Thursday, March 20, 2014

Peeking is Prohibited

No more pencils, no more books
No more teacher's dirty looks
"School's Out for Summer," Alice Cooper

School's out for what counts as "summer" in Thailand, mid-March through the end of May.  Most of the tourists have gone home and hot weather is upon us with the rains not far behind.  I finished teaching "Listening and Speaking English" (always embarrassed by its missing "to") for 3rd year students at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya Buddhist University with a music video of Alice Cooper's classic end of term anthem.  Earlier this week I tortured them with a final exam.

For six years I've been teaching mostly monks who are majoring in English in the Faculty of Humanities at MCU.  The main campus is now in Wangnoi, an area on the outskirts of Ayutthaya where factories are taking over the rice fields.  My school provides several pink air-conditioned commute buses for teachers and staff that takes 1-1 1/2 hours each way, while students not living in the on-campus dormitory travel in a fleet of red leased buses from Bangkok where they stay at Buddhist temples around the city. Occasionally I have a layman or woman in my class and this term one of my best students is a bhikkhuni (nun) from Vietnam, but most of my students are men in their 20s from all over Southeast Asia.   This term they've come from Vietnam, Yunnan province in southern China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, and Bangladesh as well as Thailand. All are from poor backgrounds and my university may be their only opportunity for an advanced education.

Since I'm relatively inexperienced at the job, the key to my teaching method is humor, hence the "rules" shown above for my final exam. Despite the fact that they are Buddhist monks bound by a monastic rule that forbids lying and stealing, among other bad deeds, I know that they've been educated in an authoritarian system of mostly rote learning, and they'll cheat and copy if they can. So I taught them the English word "peeking" and I demonstrate it graphically, peering at the exam paper of a student next to me, which always brings laughter.  I also demonstrate teacher's "dirty looks" when I pretend to see peeking taking place across the room.  In addition, I make them put away their precious electronic devices (all of the monk students have computers and mobile phones) and any books or papers they brought along. Finally, since it's difficult for young men in a group to ever stay quiet, I emphasize my no-talking rule by including shouting and whispering (I should have added "murmuring" which is what I usually hear from my desk at the front of the room.  The other "rules" attempt to convince them that I'm not "too serious" (not a positive in this culture).

Thinking my Social Security income would be sufficient, when I moved permanently to Thailand in 2007 I never considered the possibility of teaching English, the most common occupation for expats. Although I had a Ph.D in history, I'd only taught classes for a couple of years before growing bored with my students, and I'd never taught anything remotely resembling a language. But a British monk who got his BA at MCU, and who thought I should do something more worthwhile with my spare time, encouraged me to visit his satellite campus in Bangkok and I was invited to address its English Club.  The only other native-speaking English teacher had left and I was asked to take his place teaching two classes of the same basic subject for English majors, one day a week. 

The offer came with the promise of a work permit which would remove the necessity of frequent visa runs needed for a longterm residency.   That was an ideal incentive. My friend thought all I needed to do was sit down and chat in English with the students, but I required more structure.  The truth is, I was scared witless by the prospect of attempting to teach English!  I had no idea how I learned it, and I doubted that the diagramming of sentences, so important in my elementary school, was still a common practice. So I found and read Barry Sesnan's How to Teach English and bought the Headway elementary textbook published by Oxford University Press in order to plagiarize its themes and make use of its grammar lessons.  Setting up my first few classes was relatively easy, but getting the work permit was an arduous process that took almost six months.  The Thai bureaucracy loves documents and signatures and stamps and they all have to be done without error. I trekked to the Immigration Office and Ministry of Labour many times before finally winning approval.  

Inner courtyard of classroom building
Before the department was moved to the Ayutthaya campus, my first classroom was rather primitive with only fans, ancient desks and chairs, and a blackboard that had seen better days.  In my first year, I moved from Sukhumvit to a condo in Pinklao not far from the classes at Wat Srisudaram.  Many of the students were eager and passionate about learning English.  I gave them topics for oral presentations that required them to talk in English about their lives, their families and home communities, and their path to the monkhood.  All of my students without exception have come from small villages. Those from outside Thailand had to learn Thai in order to study at MCU (more recently, there are BA and MA English programs in the International School taught in English).   My classes of course were exclusively in English, but I know that some of the other English teachers did a lot of their instruction in Thai. Classrooms were supplied with a microphone and a portable speaker, and from day 1 I discovered a irrepressible desire to be a standup comedian who also happened to teach English.  My students responded enthusiastically and I was off and running.

Linguistic students at Wat Srisudaram
English grammar by itself is mind numbing, so I tried to sugar coat it by reading stories from Bangkok's English newspapers, giving them song exercises where they filled in the blanks on lyric sheets (at first just audio but later watching music videos), pronunciation practice with elocution limericks, reading articles with each student taking a sentence, and a variety of lesson tricks found on the internet.  They wrote short essays every week along with five sentences using new English words they wished to add to their vocabulary.  I got most of them to send me their homework by email attachment and I encouraged them to find email pen pals with whom to practice their English.  Some laughed at the "old" music I played for them and suggested new songs and artist to me for exercises. Teaching was exhausting work since I rarely sat down, but from the beginning I loved it more than any other job I'd had in the past, and wondered why it had taken me so long to find my vocation.

As I gradually honed my skills (and continued to wonder whether my students were learning anything from me), I accepted other offers to teach.  I've held conversation classes for students in several different weekend MA programs at various MCU campuses, and I twice started classes for students and for staff in the school's Language Institute that unfortunately never found a large enough audience to continue.  When the Faculty of Humanities started an MA program in linguistics I was asked to teach for several terms, using PowerPoint and videos to lecture on mass communications and in an English class where I used The Little Prince for a textbook to illustrate linguistic concepts.  Being old and lazy, I've rarely taught more than two days a week, and as a temporary lecturer I get paid with envelopes of cash (sometimes many months' late).  

There's something wonderful about the episodic nature of teaching, even when the material is the same.  I usually teach the same students for two terms, an intermediate course followed by an advanced one.  Getting to know the students and especially the names of each (which are often difficult for me to pronounce correctly) is a challenging yet rewarding process.  But I'm always sad when the term ends.  It should normally last 16 weeks, but because of various cancellations I only got 12 weeks before giving the final exam.  And each week's class lasts 2 to 2 1/2 hours, not nearly enough I think to cement their learning.  My students, however, are enormously grateful and constantly tell me how wonderful I am (a bit of apple polishing, perhaps?).  At the end of the final class, as the sounds of Alice Cooper faded away, my students brought another teacher to the room and we all lined up for the obligatory class photo.  There is nothing forced about my big smile.


Teacher Brenda said...

It is refreshing to read a positive experience here. You have a great attitude and will do well!

Anonymous said...

It is refreshing to read about a positive teaching experience! You have a great attitude and will do well!