Wednesday, July 3, 2013

It's Harder Being a 7th Grader than Teaching 7th Graders

In previous blogs, I have shared some teaching  stories about the good: things my students have done or said that have impressed me and made me happy to be a teacher.  I haven’t shared so much about the bad, as no one likes a whiner and it’s never a good idea to write stuff on the internet which is critical of your employer.  Today, I’d like to share a bit of the ugly.  Something happened in the classroom today that left me shocked and shaken. 

I’ll preface it by explaining again my teaching load.  Half my classes are IEP (Intensive English Program).  The kids have to be pretty smart to get into IEP, and most of them speak English at an intermediate level, with a handful of advanced kids too.  We get an air conditioned classroom and a building unto our own.  Their homerooms are known as X/1, with X being the grade level and 1 being where they are in the hierarchy of their cohort.  

 The other half of my classes are ‘general’ classes, i.e., everyone else.  These kids too are broken up into a hierarchy.  I’d say some of the X/2’s are smarter than their X/1 classmates, but it just so happens that either their English wasn’t up to snuff or their parents didn’t have the small extra fee the school charges to make their kid an X/1.  For me, all 7 of my general classes are in one grade, M-1, the first year of Thai high school, the 7th Grade using American terminology.

Teaching 7th graders is a challenge.  I could talk all day about how it’s like herding cats, about the discipline issues, about how they’re a bunch of little monkeys who can be trusted about as far as you can throw them.   

I realized something today.  Teaching 7th graders isn’t nearly as hard as being a 7th grader.

Firstly, it’s puberty time.  For those going through it or just on the other side, there are all these new hormones, emotions and feelings of awkwardness that they’ve never had to deal with before.   It also creates huge physical size differences between classmates.  Some of my 7th graders are as tall or even taller than me (I’m 5’11”).  Some of them aren’t even 4’10”. By western standards, some of my 7th graders look like 3rd graders.  Given the tendency worldwide for 7th grade society to be mean, harsh and full of bullying, imagine what it would be like to be half the size of some of your classmates. 
As for the hormones thing, I teach at an all-boys high school.  Other than the teachers, there are no females for them to fixate on, and given the tolerance in Thai culture for homosexuality, let’s just say boys playing with boys in that way is perfectly accepted. 

One of the things that made me label today’s class as ‘ugly’ stems from a personal experience I had as a child, when I was in the 5th grade, too young, small and afraid to defend myself from the advances of an older child who happened to be a 7th grader.  That is all I will say about that.

When I see it in my classroom, I want to explode.

Today in my 1/5 class, something happened that made the groping and fondling look tame.  If you can decipher the class code, 1 means 7th grade, 5 means their group is in the 5th tier, not the lowest, but in the lower half of smarts, achievements and expectations in their class. 

Normally, in these general classes, I have a Thai teaching assistant, a co-teacher who not only does things like translate my instructions into Thai when needed, but also is in charge of discipline.  They keep the kids in line with their teaching sticks (which they whack the kids with on a regular basis), but also their ability to yell at and threaten the kids in their own language.  I don’t get a stick to hit with (normally, I wouldn’t want one, but today I could have used one), and I can only rely on my booming voice and facial expressions to get my point across, discipline wise.  The boys in 1/5 don’t really speak much English. 

Today, however, my Thai co-teacher was off at a teaching seminar, so I was flying solo.  I’d done it before.  It’s sometimes 50 minutes of Hell, but I wasn’t that worried.  I’ve learned a thing or two about 7th graders after teaching them for 6 weeks.  I thought I could handle it. 

Today’s lesson plan for the first half of the time was for me to deliver a lesson via dialog drills (you really don’t need to explain things in Thai in this teaching model.  Just use a lot of gesticulation, visuals and repetition to make them understand).   

 As I expected, I had to do a lot of disciplining, shaming and yelling in the first half of class.  At one point, I went to the back of the class to confiscate a cel phone.  Whatever the guy was watching on it was drawing not just his attention, but that of 3 of his classmates. Can't have that.

When I held out my hand for him to give it to me, he didn’t want to comply.  He made various excuses which I didn't understand, hiding his phone is his pocket.  I frowned viciously, looked angry and held out my hand again.  Now, he remembered his English and said “Sorry!  Sorry!”  If I were a Thai teacher, I would have already had the cel phone, which he knew he’d get back by the end of the day.  These kids all know the words “I am” and of course they know “Teacher”.  Losing patience, I boomed, “I AM THE TEACHER!!” He handed it over.  

The second half of the class was spent doing a verbal quiz.  What I do is call the students up to my desk individually, shoot the first half of the dialog drill at them and they have to respond with the other half. It’s not tough.  Here was today’s dialog quiz:

Teacher:   What day is today?

Student:  Today is July Third. 

For the more advanced kids, I then asked

Teacher:  What day is tomorrow/yesterday?

Student:  Tomorrow/yesterday is July Second/Fourth

This simple quiz involved teaching two things:  yesterday/today/tomorrow and ordinals (first/second/third/fourth). 

I had 40 students to quiz individually, and as expected, as I was calling each up one at a time, the rest of class descended into chaos.  I don’t mind that as long as they come up when they are called.  Most of them are paying attention to what their classmates were saying, my reaction, etc., in order to understand what they will need to say when it is their turn. 

About halfway through, my attention was caught by a disturbance right in front of my desk. Some boys were fighting.  This happens.  They’re boys; they roughhouse.  A loud “HEY!!!” usually stops it.  When I looked up from my quizzing this time, I saw something I didn’t expect. 

