Teaching Thai Students: Understanding How Cultures Clash in the Classroom

I am an American. My students are Thai. We have some cultural differences that make for an interesting classroom experience.

thought I had a pretty good idea of the culture shock I would experience here in Thailand. Sure enough, about six months in to my time here, I have been exposed to a fair number of new and unexpected things. From watching brutal, but very entertaining,  Muay Thai fights (many of which were between 12 and 13 year olds) at a Chinese Festival to seeing a teacher bring two roosters to school and having them fight each other (cockfighting is popular and legal in Thailand), I have had a number of experiences that have shocked my Western mind. However, the culture shock experience I underestimated the most was just how different a Thai classroom is from one in the United States.

In their book Teaching Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Learning and Teaching, scholars Judith and Sherwood Lingenfelter shed some light on the struggles of teaching cross-culturally, especially for teachers with a background in the American education system. They point out that, in order to be successful in the classroom, the American teacher must abandon his or her conceptions of what a “proper classroom” looks like; if the American teacher goes to teach in a foreign country expecting to simply turn their classroom into a carbon copy of the classrooms they grew up in, then that teacher will be in for a very rude awakening. The Lingenfelters claim that the American teacher must not just focus on adapting to the cultural outside of the classroom, but inside as well.

“When teaching cross-culturally, the ideal is to become less American (75 percent) and more like those we teach (at best 75 percent) and therefore become 150-percent persons… to be effective in a new culture, we must learn a host of new behaviors that are not part of our way of life.”

While I will not say that I have become a “150-percent” person, I have certainly had to alter my expectations in the classroom in a number of ways. Here are three major examples:

1. It’s not cheating, its teamwork. 

This one still frustrates my American sensibilities, but I am learning to cope with it. Thai students are huge fans of teamwork. Of course, “teamwork” means finding the smartest kid in the class and swarming him or her in order to get all the right answers to put down on the worksheet. The same is true for tests which, of course, is infuriating to an American teacher. However, our education system, with its roots in Western societal norms, is much more focused on the student learning as an individual whereas the Thai education system is based in a largely collectivist societyMy students come from large families and a tight-knit community where everyone knows each other and where everyone pitches in to help one another. Of course, there are exceptions to any generalization like this, but the collectivist classroom as a whole is much more amenable to what we in the West would consider “cheating.”

There’s no “I” in “Team!”

2. Don’t Ask Questions 

Do not ask questions directed to the class expecting students to raise their hand and answer. It will not happen and you will hear crickets chirping. Another major element of the collectivist classroom that American teachers need to learn is that Thai students, generally speaking, hate being put on the spot. They will never volunteer to raise their voice to answer a question in front of the whole class. Try to reduce your questions and, instead, encourage the students to answer things as a group as it is a much better way to get everyone involved. If you do want to ask a specific question to a certain student (maybe its the boy in the back who thinks he’s just too cool for school and WONT STOP TALKING EVER), then just choose them by name. No asking necessary!

3. What exactly is Time? 

If you are the type of punctual person that makes schedules every day and gets everywhere at least fifteen minutes early, teaching at a Thai school may do something terrible to your blood pressure. Keeping lesson plans flexible and anticipating a time crunch is something that takes time to get used to. Most of my first period classes end up being under thirty minutes because of the morning assembly, so I have learned to get down to business without any nonsense. There will also be times when you will walk in to a classroom ready to go, only to stand there staring at empty desks for a half an hour before finding out class has been cancelled. Yep. Time is an illusion.

These are just some of the culture clashes teachers can expect in a Thai (or any non-Western) classroom. The key is to be flexible and understand that teaching abroad cannot just be an imitation of the classrooms you were raised in; you have to change and become “less American” as a teacher.


The Language Barrier: Turning an Obstacle into an Opportunity

“Sawasdi Khap!”

I say this Thai greeting around 4,000,000,000 times every day. A solid 90% of my interactions begin and end right at “Sawasdi Khap.” Even though I have learned a little bit of Thai, mostly consisting of phrases having to with things at school or food, not many Thai people want to suffer through a ten-minute conversation with me and my atrocious accent; they would much rather speak in some broken English and get on with their lives. Fair enough.

The language barrier is frustrating. Sometimes it can be extremely frustrating. Just the other day, there was a communication issue between the director of my school and the director of another school where went to guest teach for a day. This led to some confusion as to where I was supposed to be that day, and resulted in a very uncomfortable interaction with my director (all in broken English which just added to the discomfort).

I would be lying if I were to say that I haven’t ever felt the urge to run through a wall as a result of language barrier complications.

However, the language barrier can be liberating in many ways. Here are a few examples.

I Talk to Myself in Public

We all do it when we’re alone. Here I can do it in a grocery store and no one thinks I am crazy (even if they did, I would never know #languagebarrier). I can flesh out new ideas, have full on arguments, and even talk in funny accents without a care.

You Feel Like a Kid Again 

Remember when you were little and your parents talked about grown up things in front of you or just spelled things so you wouldn’t understand? That is exactly what it feels like most of the time when I am sitting at lunch with my co-teachers. While that may not sound great, I have found it strangely liberating in many ways. I can come in and out of the conversation as a I attempt to speak some Thai, but I don’t have to fully invest in it if I just feel like stuffing my face with delicious Isaan food (I will write another blog post about Isaan food because it the best). Embracing and being content with not knowing what is being said also forces you to communicate creatively with facial expressions, body language, strange noises, or whatever works. Go have fun!

Confront Your Fear of Being Alone 

This is the most important one. Being in a place where no one speaks your language is a great way to feel lonely fast. Many people, myself included, cope with this loneliness by whipping out ye olde iPhone and scrolling through Instagram. I am not here to judge. Like I mentioned, I do this a lot too. However, this lonely situation doesn’t have to be terrible. In fact, it can be a wonderful opportunity. 

A wonderful opportunity?

Yes! This opportunity is a test of your ability to just be comfortable in your own skin. No verbal affirmation from others, no trying to convince or explain away anything to anyone. Honestly, you feel very vulnerable and vulnerability is terrifying, especially in front of strangers. However, this is where things get wonderful. You now have the opportunity to develop a relationship with the one person you are stuck with for the rest of your life: yourself. You could also get an imaginary friend, but I still think developing a relationship with yourself is a better option.

So much of my life back home is about wooing, convincing, and persuading people of things (these could be personal things, religion, political issues, where to eat, blah blah blah) but when you don’t have verbal communication to fall back on, it is often a good opportunity to look inward. Take a step back and just observe people and learn from these observations. This is especially helpful for extroverts like myself; it is a chance to step away from the social spotlight and just breathe! Be somewhere and don’t feel like you need to do something to let everyone know you are there. Be silent, be still, be calm. These are also great opportunities to pray because St. Paul tells us to “pray ceaselessly.” He doesn’t ever want us to stop if we can manage it!

Of course, you should learn as many languages as you can and really try to immerse yourself in new cultures. This goes without saying. However, if you want to travel and even live abroad (or you find yourself in these situations at home) you will face seemingly insurmountable language barriers. Turn these language barriers into unique opportunities for personal growth.