In Search of a Good English Teacher
Thailand abounds with English teaching positions. Adverts swamp the daily newspapers, and language schools outnumber McDonalds. Private academies and universities continue to increase their focus on English with positions opening all the time. And teaching English seems like a job that almost any English speaker can get. Backpackers with time and no money. Diploma-holders with career aspirations. Thais with English degrees. But like any profession, an English teacher needs qualifications, the least of which is being human. As one of the lowest paying, easiest-to-get expat jobs in the Kingdom, teaching attracts a hodgepodge of native speakers.
How do you spot a good one? Educational background could indicate a good candidate. Certainly someone with an MA in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (MA-TESOL) sits high on a university's short list. At the other end stands the native speaker with a certificate in welding. Hardly ajarn material, but a Thai engineer might enjoy a conversation course taught by a fellow tradesman.
A variety of degrees, diplomas and certificates float around the English-teaching world. Someone with an MA in English or linguistics can discuss deconstruction philosophy, language acquisition theories, and Faulkner's use of the past tense. Thai's sometimes call these people "Experts." Education grads know things like monitoring and managing. A person with a bachelor's degree in anything should easily be able to follow a "Teacher's Book."
Educational background also reflects abilities in behind-the-classes work. University ajarns draw on theories and concepts to prepare upper-level classes. They must also design and assess materials, courses, textbooks and exams. However, not all English teaching in Thailand occurs at the university level.
Many businesses and individuals turn to language schools. This is where acronyms and initials run wild. Potentially, most native literates can teach some level of English as a Second or Foreign Language (ESL/EFL). After all, history abounds with examples of languages spreading without
EFL teachers. The Romans and British probably didn't staff their empires with teams of linguists specializing in ESL. However, in these modern times--this era of globalization--certified instructors teach English at international language institutes.
The alphabet soup of credentials sets the standards for Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) and Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL). At the base of this certification heap is acknowledgment from the Royal Society of the Arts (RSA). RSA certificate holders generally have a secondary education. Wavers of TESOL, TEFL and TESL papers answer to more rigid specs. Reputable language schools gobble these people up.
Mr Rosenbloom with a captive audience - his family
Unlike the university ajarns, these teachers travel around Bangkok and work odd hours. Some spend as much time on a bus as in the classroom. They can have a conversation course for salesmen at 7:00 a.m. in Bang Na and a student preparing for a university entrance exam at 6:00 p.m. on Silom. These instructors tend to use textbooks and cassettes from one of the popular series of general English courses. Specialized materials for English for telephoning, tourism and business also occupy language schools' shelves. Unfortunately, many of these books and teachers don't fulfill the needs of a particular industry or company.
For example, a construction firm's middle management writes a variety of documents in English. They also have to read material filled with technical jargon. A TESOL instructor could teach them how to write memos, elevate their vocabulary, and develop reading skills. Many exercises would be based on fictional scenarios. But these workers require classes and materials that focus on their particular needs. Enter English for Specific Purposes (ESP).
As the title suggests, an ESP course is not general English. Nor is it English by telepathy (although most non-Thai speakers have tried). It is a course specially tailored to fill the learner's needs. In the construction example, building-terminology learning might utilize the reading of relevant technical reports or engineering articles. A memo writing class could use previous situations encountered by the students. The teacher would have to create his or her materials and logically structure the course. This preparation takes much more time than teaching it.
To design such a course, knowledge in construction would help. A few years pounding nails or a minor degree in architecture wouldn't hurt. The same applies for any ESP class. Experience in the hospitality industry would give an edge in teaching a course for restaurant or hotel staff. Therefore, schools seek instructors with work experience on top of teaching qualifications. Although this may exclude some academics, ESP rewards career diversity and honors the Renaissance Man.
The ESP explosion has provided niches including English for Academic Purposes (EAP), English for Occupational Purposes (EOP), English for dScience and Technology (EST), English for Agricultural Technology (EAT), English for Business and Industry (EBI) and English for Information Technology (EIT).
This, in turn, has led to specialized teaching areas within the ESP arena. For example, the hotel industry is an ESP sector. Many Thai hotels hire full-time English teachers, and they receive stacks of CVs with entries like bartender and waitress. Some teachers design curriculums reflecting the English used in their hotels. Class materials employ hotel policy, facilities, menus, tours and theme. This may sound like overkill, but a five-star resort requires excellent English and no misunderstandings as part of their service.
However, it's one thing to teach a waiter or a guest receptionist. It's quite another to instruct a financial analyst on writing research in English or helping a fund manager to understand it. Business English contains loads of terminology and concepts not privy to laymen and has grown in demand in Thailand. It's a secret language. Many who know it, use it to make (or lose) lots of money.
A top-shelf business English teacher-or any advanced ESP teacher-instructs experts. Playing "Business Hangman" with a bank vice president might not be effective. Execs need English to cut billion-baht deals. Generally, the biggest deal an English teacher swings is a 4,500 baht-a-month rental agreement. Still, Thailand has teachers with a decent understanding of business, though successful brokers may not be racing to toss in the towel to teach. The best teachers don't just understand the meaning of business jargon, they comprehend basic economics and concepts used in big business. They follow business news and can carry on a decent conversation about business. Many have worked in large offices. Any familiarity with business is a plus as it helps keep the subject matter at a productive level.
