Sunday, June 28, 2015

Teaching English to Monks in Thailand


"It's a very ancient saying,
but a true and honest thought,
that if you become a teacher, 
by your pupils you'll be taught."

"Getting to Know You" from the musical The King and I

I never wanted to be a teacher.  My first ambition was to be an actor, and when that looked to be not too promising, it was to play clarinet and alto sax in Stan Kenton's jazz orchestra.  All through high school I honed my skills by playing my woodwinds in groups and even leading my own combo which won a battle of the bands contest (the group coming in second included Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, a prodigy at 17).  When a car accident after high school laid me up for six months and nipped my career in the bud, I sold all my musical paraphernalia and turned to books.  I had decided to become a writer.

Only moderately successful, I penned some unpublished poetry and wrote mostly journalistic fluff for magazines and newspapers for many years. When I gave up the working world for academia, I wrote scholarly papers about philosophy, religion and history (you can even read some at Academia.edu). I only produced one book, the text for a volume about the history of California's first redwood park, The Sempervirens Story.  You know what they say about those who fail to realize their ambitions: Those that can, do; those that can't, teach.  I didn't stay a student at UC Santa Cruz for 18 years because I wanted to be a teacher.  I loved study, writing and research, for its own sake and the pleasure it gave me to pursue my curiosity. Since I was already past my prime I didn't expect job offers after the Ph.d. But my then wife was disturbed by this non-utilitarian attitude (thinking of the huge salaries that professors might make) and so I tried a few semesters of teaching at the California campus.  

From "Goodbye Mr. Chips"
Teaching the core course, a reading, discussion and writing class for 1st year students, at Stevenson and College VIII, was a delightful experience with mixed results.  I got to pontificate about the great books, and even lectured on the Bhagavad Gita. At College VIII the theme was ecology which tied in with my study of the redwood preservation movement.  The students were smart but lazy.  Their curiosity had been diminished (I decided) by leading a privileged life style provided by mostly wealthy parents. They were more interested in partying, the opposite sex and smoking dope, and few students put much effort into reading and writing about Plato, the Iliad, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Freud, Marx, various ecology exposes and manifestos, and Malcolm X (among others).  I also taught courses on writing, environmental history and ethics, and the history of California.  But my experience was the same. Either I failed to inspire them, or their lack of interest in "higher" education made them immune to the curiosity bug.  After four years of post-graduate teaching, I gave up on my lackadaisical students and took up long-distance travel (Mexico, Guatemala, Argentina and Chile, Europe and India).

Loafing in Pattaya
Expats flock to Thailand for various legitimate as well as questionable reasons. Little legal work is available for those without an inheritance or a retirement income.  Teaching English is an enormously popular alternative to living underground, and there are numerous schools offering teaching certificates to westerners who lack other credentials, or even an undergraduate degree.  I resolved not to go down that road, and assumed my Social Security would provide all the income I needed to live comfortably in the Big Mango, Bangkok.  But a few months into my new lazy lifestyle, a British Buddhist monk challenged me.  "What are you going to do here?" he asked.  "Nothing," I replied (leaving out any details of my non-monkish life style).  You should teach, he suggested, and arranged for me to speak to the English Club at the temple where he had studied for a bachelor's degree.

Students at my 1st talk, 2008
A roomful of orange-robbed monks with close-shaved heads listened intently to my rambling talk about the high points of my life as a native-speaking American.  Their previous non-Thai teacher of English, an Australian named Kevin, had recently departed.  I was invited to teach "Listening and Speaking English" to 3rd and 4th year students at the Buddhist university and for several years was referred to as the "new Kevin."  After my California experience, I had little interesting in teaching, and as someone who learned his language in childhood, I had no idea how it should be taught to a Thai speaker in his 20s.  I accepted the job because I had nothing else on my plate, and it did come with a work permit and visa (the difficulty I had in getting those is another story). My British monk friend advised against much preparation and said I should just sit and chat with them.  But how could I fill three hours of class time with just chatter?

Thus began my odyssey to learn how to teach English, which is still ongoing seven years later.  Last year I even taught a graduate course in "Methods of Teaching Effective English."  My 48 students, most of who hoped to become English teachers, were from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, India and Vietnam (two were laymen, the rest monks). In the beginning the prospect of an unprepared class terrified me, and I purchased several of Oxford's Headways series of textbooks to use as a guide.  The elementary and American texts have served me well.  Using the lesson topics as a base, I've slowly developed my own methods of teaching.  Most classroom come with a sound system and I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed strutting up and down with a microphone in my hand.  In a former life I was surely a stand-up comedian.  And from the first class I created exercises with song lyrics and played music while my students struggled to identify the blanked-out words.

