Showing posts with label Tefl Tales. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tefl Tales. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bullying in the TEFL Workplace

TEFL bullies
Excellent article written by Kaithe Greene over at about workplace bullying in the EFL industry. While the article is ostensibly about the EFL industry, I found it mainly provided some very good overall information about bullying.

However, it really got me thinking about the problem and specifically how people working as English teachers in foreign countries could be affected by bullying.

Whether in a public school, a private institution, a language centre or a university, bullying is something that could have an impact on all teachers at some point in their careers.

What is bullying?

The article provided a definition of bullying and a list of behaviours that is quite thorough (though I will comment on that later in this post). Two items from the list especially struck me as the kind of deceitful actions that are very common and are things that people are able to get away with.

First, "withholding information which affects performance." The old "I forgot to tell you by accident on purpose" stunt. I find this is something that could very easily happen in the TEFL workplace. Especially because in some cultures there is often trepidation on behalf of the local teachers or staff to communicate with foreign teachers. They very often ask one foreign teacher to pass on information to others. Selective forgetfulness is a real possibility.

Second, "spreading gossip." One of the most vile and toxic behaviours in any workplace, it can be even more destructive for someone working as an English teacher in a foreign country. Because the possibility of feeling isolated is always present for the expat, knowing that there are shameless cowards spreading lies about you can be extremely frustrating.

The Intricacies of Gossip

It is important to qualify exactly what type of gossip I am referring to here. It's nearly impossible to never mention someone's name when they are not around. Perhaps you had a work-related interaction with another teacher and now you are passing that information on to someone else. Even in this type of situation, it is very easy for someone to throw in a negative comment and things can quickly turn nasty.

Far more insidious are dedicated back-stabbing sessions where two or more individuals get together and rip another teacher. I have been in a staff-room where one shameless individual announced that he had some gossip to share. It must have thrilled him when a few other like-minded people shot up from their seats and rushed over to hear the latest dirt. In this case, I remained where I was and indicated I had no desire to listen in.

The problem with gossip is that to counter it, you are almost obliged to engage in the same kind of behaviour. In a perfect world, you would hope that people who hear someone insulting another person behind his or her back would not respond and would only form a negative opinion about the creep spreading the gossip. You would also think that if a particular teacher is constantly belittling various people when they are not around, that the listeners would assume that perhaps they too are getting the knife from the little smear-artist.

But it rarely works out that way.

A gossiper will never have trouble finding like-minded people and targets. Maybe the gossiper even has some legitimate grievances against his targets. But instead of respectfully confronting the individual, he will go with the easier option of ripping the person behind his back. And of course, it will go beyond the initial grievance and will turn into a kind of addiction with plenty of positive reinforcement from other gutless weaklings.

Protect Yourself from Workplace Bullies

So what should you do if you find yourself the target of a gossiper and his little sycophants? First, the trouble is determining if you actually are the target. The only real way to know is if the gossip comes back to you in some way or if a teacher you know and respect informs you of the gossip. When you have confirmation and decide to counter the nastiness, inevitably you will be taking part in the same kind of behaviour you loathe.

You can also confront the individual who is the lead defamer. As the article I am riffing off mentions, you may want to tape-record such an interaction. That is fraught with its own perils as gossipers are often skilled manipulators and could turn such an action into something sneaky and underhanded in the eyes of his followers. However, when you feel threatened and feel your job and family could be affected, tape-recording a conversation with someone who has been maligning you is acceptable in my opinion.

It is even more acceptable because of the fact that gossip does influence people regardless of how baseless it may be. I wish people always formed their own opinion on others based only on their own one-on-one interactions and other direct observations, but that isn't always the way things happen.

Another thing you definitely should do is develop your own elevator pitch on gossiping and repeat it whenever you sense a gossip session developing in your presence. It could be something as simple as "Sorry, I think that gossip in the workplace is toxic and we should avoid it at all costs."

This can even be a way to get a discussion going on the destructive nature of gossip in the workplace. If you decide to do this, and I believe you should, then you must adhere to it strictly or risk being labeled a hypocrite. As mentioned, the only situation in which it may be acceptable to gossip is when you are countering things being said about you. Still, very risky.

Discussing the negative effects of gossip may even make some people moderate their conduct. Amazingly, some people may not realize they are such shameless gossips or may not be aware of all its damaging effects.

Passive-aggressive Cowards

The two types of conduct discussed above: 1) failing to pass on information to a colleague so as to damage his reputation or ability to perform his job, and 2) gossip, fall under the category of passive-aggressive behaviour. The easiest kind of bad behaviour to get away with in the workplace.

Show me a nasty little gossiper, and more often than not, I will be able to show you a chronic late-arriver—another classic passive-aggressive manifestation. This is not to suggest that all punctually-challenged individuals are gossipers but I believe there is often a correlation.

Another weapon used by the passive-aggressive type is the silent treatment. Another cowardly method of failing to deal with various situations in the workplace in an honourable and mature way. The silent treatment is  another low-life tactic that people can get away with and it can make their target feel excluded.

Other types of TEFL workplace bullying exist that people more commonly associate with the playground bully. In other words, violence and aggression. The article at uses a multi-point definition of bullying that "stresses the negative and ongoing nature of bullying as opposed to an occasional display of aggression or unfairness."

However, I think that definition misses the point that aggressive behaviour can also be ongoing. Perhaps the assumption is that something so brazen in the workplace simply couldn't go on for very long without being detected and sanctioned. But in fact, it can. And some of the unique aspects of the TEFL workplace in foreign countries make that even more possible.

The TEFL Workplace and Bullying

Now I will answer one of the questions posed by Kaithe Greene in her article on workplace bullying in the EFL industry: "is it [bullying] any different in the EFL industry to any other workplace?"

Yes, I do believe so.

In particular, in some Asian cultures and some types of educational institutions, the conditions are in place to allow the bully to get away with actions for a longer period of time than they would otherwise.