Where does all this leave an inexperienced backpacker? Once, it was simple for random native speakers to get jobs teaching business English or otherwise. Educational background played a small role; a natural teacher can adapt. Qualifications consisted of simple preferences such as British vs. American speakers or women over men. Wages were--and still are--low, but come-ons like "It's cheap to live in Thailand" or "Live and learn Thai culture" enticed young travelers into short-term jobs. Backpackers looking for money to survive on Khao San Road played "Hello. How are you?" for 100-baht an hour. They fit the bill: energetic, young, and the able to have fun.
"Able to have fun" remains a prerequisite for successful teaching in Thailand, and the backpacker jobs have survived. Much has been written about "fun" in the Kingdom. The workplace, above all else, must be fun. Likewise, classes must be fun. Fun, in this sense, isn't uncorking champagne and singing karaoke. Fun means "not serious." Thai-taught classrooms may or may not be serious, but expats have "not serious" drilled into their heads. Therefore, an easy-going candidate should be more successful than the stereotypical nitpicking old maid.
A relaxed, patient and open-minded teacher avoids frustrations and tries to keep a light atmosphere in-and-out of class. Experience in Thailand helps refine these qualities so necessary in Thai classrooms which differ greatly from those in the West. Thai students filling those seats have worn uniforms and memorized formulas. A proclivity towards rote learning produced students who never asked, "Why?" Thai society also doesn't fit the sample exercises and conversations found in most textbooks. Cultural nuances often crop up during a lesson such as ranking expressions by politeness. A teacher experienced in Thailand can integrate different country's customs into the class.
For example, the front desk staff of a southern Thai hotel was learning how to handle complaints in English. The teacher asked what the class would say to an angry guest at two in the morning concerning loud music coming from the next room. The immediate response, "Is the noise coming from foreigners or Thais?" Thai staff would never dream of confronting a Thai guest. In the foreigner's case, diplomacy was okay.
This double standard might offend some Westerners, but a teacher who appreciates this cultural predicament can easily get through it with a sense of humor and flexibility. The students immediately saw this societal clash. No doubt many had played middleman in some awkward scenes. The teacher had never considered it. What the staff needed was a way to handle the problem in English. In other words, how could they satisfy the foreign guest without interrupting the Thai merrymakers? The teacher ad-libbed and guided role-playing through various "what-if" scenarios. Having lived several years in Thailand helps in teaching situations like these.
All these characteristics are vital when a teacher's workload can include several three-hour classes a week. Delivering marathon after marathon requires more than a stack of diplomas. Sitting through a half-day class can be excruciating for students. Enthusiasm keeps things rolling. Class interaction helps students stay awake. Careful preparation keeps the class flowing. A teacher with several long classes is like a musician who gives daily concerts. But unlike the musician, a teacher might have to perform a different show every day of every week. It requires endurance and the ability to entertain. Most of all, a teacher must capture the attention of the crowd.
Educational background, diverse knowledge and an easy-going personality are all ingredients for a good English teacher in Thailand. Living for years in the Kingdom is a bonus. But teaching experience carries plenty of weight. Forty years in a classroom, regardless of the subject, has advantages over an extroverted kid with a box of books. Time-tested teachers have put theories into practice and battled administrations. They've taught anxious learners, bored know-it-alls, inquisitive wizards, hopeless try-hards and emerging talents all in the same class. They've won some and lost some, and throughout, they, too, have learned.
But have they learned how to be good teachers or cynical lecturers? Teachers must instill knowledge. In the English teacher's case, that knowledge is language use. There are hundreds of methods for doing this from memorizing to following a structured curriculum to total immersion. What works for one teacher may not for another. The same goes for the students. The learner's ability to communicate is the ultimate judge of success.
No doubt, methodology affects a teacher's success. The easiest and most widely used approach follows lesson plans in standard textbooks from prominent series. Many exercises rehearse common structures allowing students to fill in the blanks. For example, "Where is the post office?" Additional vocabulary and patterns for situations like asking directions, going shopping, and making new friends raise a student's level from "Beginner" to "Intermediate" and finally "Advanced." There are also sub-levels like "Advanced Intermediate." Tests in the four skills--reading, writing, listening and speaking-assess their ability. Much of the stress is on grammar. The grand finale is passing the TOEFL test which Western universities and many businesses rely on as an English gauge.
One problem with this pattern-approach arises when someone leaves the pattern. A flight attendant interviewed by a graduate student commented that she had studied hard and scored high on the TOEFL test. The airline's English training course covered all conceivable verbal volleys an attendant and passenger might have on the flight. Her gripe was that travelers wanted to talk about the Thai economy or lifestyle and all she could do was offer them a magazine.
Rather than return to a language school, she watched VDOs with subtitles. Years later, the airline demanded another round of TOEFL tests. The attendant didn't study and received a higher grade.
