Tuesday, February 26, 2013

One Lesson Plan Does Not a School Year Make

We were visited by a TEFL school from Chiang Mai giving the students some live practice in front of real classrooms.  As I had a free morning, I observed them in action and was very happy to see their enthusiasm and energy.  Most were from South Africa and spoke better English than many Americans I know.  I gave a bit of assistance, when asked, but mostly stood in back to see what they could do.

A TEFL, or Teaching English as a Foreign Language, certificate gives new teachers some credibility to Thai schools, especially if they have no prior teaching experience.  There are TEFL schools and TESL schools (Teaching English as a Second Language) all over Thailand.  Most of the schools have classes worldwide, thus you can get a certificate from just about anyway.  According to various teaching blogs and websites here, one doesn't really need a TEFL to get a job, but it does look good on the resume and is quite easy to obtain; perhaps too easy.

The students were a combination of ages and teaching experience.  One lady had over ten years in a classroom where another young fellow had obviously never taught a group of students with poor English skills.  They all did quite well, but it reminded me of some of the things I had to learn in order to gain some success and credibility.  Here are my thoughts.

One or two lesson plans are good to have, but are not enough to teach for nine months.  The TEFL program has you write a few lesson plans and gives examples of what to teach.  Such lessons include body parts, rooms in a house and emotions.  I saw all three.  If you get a job as a substitute teacher, a dozen plans like that will keep you going all year.  I had such lessons my first weeks quickly ran out  of ideas.  I scrambled for a few weeks to figure out what to do for the rest of the year.

Don't assume they understand you.  I did this on far too many occasions.  I would talk to the class about something like idiom or giving directions, and sometimes they seemed to understand.  Quite often, though, I could see they really couldn't understand anything I said.  I have changed how I talk in each class based on their abilities.

Find out the skill level in your rooms in the beginning and teach to that.  It took me half the year to realize this one and to figure a solution.

Sing, play games, keep it interesting.

Schools have midterms and finals each semester.  This means some days you have no classes, some weeks you have no classes.  Not speaking Thai kept me out of conversations about days off for testing and was taken by surprise the first time we had midterms.  Schools also have random holidays, festivals, sport days, camping days, and other events that change your schedule for the week.

The rest is common sense that you quickly lose when you are facing a group of 50 smiling faces all wearing identical uniforms and haircuts.

If you write a word on the wall, don't walk away from it and start talking about it.  Point to it, say the word, and get the class to repeat it.

Make a long term plan of what you want students to know and use it as your guide.

Be flexible.

Have a contingency plan.  The days I lacked one, it showed.

A one hour lesson in one class can be a three hour lesson for another and 20 minutes for others.

Find a way to measure progress.

Find a way to measure students individually.

Offer rewards and punishments.  My punishments were a lack of reward.  I would draw a happy and sad face on the wall and write what the award was over the smiling face which was usually a Mr. Bean video.  If the class got unruly, I put a mark under the sad face and the class immediately became quiet.  Amazing how something so simple can be effective.

Be flexible.  Did I already say that?

Learn some Thai.  One of the trainees got stuck in the same trap I did months before.  He asked the class to take out a plain sheet of paper to write something down.  He got no action and blank stares from the class.  I motioned him to me in the back of the class and told him to say, "jote sy samut" which means, "write in your note book."

Laugh.  When a lesson fails you can either get frustrated, as I did a few times, or just start laughing.  They appreciate the latter.

Stop talking.  As I said before, chances they don't understand you so keep talking to a minimum.

You will have no materials you didn't make yourself.  You may not have any resources other than a photocopier.

Use AV if you have it.  Mine was an ancient TV in each room. I had to buy a box to connect my computer to it.  As the year came to an end, it finally died, three days before the last day.

Learn to write with chalk.  I broke a nail once pressing the chalk too hard.  I learned.

Never bring a permanent marker to a room using white board.  This is a bit like bringing a knife to a gun fight.  I did this only once and it was a class I was having trouble with.  Fortunately, the boys came to the rescue and ran to get some rubbing alcohol.  I later found out I could sacrifice a white board marker to do the same thing.

Don't be an outsider but don't be too involved.  Find the middle way.

In my eight months of teaching, I learned so much about myself that I didn't know even existed.  I found patience that I didn't think I had, I found creativity and I discovered that I like to sing for others.

I found a new home.

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