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.