As mentioned, in some cultures there is still some uneasiness in interacting with foreigners, even if they are colleagues. The sentiment that "they (native English-speaking EFL teachers) are a necessary evil" does exist to some degree. With this comes the tacit understanding that disputes among foreign teachers stay among the foreign teachers. This sentiment is further strengthened by the foreign teachers themselves who don't want to cause problems for their hosts or to perpetuate any possible negative stereotypes about foreigners that may exist.

In addition, there is a certain kind of thinking that is ingrained in most people at an early age that benefits cowards, bullies and criminals. It results in the belief that to ever take a concern to someone in a position of authority is the most reprehensible and unforgivable sin possible. The fact that so many people continue to believe in these juvenile concepts long after they have become adults, thrills bullies to their manipulative little cores.

The notion that informing those who sign your pay-cheque about someone in the workplace who is out of control is somehow worse than the original bad behaviour, gains traction with many, many people.

Bullies understand this and use it to their advantage all the time. Listen to a bully start puking up sad clichés that reflect this kind of thinking when his behaviour is finally highlighted. Things like "grassing" and "can't deal with things on your own," all delivered with indignant outrage. Anything to deflect attention off the initial actions that may have led to a person trying to protect himself. Again, many people will fall for this type of garbage.


The problem with dealing with the most unhinged bullies is that while they often engage in some of the passive-aggressive behaviour discussed above, they can also be, at times, tantrum-throwing wackjobs. At first, the two don't seem to go together: passive-aggressiveness and the kind of outbursts associated with adult temper tantrums. But in many ways they are similar and can be displayed by the same individual. Both involve the inability to deal with things in a straightforward and respectful way.

Someone who throws temper tantrums is usually responding to the outrage of another person daring to disagree with him or to not do something he wants them to do. So he shrieks and yells and gets aggressive in the hopes that  his opponent will back down. Sadly, many people will back down. And the bully knows this.

While the ongoing nature of the behaviour seems to be one of the identifiers of bullying, in the case of violence, a single act can have long-lasting effects. Imagine, for example, if a tantrum-thrower committed an act of vandalism in the staff-room. The coward would be unlikely to have the guts or decency to stand up and take responsibility and would count on most people not getting involved and not "ratting" on him. So the cowardly bully continues on and the shadow of suspicion hangs over others as a result.

There also may be some reason to believe that the individuals who work as English teachers in foreign countries are more damaged to begin with and thus more inclined to engage in sinister, bullying behaviour. In Bangkok Filth, there are a number of stories that involve the EFL workplace. One theme that emerges is the alienation that many expats experience and the irony that instead of helping each other through difficult times, foreigners living in Thailand often turn on each other.

Finally, the point is not to bend to the will of the workplace bully or let him get away with either his passive-aggressive behaviour or his temper tantrums. To accept the bully's way of dealing with things will only result in further bad behaviour from him and in the end, a situation that escalates. In the TEFL staff-room in a foreign country, this is a sure-fire way to violence. And even if you are able to mash the coward's head into the concrete, it's not worth it because you will be the one who ends up in prison.

While it's a good bet that the bully is also a feckless wonder whose other actions in the workplace may eventually trip him up, the sad reality is that often, the bully wins. Still, take steps to protect yourself and remain as professional as possible at all times.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Teaching EFL Writing: Challenges and Frustrations

blunderbussTeaching EFL writing classes at the university level can present some interesting challenges.

Some of the students you encounter may have been learning English on and off for more than ten years. Yet some of them may not have internalized anything that they have been taught.

Often this is because they have had no desire or motivation to put in the time outside the classroom to achieve any degree of proficiency in English.

And that’s OK.

I know that there will be more than a few such students in any university writing class. While the course may be a requirement for them to graduate, they may have no desire to ever use English after they leave school.

I encourage those students to learn the material that we practice in class. I tell them that they can memorize the structure of numerous sentences and then substitute different nouns and verbs according to an assignment or exam question.

But a far bigger challenge are the students who do have a fairly good English vocabulary, and have reasonable speaking and listening skills. Many of these students falsely believe that they can also write well in English. However, many of these pupils cannot write a single error-free sentence. Their poor writing skills are compounded by their assumptions about expectations.

Skewed Syntax

Now that they are in university, they feel that they have to write in an appropriately academic sounding way. The result is a skewed syntax that is rammed full of errors and, at times, nearly incomprehensible.

Or, as one colleague once put it, it’s as if they load all the words they can think of into one of those old blunderbuss guns, aim at the paper, and fire.

Regardless of how often you stress to these students that they must master the fundamentals first, many of them will keep churning out their strange form of mangled English.

Students who write simple, error-free sentences will always score higher on writing assignments than those who fire the blunderbuss at will.

The students who produce the skewed syntax may be able to engage in more advanced conversations. And when you read what they have written, you can sense underneath the flotsam that the ideas they are trying to communicate are more complex than those from the students who have less experience learning and practicing English.

But you cannot give out good grades for what you sense may be hidden under the horrible writing (perhaps in a creative writing class that would count for something).

Don't Write Beyond your Abilities

I always tell the students who produce the mistake-filled, rambling assignments not to write beyond their abilities. I encourage them to come to see me for extra tutoring. I tell them that I will analyze their writing and highlight their weak areas and provide guidance on how they can improve. Some of these students take up the offer, but many refuse and continue to produce the kind of prose that makes your head hurt.

I don't know if this refusal is based on laziness or a genuine belief that they can write well (perhaps based on the exchange of e-mails and other online interactions with people who praise their writing).

On the other hand, many students who have not had the opportunity to learn English in the past show remarkable improvement after completing a writing course.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

TEFL Success Stories

student asleep in classThe sullen kid at the back of the class who doesn't want to be bothered. Keeps his head down. Develops a way to precisely mimic the movement of the student in front of him so he stays hidden. Fidgets uncomfortably in those rare instances when called upon. Looks to his giggling mates for support and then offers up an answer that has been whispered to him.

