Robert LendonComment

Terms of engagement

Robert LendonComment
Terms of engagement

When I close my eyes at night I hear the frantic cries of two hundred children shouting “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!” Their tiny hands grabbing and pulling me down to hell. 

I’m not quite sure how this happened. I had two weeks free after completing my TESOL course in Bangkok and was torn between a classroom of screaming children and a beautiful quiet beach. Somehow the children won, perhaps it was the desire to use my newly laminated TESOL certificate — I could at least use it as a shield. I should have been concerned this opening was available as the teacher quit his job without notice. It wasn’t a good sign... 

I’d actually witnessed him in action on the second day of my course. I’d sat in on two teachers, the first was a joy to behold, the class managed like a beautiful symphony, reacting to every nuance and creating harmony. The second was everything I’d learnt not to do in my single day of studying. When I asked why the children were quietly colouring in, he told me he was hungover. The first teacher made me question my ability. This teacher gave me confidence. Little did I know I’d be replacing him in that very classroom a few weeks later.

Arriving on my first day of school I was given my schedule and some sage words of advice, “You’ll be fine”. Armed with nothing but my wits and a white board marker, my mission was to get all 200 of my pupils to complete their workbooks for testing. Each room I entered was full of 40 little people, all seemingly identical. I wasn’t even sure which were boys and which were girls. One thing I did know was that they didn’t speak English, but then that’s what I was there for. It was time to see if they would like and respect me or enjoy crushing their second teacher in a row. The rabble quickly formed to order as they saw a new face enter, my greeting returned with a loud “Good morning teacher…” and lots of blank looks. Ah, yes “My name is teacher Rob”.

 One of my students hard at work learning. Well, probably putting stickers in her book but stickers can be educational. I think.

One of my students hard at work learning. Well, probably putting stickers in her book but stickers can be educational. I think.

Tucked away in the back of my classroom I had a Thai assistant. In theory she was to assist with any problems as the title would suggest, useful considering my Thai is limited to ordering mango sticky rice, grilled meat, papaya salad and beer, oh, and saying no thank you to ladyboys. In reality it was for her to conduct her personal chores, make phone calls, play Candy Crush and chat with her friends on Line. You might think a bustling hub of learning would be distracting for a phone call but she quickly dealt with this by shouting at us all to be quiet. 

My second day of school I arrived in a taxi with my luggage to move apartments. The door was opened for me by a child and like any good five-star hotel they carried my bag for me, up four flights of stairs. Each time I turned to check they were still alive or hadn’t run off with my stuff it was a different child. They seemed to communicate silently through a hive mind. Pretty good service considering, I could get used to it. Outside the classroom teachers demand an incredible amount of respect here, standing by the front gates adults and children alike bow to me. It’s nice, if a little confusing — I’m not used to so much, or any, respect. 

There were moments, like the slow motion shots amidst the horror of a war film. Where I would look around the class, time slowing, noise, calamity, shouting, crying, chaos, and think to myself, what on earth am I doing here? Normally moments after realising I had no control over the actions of these 40 children. The first time, I quickly remembered my training and in an instance had them all with their hands on their heads, it worked, they were silent and looking at me. Chaos abandoned. Feeling pretty confident I had this teaching thing nailed down the lesson carried on. Chaos descended once more so in a loud confident voice I instructed "Hands on your heads". This time however I was the only one with my hands on my head. The children said “No, not again”. I would need to rethink my disciplinary tactics.

 One of my classrooms. Complete with the latest flat screen audio visual technology and handy wipe clean tiles.

One of my classrooms. Complete with the latest flat screen audio visual technology and handy wipe clean tiles.

The children were an eclectic mix, one walked up to me and bit my hand, whilst another asked me questions about the complexities of the English language. One developed a fascination with the hairs on my hand so would walk up to me and pull them. I wasn't sure how to handle these quirks at first but quickly decided to just go with them, to say well done. Rubbing your face vigorously in your book? Well done! Covered your face with stickers? Well done! Put a bag on your head? Well done! Covered your hand in ink? Well done! Put a hat on a bag on your head? Well done! Snapped your pen in half? Well done! Put a hood on a hat on a bag on your head? Well done! 

