‘If I Could Tell You One Thing About Thailand’

As a fun little end of the year project, I asked my students to pretend they just met someone who was curious to know more about their home. At first, they looked at me blankly saying they had no idea what to tell a visitor about Thailand. It opened up discussions about culture and we got to talk about what they think makes up their daily life. I took my definition of culture, they added to it, and here is what they wanted to tell you about Thailand. Please forgive the grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary mistakes. They wrote these sentences mostly on their own after hearing my example and I think they’ve done a fantastic job this year. We recently learned ‘will’ and how to apply it in different situations, so that’s why most of them included it in their sentence(s).

Freelance English Teacher vs. Peace Corps

In this video I talk about the differences and things to consider being an English teacher at a school and being a Peace Corps Volunteer. I think it is not a distinction easily made until you are a PCV. I split it up into three general topics to give a more overall picture, but each of these could feasibly be its own vlog. I hope this is helpful for people considering Peace Corps or teaching English abroad.

One thing I definitely forgot to mention though is the massive amount of paperwork, both in the application process and throughout service, that is included in Peace Corps, as expected with any government paid position. Sometimes I think it would be nice to be a private school teacher just so I didn’t have to do all the paperwork!

Thoughts on Education from ‘This American Life’ Podcast

Listening to the recent ‘Back to School’ podcast from ‘This American Life,’ inspired by the latest teachers’ strike in Chicago and the scores of students starting out their new year, led to some reflections on the Thai education system and a possible reason as to why it’s so difficult for Thai students to learn English. A very engaging show, I would suggest anyone interested in learning about a variety of topics through different stories from various perspectives.

Academic and English Competitions in Thailand

Along with English camps, academic competitions are another way Thailand tries to motivate their students to get students motivated about learning. This week starts a host of these kinds of competitions for my students and the effects are rippling throughout the entire school.

‘Let Them Eat Tablets’

I read this article recently from the Economist and couldn’t help cheering the author’s critique on the band-aids that are applied to the gaping wounds in the Thai education system. Let’s back up a bit.

We heard about this campaign pledge, one child one tablet (similar to an Ipad, but the generic version gifted from Shenzhen Scope Scientific Development, a Chinese company) with rolled eyes never thinking it would actually come to fruition. To my surprise, my younger sister lamented to me that she missed the cutoff as one year younger than her, seventh grade, received the tablets to use in their classroom. I couldn’t believe they were going through with it.

Let’s ignore the fact that most students are computer illiterate. As are most teachers. Most cannot type with any proficiency or use a computer for anything more than opening up Facebook and Youtube (that is if you can get the internet working). You could argue that by bringing in these tablets, that could change things. I tend to agree with the Economist when they say, ‘Some argue that the focus on the tablets has distracted attention from a deeper malaise affecting Thai education. Although the proportion of children attending school has grown over the past decade, the quality of their education has deteriorated.’

Technology in Thailand is generally viewed as a plaything. Phones, computers, and the internet are rarely used tools for education or work. In a class, like English, the teacher can hardly keep an older student’s attention as it is, so let’s add a ‘smart tablet’ that society has told them is a plaything. And this isn’t even considering what fun the teachers will likely use the tablets for (I watched a teacher play Angry Birds for an hour on her phone rather than teach her students one morning). In talking with a few teachers, they stated they didn’t want the tablets as it would only contribute to the struggle students currently have learning to write Thai (much less English letters, but let’s not even go there).

The main issue is that test scores are falling, even as more money than ever is given to schools.

Thailand now spends about 20% of the national budget on education, more than it devotes to any other sector. The budget has doubled over a decade. Yet results are getting worse, both in absolute terms and relative to other countries in South-East Asia.

Thailand’s own ombudsman reported earlier this year that, despite the extra cash, the national standardised examination results show that students’ scores in the core subjects of English, maths and science have been largely falling. The most recent Global Competitiveness Report from the World Economic Forum ranked Thailand a dismal 83rd in terms of its “health and primary education”, one of four basic indicators. This is below others in the region such as Vietnam and Indonesia; only impoverished Cambodia performs worse.

Thailand’s scores on the respected international PISA test have remained almost static since 2003 whereas Indonesia, for instance, has been moving up from a lower base. In another recent competitiveness report Thailand ranked 54th out of 56 countries globally for English-language proficiency, the second-lowest in Asia.

This is a very scary reality that cannot be hidden behind smiles and smart tablets for a country trying to enter into the ASEAN community as a productive member and even as a potential leader.

The majority of the education budget going into higher pay for teachers. Now that I’ve been left in charge of 40 rambunctious fourth graders, I think there is a definitely a need to pay teachers well, something the American system still hasn’t quick figured out. The problem in Thailand though is most teachers are still given raises despite their performance (or their students’) in the classroom.

One teacher told me at a training that she is given a raise if she works hard or if she doesn’t. Between the duties of the school she was responsible for (registrar, library, and any other goodies the principal could think up) and planning out thoughtful and participatory lessons she learned in university, she was exhausted. As the principal (and most of the traditional educators who are in charge) give no weight to these kind of lessons and care more about the paperwork being completed on time, guess which one she gave up doing? This doesn’t encourage an environment of productivity or development in school and plays a role in more than just academics. ‘At the moment, only a tiny weight is given to results in assessing a teacher for a pay rise; far more consideration is given to how the teacher keeps order in the classroom. “It’s a very subjective evaluation,” argues Mr Somkiat, based largely on “how well you butter up the headmaster.”’

As any Peace Corps Volunteer will tell you (because they have to tell themselves over and over and over again), change doesn’t happen quickly or within a generation. I fear though, this current agenda isn’t helping the development of future groups as we need radical modification if we want Thailand to grow, intellectually and otherwise.

‘Giving every child a tablet computer is a nice gimmick, but it is unlikely to be the key to educational excellence.’

If you want to read the entire Economist article from which these quotes come from, click here. There’s also been some update-age on the book page, feel free to check it out.

Friday Five

With the first day of school this past week, Five Times it Sucks to be a Teacher popped into my head

Waking up for the Second Day of School
After a summer break of sleeping in and lazing around with your homedogs, you’re temporarily filled with enthusiasm and excitement that help spring you out of bed ready to spread sunshine and sparkles everywhere. The second day of school when your alarm goes off, it looks like someone roused the troll from under the bridge. And it’s hungry.

The Moment You Realize Your Students Did Not Retain 99% of Last Year’s Material…
And they look at you like this…

She’s cute, but scratching her head thinking ‘wtf is this farang talking about?’

 The Night Students Take a Test…
And you’re there grading all those papers wondering where you went so wrong.

When You Realize After the Tenth Time Explaining Something…
And only half of the kids are still trying to understand, but only half of that number actually do.

Watching the Students that try so hard…
And wishing so much there was more that you could do. You never give up and they don’t either, but they never quite ‘get it’ as much as the smart kids.