It creates an uncomfortable situation for everyone involved and may lead to less frequent intrusions from the teacher. That's the end result such neglected students hope for. And all too often teachers seem willing to go along with the classroom game of hide and...ignore.

The subject often comes up when talking to other foreign and Thai teachers. What to do with the individuals who supposedly "don't want to learn." It's a teacher's cliché that it's "better to focus on the ones who are interested."

No Student is a Lost Cause

After teaching at universities in Thailand for six years, I believe those forgotten students who seem satisfied to slip under the radar, avoid any classroom interaction and get out of Dodge with their final grade C, can in fact be reached. The role they play is out of habit, conditioning and long years of just getting by. In many ways the university English class provides the perfect setting.

Most faculties have at least one required English for special purposes class tailored for their undergrads. There is a false assumption on the part of many teachers that most students will have a modicum of English skills by the time they get to the post-secondary level. Together with increasing class sizes and the easy hits star pupils provide to a teacher's ego during a lesson, it becomes convenient to latch onto the chestnut about focusing on those who are eager to learn.

I've tried to disabuse myself of this default notion in a few different ways. It's not rocket surgery and it doesn't require grand innovative approaches like the ones seen in Dead Poets Society. It only takes a shift in thinking, an attempt to establish connections, and some encouragement for learners to change the roles they've grown accustomed to.

Giving Every Student an A

Years ago I read a self-help book whose name I've long since forgotten. There was one passage from the book that stayed with me and which I used successfully during my time as a teacher in Thailand. The author explained an exercise he called "giving everyone an A." No, this was not a how-to procedure on fabricating grades and becoming the most popular teacher in school!

grade A"Giving everyone an A" is an easy technique in cultivating empathy. It goes beyond simply "putting yourself in someone else's shoes" and operates on the premise that most people want to do well in life and contribute in a positive way. You can practice this idea by trying to create an understanding in your mind as to how students got to where they are in terms of behaviour and ability. It requires you to ponder and consider everything that brought a person to their station in life and accept that everyone has a different set of fears, obstacles, and aspirations to deal with.

Far from giving students a free pass, it doesn't require a teacher to become a soft touch or lower his or her expectations. In my experience, the benefits have come from the almost subconscious understanding from pupils that they are finally being recognized. Whether from a teacher's subtle change in body language or follow-up questions that try go beyond the first superficial response, they sense something is up and a different dynamic starts to develop. This in turn leads to a teacher becoming more approachable and the possibility that students may seek extra help or clarification during or after class.

Once a more comfortable relationship has been formed, it can be strengthened by encouraging weaker students to set short-term goals that will help them to deal with the often too-difficult (but required) course book that has them ready to throw in the towel. Alternative seating plans in class also allow you to eliminate the safe haven at the back of the room. Circle seating or small groups provide more chances for interaction and more opportunity to gauge improvement. Small but useful steps that lead to a situation where you may be able to create interest and make progress with weaker students.

Make it Relevant

Moo avoided eye contact in class, ducked out a few times every period and tried to remain as anonymous as possible. The anxiety he displayed when I tried to elicit responses in class told me that, in fact, he was concerned. Someone for whom the course material and final grade were meaningless would let everything slide without a care. But Moo was obviously tied up in knots because he didn't have even the essentials or confidence to comfortably respond.

Eddie heavy metalHe was as resistant as any student I've encountered when I attempted to build rapport and find common ground. It's at this point for many teachers that rationalizing away further efforts becomes so appealing. I kept looking for an opening and finally saw what had been there all along. The accoutrements of rebellion that are more an attempt for youngsters to fit in than to separate themselves from the crowd. Underneath his engineer's smock, he always wore a variation of a t-shirt with the clumsy and over-the-top images of death and horror that seem to go along with every generation's popular heavy metal bands.

I introduced the concept of CD reviews to Moo. While the subject matter was far removed from the chapter we were working on, the grammar and language function were easily transferable. From there, I suggested he focus on a day-in-the-life of a sound engineer when an assignment called for writing a job description. I even ended up making a CD of some older metal bands from before Moo was even born and gave it to him one day after class. These developments took place over the course of four or five weeks.

I like to think those few simple gestures gave Moo some inspiration and encouraged him to look beyond the dry subject matter at hand. Judging from his change in attitude and his increased effort, I believe it did help. While he ended up only receiving a C+, (yet so close to a B) I felt it was a C+ well earned. And yet, what if I hadn't made that extra effort?

His frustration would probably have increased and little learning would have taken place. I believe no student is a lost cause. However, time constraints and other concerns mean that even within that group of struggling students some will probably get more attention than others. But limited success on the part of one individual may serve as a model for others and spur them on to try harder as well. Even if Moo didn't go on to become fluent, perhaps he had a positive experience and will pass on the notion that English can be used for more than just getting through a required course.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

TEFL Fly By Night

4-6 week TEFL courses don't have the best reputation. No regulations, reams of horror stories and a "give us your money and fuck off to Asia ya schlepp" kind of feel have contributed to the less than stellar distinction.

My own TEFL certificate has been rendered almost worthless as of late by the discovery that the place went tits up a few years after I completed the course. This fact came to light as I recently sought new employment opportunities and went through the usual dusting off of references and other contacts that goes along with such an exercise. I was surprised to find the school's website now non-existent. My guts dropped even further when I realized the most unlikely of situations: not a single hit when I plugged their name into a search engine.

Thankfully, the woman who owned the school at the time has a unique name and has remained in the industry. I tracked her down at a university in the middle east where she occupies a respected position that no doubt validates the years she spent acquiring post-graduate degrees in the field. I sent her an e-mail seeking assistance in proving the legitimacy of my certificate should anyone want evidence beyond the institution's (former) name and location. She promptly responded and assured me that I could provide her e-mail address to anyone who would like confirmation that I had completed the course.

