Thailand University Teacher Extraordinaire

The trials and tribulations of a young English teacher

The 30 Day 30 Minute Challenge: It’s All Come to an End

Sadly, because of the looming deadline I’ve set myself for my Master’s degree applications, I’m bringing an end to this cycle of the 30 Day 30 Minute Challenge. I managed to write for five consecutive days for this challenge although I ultimately only published three entries (Goodbye MSN Spaces being the first).

Even though I vowed to publish whatever I came up with every day, I decided that I wasn’t happy sharing something that appeared to be visibly broken and that’s why two entries will forever remain hidden in the ether. That being said, I’m much more comfortable sharing my writing with anyone who’s willing to read it after attempting this challenge. I’ll give this another try in January.

In other news, I love my job at the moment. The recent floods in Bangkok have delayed the start of the second semester of Thai program courses. This means that my schedule for the last six weeks has been unusually light. I had time to spend a week in Kunming, China with my girlfriend, which has brought the smile back to my face.

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Je Je Je Jaded

When it comes to work, the last three to four months have been nothing short of brutal. I now find myself constantly yearning for a day off. It’s times like these that the candle of my passion for teaching starts to flicker.

I really like the vast majority of students, and I love that teaching is what I do for a living. I just wish that there wasn’t so much of it. I’ve been working flat out since June, and I’m desperate for a week off. I’m currently juggling a total of seven classes for six different subjects. Thankfully this week is the final week of Thai program courses. Four of my classes will be over for a month, and some generous gaps will temporarily open up in my schedule.

The only downside is that a tsunami of marking will be upon me within the coming days. Wednesday afternoon will see 120 economics students take an academic writing quiz that I devised a few hours ago. For the sake of consistency, the teacher that prepares a quiz has the privilege of marking every paper. That’s 120 papers to look forward to as of tomorrow afternoon. Then there’s final exams for Thai program courses. Each teacher gets roughly 100 exam papers to check plus another 100 papers to double check. That’s 320 exam papers so far.

Sadly, it gets worse. Midterm exams are coming for international program courses. That means another 120 economics papers, 140 business papers and 39 science papers. That means my grand total comes to a dizzying 619 exam papers.

In the midst of all that marking, I’ll have to make my yearly visit to immigration at Chaeng Wattana for another visa extension. All of my paperwork is ready; all that remains is a tedious and frustrating three or four hour wait on the world’s least comfortable plastic chairs. Happy times ahead.

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A Bombshell Has Been Dropped

A meeting was called a few weeks ago for all staff working in my building. There was only one item on the agenda: the complete refurbishment of the top floor of the building. It seems that at long last, the university has decided to spend some money on our building.

The top floor is home to the offices of some 80 or some permanent teachers. The entire floor will be off limits as of the end of April, so everyone has just over a month left to temporarily empty their office. The entire ceiling and large parts of the roof will be replaced, so leaving anything behind would be foolish. This is going to be a major problem.

One thing I’ve discovered about teaching is that it is impossible to prevent yourself from acquiring mountains of paper. No matter how careful you are to save and recycle paper, it somehow has a way of magically multiplying overnight. Having your very own office when times are busy doesn’t help either. It’s very easy to dump anything you’re carrying in your office before dashing off to have lunch or to teach another class.

My office doesn't look this bad, but It's getting there...

I’ve only been in this job for 18 months, but it’s scary the amount of the stuff I already have hidden away in my office. Thankfully a large volume of paper won’t be needed again and can be shredded; the real problem is that I’m going to have to go through everything to make sure I don’t throw away any old exams, assignments or grade sheets in case they’re ever needed again. It’s going to be a long and arduous process.

Another problem is finding somewhere to put all the things I will need again. I have several folders full of things I will need for the next semester. It’s almost a certainty that the repairs won’t be completed on time, and space in the rest of the building will suddenly be at a premium with 80+ other teachers looking for somewhere to store their possessions.

As irritating as it will be to clear out my office, I have a lot of sympathy for some of the older teachers. Many have been there for at least 20 years, and more than a few of them haven’t been very careful when it comes to disposing of old paperwork. I’m glad I only have a year and a half’s worth of old stuff to go through.

