Monday, February 23, 2009

Oh yeah... and I teach too.

I posted a link to my "So you wanna go to Thailand" posts on Daves ESL Cafe and someone suggested that I talk a bit about my teaching experience as well. Which makes a lot of sense because that's a large part of why I'm here anyway! Here are just a few of my thoughts and experiences thus far.

The CELTA (Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults)

Prior to coming to Thailand, I had no real teaching experience, and only general experience working with foreign students. I decided to get a qualification before trying to get a job. I looked into the online courses, and some of the short courses that I could take, but after reading about the CELTA online and talking to people who'd taken it, I decided that for me it would be worth it. You can get a job with different (or in some cases no) qualifications... but the CELTA does seem to be the gold standard - at least in Thailand.

However, that's saying practically nothing. Four weeks, however intensive they may be, is just not long enough to learn how to teach. But it gave me classroom experience and *extensive* feedback about what I was doing well and what I needed to work on. I also learned a number of games and activities that I used right off the bat when I got into my first real classes. Overall my experience with the CELTA course was really positive and I highly recommend it to anyone thinking about teaching abroad. It's by no means comprehensive, but it gets you familiar with the text books and gives you an opportunity to practice with real students. The down-side of the CELTA is that all the feed back teaches you to be incredibly critical of yourself... not that I needed any help. So every time I teach a class I compare it to what would have been expected on the CELTA and I feel bad about myself. But I think this has more to do with my own psychological issues than the CELTA course per se.

Working at a Language Institute

I was offered a job through the same company that ran my CELTA course and because I was too lazy to actually do any job searching, I took it. I'm sure I don't have the best job possible in Thailand, but it met my requirements - I teach 90% adults (I don't like kids), I'm near the beach, and I get enough hours/salary to get by on.

1. The schedule - I have a love/hate (mostly hate) relationship with my schedule. I love that I only teach about 25 hours a week, and there will be times when I can spend several hours in the middle of the day sitting at a coffee shop reading, or an occasional mornings when I can go to the beach before my evening class. But mostly I hate that it's so arbitrary and unpredictable. I have some students who work a rotating schedule (3 day shifts, 3 swing shifts, 3 night shifts) and my schedule rotates accordingly. I also hate that I only have one day off a week. I never really feel like I teach too many hours (see coffee-shop/beach scenarios above), it's just that my 25 hours a week seem to be scheduled in such a way as to create the maximum disruption to my life. For example, I might have class until 7pm on Saturday, Sunday free, then one class on Monday from 10-noon... then nothing else that day. So I might have had a full 2 day weekend but no... one stupid 2 hour class means the difference between hanging out at a coffee shop all day and going to Bangkok overnight.

A 'typical' week for me:
Monday -
5pm - 6:30pm private lesson, 1 teen, pre-intermediate
6:30pm - 8:30pm private lesson, 2 adults, elementary

Tuesday -
9am - noon private lesson, 4 adults, elementary
6pm - 8pm private lesson 2 adults,elementary

Wednesday -
5pm - 6:3pm private lesson, 1 teen, pre-intermediate
6:30pm - 8:30pm private lesson, 2 adults, elementary

Thursday -
10:30am - 12:30pm private lesson, 4 adults, elementary
6:30pm - 8:30pm business English class, 10 adults.

Friday -
5pm - 7pm private lesson, 2 adults, elementary

Saturday - aka 'hell on earth'
9am - noon young learners class, 6 students aged 11-13, arbitrary and meaningless level
1pm - 4pm young learners class, 3 students aged 12-13, arbitrary and meaningless level
5pm - 7pm private lesson, 2 adults, elementary

Sunday - aka 'get me to the beach before I kill a small child'
day off

I get my schedule at the beginning of the month, but it should really be viewed as more of a blueprint than an actual schedule. I think this is what I ended up teaching, there are always cancellations /reschedules and fill ins. In February I had about 11 cancellations / reschedules and two added classes. In January I had 14 canceled / rescheduled classes and four added. You really just have to go with the flow. For example in January Saturday & Monday were my busiest days. In February I had three 'day and a half' weekends so I went to Ko Samet each time.

