plans or worksheets. Instead I prepare a detailed lesson plan (including “hello” and “goodbye” songs!); big, bright, colorful flashcards to use during the presentation phase; toy animal props to use during the practice phase; and finally a giant, colorful, handmade box with farm animal images on each side.  The box is used for a fun production activity where the students take turns rolling the box and saying the name of the image that pops up (obviously to then be rewarded with lots of praise and a high-five).  Even the little 2-3 year olds are producing language by the end of class, which is extremely exciting to see.

The completed project–my farm animal flashcards
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Jake making his Kindergarten box–He taught eating utensils to Kindergarten 3 (5-6 year olds)
My TEFL classmates and I after our Kindergarten OTP

The students are wonderful, although there are definitely the occasional discipline issues. The only “horror stories” I heard were from a kindergarten class (a student who kept kicking another student in the head–this was Jake’s class), Primary 1 ( students continuously putting plastic bags on their heads), Primary 2 (the trainee teacher had to confiscate some pretty inappropriate drawings), and Primary 4 (a student cut another students’ hair in the middle of class–also Jake’s story).

However, mostly the students are sweet, attentive, engaged, and trying their best. There are lots and lots of high fives, group hugs at the end of class, students giving the teachers cupcakes or stickers, students chanting the teacher’s name after class, or running up to help clean up the board and gather our materials. I was very lucky and I loved every class I taught during the TEFL course.

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Jake gets a big group hug from the 1st graders at his Observed Teaching Practice.

Teaching practices, at least for me, are usually really fun. It is exciting to see the class learning and producing the target language (even if only slightly).   Also, other than 50 minutes of teaching, for the rest of the time spent at the school I am able to relax and hang out with my TEFL classmates; or walk around, explore the school, and look in on other classes.

One of the many signs at Wat Chiangyuen Municipality School where we did our 5th OTP
One of the many signs at Wat Chiangyuen Municipality School where we did our 5th OTP

Once the last trainee finishes their lesson, we say goodbye to the school Director and pile back into the songthaew or John’s truck to head back to SEE TEFL.  We meet upstairs in our usual teaching room, Paris, and receive some general group feedback from John and the rest of the observers.  We then break into small groups with whoever observed our class for that day in order to receive some personalized feedback.  Finally our observer gives us our evaluation sheets with their comments, and our grade for that lesson.

Once we have our feedback, we head out for a lunch break, re-group, and then come back to SEE and immediately continue preparing our lessons for the next OTP!

Our TEFL class after finishing our 2nd Observed Teaching Practice!
Our TEFL class after finishing another Observed Teaching Practice!

If you completed a TEFL course, did you have Observed Teaching Practices?  How does your experience compare to mine?  Were you taught the 3Ps methodology?  Let me know in the comments!