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The Joy of a Day Off

“I work to live, I don’t live to work”, is a quote on a sticker on the door of a colleague’s office. It’s a philosophy I very much believe in, and I usually find myself reading these words every morning before entering my own office. That wasn’t the case this morning though as I stayed away from work and instead enjoyed a rare lie in. Words cannot express just how good it felt to be in bed instead of teaching an 8 o clock class on a Monday morning.

Now that all classes are over, all exams are marked, and all grades have been submitted for Thai program courses, I’m down to 6 hours of teaching a week. I’ll still have some International program exams to mark this week, but compared to the last 6 months, the pressure is very much off at work.

It was officially into the afternoon when I finally rolled out of bed today. Instead of a few hastily eaten biscuits and a bottle of water, I was able to take the time to prepare a bowl of cereal and a cup of tea for breakfast. I’m like an owl, sleeping before midnight on a Sunday is out of the question, so my time on a Monday morning is usually at a premium.

If films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off are to be believed, a day off is a magical thing,  full of almost unlimited possibilities. Without planning though, a day off usually becomes hours of sitting around watching TV and surfing the internet. This is essentially what my day off was, but I don’t regret it for a moment. It’s been so long since I had the time to do nothing for hours. There was even time for me to give some love to my long suffering apartment and to do cleaning. I of course didn’t bother, but it was nice for the opportunity to be there.

Tomorrow I’ll be back at work, and I’ll dive into yet round of exam marking. After a day of rest and relaxation though, I’m strangely looking forward to it.

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Surviving the Science Experiment

In June 2010, I was asked by Joy, my Filipino/American workmate, to help put together and teach a new two semester English course for 1st year undergraduate Chemistry students. As it was a new course, it was up to us to write the curriculum and all of the materials. Since I said yes, life at work has been eventful.

Joy and I managed to muddle our way through the first semester. We had a one month head start to prepare and write materials before the course began. We eventually produced enough materials for the first 3 weeks. This meant that for the remaining 11 weeks, we had to write materials as we went along. This wouldn’t have been so bad if we hadn’t foolishly chosen to teach another 2 international courses on top of the mandatory 4 Thai program courses that are a part of every teacher’s contract. Those 3 months were the most stressful but financially rewarding months of my life.

This second semester has been much easier and relaxed. We wisely invested in an academic writing course book, and we’ve been able to casually pick and choose the best chapters weeks in advance. This has been a huge relief as I had to spend hours frantically writing articles every week in semester one. We currently have 9 weeks of teaching left, and It’s nice not having to worry about potential disaster every week.

The students in my section of this course are an interesting bunch. My youngest student Jessica, is only 15 years old. She skipped ahead a few years in high school, and she looks out of place in a class where the majority of students are 18 years old. Sadly, her level of English is far below that of her classmates, and it’s going to take a lot of hard work for her to get a grade C this semester. At the other end of the spectrum, I have one student in my class who is apparently 24 years old. He is repeating his first year as a university student because the university failed to give him credit for the 3 years he spent studying in America. I would not be happy if I were in his shoes.

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A Critical Incident Questionnaire Experiment

A few months ago, inspired by Brookfield’s The Skillful Teacher, I decided that it was time for an experiment. I made my own Critical Incident Questionnaire and gave it to my 2nd year university business students. All students were told that it would be anonymous and that they shouldn’t write their name on their paper. They were told to write as much or as little as they wanted for each question. Here are the questions I went with…

In class this week…

At what moment did you feel most engaged?
At what moment did you feel most confused?
What action did anyone (teacher or student) do that you found most helpful?
What surprised you the most?

The results were interesting. Some students struggled to write a single sentence for each, while others almost filled an entire sheet of A4 paper. Many students said they were surprised to even be asked these questions. Here is what I learned from the experience

– I need to be clearer with instructions, especially when the activity isn’t so straightforward. It may be a high level class, but that doesn’t mean that I should give little thought to instructions.

