Sunday, September 22, 2013

My Carpe Diem Moment

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

I never planned to become a teacher.  It was thrust upon me when I found myself in Bangkok with nothing much to do.  A British monk suggested I speak to monks who were studying English at a temple across the river.  That visit led to an offer to teach a course in "Listening and Speaking English" (an ungrammatical title I've struggled with) and I continue to do so six years later.

In the 1989 film "Dead Poet's Society,"  an English teacher at a private school, played by Robin Williams, quotes from Robert Herrick's 16th century poem "To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time," and tells his students that the first line should be translated by the Latin expression carpe diem, "seize the day." The reason, he says, is that one day they will be dead and fertilizing daffodils like everyone that came before them. Live to the full now, he urges his students, and "make your lives extraordinary."

I had no clue how to teach young Thai monks anything, much less English.  But I'd been impressed by the attempt of that cinematic teacher to inspire his students to learn.  It's certainly impossible to open up a student's head and pour knowledge inside.   My own long academic career taught me the importance of going out and seizing it.  I treated the university as a candy store and spent nearly 20 years sampling and nibbling all the goodies.  In Thailand, I'd been told, the educational system is hierarchical with teachers, treated with the utmost respect, dictating what their students must learn (in most cases, memorize).  Critical thinking and curiosity were in short supply.

Armed with a textbook from Oxford for a model, I designed lessons that tried to strike a happy balance between studying and practicing English grammar. All of my students were raised in small villages where sending a son to the temple sometimes was the only way to feed him. They came from every Southeast Asian country and becoming a monk was probably the only way for them to get a university degree.  Though an Australian had taught at the school the year before me, I was usually the first native speaker my students, all majoring in English, had ever met.

Since I spoke almost no Thai, and, as I soon discovered, the English my students had so-far learned was very basic, communication in the beginning was not easy.  Added to this was the limited English of the faculty members who were teaching it.   Thai was used to teach the English majors, even the students from Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar who had to learn Thai first in order to study English.  Consequently, their pronunciation was primitive.  There was a sound lab for practice, but it had been "broken" for years (I later was told the same about the brand new lab at the Ayutthaya campus where classes were moved in my third year). Countering these difficulties was the enthusiasm for English expressed by my students. One reason was their passion for English football and pop singers like Michael Jackson.  Some would probably disrobe after graduation to become guides or open a business while many others told me they wanted to teach English at the temple near their home village.

My first classroom had fans but no air conditioning. And it had a microphone.  Besides enabling me to better hear my shy students speak, it encouraged me to become a standup comic.  I turned the chairs in a circle seminar style and prowled the room with the mic looking for ways to make them talk and laugh.  The latter wasn't difficult because Thais love to turn anything into sanuk, "fun." My lectures were usually punctuated with laughter, even on exam day when I wrote rules on the board which included "no electronic devices, no peeking, no dancing & no singing."

Speaking before the class was a different matter.  My students lacked confidence in their English proficiency and were hesitant to do anything that might result in a mistake, a consequence of their rigid training.  I told them making mistakes was the only way they could learn; if they didn't, there was nothing I could teach them.  Asking for volunteers to speak was a non-starter, so I learned to pick the first speaker and go around the room.  Each term there was usually one student who couldn't stop.  "Thank you for the microphone," they would say and would be off and running.  My job then was to give them the hook amid much laughter.

"What's good for the goose is good for the gander," goes an old expression (my students love learning English idioms and maxims).  Teaching these Thai monks has been my carpe diem moment.  I tried teaching in California after getting my Ph.d. in environmental history, but I found most of my students more interested in partying after class than doing their homework than exhibiting even an iota of intellectual curiosity.  I quit in order to travel instead of pursuing what as a less than promising academic future, never imagining I would find myself in front of a classroom again.  But it's become the most satisfying work of my life in a varied and spotty job resume.

In addition to teaching 3rd and 4th year students, I have also lectured in a graduate linguistics program and taught a few basic English classes to students in MA programs of education and public administration. For several years I've presided over competitions organized by students in the English Club with other schools. And I've given a talk on the importance of English as the working language of ASEAN, and assisted at a weekend English camp at another school in Bangkok where learning games were played by giggling undergraduates.  While coming as a surprise late in my career, I've done my best to seize the day with gusto.

This past week, however, I met my Waterloo.  I had been asked nearly two months ago to teach a 10-week, 40-hour class for university staff members during lunchtime.  Though I was not given much time to prepare, it seemed like a wonderful challenge.  I designed a series of lectures around the basics, from parts of speech to sentences, clauses and building a vocabulary.  My iPod Mini has the capability of showing YouTube videos and PowerPoint presentations and I gathered a cornucopia of slides and clips to enliven the two-hour proceedings.

Some twenty students, monks and laypeople who worked at the school, were expected and most came to the first meeting.  I was at my best, strutting around the room with the mic and exhorting my students to think, speak and laugh about the language they all knew a bit about (it was an "intermediate" class).  My timing was precise, knowing they all had jobs to do and were sacrificing their lunchtime to learn, and I ended each class with a music video and an exercise in which they filled in the blanks in a lyric sheet of words they heard sung. Everyone seemed pleased.

Attendance began dropping about week three.  Last week at the halfway point in the series, the class on Monday had only two students, one of them arriving an hour late.  Nobody came to last Friday's class, except for a couple of staff members from the Language Institute who had proposed the class in the first place and who now felt sorry for me.  Afterwards I went to see one of the missing students, a librarian, and he was most apologetic but said he needed to remain at work. The cause of the failure seemed simple enough: either these staff members decided they could not take time away from duties to brush up on their English, or my teaching was not appealing to them.  My wife suggested that since the course was free and voluntary, there was nothing to keep them coming. Paid class for credit have more incentives to continue.  Thais would never criticize my teaching for fear of causing me to lose face; all, therefore, had other things to do.

After Friday, I cancelled the remaining classes.  Even if a few attended, the continuity of my review of English grammar was broken (later topics depended on a familiarity with earlier ones). And it's much harder teach two students than it is a full classroom where I can interacts with a couple of rows of them.  

Part of me is happy that I no longer need to complete the lessons for classes 12-20.  I've had little free time for the last month because of the work load and the deadlines I imposed on myself. Now I can swim, read novels, and surf the web to my heart's delight.  But I already miss those moments when I stood before a roomful of students holding the mic and doing my English rap. I'm not sorry I seized those days, but I just want there to be more before I'm fertilizing daffodils.

1 comment:

Ed Ward said...

So hang on, I'm unclear here. Do you still teach the monks? Or does the crash of this faculty thing mean you're out of work?