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!

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