– Many students loved the feedback session for one of the vocabulary exercises we did in class. It should only have taken a couple of minutes to go through the answers, but I spontaneously decided to insist on eliciting every answer, even though the words themselves were quite complex. It ended up becoming a bit of a game, where I gave only the first one or two letters for every word. A couple of students wrote that they normally feel too shy to try to give answers in front of the class, but this exercise gave them enough confidence to contribute. Ironically I was mentally kicking myself after class for wasting so much time on it.

– Students are generally happy with whole class feedback sessions we do after exercises and activities. Often there isn’t much of a contribution from many students, so I was starting to doubt how much value they actually had for this class. This is something I should feel more confident about.

– A couple of students said that they like me checking their work individually when they finish before the rest of the class. I sometimes debate with myself about giving them immediate feedback or waiting for the whole class to finish before giving answers. This is something I will keep doing.

– I shouldn’t say “I guess” or “I think” when talking about something. At least a couple of students are taking that literally!

– Some students really like it when an individual student asks me a question during an activity or exercise and I answer it in front of the whole class. This is something I should do more.


I intend to repeat the experiment in a few weeks. It will be interesting to see if anything has changed and to find new areas of my craft that need work.

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Winding Down

There is only one week of Thai program courses remaining, and all of the teachers at my faculty are buzzing. For the Thai teachers, 12 hours of teaching a week will become 0 hours of teaching a week. For the Western staff, 18 hours of teaching a week will become 6 hours of teaching a week. The faculty will close down completely in May, and classes will then recommence in June. This is a break that everyone has been looking forward to.

The academic year in Thailand is different from most countries. Thai program courses (courses where all subjects except English are taught in Thai) have two semesters. The first semester begins in June and finishes at the end of September. The second semester begins in November and finishes at the end of February. Full time Thai and foreign teachers are contracted to teach 12 hours of Thai program courses a week.

International program courses (courses where all subjects are taught in English) have three semesters. The first semester begins in August and finishes at the end of November. The second semester begins in January and finishes at the end of April. The third semester is a short but intense summer semester, where 4 months of classes are crammed into 4 weeks in June. Foreign teachers teach either 2 or 3 International courses a semester, which works out at either 6 or 9 hours of class a week.

At this stage of the academic year, all international staff are exhausted. The last time we all had a complete break was in May 2010. Even though everyone has briefly had reduced schedules, there have still been exams to mark and materials to write as well as a constant stream of marking. I’m very much looking forward to having 2 easy months of teaching. Instead of eating hurried 15 minute lunches in a canteen, I’ll be able to enjoy leisurely hour long meals in a nearby shopping mall. I’ll be able to enjoy a lie in most days instead of rising early to teach at 8am 4 times a week. I won’t have to sit through any more boring meetings that drag on for hours until June. There is finally light at the end of what has been a very dark looking tunnel this academic year.

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Weary on a Wednesday

This semester, my busiest day of the week by far is Wednesday. My first class is basic writing for Economics, which begins bright and early at 8.30am. After two previous days with early starts, getting to work in time for breakfast before this class is impossible. I refuse to drag myself out of bed before 6.30am, so I have to settle for a bottle of water and a handful of biscuits from 7/11 before class begins.

After class is over, I then have half an hour to dump my books in my office, pick up handouts for the next class, and then hike to the other end of campus to teach my Art students. Today was a landmark day as we didn’t get through all the materials for one unit in one session. My Art students aren’t the most enthusiastic learners, so I have to use a lot of energy in this class to get them moving.

Next is an hour off from teaching for lunch. This usually involves another long hike across campus to scoff down a meal as quickly as possible in a huge canteen filled with hundreds of students, before retreating to my office for 40 minutes. Most of this time is spent answering emails, going over my lesson plan for my afternoon class and harassing/being harassed by teachers who teach the same courses I teach.

My final class of the day resembles something like a marathon. I have to teach international business students grammar for 3 hours. Students in this class are a joy to teach. None of them are afraid to ask for help, which makes a pleasant change from most other faculties. They’re an energetic and enthusiastic bunch, and hours seem to pass in an instant. So far this semester, I’ve walked away from this class exhausted but happy.

