Robert LendonComment

The art of education

Robert LendonComment
The art of education

I’m not quite sure how all this happened — one minute I’m having a lovely relaxed time travelling through India — the next I have a job in Thailand where children bite me.

It started with a brief trip to Bangkok to refresh my visa for India and I find a sweet potato in a supermarket. It wasn’t any old sweet potato though — this was a Japanese Beni Haruka slowly roasted over hot stones. The result is part vegetable part dessert and was enough to make me decide I wanted to stay in Thailand longer. The food is just so exciting, all of it, every single thing is new and exciting. And it’s everywhere, in the street, the shopping centres, the markets, even something as mundane as a 7Eleven becomes a magical experience of exotic toasties and mystery meat.

The TESOL (or TEFL if you prefer) course had been on my mind for a while and seemed like the perfect excuse to stay, and eat. I contacted Chichester College and as luck would have it they had a cancellation, I could join the very next day. To say it was last minute is an understatement. I booked the course at 3am the same day it started. Arriving in the morning I was feeling pretty good until I took my seat and looked around. Everyone was wearing a shirt and tie… except me of course, I was wearing the smells of India — two months worth.

The course was interesting, I wasn’t expecting to learn so much — or even aware there was so much to learn. You’re thrown in the deep end getting real teaching practice from the start. While perhaps a little intimidating it’s the best way to learn. On our second day we went to a school to see some teaching in action. The first teacher was managing every one of his 40 children simultaneously like a maestro, one was crying, others overly excited and the majority engaged in his high-speed teaching. Then we observed another teacher, one who seemingly didn’t care about anything. Everything I'd learnt not to do in my single day of studying he was doing. When I asked him 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 this very classroom a few weeks later. I’m surprised he made it another four weeks.

 Is she hiding? Are those her shoes? Why is the rabbit blue? So many questions.

Is she hiding? Are those her shoes? Why is the rabbit blue? So many questions.

As part of the course I taught a couple of evenings each week. The school arranged affordable English lessons for locals, the trade off for the students were the naive inexperienced teachers. This was my introduction to lesson planning, something I had no appreciation of. My meticulous plans were ruined by small things like odd numbers, mixed abilities or ages. The beauty was each mini crisis had an obvious solution, either managed on the fly or afterwards in a review. I quickly got used to throwing away everything I’d planned and improvising. As frustrating as this was it was the most useful thing I learnt, and certainly the most useful for the actual classroom. It was nice to see the rewards of my efforts as well. I had a very quiet but competent young learner who wouldn’t speak at the start of the lesson, by the end he'd created a story where his brother was eaten by a clown in the sewer… it was disturbingly graphic, and probably infringed on copyright law. 

By the third evening lesson, word of my teaching ability had got around. No one had turned up... I hoped it was the rain. Eventually one person did arrive some fifteen minutes late. All my planning out the window again. Most of my evening lessons were either very small groups or one-on-ones.

I was enjoying the sense of normality the course was providing me, it’s been a long time since I’ve done anything with any structure. As good as the course was, the highlight of my day was visiting the street vendors for my mystery snacks, almost all of which were successful. That’s what I love about Thai food, whatever mystery is wrapped up in that banana leaf, sweet or savoury, you know it’s going to be good, even if it’s not the sticky rice and custard you were hoping for. I’d also started a habit of drinking bubble tea, my 11am break working out nicely at the same time the bubbles had set. I felt a bit like a Taiwanese school girl.

 It's just a corridor but I like it.

It's just a corridor but I like it.

Our second field trip was to a “small” government high school for girls. Small in Bangkok was 2500 pupils with 60 in a class. The teacher had 15 different classes of students that she taught in a week. This didn't feel like the teaching I wanted to do. There was no connection, and no passion. It’s certainly in part due to the nature of some people attracted to teaching in sunny Thailand, a way of allowing them to party for a year before returning to the real world. Whilst the odds are against you in an environment like this, the right person could make the biggest difference here.

To contrast our school field trips we were taken to a military base where soldiers learnt English for joint US-Thai operations. The sessions generally deteriorated into being asked if I liked ladyboys, beer, football, Thai women, Thailand and Thai food. It’s no, yes, no, yes, yes, yes by the way. They told me I looked like a film star and couldn’t believe my age so I liked them. They were clearly very astute. It was interesting to see a different dynamic of not just teaching adults, but relaxed adults, I don’t think it would have been the same in a corporate environment.

