Next week will be the end of my first semester as a teacher. It has been filled with challenges, frustrations and joys. My contract says that I am to teach English conversation to the Mattayom 3 and 4 students; Thailand's way of saying ninth and tenth graders. At the time, I was given no curriculum, had never taught high school before and couldn't understand most of the people I work with and for. As frustrating as that may seem, I decided to dive into teaching as far as I could to see where it would take me. I have been on a journey I never considered possible in my life.
As logical as it may seem to have a plan, I went through the beginning of the year with little plan from day to day. I researched lesson plans of other teachers on various ESL web sites, took their worksheets and printed them out and then tried them on my classes. On rare occasion a worksheet or other plan worked, but more often I would be given blank looks by my class. As they started to see that I wasn't getting through to them, they started to be noisier and noisier. A few times a class would get the better of me and I found myself angry with them. I didn't scream or swear but they could tell I was upset and, what was even more aggravating, it seemed they liked seeing me upset. At least that was my thinking at the time. The reason I had no plan was because I had no idea what they could and couldn't do. It was like someone had handed me 700 blank canvasses and I was told to paint masterpieces even though I can't even draw.
I kept looking for ways to reach them. I figured teaching is my last opportunity and I refused to give up. A few times I connected. I taught them songs and, as I can sing and play guitar, they seemed to appreciate me a bit more. I also did all I could to control myself in front of them to not let them know I was having a bad day. Frankly, many of the classes were quite wonderful. They responded to my questions, repeated after me, did their in-class work and even did their homework. Other classes just got smaller and smaller as students disappeared before I arrived.
The school wanted me to rate each student individually. I was given class lists in Thai which I cannot read and pointed to my rooms. After a month, I got my wife to translate the names to English. That is when I realized that there are few duplicate names in any class. I didn't touch the lists for a while and kept on plowing into whatever lesson I could do. Then a couple of weeks ago, I realized that through most of the semester, I hadn't gotten any of them to speak, at least not in any gradable fashion. That is when I went back to my own school days and came up with an idea.
When I was in fifth grade, my teacher, a strict older German man, though his most important job was to teach us discipline. He had a daily rating system of stars ranging from gold to red and for the worst offenders, he gave a black dot. The boys, of course, did all they could to get black dots as they were a badge of honor. To keep track, he walked around with a small wire-bound notepad always at the ready to mark anyone's evil deed. I hated that system and still do. Then I thought there must be a positive way to use it. I bought a notepad and brought it to class, holding it up for all to see. "Whenever anyone answers my questions or speaks to me conversationally in English, I will give you a point for the day." Then a boy in the back asked me to explain the system again. "What is your number?" I asked, as each student has a number and it is far easier to keep track of. I wrote it down and said to the class, "See? That is all I need from you." After that I gave them an in-class assignment to give me directions on a map I handed out. The students almost knocked me over to get to speak to me. For each, I noted their numbers. I also told them that I will give them points if they talk to me outside class. Since then I have been surrounded by students wherever I go. It feels great.
I did also tell them that 70 percent of their grade with me next semester will require them to speak to me to add some incentive. I don't know if this will work in the long term and I have to make it more challenging over time, but I think they are starting to understand why I am there and how they can succeed with me and English.