02 May 2012

Teaching English: Challenges and Triumphs

            Instead of going on one of the CIEE unit trips, I and three other students went to a village in Southeast Thailand to teach English for two weeks. The four of us worked with four Thai University English-majors to teach eight to twelve-year-olds, and two of the four Thai students had extensive experience teaching English. We taught Monday to Wednesday from about 9am to 4pm, with a mixture of big group games and small group rotations. Within these rotations we taught Greetings, Colors and Numbers, Animals, Family, and Nature. We made sure to always have games and songs, and it turned out to be very fun and a success.
            Working with Thai students our age was definitely a really great experience. It taught us so much about Thai culture, differences in education, differences in hierarchy, and also similarities we have with Thai people. We got along very well and all became great friends. It proved to be a challenge to try to have the children view us eight as their eight teachers, rather than two separate groups. It was hard because it was clear that the children were more comfortable with the Thai students and were slightly nervous around us, especially at the beginning. Additionally, the Thai students were the ones giving the children directions and doing all of the instruction because of our inability to communicate. We tried to make it clear sometimes that us American teachers were speaking and then just having it translated, but it still felt as though all instruction was from the Thai teachers. Towards the end though many of the children were more comfortable around the foreigners and the teaching team began to seem like more of a collective. I think it just took time for the children to get comfortable.
             Related to above, by far the largest challenge was connecting with the children.  The language barrier was the largest obstacle to this. I have a lot of experience with teaching young children and never have trouble forming relationships with little kids, but I have always spoken the children’s language. Towards the end I learned to use the little Thai I do know with the friendliest body language possible for a connection, which seemed to work. In the classroom, students were always very attentive to me but if I needed to convey something to them, it was translated and sometimes was not delivered the way I wanted it to be. This took some adjustment but really the only major challenge to teaching English was the language barrier and how it manifested itself in all areas of the English camp.
            It was so, so rewarding towards the end when I would say, “hello, how are you?” or “What color do you like?” to a student and he or she would answer appropriately. It felt like so much was accomplished and the children were clearly very appreciative. Also, it was so triumphant to see how much fun the camp was for everyone. Each day we sang English songs and did active, academic-free games such as red-light-green-light that came from my childhood experience in the U.S., and it was so wonderful to see little kids in Thailand having a great time during such games. We also learned and played many Thai songs and games, so that it was more of an exchange, which was really great collaboration.
            Overall, the experience of teaching in a foreign setting with an absolute language barrier was an invaluable experience. I learned how to connect with children and teach without using my voice, and I learned many, many aspects of Thai culture. Another positive outcome was that the children are now not as afraid of foreigners and they learned a lot about American culture too. One child asked me if I’m a beauty queen and if I live in a castle. I think it was an accomplishment that some over-the-top notions of Americans have been eliminated from at least some Thai village children. It was wonderful to spend so much quality time with Thai people, and I would teach foreign children again in a heartbeat.

 Anaise Williams
University of Rochester

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