Like I mentioned in a couple of previous posts, I’ve been working in Bangkok as a teacher since I arrived just over a month ago. In this post, I’ll describe my experiences teaching at a Thai private school up until now, and especially transitioning from one grade level to another. It’ll be a bit more focused on my immediate surroundings and routines, rather than broader observations about teaching and being a foreign teacher—I’ll save those thoughts for another post.
The Beginning: K1#
When I first started, I was assigned to K1, which is the second-youngest grade. The kids are 3-4 years old, making it more like preschool than kindergarten. I taught one group for two hours first thing in the morning, had a three-hour break, taught another group for an hour and a half, then taught “homework class” to two more groups for half an hour each.
An average lesson started with attendance, a bit of stretching, and then a bunch of songs and dances. That lasted about half an hour, at which point we went into our topic for the day, which was usually either the week’s new letter or number. We coloured, traced letters, counted numbers, etc. Sometimes we played games like Bingo, or more improvised stuff. They got a milk break halfway through, and we had about twenty minutes to take them out to the playground.
I, however, never got to take my kids out to the playground.
Either it was raining or had rained the night before, the kids were quarantined, or we were in the exam period.
“Quarantine” happens when one student is sick with something contagious. The student stays home, and the class goes on without air conditioning or playground time. In general, they don’t really get to leave their classroom. It makes for a very sweaty song and dance period.
Exam period is mostly what it sounds like: exams… for four-year-olds. Really, a better term would be simply “assessment”, since what we did was take each student into the hall individually and complete a little work booklet together that involved some speaking exercises, image recognition, counting, tracing, colouring, etc.
In the K1 classrooms, I was extremely well-supported. I had 3–4 Thai teachers in the room to take care of classroom management and hygiene issues, which came up a lot. Luckily, I didn’t witness any vomit, but there was plenty of snot.
I worked in K1 for a month, starting at my arrival and lasting about one month until the end of the term. It simply can’t be denied: the kids are super cute.
An Abrupt Escalation: P6, M2, & M3 Math#
Close to the end of the term, an email went out to staff advertising a soon-to-be-vacant position teaching math to P6, M2, and M3 students. P6 is equivalent to sixth grade, M2 to eigth, and M3 to ninth. I didn’t think much of the opportunity at first, since I just assumed it would quickly be taken by someone more qualified. But there turned out to be less interest than I thought, so I indicated my interest. I had a look through the curriculum and textbooks, found the content easy to grasp, and so I figured I could handle it. Eventually, I was offered the spot for term 2 onwards and gladly accepted it. So for the last three weeks or so, that’s been my job.
I teach seven classes in total: three P6, two M2, and two M3. It’s a pretty massive change, seeing as I was still struggling to learn my 50 K1 students' names, and now I have somewhere in the ballpark of 175 students. I teach for four periods a day, with the exception of Tuesdays on which I have five classes. My lessons are currently pretty barebones: I explain the day’s content for 15–20 minutes, go through a couple of examples, and assign some homework. It feels dull, for both the students and I, so I’m working on spicing things up. For the P6 classes, I also include a riddle to get them thinking, or occasionally a short history lesson (an artifact of the previous teacher’s tenure).
In contrast to my K1 classrooms, I am usually the only teacher in the room with my students. There is sometimes a Thai teacher present, but they’re grading or otherwise occupied and not involved with my lessons. This leaves me in charge of classroom management, something that I have precisely zero experience with.
There are some really great things about moving from K1 to older grades, and about teaching math in general.
Most importantly, I can have real conversations and make real connections with the older students. In K1, the students know very little English, and frankly I’m not very good at deciphering small children’s words. The older ones' English is quite good, and they’re quite mature for the most part. This lets me be more myself in class, joking around and being sarcastic with the students in class. It’s been a real pleasure to start getting to know them over the last couple of weeks.
Another obvious advantage to teaching math is that it’s where my background and interest is. While I don’t have a math degree and I’m a few credit hours short of even a minor, my computer science education left me with enough fundamentals to breeze through the content. It’s also just plain fascinating to me; I hope I can inspire some of the same interest in reasoning about problems in a rational way that led me to study math and CS in the first place.
This might seem like a short list, but I really can’t overstate how important these two things are to me.
Of course, not everything is sunshine and rainbows.
Without any Thai support in class, classroom management can be extremely difficult (especially having no formal education training). The P6 students can be very loud and refuse to listen to my lessons. I can spend minutes quieting them down, but the second I resume with the lesson, they go back to their previous conversations. There are days when I’m not even sure that any students have heard what I was teaching, much less understood.
Outside of the classroom, I have orders of magnitude more work to do. If I give a short homework assignment to each class that I teach in one day, I can have over a hundred textbooks to mark, which takes most if not all of my free time during the work day. On one of my first lessons, I made the mistake of assigning a homework question whose answer was the words “three and twenty-three ten-thousandths”, and then doing a terrible job of teaching the written form of decimals. Being obligated to write the correct answer in students' textbooks if they get the answer wrong, I wrote “three thousand twenty-three ten-thousandths” some seventy times over the next couple of days. Back in my K1 days, I marked for about twenty minutes a day, which involved a quick glance over some traced letters and a check mark.
Spending my day marking means that I have to plan my lessons at home. And in contrast to the single lesson I planned for my K1 students, I now have three grades to plan for. I have each class three times a week, so that adds up to nine unique lessons to plan per week. This is almost twice as many as I had to do for K1 (I had them all five days of the week), and a lot more goes into a math lesson than a kindergarten one, and there’s significantly less room for improvisation in the former.
Was It Worth It?#
After having a bit of experience in both camps, do I regret moving from the youngest students to the oldest? Yes and no.
I worry a lot more about whether or not I’m doing a good job now, since it’s easy to interpret my students' lack of interest or behavioural issues as indicators of my own bad performance. I also really miss the big chunks of free time that I had between classes and after school. I was using them to learn Tagalog and keep my programming skills sharp, but both of those pursuits are mostly blocked for now.
But of course, the grass is always greener on the other side. I don’t miss the constant assault on my immune system, the blank stares from students who didn’t have any idea what I was asking them to do, or the regular, disruptive temper tantrums from a few of the more difficult students. I also won’t miss having Baby Shark stuck in my head all day.
If I had to rate my desire to return to the K1 classroom, I’d probably put it at about a 6.5 out of 10 right now. I’m hoping that number will go down as time goes on, since I’m obviously still finding my rhythm and things should get easier for me. Overall, I think that teaching the older students will be more beneficial to me in the long run.
I hope this offers a decent glimpse into my work days! Like I said, I’ll save my more general thoughts about teaching for a future post.