Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Reflections on One Year of Teaching

My story is probably not all that different from a lot of others who've come here to teach in the Land of Smiles a little later in life. Early 40's. Divorced. Kinda stuck in a career that was okay, but not all that fulfilling. No kids, few ties and looking at the second half of my life and wondering: “what else is out there?”

So, I sold all my worldly belongings, jumped on a plane, got a TEFL cert and have been teaching at a Bangkok government high school for the last nine and a half months. I've lived in Southeast Asia before as a much younger man, so perhaps my culture shock was not as intense as some other new, farang teachers might experience, but I was totally new to teaching.

Now that this academic year is winding down, I reflect on my first year with a lot of mixed feelings. There have been a lot of awesome moments where I really felt like a teacher. I really felt like I was getting through to the students and I was the getting the job done. Both from an experiential and a sense of fulfilling my commitment to my employer, these moments of Wow! The kids are actually getting it have been priceless. It's a real high when those connections occur.

Then, of course, there have been the days where I've wanted to tear my hair from my scalp and storm out of the classroom in a huff. Would you please just shut up and listen to the teacher?! There have been moments where I've felt like I was totally unprepared and didn't know where to take the lesson next. I've occasionally gotten frustrated with the system, the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of the institution of education here. I've made a lot of rookie mistakes, and I think I've learned from them.

My hope is I can relay some of my experiences as a first-year teacher so that others might avoid some of the pitfalls I've encountered, and perhaps by expressing some of the joys of teaching, encourage a first year teacher whose got clumps of hair in his or her clenched fists (hopefully, their own).

What went wrong:

  1. Insufficient Preparation: Things go so much more smoothly when you have your lesson plan, activities plan and materials ready well in advance of the bell. I was fortunate in that I landed in a school where my agency had all the lesson plans laid out for us already. I could have just used them verbatim, but the thing is, they were written by another teacher. That teacher had a different teaching style than I do. There were different classroom dynamics involved. A canned lesson plan doesn't work. You can and should certainly use the preplanned objectives and materials, but I think a teacher needs to at the very least, plan their own activities. When I'd done that well ahead of time, things were great. When I succumbed to my occasional weakness for procrastination and found myself trying to figure out what to do for the next period 30 minutes before it started, my lessons ended up far too ad hoc and stilted to be effective. Students can sense when you're unprepared, and they don't like it.

  1. How the Teacher Talks: I'm up there speaking in a foreign language. Despite the fact that they're paying me 2x to 3x what a Thai teacher makes so that I can talk to them like an NES, I can't address the class the same way I would speak to a class of native speakers. I'm not advocating speaking in pigeon or like a lot of Thais speak English (Thinglish), but when it comes to pace, annunciation and inflection, I had to learn how to speak to my Thai students so that they could understand me. Took me a few months to learn that.

  1. Not Laying Down the Law: Half my classes were teaching M-1's (7th graders). I would say after a year of doing this, that there could be no more unruly lot of human beings in any situation than 35 twelve-year-old boys (I teach at an all boys school) who've learned they can walk all over the adult whose been put in charge of keeping them in line. I experienced watching assault and robbery right in front of me. Boys sustained injury while I was their teacher. That was early on. Took me a while, but I learned how to use expulsion from the classroom (GO SIT OUTSIDE!), my tone of voice and facial expressions to instill respect and a bit of fear. I'm still not a master at classroom control, but when I was very new, I was perhaps a bit afraid to be the mean teacher. I wanted to be the nice, fun teacher that kids learned from because they liked me. I still enjoy being that kind of teacher too, and it is great when I can, but it's impossible to be so without first getting their respect, and yes, a little bit of fear.
What Went Right:

      1. Enthusiasm for the English Language. I mentioned briefly my previous, unfulfilling career. I used to be an appliance salesman at a big department store. Was quite good at it for near on two decades. One thing that lead to my success in that job was a real passion for what it was I selling. It may sound unlikely that anyone could be fascinated and excited about the latest developments in laundry or refrigeration products, but as a peddler of those devices, I knew that if I were truly in love with this $2000 refrigerator, then my enthusiasm would rub off and my clients would come to feel that way too.

      1. I've found it to be much the same 'selling' English. When I started, sure, as an occasional blogger and someone who enjoys writing, I thought English was pretty cool. Since I've started teaching it, however, I've gained a new fascination for that quirky, versatile, beautiful and occasionally frustrating language that I was fortunate enough to absorb as an infant.

