Thailand University Teacher Extraordinaire

The trials and tribulations of a young English teacher

Goodbye MSN Spaces, Hello WordPress

Two years ago, I received an email from hotmail informing me that MSN Spaces would effectively be discontinued. I had the choice of transferring all of my posts to a new blog at WordPress or downloading a file containing all of my posts to my computer. I hadn’t written on that blog for aeons, but it was a labour of love when I was a university student. I was dedicated and invested many afternoons and evenings sharing my short musings with anyone who would care to read.  After several frustrating hours spent trying to figure out how to move everything over though, I gave up and reluctantly took option two, vowing that one day I would figure it all out and that I would once again have a blog filled with hundreds of thoughts, feelings, theories and other general nonsense.  Two years have passed, and still no meaningful progress had been made. Then I rediscovered Zinsser.

Zinsser, or rather William Zinsser to be polite and proper, wrote a book that many consider to be a writer’s masterpiece. The book is titled ‘On Writing’, and it lays out the dos and don’ts of writing non-fiction. It’s a book I discovered in my first year as a university teacher, and it helped me enormously when writing materials for my various courses as well as when writing general tomfoolery in my free time.

One key point that he makes, is that many writers need structure. If they decide to only write on a whim and have no clear goals, it’s very difficult to write anything of any real quality if anything at all. If a writer has structure though – if they sit down to write for a set amount of time on a set number of days a week – they are much more likely to write something meaningful, which they can be proud of.

Shortly after I downloaded my blog, I read through a few random posts and was delighted with what I had written. Many of my posts had a light and playful tone, which it seems I have since lost. It was interesting to see what my attitudes were towards various people and issues and how they have since changed. What had started out as a lazy Saturday afternoon -mostly spent aimlessly trudging from website to website – became an exciting rediscovery of who I was in my early 20s.

Thanks – although I’m sure some would say curses – to Zinsser, I’ve decided that I will not only start writing regularly again but that I will slowly start uploading my old posts from my student days to this blog. Writing is a craft. I’m excited to have rediscovered it.

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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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Acid Attack on Farang at BTS Station

The most worrying news story for tourists and expats in Thailand this week was of a despicable acid attack at a skytrain station. Here’s what the Bangkok Post had to say:

A foreign woman artist, Elizabeth Briel, reported on Twitter on Friday that she and her husband had acid sprayed at their faces at the Asoke skytrain station last night.

She said the acid was directed at them from the stairway leading to the station near Robinson shopping mall.

Mrs Briel said her husband’s eyes were damaged but would be okay, while she has a burnt scalp.

They were treated at Bumrungrad hospital.

The hospital said this is the third case they have seen lately.

In Mrs Briel’s homepage, she sums up the incident saying she and her husband “were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Her letter to Thailand says she will leave Thailand and travel to China soon because of “China’s contemporary art and its fringe cultures”, not because of last night’s incident.

While the chances of being targeted seem quite small, it’s worrying that such attacks are happening. Be careful out there folks.

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Books Reviewed – The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

I don’t have a great deal of knowledge about economics, so it was with great reluctance that I found myself considering this book. It came with strong recommendations from three of my friends though, so I eventually found myself buying it on a lazy Saturday afternoon. I definitely made the right decision.

In a nutshell, using as little jargon as possible, this book looks at how economic and political shocks have been used around the world to benefit wealthy individuals and corporations. The book focuses on how economist Milton Friedman’s ideology has been used with devastating consequences. Major political and economics related events in Latin America, Britain, Russia, Poland, South Africa, Iraq, Sri Lanka and the USA are discussed. In all of these places, shocks were used and taken advantage of in order to force through unpopular and unfair policies.

In every chapter, there is something that provokes a raise of the eyebrows or a loud curse. It was interesting to see just how active the CIA was in taking part in coups in South America. Moreover, it was interesting to read about the misdeeds of institutions like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. It is strange that they can continue to exist with any kind of legitimacy.

One reason I enjoyed this book so much was being able to make sense of recent historic events that I missed out on because I was a child. I remember seeing many of the main protagonists on TV, the Pinochets, the Gorbachovs, the Thatchers, but I was too young to really understand what was happening and the significance of the events.

Another big strength of this book is how meticulously researched it is. In my copy of this book, 80 pages in the back are notes that back up the vast majority of Klein’s claims. It is clear that thousands and thousands of hours were spent researching and fact checking details. Only a madman would take the time to go through all of these pages though.

One thing I would recommend to anyone considering reading this book is to have easy access to a dictionary or the internet, particularly if you don’t know your left wing from your right wing, or aren’t sure what neoliberalism could possibly mean. A glossary at the back of the book for quick reference would make this book much more accessible to fellow economics novices.

To sum up, this is probably one of the most important non fiction books that I have read. Many Americans may not like it, but it should be considered essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in international politics or economics.

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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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Books Reviewed – Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Since reading Orwell’s 1984, I’ve been fascinated with North Korea. The idea that a modern day totalitarian society could continue to exist in the 21st century is strange and outlandish, and I’ve spent a lot of time pondering what life there could actually be like.  As soon as I spotted this gem on the shelf of my local bookstore during my two week sojourn in England, I knew I had to read it.

The content of the book is based on many conversations the author had with a number of North Korean defectors. The lives of six former residents of Chongjin are written about in detail, and each account brings a different insight into an oppressive and difficult way of life.  An almost Victoria style teenage romance is described early on in the book, followed by several accounts of the devastating famine that occurred in the 90s. Reading about how almost all the trees in a forest had been stripped of their bark for food was sobering. It’s likely that the true scale of the famine will never be known.

There is no question that North Korea is vastly different from the South. The first page of the first chapter shows the gulf in quality of life that exists. It shows a satellite photo of both countries at night. The vast majority of South Korea is covered by white dots, which represent light. North Korea in comparison is completely black apart from a tiny area of white in the location of the capital Pyongyang. However, it wasn’t always this way. It quickly becomes clear that North Korea was forced to take a huge step backwards in the 90s. Much of the country once had electricity on a daily basis, but isolation from the international community left the country’s infrastructure in tatters. As Kim Jong Il and the generals continue their push towards nuclear power and potentially weapons, it’s clear that the crippling sanctions imposed by the West have had little effect on those at the top and have instead destroyed the lives of millions of  innocent people.

My feelings about this book are largely positive, but there are a few niggly problems. The biggest negative is that the writing style isn’t always the best. At times, it feels like Demick is a bored journalist being paid by the word rather than by the hour. To be fair, Demick actually is a reporter, but I can’t help but feel that parts of this book needed another draft or at least a little more attention from the editor. Despite being around only 300 pages long, getting to the end felt like a real slog. That however may have been because I read the whole book within 3 days. Highly recommended reading.

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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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