2. The pay / perks
I get paid 320 baht per teaching hour, more for business classes or off campus classes. I have insurance (don't really know what it covers) and that's about it. We get Thai holidays off, but no paid vacation time at all. I'm allowed to take sick time, but don't know if/how it will show up on my pay. We do not get paid prep time. I get paid twice a month, 10,000 baht on the 25th and the remainder (a much larger check) on the 25th. The school did my Thai taxes for me. =)

3. Conditions / Resources
There are maybe a dozen air conditioned classrooms, each has a white board, a cd player, and desks or a table & chairs, but that's about it. There are no overhead projectors or computers or anything like that. Just me, my books & my markers. Oh, and none of us have our own classrooms, so you have to cart your stuff to and from the classroom every day. We don't have our own books or CDs, they're kept in a big cupboard in the office. If you want to take a book home overnight, technically you're supposed to sign it out, but usually you just ask the office staff and they say 'ok, sure'.

There's a copy machine (which usually has paper), a couple computers and one black & white printer. There are a lot of supplemental grammar and activity books. We're a bit slim on dictionaries though which always amuses me... not as much as the fact that we have a whole VHS video series to supplement the kids books and not a single TV or VCR in the place. Whatever.

Actually Teaching

There were good and bad things about the way I got my feet wet in the language institute. On the one hand, I didn't have a lot of hours to start with, so I could spend as much time as I wanted to prepping (worrying). But on the other hand I did a LOT of fill in classes (substitute teaching) for the first couple of weeks. I was constantly walking into a room full of strangers and having to teach something for the very first time. It was terrifying. I honestly can't think of many situations I would dislike more than that and when I think back on it, all I can remember is playing a LOT of games.

I swear, if the CELTA did nothing else for me, it gave me a lot of time-filler games which have saved my ass on numerous occasions. Pretty much everything else I learned on the CELTA went right out the window by my second class. All the things they taught about 'concept checking' and 'instruction checking' just confused my students more than if I just repeated the instructions a couple of times slowly and clearly. And the whole division of lessons into grammar based / skills based... I just don't bother. I go straight through the book, they get a little reading a little writing, a lot of listening and a fair amount of speaking. I feel guilty about not giving my students enough 'freer practice', but generally just do the activities suggested in the teachers manual. I'm starting to get a little bit better though. I pull activities from different text books, or the supplemental books for my classes, and it keeps things from being straight from the book.

I spend more time 'planning' than most of the other teachers, although I'm not sure how productive I am. I'll get to school maybe an hour before a class starts and read through the pages I'm going to teach. I look at the activity pages in the teachers' manual and decide if I'm going to use it or not. Most of the activities work best with 6-12 students, but they can be really hard to use for individuals, pairs and trios. So I try to figure out the activity - will it work for my students, is there anything I can change etc. And If I feel like they need a review I'll check the work book for an appropriate page.

My usual teaching routine - come to class, exchange pleasantries with the class just to warm up. If they know the past tense, I ask them what they did this morning (yesterday / over the weekend). In my starter class, I ask what they ate today ("Eat rice yet?" is a Thai small talk question). Occasionally, if I think they need to review what we did last week I'll hand out a worksheet for them to start on, or if I'd assigned a worksheet for homework we go over it. Then I dive right into the book and we do the activities as written. Sometimes I'll tweak one of the exercises ... I end up writing a lot of stuff on little squares of paper for the students to move around into different columns or to put together in sentences. Lots and lots of little bits of paper.

