Teaching English in Thailand, Traveling, Bone-Dry Humor, Other Stuff Too

Learnin’ the Chitlins



Kids are pretty weird. So, luckily, I’ve been able to get along with them okay. If I can get the little rascals’ attention for close to 60 % of a lesson, they can grasp what I’m doing, and they are mine.

Adapting to the spicy food and the exotic food (“exotic,” being generously euphemistic in this case) food, the small black beetles infiltrating my apartment, the suspense of finding out whether the water pressure of a given bidet is better illustrated by hydraulic mining or by “trickle-down-economics,” and understanding only the word “farang” (a western foreigner) when people talk about me–these are all nothing compared to adapting my teaching. Almost everything I have learned about TEFL was shattered in the first week. It’s not that I didn’t learn a lot about teaching, it’s that my students know almost no English whatsoever. Getting TEFL certified prepared me mainly for “beginning-intermediate” to “high-intermediate,” but the roughly 400 students I am responsible for have been exposed to far less English than what I would have previously considered a “beginner,” let alone the little hyphenated intermediate business. They are complete novices, except for the few random sets of vocabulary they’ve had to write down over and over in their notebooks for hours. But they struggle to actually speak and to form sentences. Some of the training I received prior to coming here was useful, but advice for teaching beginner students was usually included as an afterthought, or only mentioned when applicable. This makes sense–and I would go as far as to say it’s inevitable–because the range of levels of English learners a TEFL Certificate-wielder might encounter once they actually find a classroom in a school in a country is as wide as the range of water pressure in Thai bidets.

A good example of this is when I tried to write a set of class rules during the first week. This is suggested because you can make yourself look reasonable before you force your students to do work they abhor, and you can even try to be democratic by letting the students propose their own rules and confer. But your kids might not understand anything you say, which makes this impossible.

Here are some challenges I face:

  • I can barely explain the rules of the different games I try to play in the classroom, and certainly not verbally.
  • The luxury of being able to explain something is like a good dream I wanted to remember.
  • Discipline is a four-toothed mythical giant living in the jungle.
  • My students hate to do things. If I have them write down a word and then write down a second one on the board, they look at me as if to say, “You want us to do two things?”
  • Another challenge is their pedantic obsession with writing down the date in English. They freak out if I don’t write the date on the board, and it takes some of my students twenty plus minutes to painstakingly copy it down. Most of the time it’s already written there by another teacher when I walk into a classroom, but if it’s not, I try to avoid writing it. In that case they can’t fathom the possibility that I do understand their incessant requests to write down the English date but I just don’t want to do it (they ask me in Thai). In fact, they speak to me in Thai all the time, and at this rate I’m learning Thai faster than they are English. But that’s (potentially flattering?) quitter talk. They also go crazy with whiteout when they make slight mistakes in their writing, and that happens a lot.
  • I interact with exactly one Thai teacher who speaks English, and I only see her for an hour on Mondays and Tuesdays, and for a few minutes on Fridays, during all of which time I am busy teaching a class and cannot raise major concerns or questions.
  • I don’t have internet, projectors, slides, books, curriculum, or more than one reliable whiteboard marker.
  • I do have a teacher’s manual for teaching English that’s entirely written in Thai, lots of chalk (most of my classrooms have chalkboards), and T.V.’s that could probably play V.H.S. tapes.
Where the Magic Happens (Lesson Planning Magic)

Where the (Lesson Planning) Magic Happens

So how do I do it?

One day at a time.

I don’t know.

I don’t even really like it that much.

But sometimes I tell myself that the amount of creative thinking I’m doing, the problem solving, the ability to alter the course of a lesson in an instant based on the reactions I’m getting, are all forcing me to become a better teacher faster. And it’s not my students’ fault they can’t speak English, and that their previous method of learning it was repeating phrases over and over or writing them down twenty times in a row.

Here is some stuff I have learned about my kids and how to get through to them.

