by Ben Gumienny
A humorous look at ESL teaching from one teacher in Thailand
|So, I am sitting here in my homeroom class while they write their midterm exams and it begins to dawn on me that I am actually a schoolteacher. A scary thought as a picture pops into my head of an old woman with gray hair pulled into a severe bun and frown wrinkles on her lightly mustached upper lip. This is quickly followed by images of plastic-clothed gym teachers who flirt with their female students (everyone lie on their backs!) and pipe smoking, coffee drinking math teachers with tobacco stains on their fingers and horrendous breath. Unfortunately, after nearly a full year of teaching elementary students over 800 classes in science, health, PE (with plastic pants!) and computers, I can hardly deny that I fit in this esteemed company. I wear a uniform to school everyday, I have a red pen to mark student’s papers with and I even get ink stains on my hands (okay, okay - on my face). I hate professional development days and l love giving tests (no lesson plan that day!). There is no doubt I am a schoolteacher.
With that in mind, it’s time to give my tell-all, dirt-filled schoolteacher’s perspective. After working in a staffroom crammed with 20-odd teachers’ desks, a virtual force-feeding of the “cream” of academia’s crop, I am faced with many questions: When I was in school did my teachers come to school hung over? Did they sleep at their desks? Were there slacker teachers and dedicated ones? Did any of my teachers ever date each other? See their students at the mall and hide behind a pillar? Did they write crude jokes on the staff whiteboard? Swear at the school principal (and their fellow teachers, and, well, everyone)? Did they come to school late and duck out early? Probably not - no doubt the North American requirement of an actual degree in teaching (instead of, say, Ancient Greek Paper-Making) would cure all of these ailments.
And did all my teachers have favorites? I have little doubt that despite their best efforts, they did like certain students more than others. I’ll come clean and say that I do (and not necessarily those named Pizza or Beer!). However, in Thailand, and in teaching English as a second language, I find that there are definitely different grades of students. No, I am not talking about Grades K-12 or even A, B, C and D students; I have a grading system that the reader may have used more recently:
First we have the Super Premium Grade students. These are the students who understand English almost perfectly. They are usually divided into one of two categories: Those who are native English speakers or have one or more native-speaking parent and those who are Thai but have very rich, very driven parents who push their children hard to succeed. Keeping SPG’s occupied can be very difficult as they tend to be light-years ahead of the rest of the class. Usually they are either Magnanimous or Evil Genius types. For the Magnanimous it is easy – they are usually willing to be helpful and will help tutor other students, clean the classroom, run errands for you, do your laundry, etc. The Evil Geniuses are harder to control as they tend to tear apart the classroom, distract the other students, blow things up or, if you are lucky, pout. Generally I try to give them a “special” job to do or if you are fortunate enough to have more than one, you can pit them against each other to the general amusement of all.
The next grade of students is the Premium Grade. These are your typical bright students – well below the Icarus syndrome of the SPG’s. They are generally your best students to work with. They want to learn, they do all their work and they are a normal level for their age which makes them more humble and helpful. Just like Super Premium Grade gasoline is too costly for the average driver therefore making Premium Grade more preferable, so are the Premium Grade students easier to teach and still very hassle-free.
The third type of student is the Mid-Grade. These are relatively smart, can usually understand with some help. They also tend to talk more than Premiums, and are a bit more difficult to handle. Like the middle child they are often overlooked. I can’t really think of anything else worth saying about them.
The fourth and second-to-last grade of student is the Regular student. These are just a shade above “dumb as nails”. Picture a round, chubby face (boy or girl) surrounded by a lovely bowl-cut (again boy or girl). They are often seen with a determined glint in their eye, but just cannot understand no matter how much they want to. These students will break your heart. They are the ones who while failing miserably at a spelling test (and I mean miserably – not even able to properly write their alphabet) have a furrowed brow and a sad look. After mentally noting that they will get zero on the test, you ask them whether they studied. From their desolate tone you know that they did and are shattered by yet another failure. These kids give their best, but should maybe be in a different level or full-time remedial class, neither of which is possible in Thailand.
Their effort is tragic and is what sets them apart from the final category of student.
The final type of student is the Homemade Moonshine Grade. These students are probably the product of two kissing cousins. They have no clue and often have no desire to learn either. Not only that, but they are determined to take everyone else down to Stupid Town with them. HMG’s have perfected two facial expressions: The Blank Stare and the Affirmative Nod. A typical exchange with them would go like this:
Mr. Ben: Did you finish your homework?
HMG: Blank Stare
Mr. Ben: (speaking at remedial speed) Hooomework? Page 19, remember?
HMG: Blank Stare
Mr. Ben: (pointing to board where homework is written and miming writing with a pencil) Did you do your hoooomework?
HMG: (smiling) Affirmative Nod
Mr. Ben: (holding out hand) Give it to me.
HMG: (still smiling) Affirmative Nod
Mr. Ben: (holding up another student’s homework and gesturing with it) Give me your hooomework.
HMG: (looking uncertain) Affirmative Nod
Other students: Master Ben, Joe no have homework. No finished.
HMG: Blank Stare
Somewhere inside you feel sympathy for them as you know they probably have a rough home life, need parental love, are beaten by their parents, have no parents, have never had a beating or live in a kennel, but it is sometimes difficult to remember when they are disrupting your class for the umpteenth time. If you can reach these kids then you are a miracle worker. If the light ever goes on for them (and I mean ever - in the smallest way) it can be one of the most satisfying parts of the job.
From Super Premium Grade to HMG there is quite a range to deal with. Somewhere in between there comes this thing called teaching. It is a precarious balance at best. So, those are the scandalous thoughts of this schoolteacher. Come to think of it, as I read this over, I can see why my English teacher was likely hung-over, my homeroom teacher always swore at everyone and my school counselor was always ducking out early (and never flirted with me!). I’m sure they would all be laughing at the poetic justice of my life today.