At the end of my first week I really did hear the shouts of children when I closed my eyes. It was intense, I was learning the terms of engagement. One morning I was feeling pretty chuffed with my teaching skills having got nearly all the students involved in a word snake game, it’s perfect to test their vocabulary and get them thinking in English. It was going well, a few children came up to the board to get even more involved, this felt great as they were even more engaged, then there were about fifteen children, then one was on my leg, another snatched the board marker to write himself as I was clearly too slow, then there were two on my leg, I had lost control — and I'd caused it. I couldn’t shout as they'd simply done what I wanted and were learning. I had to ramp it down quickly without losing control (of my temper — the classroom was lost). I managed somehow, though not gracefully, to get them back in their seats and changed gears to a good old-fashioned test. I shouldn’t have let it get to that level in the first place but I still have no idea how to balance that level of enthusiasm and participation with the necessary discipline.

 I certainly don't remember assemblies at my school looking like this.

I certainly don't remember assemblies at my school looking like this.

During my second week it did feel like teaching was getting easier. Perhaps I was improving, adapting, but I can’t help feel it was partly a lack of care. Not in a negligent way — it’s the realisation that you can’t control the classroom, just aim to manage it within acceptable limits. You can’t make everyone learn either. You have to be okay with most people learning, that’s an achievement. It’s not an environment for a perfectionist or a control freak. The former will have a breakdown and the latter will be a memorably unpleasant teacher.

Buying my first ever red pen I realised what a sheltered life I’d lived under the safety and comfort of black and blue pigment. I’d been told I didn’t have to mark in red but what other choice was there? I didn’t want to be the whacky teacher marking in purple or green, I wanted to stamp my authority on every page I marked. That humble red pen hanging in 7-Eleven became a predictor of futures, determiner of success, seeker of knowledge… perhaps I was getting a bit power hungry.

 I was lucky enough to witness a giraffe drinking from the pool. Particularly unusual as they're not native to Thailand. Even stranger it was there every time I went past.

I was lucky enough to witness a giraffe drinking from the pool. Particularly unusual as they're not native to Thailand. Even stranger it was there every time I went past.

If you’ve read Lord of the Flies you’ll appreciate what happens to children when left to themselves. I learnt that teaching is all about classroom management. After two weeks I had this totally nailed down. When things got too much, the children out of control and screaming. I just went to the toilet to cry. By the time I came back everything had settled down. 

Not only did I have to get the children to complete their work books but I had to mark them too. I experienced new heights of tedium during those two weeks, to be fair I was working my way through 200 books marking whatever had been missed. The reason I mention this, other than to share my misery, was that the school changed some of my marking afterwards. Not as you might be expecting through my incompetence, rather they had a no fail policy. So the little bastards that made no effort and I happily gave zero to, were adjusted to 60%! My red pen became impotent and would never recover.

On my last day I felt like a teaching god. My most challenging class was managed with enthusiasm and passion, the children were having fun and learning, they were engaged and enthusiastic. Any volatility was calmly lowered. The perfect class, balanced like a beautiful symphony. Effortless. Perhaps I'd reached the apex of teaching, or perhaps I was just excited it was my last day. 

 A couple of children in the infirmary. Clearly faking, they don't look sick at all.

A couple of children in the infirmary. Clearly faking, they don't look sick at all.

I do feel a little sad leaving the children behind, I am at times surprisingly human. Some of the children seemed to know I was leaving so said their goodbyes and asked where I was going. They were confused why I was leaving them. We'd just started to get to know each other and were agreeing our terms of engagement. There were even a few, well, perhaps two, that I liked and that’s high praise indeed.

Packing my things away and tidying my desk, I relinquished my white board marker. I wanted to keep it as a trophy but that would be like keeping a wild animal in a cage — it was not my choice to make.

My two weeks now over, the night terrors have gone. I’ll give teaching the proper chance it deserves, just with more realistic expectations and perhaps a rabies shot.

 

If you want to know more you can read about my experience taking the TESOL course in Bangkok. Photos were taken with the both my iPhone 6 and Olympus OM-D E-M1.