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.


Embracing the “Tourist-y” Things

For the past three weeks, I have had the pleasure of taking off my teaching cap and putting on my tourist shorts and flip-flops. My parents came to visit and it was so much fun being with them as they experienced Thailand for the first time. From amazing floating markets outside of Bangkok to beautiful sunsets on the beach in Phuket, we got the full tourist experience. It is strange, but the terms “tourist” and “tourist-y” have some pretty negative connotations, especially among young people, like myself, living abroad. The term is often used to put down any activity that seems too mainstream or not part of the “authentic” Thai experience. While it is great to try and live the “authentic” Thai experience (I am enjoying life on a mine in rural Thailand!), there is also something to be said about the importance of being a tourist and doing “tourist-y” things.

Being a tourist is a different and very important travel experience. I did not come to Thailand as a tourist, I came to teach. I started teaching within the first week and a half of being here and, while I certainly got to do some fun things, I did not get to really be a tourist until later. As a tourist, you are not travelling for work, for the advancement of any sort of agenda, or to “make an impact” in any way. You are going for pleasure and for the excitement of just experiencing a new culture. This is so important for so many reasons. Contrary to popular belief, people from other countries around the world do not always “need our help.” Westerners, Americans especially, often feel like the only way to go to a foreign country outside of the Western world is to go as a volunteer, missionary, or a teacher. I know this might sound weird coming from someone who is in Thailand as a teacher, but just hear me out. While there is nothing wrong with travelling as a volunteer, missionary, or teacher, sometimes it is best to go to a new place without any specific goal in mind. Go and be a tourist. By just letting go of your pre-conceived notions of a certain country and just enjoying a new place (the food, the music, the views, the customs, etc.) you are letting yourself be a guest in someone else’s home. Thai people love to share their culture, but many farang (the word for “foreigners”) are too caught up in their own narrative of “saving the world” to listen. Real tourism is listening. Real tourism is being willing to “rip up your cool card” and jump in to a new place. That being said, here are some tips for being a good tourist.

Try to speak Thai!

Thai is a very difficult language for foreigners to master, but Thais love it when people try to say a few words and phrases. By just learning a few words like the ones for “hello” and “thank you” and phrases like the very popular mai bpen rai (its like hakuna matata, no big deal, and you’re welcome wrapped into one phrase) you show the Thai people you interact with that you actually do want to learn more about their culture. Also, knowing a little smattering of Thai words and phrases goes a long way in getting discounts (I got a pretty big discount for a boat tour in Bangkok just by speaking a little broken Thai).

Make friends with drivers.

As a tourist in Thailand, you will spend a lot of time in taxis, vans, busses, and maybe even planes. While you probably won’t become besties with the bus driver or the pilot, you will have the chance to speak to taxi and van drivers (especially in Bangkok where the the traffic makes for some pretty long taxi rides). I have learned so much about everyday life in Thailand just by talking to taxi drivers. Some speak pretty good English, others don’t speak any at all, but that’s where an acting degree and google translate comes in handy!

Haggle! But don’t overdo it. 

Haggling is an essential part of the marketplace experience. While you never want to pay full price that pair of knock-off Nike’s that has caught your eye, keep in mind that people are trying to feed their families. Haggling is an art and it is super fun to negotiate in broken Thai and in broken English (Tinglish), but try not to be too over zealous. Remember that you will be spending infinitely less money than you would at home for these goods (especially for clothing) so try not to be too cheap. These people are trying to make a living, so just be mindful of that and haggle respectfully.

These tourist tips apply to places outside of Thailand and there are many more that I could mention! If you have any questions about travelling or being a tourist in Thailand, feel free to contact me!

Go forth and be a tourist!





Three Things I’ve Learned in Four Months of Teaching in Thailand

One week after graduating from Baylor University with a degree in Theatre Arts and History, I jumped on a plane headed for Thailand to teach English for ten months. It has been a little over four months since I touched down at the airport in Chiang Mai, so I feel as though I have gained enough experience here to at least share the few things I have learned so far. These past four months have been filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. The excitement of experiencing a new culture and engaging your students with fun lessons makes for very fulfilling days where you feel like you are on top of the world. On the other hand, the constant struggle of trying to communicate with students, teachers, and people in town that speak no English, the isolation, and the frustrations that will inevitably come when working with kids makes for days that feel like a massive gut punch. The highs and lows together are what makes the experience of teaching in a foreign country so unique and life-changing. Not everything can be “Instagram perfect.” Nor should it be! All that being said, here are three things I have learned about being a better teacher and a better human:

  1. Be humble.
  2. Be patient.
  3. Pray without ceasing. 

I will not say that my time in Thailand has taught me these things, but rather it is teaching me these things.

Be humble. 

You are not Hilary Swank and this is not Freedom Writers. Many teachers, myself included, come to a foreign country “ready to change the world” and save the students by teaching them English for 50 minutes two or three times a week. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to make the world a better place by serving in a community as an English teacher, one cannot get caught up in their own narrative. In reality, you stand to learn just as much (if not more) from the people around you as they stand to learn from you! Do not try to fit your experience into the narrative you have created in your head. Face reality. Reality hit me right in the face pretty early on as I realized that there is a huge difference between speaking English and teaching people how to speak English. It is also especially difficult to teach English in English to kids (and some teachers) who do not speak English. When I figure how to do this, I will let you know. In a very short period of time, I came to realize that I am a horrible teacher. Teaching is a skill and it takes years to master and, while I have made progress, I still have a long way to go. Cultivating a skill like teaching requires hard work fueled by healthy doses of humility. I am learning to approach my weaknesses as a teacher (and as a person) by trying to remain humble and not letting pride get in the way of progress.

Be patient. 

Remember that you are not the center of the universe. I teach both middle-school kids and high school seniors. All the middle-school kids really want to do is listen to K-pop and all the high school kids want to do is move on with their lives. Learning English, except for a few very driven students, is not number one on their list of priorities. Also, English is just a stupid language. Don’t get me wrong, I love English, but boy is it stupid. Trying to explain why “read” is spelled the same but pronounced differently in the present and past tense to kids who already do not have the faintest idea what you are saying can be a tad frustrating to say the least. Take things slow. Speak slow, write big, and smile a lot. English is hard and the kids often have other things on their mind; you and your class are not the center of their universe. Just be patient and handle all of the things you can control (the lesson plan, getting there on time, etc.). There is no need to lose your cool!

Pray without ceasing.

St. Paul, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, says to “pray without ceasing.” Yeah. All of the time. Be sure to set aside time to pray at least once or twice a day (a good practice is setting aside a specific times for morning and evening prayer) and to keep that time specifically for prayer. These set aside times, even if they are only a minute or two, have become absolutely essential for my life here in Thailand. During the day, even if you cannot go and find a quite place to pray (good luck finding one in a high school), use short prayers, repeating them as often as necessary. As an Orthodox Christian, I like to use the Jesus Prayer which goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” However, there are countless short prayers and passages from scripture that one can use. I will post more of these powerful short prayers in the future. Prayer is not just for old ladies, priests, and monks; prayer is what keeps us in communion with Jesus Christ, the author of our salvation, and the creator of this world who is “everywhere present and fills all things.” Never underestimate the prayer of a short and heartfelt prayer.

“God’s grace always assists those who struggle, but this does not mean that a struggler is always in the position of a victor.” -St. John Maximovitch

I fall short of living out these principles every day, but the struggle to put them into practice is what gives life meaning and, quite honestly, what makes life more exciting. So, whatever you are doing, whether its teaching in Thailand or working for NASA, embrace the struggle!