Being a Volunteer English Teacher in Thailand

Thai school sign

Life as a volunteer English teacher was not all I had hoped it to be. Another sleepless night in unbearable heat. I tossed and turned on the rock hard bed as sweat dripped off my back and an army of ants and other bugs crawled over me. The asthmatic fan whirred round wheezing over me just enough to wick away the top layer of sweat but didn’t even make an attempt to cool me down.

The school really is in the middle of nowhere. At night the only noise is the wildlife squawking in the undergrowth, the black sky is so clear and dark and studded with so many brightly shinning stars but the temperature outside was still 35 degrees and inside my basic room on the school campus it felt at least 40 degrees making breathing difficult and sleep impossible.

I tossed, turned, itched and sweated until finally the birdsong announced the arrival of morning and time to begin another day as a volunteer English teacher in Thailand.

Luscious green mountains rose in the distance across the beautiful countryside of rice paddy fields interspersed with little huts for workers to sit in the shade. The fields were dusty brown having just been cut, harvested, burnt off and resown awaiting the anticipated arrival of the rains.

Paddy fields waiting for the rains  in rural North Thailand

The school day began with an assembly outside the main building of the large, rural Thai secondary school under the sun that already beat down angry, humid heat at 8am. Exhausted, I watched as the students stood diligently while the Thai national anthem played and then sat crossed legged on the dusty floor to listen to the headteacher.

The brightly painted school campus serves over 500 students ages 12-18 and is bigger and more well equipped than I had expected. There were 3 large triple level buildings of classrooms, a large sports hall, music room and meditation hall that were all well stocked. Despite having no air conditioning the classrooms were equipped with smart TVs and computers however I didn’t witness these being used. There was a distinct lack of teaching materials in the room; only one small board that translated Thai to English and some tatty dictionaries.

Students as young as 13 arrived at school on motorbikes. They looked smart, reasonably well off and were neatly dressed in white and navy uniforms while the girls wore cute navy bows in their hair.

Despite it being a secondary school the students’ level of English was overall very basic. I taught as a volunteer English teacher back to back classes alongside the Thai English teacher who I found very difficult to understand or converse with.

It was the start of the new school year after the April holidays. The first lesson of the day was a class of 18 years olds. Classes start with a chorus of “Good Morning Teacher” from the whole class. This gave me confidence in their English ability but it was soon apparent that that was the extent of it.

This class didn’t understand anything I said and couldn’t even write their name in English. The whole hour class was spent talking in Thai and passing the one and only alphabet board round to translate their names. Due to the language barrier I felt a little unless and I asked the teacher what I should do to help and was shocked when she actually asked me if I wanted to play on the computer or read a book!

The next lesson was a class of 16 year olds. The teacher started by writing a list of subjective verbs on the board which the students had to copy down. Whilst they copied she was reading a teacher’s text book looking like she was just learning English herself. The teacher hardly spoke in English to the students and when she did try to explain what she had written on the board the pronunciation was so bad that I could hardly understand, I tried to correct her pronunciation but she didn’t look happy with me. Then she asked the students to write examples and they looked confused, chatted to each other in Thai or wandered around or out of the room. The teacher handed out an unrelated English to German worksheet which confused the students, me and the teacher and that was quickly abandoned and then she left the classroom for 10 minutes.

English lessons consisted mainly of copying and writing rather than conversational pracitice

A few of the students had written some examples but they didn’t really make any sense. So to help I wrote examples of ‘to have’ and ‘to be’ on the board in a logical manner but the teacher returned she looked confused at what I had written and the students seemed to be very confused with the different tenses.

Lunch was usually rice with some spicy pork or chicken and iced coffees taken at a stall by the roadside in the village with the other teachers while the students ate on campus. It’s a half hour walk down the country road to the small village which contained a mixture of buildings; some large with gates, satellite dishes and air con and other more modest but it wasn’t as poor and rustic as I had expected.

The classes in the afternoons were better but I was often confused as to what was the topic or objective of the lesson was. For example the teacher wrote on the board – ‘asking for opinions, I think that, I agree, I disagree.’ After the usual copying exercise she then cut up little cards with questions like ‘what’s your favourite sport?, what do you do at the weekend?, what’s your favourite food?’

Again the teacher wandered off and left the classroom so I tried to engage with the class with some conversational practice. It was difficult to get them to speak to me as they were not confident and didn’t understand much vocabulary.

I would walk around the room to each student’s desk individually asking them the questions from the cards and asking them to return the question. By doing this I managed to get a response from each pupil.

It was nice how the students helped each other but this also lead to a lot of copying, the same answers were learnt and given to the questions rather than the student’s being able to answer the question with an original answer but at least it was progress and conversational practice. Classes like this felt really rewarding and I enjoyied feeling my confidence grow as I taught more classes and developed ways to get the students to engage with me.

Some of the students were lovely, respectful and keen to learn. There were some bright students at the front of most classes who were keen to learn English. They were curious about me – the ‘farang’ and spoke with me even while the rest of the class messed around in the background.

 

The student’s levels of English varied drastically and was not comiserate with their age but overall it was extremley basic. Many students did not seem motivated to learn English and just messed about.

 

Although I was only a volunteer English teacher I could tell that the lessons were quite boring for the students, they mostly just consisted of writing and copying execrises with very little speaking or listening to English. There was no interest or fun put into learning they just copied of the board or a fellow student.

 

The direction, topic and aim of the lessons were not really clear and they were badly prepared. I didn’t understand the method of teaching or see how students would learn English by just copying a list of the board that they didn’t understand. It seems like they just concertrate on writing English and learning grammar rules but not learning vocabluary, understanding or speaking the language.

 

Sometimes the teacher would tell the students to practice speaking in pairs but many just spoke in Thai, wandered round the classroom, read a book or drew. In one class the only time the teacher engaged the students to speak English was in punishment when she made some students who had misbehaved stand in pairs at the front of the class and read the English off the board. When I attempted to correct pronounciation, for both students and teacher, I was met with hurt and confused looks.

 

I despaired, how will they learn when the lessons are not planned or structured, the teacher cannot pronounce English and spends half the time out of the classroom and conversational practice is used as a punishment.

 

Whilst there were some rewarding times overall my experience as a volunteer English teacher in Thailand was dissapointing.

 

The heat, bugs, isolation and sleep depravation, in combination with the unorganisation and lack of motivation I felt from many teachers and students, really got to me as I didnt feel like I was making a difference in this instance. I live in hope that not all volunteer English teachers experiences are like this!

2 Comments

  • Wow it sounds pretty tough! Is it any better a week later?

    • Anna says:

      The heat never relented! The heat and sleep deprivation were the worst parts.
      I wasn’t there for very long but the teaching got easier as I became more confident, thought of more exercises to do and the students opened up more as I got to know them a little better, although I can’t say that I was particularly in awe of the teaching methods there – it was alot of writing and copying instead of speaking English and having fun and I didn’t have much chance to implement new ideas.
      I’m sure there are much better organised and more rewarding volunteer teaching opportunities. I didn’t go through and agency – I just arranged it myself but contacting the school so maybe it would be better to do with an agency in hindsight.

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