My first job teaching English…a shock to the system

They may look like little angels, but this particular class was hard work! They may look like little angels, but this particular class was hard work!

As I rode down Highway 108 out of Chiang Mai to return the company scooter today, I started to think back on my time teaching English here. It’s been eight weeks since I first stepped foot back in a classroom after a 10-year absence, and it’s been a shock to the system to say the least.

Getting a job teaching English in Chiang Mai

But first, let’s take it back a step. We arrived in Chiang Mai on a Wednesday, I fired off a couple of emails that night to apply for English teaching jobs, and I went to my first (and only) interview the following afternoon. By the time I left I’d scored myself a 17 hour-a-week gig teaching in four separate schools from Monday to Thursday, and every Sunday at the academy teaching teenagers and adults. And given the schools were a bit out of town, I also scored myself a company scooter!

I really had no idea what to expect. I was told by an American lady I met on a Song Teaw that teachers were the second most respected people in Thailand, behind only Buddhist monks. I assumed she knew given she’d been a teacher in these parts for the best part of seven years, so I was full of confidence going into my first lesson on Monday morning. Turns out the kids really don’t see it that way, or at least that’s the impression I get.

We all know the cliche about Asian students sitting still, hanging on every word the teacher says, doing what they’re told while working in complete silence. Well maybe that’s how things are done in North Korea, but in the real world kids are the same no matter what country they come from. I soon discovered classrooms in Thailand are the same as classrooms in Australia and London – there are kids who are angels, kids who are harmless but get themselves into trouble through over exuberance, and kids who’s life mission it seems is to make their teacher’s lives a complete misery on purpose!

My first day was a disaster

I wasn’t particularly well prepared on my first day, and I paid the price. I thought I was going to quit right there and then, and I only had two 45-minute lessons with kindergarten kids. I really should have researched a couple of games to play before heading in, just in case the plan was going pear shaped and I needed to get the class back on track with some fun and activities. From that day forward I made sure I went over the lesson plan supplied by my boss Jin at GEE English the night before, and had some contingency plans in case things weren’t going so well. Eight weeks later having completed my first stint as an English teacher in a foreign land I’m still getting to grips with what’s required, but I’m certainly a lot better than that first day.

You soon get into the swing of it

There were a few classes I dreaded going to each week. These were the classes where there was a greater percentage of disobedient kids, and the teacher did little or nothing to help keep the class under control. Some teachers stayed with the class and joined in, realising the opportunity to improve their own English while also ensuring their students stayed on track. Some teachers used the hour to mark books or prepare for their next lessons. I don’t blame them, when I was a primary school classroom teacher in London from 2000-2001, I used the free time when specialist teachers took my students to do the same thing. The difference is we all spoke English in London, so it was easier for specialist teachers to regain control of a class. Here my Thai is limited to two words, ‘hello’ (sa wat dee krar) and ‘thank you’ (kob kün krar), and I had no intention of saying either of these while the disobedient kids were disrupting the lesson. So at times it would have been nice to have the teacher around to settle the class for me. Before diving back into teaching I would have opted for the teacher to leave while I took the class, but I quickly discovered the opposite to be preferable.

This class actually understood what I wanted them to do!

This class actually understood what I wanted them to do!

Thai teachers are more ‘hands on’ with their students

Sometimes I got mad at the children, raised my voice, picked them up and moved them elsewhere, my frustrations getting the better of me. Certainly more so during the first few weeks, but as time went on I found myself coping better with the misbehaving children. There were times when I still got angry, but the incidents were fewer with each passing week. I clearly have no idea what hand signals they use in Thailand, but whatever I was doing wasn’t working. I’d be making hand gestures to stand up, sit down, come here, go there, make a circle, and they had no idea what I meant. They’d stare at me as though I was dancing, or practicing my kung fu moves, or something. Who knows what they were thinking? On the flip side the Thai teachers were far more hands on with their approach to discipline than I was. It wasn’t unusual to see a student get a spank from the teacher if they were doing the wrong thing, or moved with a little force from one spot to another. One teacher used to carry a xylophone mallet around with her, tapping children on the arm or back if they were stepping out of line. Not hard enough to hurt, but hard enough so the kids understood they were doing the wrong thing. Can you imagine a teacher doing that in Australia and getting away with it? I didn’t have a problem with it, like I said the kids weren’t hurt, and they all seemed to love their teacher. In fact I enjoyed that class and she was one of my favourite teachers to work with.