Better than nothing I suppose. Though the whiff of dodginess will remain for many who learn of the demise of the school. In fact, this is one of the oldest ploys pulled by the under-educated and marginalized who have few opportunities and decide there is nothing to lose. They find the name of a school that has gone under and claim to hold a degree from them. So people who truly are faced with this situation may be doubted somewhat.

My trust in the former school owner to come through if any verification is required was shaken recently. An opportunity came up and fairly detailed information regarding the TEFL course was requested. Because of the friendly and agreeable response to my my initial e-mail, I assumed she would be willing to provide a breakdown of all the material we had studied. There was no indication of topics or courses covered on the final grade mail-out nor can this information be checked anywhere as the school no longer exists. My memory of the course is a bit hazy so I blasted off another message asking for her help.

But there was no response this time. Which now makes me wonder if her first e-mail to me was just an attempt to get rid of an annoyance that has probably plagued her periodically since she sold the school. I'm now concerned that I can't trust her to follow through if any potential employer e-mails her for details. I blithely accepted her story that the school was sold and that the new owners quickly rode it into the ground. She also stated that the government institution that monitors private education institutions in British Columbia cannot locate the school's records nor confirm which students studied there.

As I look back at the time I studied there, I realize there were warning signs. It was clear that she was in a marriage that was on the rocks. In the small waiting room and adjoining office outside the first floor classroom, she was often there with her sullen, middle-eastern-looking husband. The mutual contempt was palpable. They were likely winding down their business affairs and looking for potential buyers.

She also hinted cryptically at competitors who were trying to undermine her credibility. Knowing more about the whole TEFL industry, I now realize those people who were making problems for her were probably justified.

When you are given reason to doubt someone, every little thing takes on significance and the nasty tendency to fill in the blanks and ascribe motives takes over.

At the very least, I would like to find out what happened and have some assurance that there is some way to prove that I in fact paid a thousand dollars, received four weeks of training and successfully completed the course. If no agency or person is able to vouch for that, then I can take appropriate measures (i.e. not put it on a resume again or heavily qualify its mention.)

I urge anyone in a similar situation to determine if there is any kind of watchdog organization in your area that oversees private training institutes. Another step that might be worthwhile is to contact other people you studied with. You can at least alert them to what is going on and together your collective voice may succeed in securing some kind of official document indicating that the school was not a figment of your imagination.

I will try to provide an update in the near future regarding the final outcome of my investigation.

Friday, May 16, 2008

TEFL: Innovative Methods and Approaches

The world of TEFL has been inundated with some inane ideas over the years. Desperate attempts to jump-start new fads in the English teaching profession are a monthly occurrence.

For example, you may not remember the “back-to-nature approach” which advocated teaching students outdoors. Not just taking the occasional class outside to waste a period or two. Every self-respecting teacher does that once in a while. The back-to-nature approach went much further.

Teachers instructed students while they were nestled in beds of straw, perched in tree houses or crouching in fields of tall grass. This was all meant to better facilitate the English instruction that took place. In the most authentic practice of these techniques, animals grazed nearby. Where this wasn’t possible, the teacher mimicked various sounds such as the munching of grass, yapping of dogs and clucking of chickens.

Here is an article regarding the intriguing and innovative style of teaching that appeared in a well-respected TEFL journal back in 1987.

The Back to Nature Approach to Teaching English

Near the village of Mae Sot in north-western Thailand, Somchai Prenpriporn practices the back-to-nature approach to teaching English. Somchai studied at the University of California, Berkeley in the early 1970’s. After he completed his degree in linguistics he spent numerous years living as a recluse in Burma, Cambodia and Mongolia.

During long hours of meditation and reflection he formulated this approach to language instruction. More than simple teaching, the connection with nature is supposed to create a holistic and symbiotic energy flow that allows the new language to be absorbed by students.

“All languages are connected to the natural environment. The earliest people in any society lived close to nature. The particular type of climate and landscape infused their very elemental existence. From this came the earliest grunts, which gradually flowed into language. To immerse students in the environment from which language sprung forth is to subconsciously provide them with a truly…fertile atmosphere in which to learn.”

Somchai provides this explanation in a quiet soothing tone as the musky smell of oxen lingers in the air of his rudimentary office which is located next to what he calls the “learning stables.”

Resembling horse stables, they are where some of the more structured practice takes place. Beyond the stables is a field with clusters of trees and bushes here and there. Amongst the trees are well-worn patches of earth, some straw for bedding and a few troughs. Some of the traditional tools of teaching are also evident. Blackboards on easels, chalk, erasers, a few rubber balls and oddly, a mallet.

The bulk of Somchai’s students are Burmese refugees who stream in from the border a few kilometres from this dusty town. He receives help from Pookie, his Thai assistant, and a steady flow of western backpackers passing through and looking for a unique cultural experience. They are usually not disappointed. It is far removed from the world of standard English teaching that exists hundreds of miles to the south in Bangkok.

“I usually put up the travellers in one of the stalls and offer them what food I can. We’re not doing this for the money and frankly there isn’t much coming our way.”

The occasional donation from local NGO’s and contributions from overseas help Somchai in pursuit of his passion.

On a recent afternoon, we were given the privilege of watching the back-to-nature approach in action.

Students are instructed to get themselves comfortable in the straw bedding in a small grove of trees in the field (Somchai previously told us that the tree house lessons are for advanced students—today’s group are beginners.) Somchai is at intervals animated, soothing and gentle in his repetition of instructions.

What is being said is only in English with no Thai translation. These groups of words are interspersed with barks and growls. There is also a lot of gesturing, pointing, and animal-like movements by Somchai. The students are burrowing into the straw, getting on all fours, now curling into the fetal position.