Because of this, many teachers have adopted a "content-based" method. It concentrates more on vocabulary and getting the message across. Grammar can be refined along the way. Most passengers wouldn't mind a broader conversation in broken English. A boss might rather have a comprehensible memo with all the facts than a grammatically correct note without details. A tourist might learn more from a local guide uttering fragments than from a programmed, script-reciting escort. On the other hand, many times, foreigners mistake grammar ability for intelligence, however no hard statistics can back this up.
Also, as previously mentioned, there is the current ESP wave. Actually, this has been around much longer. Grocers taught American immigrants how to sell tomatoes. Sahib taught the Indian cook food terms. Experts have only begun to examine ESP as a viable tool for teaching. The less idealistic wonder where it will stop. English for Street Vendors, English for Noodle Shops, English for Tuk-Tuk Drivers. Imagination is the only limit.
Obviously, this is an incomplete list of teaching techniques. There is probably no "best" teaching method in the way that great baseball pitchers throw differently. This is where situations and materials come in. A person usually has a reason for learning grammar, syntax structures and reading skills. A geek may swim in a sea of scientific abstracts. A phone-toting woman might sell real estate in Bangkok. A construction veteran might write daily reports. There are scores of textbooks with chapters touching on these subjects. A good teacher can collect, modify and expand existing material to fit situations for specific students.
Some instructors are experimenting with authentic materials, another trend in English teaching circles. No one is exactly sure what qualifies as authentic. Is a recent science article used in a reading class more authentic than one from a collection sold in book form? Is an import/export document in a workbook any different than one sent from the Ministry of Commerce? The jury is still mumbling about that one.
Authenticity of materials and situations probably isn't black or white but something measured in degree. Everyone teaching business English is familiar with inventing and running a fictitious company using only English. But there is also the real-life supervisor who needs to write a memo on a problem now. If an English teacher happens to be around, their class content is 100% authentic. It is called "work."
And how does a Thai ajarn fit into this recipe for a good teacher? Can a Thai make as good an English teacher as a native speaker? After all, there are more Thai than foreign English teachers in Thailand. Thousands of English-using Thais never took a course from a native speaker. One resort hosted interns from Krabi's Technical College who had always learned English from Thais. These students spoke circles around some of the seasoned receptionists who mixed daily with real English speakers.
There could be many reasons for a Thai's success in teaching English. For one, they can explain things in Thai. A university class in English for Science and Technology uses some difficult vocabulary and advanced sentence structures. A native speaker will attempt to break concepts down to very simple English. When this doesn't work, they try pantomime. A Thai has the luxury of Thai.
In grade school, Thais usually teach English. This can follow through graduation from a university. A doctor, who had always studied with Thai teachers, practiced conversation with an American. In fact, before hiring the tutor, he had never spoken to a Westerner. His pronunciation was polished. Through classes, books and the media, he had gained an interesting and diverse command of the language. He could talk about anything. His tutelage was the last step before dropping into New York City's surgical district. From a language perspective, there was no problem. Unfortunately, he was shy around foreigners and refused to hold an authentic class at an expat gathering point.
In another case, an elementary school teacher in a tourist area sent students out to converse with foreigners. Timid, disarming groups crept up to vacationers in this right of language passage. After jostling and mumbling, one would blurt out a rehearsed introduction. It was a start. A kid learning German in Arkansas might not get this chance. For Thais, it could be a necessity. Long ago, Thais in tourist areas learned to translate English into baht.
Universities use mostly Thais to teach English. Many have degrees from Western universities. Like their native-speaking counterparts, they have varying degrees of success though possibly for different reasons. Students may view a Thai ajarn differently than a foreign one. Culture might also affect material presentation and classroom management. Expats tend to behave more like vaudeville characters in front of a class. Thais present material much more formally. A student with a problem usually approaches a Thai professor much more cautiously than a foreigner who may encourage them to speak freely. Cultural influences aside, many Thais make good teachers.
For someone looking for an English teacher, this brief look has probably caused more confusion than relief. Luckily, a good university or language institute has high standards in hiring and does their best to match the appropriate teacher with a specific class. Most universities publish their staffs' credentials and courses. It isn't poor taste to ask language schools about the qualifications of their teachers. First, one way to judge a school's quality is by the credentials of their staff. Further, a brief inquiry into the teacher allows you to shop for the best deal.
Look around. Inquire about education and work experience. Feel out a teacher's personality. Do their materials and method suit your expectations? Do you want a grammar person or a content person or someone to design an ESP course? Will a language-school teacher suffice or do you need a degree from a university?
Browse the dozens of daily advertisements that appear for teachers and pick the ones that describe a person you'd feel comfortable learning from. Notice which qualifications different schools seek. Different needs require different teachers. What makes a teacher good is matching their abilities with the students' needs.
Note: The author holds an MA in English from Binghamton University in New York. He currently lectures at King Mongkut's Institute of Technology North Bangkok and is a committee member of the Department's MA-EBI program. Using the ESP approach and authentic materials, he has designed and implemented various graduate courses in Business English.
For further information contact Mr Rosenbloom at:email@example.com