It took me years to pronounce my university's name: Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya. It's the largest of the two Buddhist schools with numerous satellite campuses around the country. When I began teaching, the Faculty of Humanities was located in the classroom building of Wat Srisudaram, a temple close to my home in Pinklao on the west side of the Chao Phraya River.
The main campus was across the river at Wat Mahathat, but within two years facilities began moving to the larger new campus in Wangnoi outside Ayutthaya, an hour and a half away.  Now I teach in the weekend MA program in English at Wat Sri and one day a week in Wangnoi where I continue to teach intermediate and advanced Listening and Speaking English to 3rd and 4th year students majoring in English.  There are a growing number of lay students now and like my graduate students there are more from outside Thailand than from within. Almost all my students come from small villages and becoming a monk is the only way they will ever get a university education.  Many disrobe after graduation without criticism.  Graduate study is also growing in popularity as the Southeast Asian economies mature and require knowledgeable white-collar employees, and I am often asked how one can get into a western school for a Ph.d. degree (most Thais get this degree at an institution in India).

I've been incredibly lucky.  This is the most rewarding job I've ever had and it comes at the tail end of my working career.  Most of my students are very enthused about learning English and respond to my often fumbling attempts to help them with grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation with amazing grace and gratitude.  Despite mobile phones, chatting with friends, reading Facebook on a laptop, and the occasional ladyboy putting on makeup, there are few discipline problems (other teachers tell me it's worse at the non-Buddhist schools).  There are frequent annoying problems with audio-visual equipment, and surprise cancellations of class for rituals or the rector's lecture, but the centerpiece of the job -- my encounter with a student trying to speak and understand English words -- is priceless.

After getting my doctorate in history in 2002, I never thought I would use it.  But "Dr." before a name has tremendous cachet in Thailand.  I needed no teaching certificates to get hired, and though the retirement age at universities here is 60, I continue to be given an annual "special" contract (not sure what that means, but it works). There are few western teachers at MCU but our presence I'm sure helps to polish the "international" aspects of their programs.  For the non-international programs like the undergrad major in English, classes are taught in Thai which monks from outside the country must learn quickly.  I have my doubts that you can teach English by giving lessons in Thai, but there is now some evidence that English learners benefit from teachers who have themselves had to learn the language.  The future of English is with non-native speakers around the world who use it as a lingua franca to communicate with users of the language from another country.

After eight years, I still have my doubts about teaching.  It's very difficult to measure improvement over a four-month course.  They enter my classes with a wide range of facility.  The best students might not even need my instruction.  The worst can neither speak nor understand spoken English and it seems impossible to penetrate their language barrier.  Asian students are normally shy for fear of losing face by make a grammar or pronunciation mistake.  It takes all my efforts to encourage them to forget their fears and speak. For some, speaking is easy but writing is impossibly difficult.  Others surprise me with their articulate sentences and essays when they remain mute in their seats.  In the beginning I focused on grammar because it's simple to teach rules and easy to grade exams for them. But I'm now persuaded that vocabulary and pronunciation are more important.  You can understand a student with poor grammar if they have the words to say something meaningful and pronounce them correctly so as not to be misunderstood. The buzzword in English teaching today is communication.  It's of primary importance to teach them to communicate with both native and non-native English speakers, to use their language skills to say or ask about something essential.  But this ability is very difficult to examine and grade (my end of semester oral exam cannot measure the two-sided nature of communication).

I'm not sure how long I'll be able to teach.  But at 75, there is one permanent Thai faculty member a couple of months older than me, and another not far behind.  Age is not a problem, then, but health can be. Earlier this year I broke my wrist in a fall outside the classroom, but it didn't put me out of commission for long. Walking up and down steps has become more tiring and I look for easy ways to maneuver the hallways in our large six-floor classroom building. I detest sitting down while I teach so each class involves several miles of pacing.  On the pink commuter bus home I'm usually exhausted.  My fellow teachers often comment on how "strong" I am, but they know I'm married to a much younger woman and I think their meaning is metaphorical. My wrinkles and pot belly are on full display, but sometimes I'm inspired in the classroom to forget them and rage like a young Robin Williams urging my students to seize the day and speak English!