This class is followed by another hasty retreat to my office, where I usually have about 50 minutes to get things done before the building closes at 5pm. Much of this time is spent reading news online or catching up on the latest gossip with Ajarn Aey. She’s a Thai widow in her mid 40s who knows everything interesting about the majority of teachers working in my faculty. Today I spent almost the whole 50 minutes working on a question for next week’s international program Science exam. Teaching an international course for 3 hours a week effectively doubles a teacher’s monthly salary, so much more time and energy is required when putting together materials, preparing lessons, and writing exam questions compared with Thai program courses.

As the warning bell is sounded to announce that the building is closing and that everyone should quickly leave so security can go home, I stumble away from campus to the underground train station to be assaulted by noisy adverts for the half an hour it takes to get back to my neighbourhood. I walk the short distance to my apartment, happy that another hectic Wednesday is behind me.

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Looking to the Future

F0r the past seven or eight months, I’ve been certain that my long term future isn’t going to be spent living in Thailand. I’ve always been very ambitious and driven, and the knowledge that I have got as far as I possibly can in Thailand with only a Bachelor’s Degree and a CELTA feels quite unsatisfying.

I can think of hundreds of reasons to stay at the moment. I’ve got a great girlfriend, I’m saving a lot of money, and I’ve got a much better lifestyle compared to my friends living in England. I can see big and dramatic changes coming up on the horizon though, and the days I have left living in Thailand are definitely numbered.

So what will come next? A position teaching the subject I studied at university at a Western university ideally. While I’ve had a prosperous 3 years of teaching English as a Foreign Language, I’ve never once had the feeling that I would want it to be my career. I’m not completely sold on the value of English being a global language, and I feel like the time is right to move on to teaching something a little more vigourous.

When the time is finally right for me to leave Thailand, I should be in surprisingly good shape. I’ve saved more than enough to study for a Master’s Degree, and I’ll have more than two years of experience of teaching at a university. Hopefully my teaching experience and my CELTA will make up for graduating with only a 2.2 (also know as a Desmond), when I completed my Bachelor’s Degree, almost a lifetime ago.

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Books Reviewed – The Skillful Teacher by Stephen Brookfield

After many months of reading nothing but fiction, I decided that the time had come to read something that would benefit my performance in the classroom. Wandering aimlessly through one of my university’s libraries, I stumbled across Brookfield’s The Skillful Teacher.

The book is divided into 14 chapters, which range from understanding students and the beliefs they bring into classrooms, to organizing effective lectures and discussions, to the politics of teaching and surviving emotionally.

My first impressions of the book were very positive. I dived right into Chapter 10 – Giving Helpful Evaluations, as I considered this to be one of my biggest weaknesses. As someone wiser than I once said, “to teach is to give feedback”. There are a myriad of tips and pointers in this chapter, many of which could immediately be applied to my craft.

Other chapters in the book that I consider to be strong are Chapter 13 – Dealing with the Politics of Teaching and Chapter 14 – Surviving Emotionally. Most other books on teaching that I have read tend to ignore the politics that go on in any institution, as if it is a dirty secret that should never be mentioned. Politics play a major role in teaching in Thailand. If you don’t win the hearts and minds of many of the Thai and international staff, you can find yourself out in the cold teaching horrible Thai program courses and no lucrative international program courses. The emotions that teachers experience also seems to be another topic that isn’t widely written about in textbooks. Chapter 14 seems to be more about reassurance rather than techniques that can be learned.

The book does have a few problems though. Many chapters seem padded. I almost had the feeling that Brookfield was being paid by the word when reading. Often, a point that could be made in one page is instead made in a dozen pages. At least two or three chapters could easily be cut by two thirds and combined into one stronger chapter.

Brookfield also has the habbit of repeating himself often. It seems as if not a chapter goes by without a mention of the importance of giving students Critical Incidence Questionnaires, or having students from previous years come into the class and spend an hour reassuring current students about the subject as the teacher departs from class. These are however minor gripes compared to the wealth of useful advice found inside the book.

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