      1. Here's an example. At least once a week, in one of my classes, I will start my lesson with this little spiel: “Do you know what my favorite thing about the English language is?” By now, of course, they've learned that Teacher Joko's favorite thing about English is the prefix and suffix. They're amazing things! Tack on a couple letters to a root word and you have a whole new word, and if you know what the prefix or suffix means, you know the meaning of the new word! It's formulaic! It's amazing! Now, I will admit, when I began using this motivational tool, I couldn't rightly say that prefixes and suffixes were my favorite thing about English, but having told that to students (who believed me when I said it), I've kinda come to feel that way.

      1. My point is that as a teacher of English, I've been a lot more effective in that role by fostering my own love of the language. Relative pronouns have replaced refrigerators. Transition words have taken over for dishwashers. Washers and dryers are now prefixes and suffixes. Love what you're teaching (or selling) and you'll do it a lot better.

      1. Maintaining Engagement: Let me start by saying that I've encountered no experience more deflating and frustrating than realizing as you look out over 25 to 35 students to whom you're talking that not a single student is paying attention to a word you are saying. This has happened to me on many occasion. Up there, at the front of class, you can see them all. It's not a good moment when you observe that no one is listening to the teacher. Fortunately, those moments have not been that common this last year, but they do continue. Happened just today, as a matter of fact. These excrutiating teaching moments are great motivation to learn how to avoid them What's gone right is that I've learned to use movement (you can't just stand in one place and teach), volume (vary it) and content (I'm a teacher, not a comedian, but there is a bit of entertaining in this job) as a means to maintain engagement. Ideally, education wouldn't be a constant battle between the teacher demanding things (I've run into teachers who treat students as 'the enemy' whom they have to beat) and kids who feel that the less they pay attention the more they 'win' in this power struggle, but we are dealt the hand we're dealt, and if I have to 'perform' 25 teaching hours a week, so be it. I've learned a few tricks on how to do that.

      1. Learning to Teach All the Students: I think most teachers would agree that in any given classroom, 20% of the students are really smart, they care about learning and make teaching easy. 20% of the students are there because they have to be, maybe aren't all that bright, don't care and aren't at all interested in learning. The middle 60% could go either way. That dynamic can play a huge tole on how the teacher coordinates the classroom.

      1. The lazy teacher just teaches to that top 20%. I've done that, on occasion. The angry teacher fixates on the inattentiveness of the bottom 20% and lets that disrupt the learning experience of the whole group. I've done that too. Maybe it is best to concentrate on that middle 60% on whom the 'success' of the lesson plan hinges. No, I've learned that if certain students (whether they be smart or dumb) start to realize that its unlikely that they'll be called on to participate in class, then they'll drift away. To their smartphones, to classwork from another course, what have you. One thing that I think I've gotten right this year is learning to use the Socratic method to the full class. Everyone wants to pay attention because I pay attention to everyone.

One year teaching is almost in the books. When it comes to any job, it takes three months doing it before you should be comfortable. It takes three years doing it before you're really good at it. I'm going to continue this until I'm really good at it.


  1. Proud to announce that this blog here was written as an attempt to get myself a little more widely read, and it succeeded. Check out this link->
    I've been published on Thailand's premier teacher website!

  2. Yeah, Joko, you did a fabuloos analysis. I like your blog and really can feel with you. Make the best out of it, and stay tuned.
    uu elmann/yt ktschp

  3. I have just completed my TEFL course and will start work in May. I'm so nervous. Your analysis is really good. It makes me think of what I can do to make the teaching better for myself. Thanks for this!

  4. I don't really want to say "I told you so," but being prepared and not being to friendly were two of the suggestions I tried to give you. I'm glad you survived that first year. It won't be any easier next year, but if you work at it things should go more smoothly. Preparation and flexibility are very important. This blog post should be sent to the School you went thru. Any chance of getting a job with them?

    1. Next year's employment is kinda up in the air right now. Today was actually a bit of a watershed in that process. My teaching agency is in the midst of negotiating a contract with the school and the word from the supervisor is that we'll likely be brought back, but maybe not with as many foreign teachers as we have now. So one of us getting fired. I'm 95% sure it won't be me.

    2. That said, I am still deciding whether or not I want to come back to that school. I need a job over the two month summer break coming up here in March. What if I like that job (teaching adults) better?

  5. I really enjoyed this, was something I thought of doing before. I found this via your mom's blog, who I found via another blog! great stuff!

  6. This vividly brings back my first year as an eighth grade math teacher.
    This was a really perceptive description.
    I'm glad you're staying with it.


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