I had another evening lesson to which only one person turned up... again. I’d spent a lot of effort on my lesson plan and was feeling pretty confident that I was prepared for all eventualities this time. I wasn’t prepared for someone with fluent English though. It’s good in a way that all my lessons are going horribly wrong as I can learn from it and be prepared next time. I’ll know what to do. It would just be nice for a few students to turn up and for me to teach them my planned lesson. Just once. It was fun though, I don’t normally get to speak to people who want me to be pedantic about their grammar — people normally get quite annoyed.

 One of the students at the temple school. The fingers are the good way round so she likes me.

One of the students at the temple school. The fingers are the good way round so she likes me.

For the last field trip I had to teach at a rural temple school. I’d be teaching two lessons, the first based around a children’s story and the second a craft activity continuing the theme from another teacher’s story. A simple task it seemed, but I found the young learner lessons took longer to plan than adults. It didn’t help that my original story “All my friends are dead” was deemed inappropriate for the children. I figure you’re never too young to develop an existential crisis. The school took an unusual approach and mixed up the class so that each had a full mix of ages and abilities — not particularly conducive to learning but I'd already learnt the value of being prepared to throw away your plans.

My classroom was outside, next to a flooded rice paddy, there were pillars which were perfect to stick pictures from my story. When the children started pointing and shouting snake I was a bit confused. I had pictures of monsters, rats, a pirate, a puppet and an elephant but no snake... I then saw they were pointing to a massive snake in the water a few metres away from me. Fortunately it seems more interested in the ducks than us. A quick commotion and then there was one less duck. Apparently it was a cobra, a big one. The children were scared which made me scared. They seemed to identify the snake as dangerous and moved well away from the water. I wasn’t really sure what to do myself, normally I take the attitude that if you leave things alone they’ll leave you alone but maybe the smaller children were an easier target. I mean they weren’t duck size but they were small. 

Eventually normality returned to my lesson, that was until I got out the Blu Tack. The look of wonder on their faces, their confusion turning to desire. The desperate pleas seemed to be for the magical putty I controlled so next thing I know I’m dispensing small amounts to everyone to satiate their curiosity. Little did I know this would turn into a power struggle for who controlled the most Blu Tack. My touch the pillar game devolved into stealing the Blu Tack from the back of the pictures until the wind blew them away.  I like to think there’s now one child with a grimy little ball of Blu Tack sat on a thrown at the front of the class.

 Some of my students from the temple school. This was my open air classroom, great for views, not great for wind and snakes. I'm sure they're not actually fighting in the background...

Some of my students from the temple school. This was my open air classroom, great for views, not great for wind and snakes. I'm sure they're not actually fighting in the background...

For my second lesson I had them working away like a Victorian children’s workhouse, a Spot the Dog themed workhouse. Silent and productive, one group were cutting out, another gluing, another preparing the background, and the stragglers, well I just got them drawing dogs to occupy them. They all took to their tasks with focus and enthusiasm. Perhaps I should set up a factory here, a bit of welding, some metal work, industrial chemicals, they’ll be fine. I just need to make a game of it. Whoever produces the most in a day gets some Blu Tack.

My reward for teaching this day, my body weight in bananas and a basket of duck eggs. Oh, and of course a glowing sense of satisfaction. Perhaps they should have held onto the eggs, there were fewer ducks now.

Throughout the course I’d been very aware I was being spoken to like a child by the teachers, or perhaps an adult with learning difficulties... anyway, I was rewarded with positive feedback every time I did something right. It’s weird but pleasant. Just like a rat in an experiment, you want the cheese. I'm wondering if I’m doing the same to other people now, treating them like children. I’m sure I’ll soon find out if I get punched. 

I was sad to be finishing the course, as a traveller it had given me a sense of purpose and normality for four weeks. My daily routine making me feel like a normal member of society. I was also very sad to be giving up my daily treats, I’d have to find new sources for my sweet sticky rice and bubble tea fix. Unsure what to do next, I eventually settled on putting my new skills to the test and teaching at a school in Bangkok for a couple of weeks.

 

I took my TEFL/TESOL course with Chichester College in Bangkok, I highly recommend them if you're looking for somewhere to learn and enjoy the experience. Photos were taken with the both my iPhone 6 and Olympus OM-D E-M1.