It all seems a bit surreal. But something is happening. It’s almost like the students are in a hypnotic trance as their eyes glaze over. Some utterances are taking place. Like guttural animal sounds. But wait, there are English words and phrases amongst the sounds. Here is a large beefy young girl mashing her body up against a tree, almost as if she is trying to leave her scent behind for future classes.

Somchai’s methods have created a kind of myth-like aura around the whole spectacle that involves his unique teaching. Like all mavericks who take a different route, the tales about Somchai have developed and spread and taken on lives of their own. There are unconfirmed rumours of incidents involving an electric cattle prod and late-night nude baying at the moon. Is any of it true? If it is, Somchai isn’t saying as he gazes with reverence out across this otherwise nondescript patch of dusty field in north-west Thailand.

Twenty Years Later

There are still a few copies of the issue kicking around but no one at the "respectable" journal has ever commented on the article. That it could even appear in such a publication is evidence of some of the hare-brained ideas that people come up with and the willingness of others to give them an audience. Perhaps it's due to the monotony that can become part of a teacher's life or more likely because of the wackos the industry attracts.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Setting Boundaries with Students in the Classroom and Beyond

This is intended specifically for those teachers at the university level and in other adult learning situations.

An important part of classroom management involves setting boundaries. The parameters you set will also extend outside the classroom. This is extremely important for anyone considering teaching English at universities in Asia. My own experiences and observations of other teachers have shown that failure to do so can lead to some very awkward situations.

Thai students look positively at the opportunity to be taught by a foreign instructor. It means that the usual rules don't apply. Teachers receive a great deal of respect in Thai society and students learn early on that they must behave in a deferential manner while in the classroom. There are exceptions, of course, but I have seen far more defined rules regarding the relationship between teachers and pupils here than exists in western countries.

So, it is uncharted territory for many of the university kids who walk into class on the first day of term and see a foreigner sitting behind the desk. A giddy expectation fills the air as they realize that the strict criteria that govern interaction can be ignored for the duration of the course. This can have both positive and negative results for everyone involved.

The sense of expectation and the initial energy are both things that can be used to get off to a good start. However, play it the wrong way and students may get the impression that their time with you is going to be a free ride. Laying down a clear set of guidelines regarding expectations and classroom rules can set the tone and make it clear that you have no intention of allowing a party atmosphere to develop.

Don't Give In

Once you have established what is acceptable, both in terms of behaviour during class and deadlines for assignments, you will be tested early. Whining, excuse-making and flat out lying are things that you should expect within your first few weeks. It almost seems to be a challenge amongst classmates to see who can first put one over on the imported clown and prove that he is a soft touch ready to be taken advantage of.

A firm, unflinching adherence to the standards you have laid out is the best approach when faced with a persistent student looking to get a deadline extension or have another misdemeanor forgiven. There are, of course, certain situations in which you have no alternative but to give the benefit of the doubt. The doctor's note holds a certain untouchable status in the world of student excuses and there is really no way that you can question its validity. But there certainly are a lot of ostensibly healthy young individuals coming down with maladies and ailments just as various assignments are due.

There are definitely other cases that may arise that could require some leniency and allowances being made. After all, as an instructor at a university, you hardly want to be rigid and unwilling to consider the nuances and specifics of each individual situation. The most important thing to remember is that you at least maintain the image of a teacher who is tough.

In the Classroom

Thai people in general are quite modest. However, subsequent generations are becoming more and more open about issues previously considered off-limits for casual conversation with relative strangers. Lewd comments made by students in the classroom are not uncommon. This is fueled further by the belief that all foreigners are the wise-cracking, sexual innuendo spewing clods featured in many Hollywood movies.

On occasion, a student will say something that is worthy of a laugh. The odd light-hearted moment together when the class and teacher share in a joke is a good thing for the most part. However, to ensure that the wrong message is not sent, ignoring most borderline comments in a stern and brusque manner is the best course of action.

It is also essential that you avoid developing favorites during lessons. Any attempts to promote discussion and invite questions will inevitably see a handful of students as the most active. You will need to do your best to elicit response from others who are at first reluctant. But the more naturally forthcoming will still contribute the most. It is important to subtly limit their comments when necessary. Also, as much as you may genuinely enjoy the truly interested kids who make intelligent comments and ask good questions, you must temper your reactions towards them. Try to observe your own body language and demeanor when interacting in the class and make sure to be as democratic with your emotions as possible.

This should be done with the purpose of avoiding the impression that you like one student more than others. It has been my experience that Thai students, especially, have a skewed idea about what contributes to their final grade. It's as if they think it is some arbitrary distinction which can be improved by being friendly and smiling. The effusive "thank yous" following good grades on assignments and exams (and which I alway deflect by indicating to them that gratitude is not necessary or even appropriate) tells me that they doubt the whole system and motives of instructors. I make it clear that merit is all that counts. Still, avoiding the impression that certain students enjoy a special status is crucial.

Students who Want to be Friends

You meet some exceptional and intriguing youngsters while teaching. However, you must be very careful about taking any friendship beyond the classroom. Personally, I put up a difficult to misinterpret wall that makes it clear that I simply have no time for anything beyond offers of extra help within office hours or the odd chat before or after class. It is a shame that a person has to be so careful.

I generally operate under the belief that any situation in life could bring you together with a potential life-long friend. Unfortunately, like many interactions, the instructor/pupil relationship is one of power too fraught with possibilities of misinterpretation. The perception of others must be considered as well. If other members of the class see it as an attempt to curry favour, and that student coincidentally does well, gossip and insinuations will fly.

And, any honest person would have to question how much they are being influenced psychologically by such a friendship, especially teaching courses that involve a good deal of subjectivity when making assessments.

