How many classes do you teach, and how big are they? At CMU, I usually teach five classes per semester, which means five classroom hours a day, three days a week. Usually I have two or three sections of the same class, which means if I have a good lesson plan for one section, I can use it over again in the later sections of the same class. On the other hand, sometimes I have a terrible lesson (it happens) in the morning class, and later I improve on it. Or, sometimes I have a plan that works really well in the early going, but by afternoon all that magic has somehow gotten out of focus like the previous night’s dream. Lesson planning is not a static thing; it’s very organic.
My classes at CMU usually contain from twenty-five to thirty-five students. Once, by some twist of fate, I got a class of only thirteen students, but that’s very rare.


What is it like to work with Thai students? Thai students can be very shy, even at CMU. This goes especially the freshmen, many of whom are away from home for the first time. Outwardly, they are very respectful, and sometimes the entire class will stand when I enter the classroom and greet me, saying, “Good morning, teacher!” in unison. The first time this happened to me, I was speechless, I was so surprised. They seemed so formal, so polite, and so adorable.
But when I call on the students to participate in class, I often find that they hold back. This is either because they don’t know the language well enough, or because they are shy about speaking English in front of their teacher. Sometimes when I ask them a question they won’t respond at all, and the entire class looks as if it were on a lifeboat drifting across the North Atlantic: they smile, look down, look at each other and giggle, but nobody speaks. I have to find a way to get them to come out of their shells and open up, so they can learn something.
One thing I have learned to do is put them into small groups of three or four students and let them do their exercises that way, sort of like a workshop. Then, I can come around and check how each group is doing. This is a standard teaching practice at the university. It’s less threatening for them than doing everything in front of the whole class, and the stronger students can also help the weaker ones in each group.
Sometimes I try to say something goofy, to inject a little humor into the lesson. Instead of saying “The dog bit the man,” I might say, “The dog bit the teacher.” It helps when I haven’t had enough sleep, because then I am more liable to do something wacky. Sometimes I draw funny pictures on the blackboard and make them laugh. The Thais have a word for this: zanuk, which means being lighthearted and not too serious. It is one of the most important concepts in Thai culture. If I can make the lesson zanuk, the students begin to loosen up, and presenting the lesson is much easier and participation is much better.
What are some other factors affecting how you relate to the students?Students often dont have a lot of self-confidence. Freshman university students are not in class with people they have known for a long time. They come from different backgrounds, and different places in Thailand. Some of them may be from a small town where very few people ever went to college. And although they may have had six years of English in secondary schools, most likely it was with Thai teachers who were not good models for spoken English. The students may be very insecure about their English, and even whether they are good enough to be at the university at all.
Many Thai students have not encountered a native English speaking teacher before they came to college. They may not have ever had a farang friend. They think that we farangs are very strange people, and even though they admire us from a distance, they are afraid of us up close. Our direct manner is threatening to them. Working with the Thai students requires a balance of energies: the teacher must be active enough to stimulate the students thinking, but gentle enough not to threaten their personal and cultural boundaries. Thai students will often do their homework or in-class exercises together, so that when I inspect their answers I will see six, seven or more exact replicas of the same sentence for each question. I usually dont try to change this, because I figure its better to have them working together than not working at all. But I do try to ask them lots of questions, and if one student has a unique answer that is a good model, I will have them write their answer on the blackboard.
Asking them to write on the blackboard can have its own set of hazards. Sometimes, I ask students to write sentences on the blackboard, only to find a minute later, when I turn around, that they are still sitting in their seats, asking the students around them what they should do. Another thing that happens is the student will have the right answer in her book, but somehow she decides to make it better when she goes to the blackboard, and puts up a wrong answer. Getting the students to go up in front of the class can have many benefits; it can boost their confidence, and let them show off in front of the others. But it is always unpredictable, and it can be time consuming as well.
There is cheating on exams, as there is everywhere. I hope that I never catch any of my students cheating, because being caught can mean being expelled from school, which is very bad for them. Nevertheless, I still get many duplicate answers when I grade my exams. This is okay if its the correct answer, but when its the wrong answer, then I know something is going on. But so far, I havent reported any of my students for cheating.
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Okay, class dismissed, but study up… You never know when I might spring a quiz on you!