  • They love competition. Anything that splits the class up into teams and has an objective will engage them better than throwing chalk nubs at them. At this rate, I can turn anything into a game. If I’m at a loss and trying to get them to follow a scripted conversation involving three (or however many) people, I’ll just have them rotate one person out of the three each time they do the conversation. The others then take on different roles and a new person gets worked in. I’ll break them up into teams and I’ll time how long it takes each team to get through the conversation three or four times without any glaring errors, write times on the board, and witness the winning team jump on their desks and cheer. Sometimes they even volunteer to participate when I do this.
  • Every class has to start with some sort of game or activity. Otherwise, I’ve already lost them. Even if I’m going to give them a test, or if they are behind the other classes, I need to do this. Sometimes it’s just for five or ten minutes, then I can almost lecture for awhile before the lesson necessarily evolves into another game that tests them on the new material instead of reviewing older material as the warm-up game does.
  • Stick figures can be used to demonstrate way more than I can. Sometimes if the rules of a game or an activity are too complicated to explain in slow, watered down speech or by physically forcing a few students to demonstrate in front of the class with my help, then I draw a few panels of stick figures at each stage of the game/activity.
  • They really want their work to be signed off or checked when they finish. If I don’t start signing their notebooks after they finish an activity, roughly one-third will not do it at all. When they see that I’m signing notebooks, they all start frantically working faster, and some begin to spill sweet ink on their blank pages at last.
  • While a class may be able to pronounce something, respond to a question, or repeat what I say as a group, the individual student often cannot. This is another reason why games are so vital; they provide an opportunity for individual students to speak up or respond to a question while there is incentive to do so. For many of my students, I am convinced that this is the only time they are learning from me at all. If they get to throw my hacky sack at the other team’s crudely drawn boat on the chalkboard, they are willing to try speaking, and without some sort of input from them, I have nothing to correct or to work with.


  • It’s better to mess around with troublemakers than to get mad at them. Some of the hooligans are actually my favorite students, and if I can acknowledge disruptive behavior or unwillingness to participate without losing my patience or my temper, then it is much much more productive. For instance, if a student is playing with legos while he should be writing something or speaking, I will smile and motion for him to put it away, instead of going straight for the old confiscation routine. If the kid persists, then I will walk up to him, pick up his lego dude, point to him, then point to the lego, and then dramatically twist the lego dude’s head off and make a gruesome face before re-attaching the head and chucking it in the kid’s desk. If the lego dude has a gun, I will use the gun to pretend “shoot” the student in the face several times while the rest of the class laughs at him. This stuff has actually been working for me, and I often get to play with legos in the process. Other similar strategies include mimicking disruptive or loud students in an exaggerated or even more juvenile way, which always gets the other kids laughing at the trouble maker. Or I will call on students who are being annoying, but that trick is pretty well-known. I find kids piling their spare change on their desks a lot, and if they are making my job too hard, I will publicly steal small amounts of their change and put it in my shirt pocket. I give it back when they finish their work, turn their lives around, or whatever it is they need to figure out. I have actually forgotten to return it a few times. I wouldn’t say this last technique is strictly “legal,” but who’s to say, really? I also throw useless chalk nubs at them from time to time. If a kid is tearing around all over the place then sometimes I will pick him up, turn him upside down, and shake him until he has laughed away most of his energy. Girls are generally more behaved, so I can just make faces at them, or call them out when they aren’t paying attention.
  • They really like any videos or GIF’s I can incorporate. I’m not provided with the resources for these, but I have started experimenting with embedding GIF’s into powerpoint so that I can show them at school without wifi. The kids seem to really like them so far, especially if I can fund funny ones, like a sledder wiping out for “snow,” or a cartoon eating snowflakes ( I just started a weather unit).

And those are all the tricks of the trade I felt like writing down right now, but I’m hoping to discover more as I go.

I think now is also an appropriate time to notify everyone that my students all have English nicknames they use in class. They are great. Seriously one of my favorite parts of the job. Here are some examples:

Arm, Gun, Copter, Play, Joker, God, Joe, Folk, Focus, Porn (this one is an abbreviation of a Thai name), Film, Smile, One, Nine, Mix…and my personal favorite, which has been very difficult to choose due to the great showing all around…Cake Big.

The rare moments when I see and hear my students speaking English and responding to one another in a way that shows they understand it, and when I know they couldn’t do it before I spent a lesson or two tricking them into learning something, are some of the most rewarding moments I have known.

1 Comment

  1. Brendan's Gravatar Brendan
    December 18, 2014    

    Glad to hear things are well my friend :) Certainly got a few laughs out of this post. Cheers mate, keep on

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