Even disobedient kids still love you

I want to touch on the whole respect thing with teachers I briefly mentioned earlier. Despite some kids being disobedient during my lessons, they all seemed to show genuine affection before and after the lesson. For example, I taught three lessons at one particular school every Wednesday afternoon, and as I rode into the school grounds on my scooter through the play areas (can you imagine the uproar in Australia if teachers drove into school through active play areas), children would run from everywhere to greet me and offer me a wai (slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion). At another school, at the end of a lesson with arguably the most disobedient class I took all week (perhaps the second most disobedient class I’ve ever taught), they would crush me with a 30-second group hug when I said goodbye. I just wanted them out of the class ASAP, but then they go and do this and all is forgiven in an instant.

Teaching at the Academy was much better

My academy classes on a Sunday were totally different. The students paid to attend so came to work and concentrate on their studies. The first class were young kids, 11-13 years of age I suspect, and it was probably their parents who made them attend. But in the main they were well behaved and got on with their work. The other two classes were older teens and young adults who were desperate to improve their English and I thoroughly enjoyed working with these groups. They came ready to learn, got on with their work, were comfortable enough to laugh at themselves if they made a mistake, and their development was obvious with their accelerated rate of learning. Sunday was my favourite day of the work week without a doubt.

So what have I learnt from my first TEFL experience?

  • It’s not easy and it can be frustrating. If you think you can waltz into a classroom and teach ESL just because English happens to be your mother tongue you’re sadly mistaken. I’m not saying you need a qualification, although that would help enormously, but you need to be well prepared.
  • There are going to be days when you think you’re the English language master, and other days when you’ll fall flat on your face. The longer you stick at it, the bad days will be fewer and farther between, but you’ll still have them occasionally.
  • Kids are the same everywhere. You’ll love some, you’ll like some, and you’ll really dislike some.
  • Next time I teach somewhere for an extended period of time, I’m going to learn a few more words of the native language, and a few local hand gestures. I won’t use them to teach English, just to keep the class under control.
  • I will definitely put more of my efforts into securing work at English academies rather than schools. I think that suits my style a little better.

If you want to ask questions about my experience, ESL qualifications, or anything else about teaching overseas, leave me a message in the comments section below and I’ll get back to you ASAP.

9 Comments on My first job teaching English…a shock to the system

  1. I really enjoyed this and definitely resonated with a lot of what you said. I taught adults for over a year in Mexico and it was a breeze compared to the job I have now. I teach teenagers in Korea and, boy, I’m so grateful for my co-teachers because it’s a lot of hard work!

    • Hi Ceri, thanks so much for your comment. I think teaching adults, or at least students at language centres rather than in schools is for me. I’m off to Abu Dhabi in a couple of weeks and looking forward to seeing what teaching there is like. I’ll keep everyone posted!

  2. Its funny I came across this site. I am in Chiang Mai and I had emailed Jin at the Gee English School. What did you think of working for the school overall? I have an interview with her today..

    • Hi Sean, what a coincidence! I can’t speak highly enough of working with Jin. She gave me a good job, I was always paid on time, she helped me whenever I needed it, it was a great experience. I enjoyed working at the academy more than the schools I was assigned, but they were both very rewarding and a lot of fun.

  3. That is really good to hear. I hope I can get a job. I taught in Taiwan for a year in 2013 so I understand the struggles with misbehaving kids. I definitely feel that I will be better prepared with that experience under my belt. I also understand your feeling on the first day when you were a bit unsure how to proceed. A lot of people think anyone can be a teacher. Little do they know until they try it. I know I have gained more respect for teachers since having tried to be one myself and realizing what an art it is!

  4. I think everyone has a rough few first months. I most certainly did-I was teaching kindy kids in South Korea and I was so, so, so terrible at it!
    Jackie @ESL Speaking recently posted…I’m an Alien: An ESL Speaking Activity for KidsMy Profile

  5. It was tough for me too at first. It’s a good idea to get some appropriate training. Kids can be a handful. Classroom management problems are pretty common. You should have some rules and consequences for when they are broken.

    • I agree, kids are tough at times! Definitely a great idea to have a few classroom management strategies and fallback activity options for when you really need them!

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