The experience of an unlikely volunteer English teacher

by Travel Paulie on July 16, 2010

Fun Teaching!

Today I have the day off… a volunteer with a holiday.  This might sound like a an oxymoron, but I’d argue that it’s nothing of the sort.

It was news to me only this morning when I woke up that’s it a Karen holiday and school is off for the day.  Cool!  How great is that?  Well… while I wrote a few weeks ago how much I really didn’t want to do English teaching, I was really looking forward to the class today.  I can’t work it out.  I feel that teaching English isn’t exactly what I want to be doing, but the gratification that immediately follows my lessons is telling a different story.

Word count: ~1600. Approx. reading time: 10~15 minutes. (picture credit)

How the English lessons go

Every morning I take a 30min motorcycle ride through the Thai country-side to the fairly remote school near the Thai-Burma border here in Mae Sot.  I will take pictures of the journey next week and show you all my daily drive to work!  Each day I have 2x 45minute English lessons with Grade 7 and/or Grade 8 students. Not a lot of classes, but they’re full lessons and can be quite taxing.  This will hopefully increase to include teacher and student IT training (see below) from next week.

At the beginning of the each class, the kids are practiced in standing up – usually as I enter the room the kids will stand, I’ll say hello, and in chorus they will reply with “Good mooorning teacher!”.  I’ll say something like, “How are you?” and they’ll say, “I’m fiiiiine.”.  Then they’ll sit.  When the lesson ends, it’s a little awkward in an odd way. I’ll look out into the see of expectant faces and say something like, “Okay, lesson’s finished.  Thank you!”.  They’ll look at each other (every time) in seeming disbelief and hesitantly stand up and just stay there.  Waiting.  Waiting for what?  So I say thank you again, and they’ll respond in chorus “Thank you teacher!” and depending on whether it’s break/lunch time or not, they’ll file out.  Often though, even when it’s a break in teaching and they can leave, they’ll linger in their places apparently unsure that the lesson is really, indeed, at an end.

I have little clue as to what is really going on here, but I think it’s simply a cultural understanding I lack.  It could mean that they’re so impressed with my lesson, that is was so fun and engaging that they don’t want it to end – they want to keep the dream alive and if they stand up slowly showing hesitation at the end that perhaps I’ll reconsider and stay around for another session with them.  Fairly unlikely scenario, I’d wager.

It is probably, though I should really check this out with another teacher at the school, that they are waiting for me to leave first.  I.e Stand as I enter, and stand as I leave.  Simply, in their way, showing respect.  I don’t much like that and I think that’s why I mix it up for them by not leaving before them.  I don’t want to raised up on a pedestal simply because I’m a “teacher”.  I think I want to appear as their equal somehow and that I’m not too comfortable with their obsequiousness.  It’ll never happen.  They’ll never see me being of equal social status since I’m pushing against their upbringing and their culture, so in many ways I just accept it when it presents itself, but in allowing them to leave the classroom first, I like to illustrate my position and mix it up for them a bit and show them that not everything they have been taught necessarily applies with alternatively cultured people.

Perhaps I’m looking at it all a bit more in depth than I should.  🙂

Anyhow, chatting with them (as we learn English), watching them struggle and overcome the challenges presented through the concepts they’re learning gives me an immense sense of satisfaction.  Some of them really do try hard… they really want to learn and I thoroughly enjoy teaching these students.  A couple of them don’t apply themselves, giggle with their neighbours, mumble in Karen and do with little effort what is asked of them.  It is a real challenge to maintain motivation in the classroom in these cases, but I try.  I know that by focusing attention on them they receive the extra teaching efforts they might require to garner understanding of the topic, but I also know that I detract from the children who are trying and applying themselves.

In the Grade 8 class I teach, some students really are streets ahead of the others.  They typically have no problem producing the language after I teach it to them.  It’s great, but it means I don’t spend a whole lot of time with them and focus on the weaker students.  Perhaps the approach is wrong, and I should go the other way, but I don’t like leaving anyone behind.

What is the best approach here?  I don’t know.  I’m learning to teach as much as the children are learning to speak English.

Lessons learned

Many of the lessons I’m learning are difficult to articulate, but they really come down to the flow and technique of introducing a new topic and leading the student to understanding what you want them to know.  It basically involves a cumulative, building process.  You introduce the topic at a very basic level, get their brains tuned in to what you’re about to talk about, and then start to build slowing.  It’s easy for me to over-estimate what they already know and realise half-way through that I’ve entered the class with assumptions about what they already know that have tripped many of them up because I haven’t covered some of the basics.