Male Teachers and Female Students

This is strongly related to the previous point. It's hard to over-emphasize how much you will be tested in this regard. After having taught at Thai universities for six years, it's sometimes hard to believe that a reputation exists in the minds of Thais regarding the supposed openness and provocative nature of western women. Revealing clothing, tight school uniforms with too short skirts and a kind of caricature of over-the-top come hither looks and other brazen attempts at flirting are all things that you will encounter as a male teacher.

90% of it is likely done in the spirit of impressing friends and trying out their new found sense of feminine wiles. But there are definitely more than a few who would like to test the potentially risky waters of something more. To deny that there is not an enjoyable aspect to all this attention would be dishonest. But just as satisfying is knowing that you have developed a reputation of someone who doesn't react or respond to any such attempts at manipulation.

Not surprisingly, there are foreign teachers who throw all caution to the wind and cross all sorts of lines when interacting with students.

Over the Top and Begging for Trouble

Many teachers I have worked with give out their mobile numbers to students with little concern. They provide the number to one of the more responsible pupils with the instruction that it be used only regarding issues related to school. Surprisingly, this request is usually respected. But sometimes calls are made at odd times of the day and night and when answered, giggling voices and a hang-up click are the only response.

The furthest I have gone in providing access outside office hours is my e-mail address. I have thankfully had no problems because of this.

I have seen extreme disregard for any decency from some foreign teachers and it is truly a repugnant sight to behold. The lack of any sanctions from superiors seems to fuel the behaviour. The culprit develops a sense of surreal abandon, as if they are living in a strange universe where the most unwise but thrilling activities are neither recognized nor punished. Of course, they are noted and filed away to be used at a possible date in the future when the overall performance of the teacher may be called into question. Amazingly, this flagrant abuse of power sometimes has no bearing on the length of a teacher's stay at a particular school.

One teacher I worked with was a model of putrid corruption when it came to dealing with his students. He regularly went out with them on weekends and drank with them to all hours of the night. Of course, it was only a select few who finagled their way into his inner circle. How did the other students feel about this? He had little concern for such thoughts.

He regularly smoked cigarettes in the men's toilets at school, strode in late for classes and scoffed at advice from other teachers who warned him about such behaviour. One day a group of students rushed up to me and showed me a series of drunken photos of them together with the fool in a hotel room. At least there were never any rumours of him regarding indiscretions with females students but only because he wasn't so inclined.

Despite all this (or maybe because of it), he was one of the most popular foreign instructors at the university. He eventually moved on to a different school with nary a caution from management about his extracurricular activities.

To engage in these kinds of practices is extremely risky and could result in being fired or in rare cases, attempts at blackmail.

Keep your treatment of students professional, respectful and fair. Together with a number of other factors, this will help you to have an interesting and worthwhile period of employment at universities in Thailand and the rest of Asia.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Using Patterns and Routine in the Classroom

Organization, order and patterns. We all crave the familiarity that they provide in everything we do. The music we listen to, the movies we watch and the books we read all contain recognizable features and conventions. An ostensibly chaotic world when examined more closely shows patterns and logic in nature and is an indication that the tendency to seek out routine is hard-wired into us at birth.

Simple and repetitive methods of presentation don't prevent us from enjoying a television drama or a performance at the theatre. As long as the content packaged within those frameworks is well-written and engaging, the sense that we've seen it all before with a different twist rarely reduces the enjoyment. In fact, experimental forms of artistic endeavors are probably held to a higher standard to offset the audience's feeling that they're in strange territory.

TV Series HouseThe popular American television drama House, which follows the life of a doctor and his interns at a teaching hospital, offers up a weekly episode that rarely strays from a predictable formula. Each show begins with a "cold open"--the term used to describe a TV show that jumps directly into the action before the opening credits--that depicts a patient suffering the onset of their condition. The focus then shifts to the hospital where the acerbic Dr. Gregory House berates, insults and pushes the doctors under his watch to correctly identify the sickness.

At least one mis-diagnosis occurs, the patient has a seizure, and a dilemma arises in which a potential life-saving treatment could also result in death if the doctors are missing something. The young physicians are usually sent to break into the house of the sick person to search for clues that will help them fill holes in the patient's history. This fits in with the running theme that, according to Dr. House, all people lie, especially those suffering from an illness. One or two lighthearted scenes in which House sees a new patient often provide him with a revelation that helps to solve the puzzle related to the main case.

These elements are present, almost without fail, during every single episode of the show. But it doesn't matter that you have some idea of what is coming. Because the dialogue is clever, the characters are interesting, the action creates tension and it all contributes to an enjoyable viewing experience.

Patterns and routines are important in the classroom as well. That statement may elicit images of mind-numbing drills and rote methods overseen by a strict disciplinarian. But the reality is that establishing familiar practices in the educational environment is a critical part of effective learning.

Recognizing commonalities and distilling concepts into their component parts is an essential part of being a teacher. Even if you are relying on exercises and explanations from textbooks, you develop an eye for those that are best at breaking things down before building them up layer by layer.

Language learning particularly provides numerous opportunities for teachers to highlight tendencies. Being aware of the differences in the language being taught and the student's native tongue is an obvious focal point likely to present the most problems. It's natural for any student to apply the rules of Thai to English and come up with understandable but mistake-riddled sentences.

A simple activity involves having students take what they know about English and apply it to Thai as if their first language were English. They can create nonsense past-tense verbs in Thai, switch the adjective/noun order and try to speak in a monotone. The really clued in students will imitate some of the common errors they have heard foreigners make when trying to speak Thai. It all results in some fun with the aim of making students aware of how languages differ.

Pointing students towards discernible characteristics of concepts that are being taught is not the only time that patterns come into play. Day-to-day classroom routine is one of the most useful tools that a teacher can utilize. This doesn't discount the teacher's need for preparation, knowledge and energetic delivery. And it doesn't mean that there must be a dry and unimaginative handful of activities that repeatedly take place without any variation.

It can be as simple as the organizational style in which the instructor presents information on the board. Or the standard arc that each session follows, with the most free-flowing and independent time for practicing specific language functions taking place near the end of the period.

