Teaching English Abroad: My First Day on the Job!
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By John Spragg

(One of our own: A TEFL for Target Learner Groups course graduate)


Kid TeacherEditor's Note: It's always best to have a lesson plan prepared before teaching, even when teaching a group of 60 (or 30) kids, as John did (below). However, the main objective in teaching kids is to teach them skills progressively, through a medium of fun that takes the emphasis off of "book learning". In the real world of Thai schools, there may not be a prepared lesson from which to make a plan in the first place. When this happens, "survivers" like John learn to think fast, and eventually prepare and plan lessons around what came before, even if it's mainly done just in their heads. It's not ideal, but if the kids are speaking English and progressively learning, that is a good result under the circumstances. One thing we are fairly sure of: Had John not been trained already as a teacher, and learned how to make good lesson plans for more controlled situations, he undoubtedly would have been scared "out of the business" by what happened to him on that very first day of teaching!

When asked for a story related to teaching in Thailand, I was immediately led to thinking about my first day "on the job".

I had arrived in Bangkok the previous week armed with my new TEXT-AND-TALK TEFL certificate which I had earned in the utopian luxury of Phuket. I had never intended to work in Bangkok, but economic necessity prevailed at the time. I had certainly never intended to start my career teaching children in a school either, but, again, it was financially the best option I had been offered. My only teaching experience to date had been with the nice, compliant "guinea pigs" that were wheeled in for the TEFL course teaching practice, and I had found it much easier than I ever thought I would. But was I in for a shock now!

My first posting was straight in at the deep-end, no time for prep. or observing an experienced teacher, as I had requested. I was to teach five classes a day of 10-12 year-olds in a government elementary school. It was a "hi-so" (high society) type of school attached to a university. At least most of the Thai people I mentioned the school's name to were impressed! I met one of the guys I was to work with at the agency office, and off we went each in our own transport (I in a taxi). I was nervous, but my new colleague had made it all sound like a piece of cake, so I was ready to go.

The traffic was shocking (as is often the case) and we were late for school – not my fault, as I had been waiting at the office for half an hour before my colleague finally turned up. As we walked into the school I was promptly introduced to the Head of English. "He doesn't look old enough to be a teacher!" she proclaimed to my colleague, while looking me up and down (I was twenty-six). "Is he new?"

"Yeah, I'm new." I offered. "Nice to meet you. I'm John."

"Why are you late?" she barked at my colleague. He was reduced from the confident professional I had met earlier into a shamefaced schoolboy. He murmured something about the traffic and off we went to the office.

Five minutes later I was in the classroom for the first time. The colleague I had already met and I were to share classes of sixty. As I was new, I was to take half of them "outside" while he taught the other half in the classroom, to be reversed the following week. I led thirty kids out of the classroom with no idea as to where we were going or why. They all had pencils, although I had been given no worksheets. So I followed the kids into the lift and down to the schoolyard where they all ran in different directions!

I was aware I was being watched by the militaristic Head of English I had already met and so I proceeded to round up the kids, no mean feat as they were doing their best to ignore me completely, and some of the boys were far more interested in an ants' nest they had found! Fortunately, I had my trusty tennis ball in my pocket (the new teacher's best friend) and managed to throw together a "game-based lesson". The kids learnt nothing, I felt pretty sure, but at least they enjoyed themselves and spoke a bit of English. Anyone watching would have clearly seen that I was making it up as I went along and it was the kids who were calling the shots. Funny how the ball kept ending up in the ants' nest and it was obviously left to me to pick it out each time!

This was the pattern of the following two lessons, and to be honest, against all the odds, I was starting to enjoy myself. It was lunchtime and I was walking along the corridor towards the canteen when the Head of English sprang out from behind a stone pillar and announced, "You shouldn't be chewing gum, it's not polite!" She was probably right, but I had reasoned it was better than smelling of cigarettes, what with me being a smoker. I apologised politely and carried on to the canteen with three colleagues who were trying their best to hide the fact that they were delighted the attention was off of them for the day!

The afternoon passed much the same as the morning. I was completely left to my own devices and was watched hawkishly throughout by the demon headmistress. It turned out she was a dragon to everyone; in fact, I was told that she had actually been pretty "nice" to me! Three o'clock came and I was exhausted after my first day as a "teacher". It's funny that I have to say that I actually really enjoyed my first day, much as I have enjoyed most subsequent days. It's quite clear to me why some people never make it past the first day, though! I went home a completely different teacher than I had been that morning. Whereas I had set out slightly apprehensive, but generally confident in my own ability, I remember thinking to myself as I went home that I had so much to learn, and quickly too!

That was three years ago, and it's a routine these days. Taking a class at short notice, no worksheets and no ideas, I now see as "a dream" rather than "a nightmare", as I had seen it that day! I left that first school for another one after a semester and I have never met another Head of English quite like the lady there. "Brutally honest and plain speaking" would be the most polite description I could muster for her, but I guess she helped me along in her own way. As for native-speaker colleagues, I have worked with many. Some are helpful, others are no help at all, while others are more than just unhelpful!

There's a lot to be said for being thrown in at the deep-end, because it's certainly the best way to find out if you are a sinker or a swimmer! After such an introduction as mine, it can only get easier!

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