It’s a great process of learning what I have learned already and take for granted in my own comprehension and understanding.  I’ve been teaching “reading the time” to them for the past week and not only am I teaching English, but I’m teaching the concept of time to the children also.  Minutes, hours, clocks, long-hand, short-hand, minutes past, minutes to (a real challenge!), half-past, quarter-past, quarter-to, etc etc.  It’s easy for you and I, but for these students, understanding the phrase “quarter to 3” is challenge.  It can produce digital times such as 3:15, 3:45, 4:45, 2:45, 2:15 because there’s serious mix up of quarter-past and quarter-to and then what happens the value of the hour on the digital clock when you say “to” versus “past”.  Have a think about it, and then consider how you would teach it to native-English kids, and then to non-native English speaking kids.

I also know my lessons aren’t fun.  I’m fairly sure they’re nowhere near torturous at the same time however.  I’m all about the learning, taking a concept and beating the linguistic crap out of it.  I teach light, with a positive demeanor and it does help the children realise there’s no punishment waiting when they get it wrong over and over and over and over… so I’m happy about that.  I want the class to be a comfortable place for them, but at the same time they’ve got to try and know that I expect that of them.  I think I have a decent balance in that regard.  But, at the moment, I’m lacking the imagination required to make the classes fun.  I’m convinced it’s much easier to remember what you learn when you enjoy your time spent learning it, as I’m sure most people would agree, but I’m struggling to get creative juices flowing in the classroom.

I’m not sure how I’ll address that, and maybe I’ll experiment some next week.

Plans for the school

While I officially have the day off, I don’t really.  I have 2 computers I purchased this week as part of my PCs for Migrant Children Campaign (to which it’s not too late to donate!) and I need to configure and set them up for use in a non-internet connected environment.  That is, pre-install much of the software I think the school will need to run training and also allow the kids to learn stuff through play – i.e. educational games and software.  I’ll hopefully bring these computers to the school tomorrow and bring good IT to the school for the first time since its inception 5 years ago.  Everyone who has helped in this project should be immensely proud.  This is just the beginning of course and there’s more to come.  I’ll also publish online photos and video of the computers installed in the school as promised 🙂

If you have any suggestions for software that can be acquired free of charge and without licensing issues that could help in this environment (non-networked-internet-capable) I would greatly appreciate suggestions and feedback.  If you also have any teaching advice to impart, any and all suggestions are welcome.

Thanks for reading the blog and I hope you find it interesting or informative, or even both.  Please feel free to share with your friends the fact you like what you’ve read using the Facebook button below.  Of course, any and all feedback on this article and any article on the site is welcome and can be done at the bottom of each post.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

vicki maybin August 28, 2010 at 03:34

Ah welcome to the wonderfully difficult world of teaching!
Re. the start and finish of classes – they prob have a set routine, in Japan it was stand up and bow at start and end of each lesson and then wait for teacher to file them out row by row. think its good your mixing it up! the classes are prob like our schools here 50 years ago – pluses and minuses in each system I recon.

As for the whole – 10 different abilities in each class – welcome to’ inclusion’ – where you basically need to have 3 lesson plans – your main one, an easier version and an extension activity – eg if some finished early get them to swop books and check neighbours work – only if nice group, or practice their writing by copying the questions into books etc.

if you need any fun activity suggestions let me know.

Good Luck – teaching is not an easy job, factor in the noise level in western schools and you’ve got the need for long holidays!


Paul Goodchild August 28, 2010 at 15:25

yup, I like to mix it up a bit… I think it’s only fair that if I have to adapt and readjust myself to a culture, they should need to have a taste of the same. 🙂

The abilities thing is difficult to address here because teaching resources are so scarce. Granted, if I was more experienced I’d be able to juggle that, but I neither have the resources to provide staged classes, or the know-how. Some good training in that regards would be good and it’s something I’m lightly considering. We’ll see…

The noise level in western schools? Daaaamn, you oughta try schools with bamboo for walls. Now THAT’S loud! 🙂

Yes, suggestions for fun are always welcome, I’m a bit short on the imagination sometimes, so any ideas are good ideas!

Thanks for commenting and the feedback. It’s good to get suggestions because sometimes it’s a little claustrophobic in my own world.


Games for Children February 19, 2011 at 10:15

It’s really an amazing experience of teaching. Teaching is not an easy job. It’s touch to make understand students sometimes but not that much hard job it’s the best job for ladies to teach.


Paul Goodchild February 19, 2011 at 11:57

Thanks for the comment… it really was an amazing time I spent there – and you’re right, there’s nothing easy about 🙂


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