There was one of the 4’8”, 75 pound little boys being sat upon by one his larger classmates, meanwhile a couple of other boys were kicking and punching this defenseless kid.  Another kid jumps in, reaches into the boy’s pocket and pulls out  40 Baht, i.e., his lunch money.


The beaten boy looks like he is in extreme pain.  He’s crying.  I leap from my chair, remove the bullying children and tell everyone to stand back.  I took the 40 Baht back from the kid who had stolen it. What I really wanted was for one or two of the bigger boys to come to this poor kid’s defense out of a basic sense of compassion and decency.  Oh yeah.  We’re talking about 7th graders.  They don’t have any of that.  Sure, several boys volunteered to help me get this kid, who couldn’t talk, looked like he was in a lot of pain and had just been beaten and robbed, up and back to his desk, but really all they wanted to do was humiliate him some more with overly rough ‘helping’. 

I was utterly in shock.  This was really bad.  It felt like I was in something out of Lord of The Flies.  And this was my classroom.  Ultimately, I am the adult there.  I am responsible for the safety and security of the children in my classroom. 

The kid got essentially carried back to his desk.  He still hadn’t opened his eyes nor said a word.  He had a wound on his leg that was bleeding.   The kids gathered like vultures waiting for the foreign teacher who they didn’t respect to go away so they could go back to beating on him.  Enough was enough.  

I enveloped the kid in my arms, carried him out to the hallway, found one kid in the class whom I sort of thought I could trust to do what he was told, or at the very least, was not part of the group that had beaten the boy up, grabbed him by the shirt, looked him in the eye and said with all severity, “YOU TAKE BOY TO NURSE! (pointing to where the nurse’s office was) NOW!!!” 

He nodded, and I watch him help the boy who could barely walk to the staircase.

Then, I carried on with the quiz.  What else could I do?

Fifteen minutes later, the kid was back.  He had the look of a beaten kid, but at least the bleeding on his leg had been staunched.  When it was his turn to be quizzed,  he didn’t say ‘Today is July Third’ very well, but I gave him 10 out of 10 points anyways. 

After class, I reported this whole thing to the Foreign Language Department head.  She took it very seriously, and later, I was asked to recount the incident again.  It was explained that if the school took it upon itself to trust a class entirely into a foreigner’s hands, if children get injured during that process, parents might start demanding answers. 

I later learned that school nurse reported that she never did receive a boy with a wounded leg from 1/5.  The boy who got beaten never got to the nurse.  I suspect that was his choice.  He didn’t want to bring this beating to the attention of the school's authorities.  In the wild world of being a little kid in an almost prison-like atmosphere of sexual harassment, physical intimidation and limited adult supervision, I can understand why he might want to avoid the label of being a snitch. 

Look, these kids have their own dynamic that they have to deal with individually and as a group.  We teachers have to control some of that, but I see these kids once a week.  I can only be this kid’s protector for that hour.  How he deals with the rest of it, how he deals with being a 7th grader, all I can do is wish him luck. 

It is harder being a 7th grader than it is teaching 7th graders. 

I think I will at least let him know that if he gets his lunch money stolen and he is really hungry, he can come to my office and will buy him lunch. 


  1. I am so grateful I am no longer in school. That place sounds like hell. American schools are bad with all the bullying but your classroom is so beyond that. And you get no help from the administrators. Such a sad sad commentary on our world.

    1. Well, I wouldn't say I get NO help from the administrators, who like me, can't be held responsible for everything that happens in the classroom. Point being, I reported the incident, they took it seriously, and I'm fairly sure there will be consequences handed down from those above me.

    2. Must have misread that. I'm glad they are going to do something but like here it's never going to be enough. It has to come from the home and that just doesn't happen as much as it needs to.

  2. It was the seventh grade boys and the disruption (not as serious as this) that turned me off as a teacher. I wanted to workone on one, but found if I was not paying attention the boys would push the limit. On the other hand, I really enjoyed working with your small group of friends on the movie that summer. we were all working together and they were there because they wanted to be.

    Unfortunately, keeping control of the classroom must come first. There can be no learning in chaos. Remember you are their teacher, not their friend.

  3. That's some serious stuff there Joko. My students seem like angels compared to these kids. I haven't had one bullying incident in class yet. But holy cow, sexual harassment rampant in the classroom here.

  4. Well, here is a little update on the my grand incident from yesterday. The bleeding the kid was suffering was from a pre-existing wound that got opened up during the scuffle. The kid who got beaten up has a reputation for being a little smart-ass shit who is well adept at using his mouth in his own defense to compensate for his lack of physical size.

    In fact, when I looked back at my grading sheet, for his first quiz, the kid got a zero. No one gets a zero. Even if you stand there unable to say a word, you get a five out of ten.

    Why did I give him a zero the first time around?

    I remember it. I called him to my desk, asked him "Where do you want to go?" and his response was "I want FUCK YOU!"....

    Maybe the kid had it coming. Maybe I oyerreacted. Whatever, the kid I 'saved' blew by me today during my gate duty without a second look. `Whatever happened, what I hear from my more experienced co-teachers is 'don't let it get to you'...

    I also heard that the Thai teachers took it out on the 1/5's today. When grilled by their advisor asking for someone to give up who had beaten up the boy, not a single kid said a word. They stood united. Then, they all, every one of them, got a few whacks with the stick.

    How I handle next week's 1/5 is going to be interesting.


Discovering Northwest Myanmar 16: Kataung to Mandalay

I call them "Burmese Doughnuts". They've got another name, but essentially, it's fried bread. The three-week adventur...