Sometimes the conventions that become part of every teacher's modus operandi are practical and meant to strengthen habits that will carry beyond graduation. Thus, one of the most important lessons for pupils regarding habits is understanding what the teacher, and one day society, expects from them. The standard procedure for submitting assignments is one example. This could include the insistence that all submissions be typed, the deadline be adhered to and the expected length followed.

Some routines, such as the board work style of each teacher, are self-explanatory and become familiar over time. Others, such as assignment guidelines should always include the rationale.

Introducing the notion of patterns as a specific topic worth discussing is beneficial as well. Directing students towards organization and self-discipline in preparing for the real-world is one good way to do this. Successful people in life are not always the most intelligent nor are they necessarily the individuals with the most years of schooling. Those who can recognize patterns no one else sees often go the furthest in a particular field. Whether in personal interactions, customer behaviour or a myriad of science related industries, the art of analysis as learned in the classroom can be transferred to the real world.

The explicit discussion of different styles of organization becomes another routine that students get accustomed to. And it makes those instances when you try something different resonate all the more because of the contrast. Similarly, it allows you to encourage your students to take the customs that exist in any subject area and learn to add to, refine and ultimately innovate so that they might create new patterns and become the leaders of tomorrow.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Tefl Tales: To Live and Die in a Strange Land

The early stages of living in a foreign country are full of surprise and wonder. But as the months turn into years and you start to put down some roots, you begin to form a more realistic image of your adopted home. The realization hits home that their ideas of interpersonal relationships and right and wrong are fundamentally different from what you grew up with.

Together with this awareness comes some culpability as well. You can no longer hold yourself above the less appealing aspects of your host nation. Being a long-term stayer in a country where egalitarian notions are almost unknown makes you complicit to a degree in the ongoing exploitation.

You rationalize, focus on the positives and carry on as best you can. Until something comes along that hammers you in a way you never thought possible. A combination of your good-nature and trust in people (you even knew before it was somehow naive) sets you up for a life-altering bit of nastiness. And that's when the earth truly opens up around you. All you previously thought winsome, quaint and enchanting becomes sinister and loathsome. You enter territory previously unknown. At best you can classify it as a nervous breakdown; at worst a period of temporary insanity. With no support and nowhere to turn, things become dire in a short period of time.

The only saving grace may be if you crawl down into the slime in which you find yourself and see it as a learning experience. Unfortunately, many of the lessons only further darken what has become your corrupted and hopeless outlook on the world. You know with all certainty that the ability of humans to empathize is almost non-existent and is only a pathetic narrative we have created over time in order to convince ourselves that understanding the pain of others is actually possible. It isn't.

You may find some solace in knowing that you are one of the damaged and can never return to the place you were before. It's a twisted brotherhood that holds no meetings, has no support groups and provides no comfort beyond the knowledge that there are inevitably others somewhere who have suffered far worse than you have.

It's not all bad, of course. You still have life.

Facing your own death is of course the worst possible scenario you can encounter in a strange land. Anyone teaching English in a foreign country and with even a mild interest in online activities related to the industry will be familiar with the tragic case of an American teacher in Korea named Bill Kapoun. He was severely burned in a fire in his apartment in Seoul on February 28th, 2008 and passed away about two weeks after that.

Despite the outpouring of grief and donations from family, friends and complete strangers, was he crushed by the weight of knowing that no one could truly know what his final days and moments were like? Or was he too far gone from the pain and medication to really know in the end?

There have been other cases of English teachers passing away under various circumstances while teaching overseas. Another recent tragedy involved a British teacher named Paul Hollen, who fell from the 19th floor of his condominium in Bangkok. The standard response from police was that it was a suicide. That well may be the case.

The death of Hollen rated nothing beyond a few lines in the local newspaper and a handful of threads on various discussion boards for expats in Thailand. There was little outpouring of emotions on those online communities due to the hazy circumstances. Some individuals even used the lack of clear-cut details to form conclusions and belittle him. Whether it was his own personal demons or the reptilian covetousness of some inhuman filth that led to his death is not as important as hoping that he didn't suffer.

I have been teaching in Thailand for six years and entered this game later than most. Still, I never let down my guard nor convince myself that I have this place completely figured out. Then I consider the first-time teachers fresh out of university heading half way across the globe to teach at the age of 22 or 23 and I think about how much more vulnerable they are.

I know that talk of crime, death and potential danger can be tiresome and the vast majority of those working overseas never have any trouble. But it's still important to remember that there are as many, or more, nasty characters and corrupt officials in most of the places you might travel to as compared to where you come from. In many situations that involve crime or treachery directed against you, keep in mind that you will not be given the benefit of the doubt and may for the first time in your life experience the helpless and sickening realization that you are being done over.

Your ability to recognize danger and warning signs given off by others is reduced and may never reach a level that you possess when in your home country. You absolutely have to be willing to do anything in a sudden situation or one that develops over time in a work or living arrangement.

While you are living and enjoying what will no doubt be the adventure of a lifetime free from any tragic or horrible situations, please keep in mind that believing nothing bad can happen because it hasn't yet, is a very misleading and dangerous mindset.

Good luck while teaching English in a foreign country. Trust your instincts and develop new ones.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Tefl Tales: Write What You Know

An oft-repeated line but one that has merit. Beyond the dry minutiae of sentence analysis, writing exercises, and lessons about paragraph organization, at some point you have to cut students loose and provide them with the opportunity to write about interesting and appealing subjects.

Individuals obviously have their own personal hobbies, interests and ambitions that they will want to write about. But certain cultural aspects will crop up when you are reading the scribblings of a group of students. There has been a regular topic that has shown up time and again in the assignments and exams written by Thai students. It's one that similarly plays out before my eyes in the classroom.