I joke about not using the CELTA, and I really don't teach like I did on the course, but I did pick up a few things. I always highlight the grammar on the board and drill the marker sentences. I'll highlight pronunciation and sometimes show the phonetic symbol if I think it will be helpful (or the teacher's book says to ;) ). We do one language focus (2 pages) in about an hour & a half, then we do the communication activity from the teacher's resource book. Or, if I didn't like the activity, maybe I found a similar activity from a different book. Or, we play a game to review vocabulary. Some classes like extra homework, some won't do it no matter what. So I give it sparingly. My students all have jobs (or the kids have school full time) and families etc. and this is just an extra language lesson, we want it to be fun and not a burden.


As I mentioned, I have about 90% adult students mostly in private lessons. This is probably the opposite of what most teachers have - 90% kids in a school, and a couple of private lessons on the side. With the exception of the kids, all of my students are there because their companies pay for the classes. While some of the students are very motivated to learn and practice English, it's not the same as when you have to pay for your courses yourself and you want to get the most out of them. I'm not sure how the company chooses who gets to go to English classes, or if there is any financial bonus for completing the course. There seems to be a wide range of interest and ability.

Mostly though, the students are polite and fun and willing to do whatever silly activities I ask them to do. I really enjoy the adult classes (and even the teenager) because I can just talk to them (at an appropriate level of course) and we can joke around a bit. With my kid classes, they don't want to be there and it's painfully obvious. I've really got to drag them through each activity and they don't want to give me anything. They just want to sit and talk to each other in Thai or read their comic books or whatever. If I come up with a fun activity they'll get into it, but as soon as we're back to grammar I lose them. Often there is one student who's at a higher level than the rest who understands my instructions (I really really try to grade my language appropriately) and translates for the rest of the class when they are confused. This is enormously helpful.

My students give me presents, and I really like that. I've gotten chocolates, cookies, a company-logo day planner, a silk coin purse, and a hand woven scarf. I'm spoiled!


Each class has a card, and at the end of the lesson you write in what you covered that day and sign off on it. This is critical because when you teach so many different classes and some will cancel for a week or more, it's impossible to remember where you were in the book and what activities you've done. It's also important for when someone has to take over your class. Some of the classes I inherited when I started had excellent notes and it was clear what I needed to do in the next class. Some of the classes had horrible notes and I had to make a guess at where in the book they'd stopped and where to pick up again.

At the end of each course (usually 30 hours) I give the test. These are prepared tests, so I just need to make copies. Then I grade them and do the progress reports. All the teachers complain about the progress reports even though, compared to other jobs, we have amazingly little paperwork to do. I think the thing everyone hates is that it can take a few hours but we don't get paid for it. Plus it can be hard to think of specific and motivating things to say to each of your students. After all, the progress report is as much a marketing tool as it is educational feedback "I would encourage you to take our next course...." blah blah blah.

Then of course there's the most important piece of paperwork - the time sheet - which I fill in meticulously so I am sure to be paid properly!

We also occasionally have meetings where the head teacher passes along 'information' (complaints) from the staff & manager and we send our complaints right back through her.

Other Teachers

We've got a pretty good bunch of teachers at my school. Some have been teaching for years. Most are willing to help if I have a question or need to talk through a grammar point. There's no mentoring or anything like that. But in general all of us get along well enough to sit in the teachers room together and a few of us hang out outside of school. The tough part is that our days off don't match up, so it's hard to plan anything. Anytime we go out drinking *someone* has to work the next day. And that just sucks, but I guess it's good that I have coworkers that I *want* to hang out with after school.

And that's about it. Language institutes are known as fast-food English, and I don't disagree. It's far from an ideal situation from the teacher's standpoint with lots of different classes and an inconsistent schedule. And it's not that great for the students either - teachers come and go every six months or so, often stopping in the middle of a course. But I'd like to think that the students will get out of it what they put into it.

I hope you find this helpful. Let me know if you have any questions, or if there are other topics you'd like to see me cover. I've been here just long enough for the shock and awe to have worn off but by no means claim to be an expert. =)


Doug Anderson said...
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Jeannette said...

No paid vacation? I'd die!

I used to have that kind of everywhere schedule; I hated it. I'd rather work 9-5 everyday than 9, 11, 4, 5, 10pm...