Thai teaching discipline

[b]What you see is what you get?[/b]

The other day I was watching Channel 3 (Thai TV), the local news. A schoolteacher became so enraged by a Primary student’s haircode violation, that he cut her hair – along with her earlobe. A few days thereafter, another astonishing cruelty made headlines in the newspaper: a teacher kicked a student on the neck and broke it. (I guess the student was laying on the ground). From these events one could get the impression that Thai teachers learned school discipline from Nazi prison camps, so here I take the opportunity to show you another side of the picture.

Unlike in the United States, corporal punishment of students is allowed in Thailand. However, whether it is used or not, depends entirely on the teacher. During my teaching days I’ve seen some Thai teachers hitting their students, sometimes painfully, but there was no emotional distress visible on either side. On the other hand, I avoided meting out any physical punishment, because I doubt its long-term effectiveness. I believe that wit and reasoning go a longer way. To illustrate this, let me tell you two examples from the past, and how Thai students reacted to it.

1. The pep talk

Homework is almost always a problem in classes. When I went around checking it, there were always quite a few students who just didn’t do their work. However, one assignment caused unusual problems in my class. I was teaching them how to ask intelligent questions from visiting foreigners. (This school is frequented by foreign visitors who occasionally pop into classes while teaching is going on).

For two consecutive weeks, my students couldn’t ask the required eight questions from memory. I was a bit frustrated. Should I just go around and hit the students as many times as they failed a question? That didn’t seem like a good idea. I suspected that the reason was not really laziness, but merely a lack of interest. So, on the Friday of the second week, I stopped my usual teaching routine and explained them why it is so important to learn these questions. I told them that their failure would not only embarrass themselves, but also their teachers and their school. I emphasized that a visitor would have a negative opinion about education in Thailand. On the other hand, I continued, their success will elevate the prestige of Thailand, her people, and the school in the visitor’s eyes. When he/she goes back home, the story of smart Thai students will be told. Next week I went to class with mixed expectations, but lo and behold: nearly all students recalled their eight questions effortlessly! I felt really good that day.

2. If all else fails…

This story also involves the teachers’ nightmare: homework, but in a different class. This time, out of the 40 or so students, only five did it. I was stunned. It’s not like it was anything difficult – all they had to do was bring the lyrics of their favorite English song to class. I decided to use an unusual method of discipline. I called the five up to the front of the classroom, made them read their completed assignments. While they were reading, I filled the blackboard with a short story from my textbook, with some essential words omitted. When finished, the blackboard was completely covered by the sentences. I told the rest of the students to copy the story down to their notebook and fill in the blanks, while I took the five diligent students to have ice cream. A Thai teacher stayed behind to maintain order in the classroom while I was away. I am sure that class is still pretty good at completing assignments on time…

It would seem from these two stories that Thai students are very lazy. That’s not really true. In fact, they work harder than the university students I was teaching in the US. One Friday afternoon, in the seventh period, I went to a Mattayom 3 class looking for the teacher. There I found out that she was absent. She went to a temple. What would a typical class in the West do, if they know that their last class on Friday has no teacher? Well, I am certain those students wouldn’t ask another teacher who just drifted in, to hold the class instead. Imagine my surprise when this happened! The students asked me to substitute. Luckily, it was an English class, and I was free at that time, so I happily obliged. That period was one of my most memorable teaching experiences. I knew that the entire class was genuinely interested and truly learning. It makes a lot of difference!

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