After arriving in Thailand, it doesn't take long to realize that notions of personal safety are sorely lacking compared to many first world countries. Horrific road carnage is the most obvious example. Lack of awareness of oneself and others when moving around in public places is another characteristic that leads to potentially dangerous situations.

As a teacher you see a steady procession of the walking wounded. The sight of students with broken limbs, road rash and nasty scars can be a bit startling at first. Your incredulity amuses them. When you ask your students what scares them the most, their guaranteed response is "ghosts." That they don't answer with the more logical "Having my guts smeared across the road by a driver with his head up his ass," doesn't amuse you so much as it leaves you shaking your head.

The ranks of the classroom infirmary increase after the holidays, as the number of drunks on the roads rises and reckless students on motorcycles are hammered into the concrete sans helmets. Perhaps my stern lecture on safety leading up to each Songkran festival (the Thai/Buddhist New Year celebrations that take place in the second week of April) has some kind of effect though it is unlikely.

And so each subsequent school term begins and I hope this isn't the year that the ultimate tragedy strikes one of my students. Surprisingly and thankfully, this hasn't occurred yet. But it's obvious from what they write about that their lives have been shaped and altered by the recklessness and lack of safety that is the reality in third world and developing countries.

Gut-wrenching tales of killed and maimed relatives and friends, somehow made all the more moving by the grammar mistakes and butchered syntax, are a regular feature of the assignments that are handed in. Regardless of the topic, students find a way to make their stories relevant, an indication of how much they have been affected by these tragedies.

A few recent examples:

"It's a main reason for me to decide that I should be a doctor. It related about a painful memory of my family in the past. 5 years ago, my best friend--Bank and I were playing football the yard in front of my house. While we were sending the ball to each other, the ball was kicked out to the road and Bank ran to catch it. Unfortunately, the car came fast and ran into him. Then I hurried to go to him and shouted my parents for help. After that we sent him to the hospital immediately but it's too late to help him. He left us forever. We all are so sad. Since then I promise that I will be the doctor to help persons that I love and all humans."
"I got well supporting by my parent but it cause my mother almost dread. Since in the time that we walked across the road to have dinner and to prepare equipment for camping, my mother was hard crashed by motorcycle. Her head bumped whih the road on the other hand it was lucky that her head hadn't problem, that's all right."
Other tales related to genetic disorders and early death due to lifestyle are commonplace as well:
"I rather closed with my father very much because He always brought me travel on the other places that I'd never gone before and taught me in everything that I don't know. One day when I came back from school, I did homework downstairs of my home. My father was on upstairs of my home. He wrote a report to his commissioned officer. Suddenly he has heart attack and died later."
It's a fine line between pushing students to write about subjects they may not be comfortable with as opposed to simply allowing those who feel the need to do so the environment where it is accepted. Many, of course, have thankfully not undergone any trying ordeals and still enjoy that relatively unburdened existence of the young and carefree.

For those students who have known adversity and chosen to share very personal accounts that have had a profound influence on their lives, it seems to have a positive result. In the process, they have learned something about the language of expressing pain and perhaps the cathartic effect of sharing difficult memories. It's also a reminder for the teacher that every student has their own experiences, hardships, obstacles and dreams that have brought them to the place they are in life.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Tefl Tales: The Passive Voice

After a number of years in the classroom, you develop a trick bag full of effective, polished performances. You've distilled the awkward flounderings of your early attempts into a series of lean presentations free of all hesitations and rough edges. Naturally, you enjoy some more than others.

I've always liked when the passive voice class (a verb "to be" such as "is" or "was" is combined with a past participle such as "eaten" or "killed") rolls around. It means that you are with a group of learners who should be close to the pre-intermediate stage. They can converse naturally to some degree and you can finally begin to engage in interesting conversations that aren't marked by wild gesturing and pidgin English.

We spend a class cycling through the grammar and sentence construction and go through a series of activities to strengthen the students' understanding. At some point I silence the class, sit down, steeple my fingers like a pretentious arse and ask for reminders of when we use the passive voice. A few voices inevitably shout out the types of situations that we have already discussed.

Then I ask ominously if anyone can guess another context that lends itself to this newly learned grammar point.

"It's a good way to shift blame. And who in society dislikes admitting mistakes or accepting responsibility for what they have done?"

After some prodding and the mention of a few of the most recent scoundrels, I usually elicit the answer I've been looking for; "Government!"

No politician will ever say "We made mistakes," or "We killed someone yesterday," when they can more easily offer up "Mistakes were made and people were killed."

It's a subtle and practiced way that governments use to avoid stating the obvious in such a self-incriminating way. Journalists and editors will rarely shift the wording to the active voice when reporting or writing headlines. A good argument that the media is probably less biased than most people like to think (in this case no doubt, many would say they are complicit..they lose either way.)

And not only in English is this practice common. In the December 2007 edition of Harper's magazine, an article entitled "The Atrocity Files" details the uncovering and archiving of official documents related to Guatamala's three-and-a-half decades long civil war:

"Other methods of concealment were more subtle. Anyone perusing the police documents quickly perceives a habit of writing that sounds strange to the ear--the persistent use of the passive voice to describe everything. Police do not kidnap suspects; a suspect 'is kidnapped' (se secuestro). Security forces do not assassinate: the victim 'is shot and killed' (se disparo y se murio). A police report from November 1983 reveals that this grammatical tic was a matter not of dialect but of deliberate choice when one agent, describing his surveillance outside the home of a suspect, slips uncharacteristically into the first person. 'Approaching the house, I was able to observe a young woman,' he writes, 'who, when she noticed my presence, jumped up and looked at me suspiciously, so I decided to retreat.' This section of the report is cordoned off in red in and a note is written in the margin; 'Never personify--the third person must always be used.' "
I try not to finish classes on such a heavy note however. We usually end up having some fun together after I have directed the students to make some excuses in the passive voice.

"The homework was not completed. The car was damaged. My father's money was taken," etc.