Saturday, June 23, 2007

The class from Heaven and the class(es) from Hell

I really thought that after nearly four years of teaching in the Land Of Smiles (LOS) I'd dealt with it all. I thought that'd I faced up to the roughest, survived the dullest and more or less quenched the rowdiest of classes.

The last two months have proved me wrong. I normally don't worry about hostile classes (which are nearly always teenage classes by definition) in fact I take it very lightheartedly and enjoy the challenge of winning them round. But for once, it's gotten me a little annoyed. For this term, I've found the best and the worst classes I've ever known.

The worst isn't actually a class, it's an entire grade. My weekday job is in a well known bilingual school. The school is effectively private and charges parents a hefty fee by Thai standards. As such, most of the kids are from upper middle class families and a fair sized portion of them are spoilt. That wasn't such a problem last year when I was teaching grade five. Most of the kids there were still, well, just kids. You get your good ones and your difficult ones. This year though it's grade nine - that means fourteen and fifteen year olds.

Now I'm not so old that I've forgotten what it's like to be a teenager at school and I can still relate to the kids pretty well - that has helped me in my career - but there comes a time when you have to stop making excuses for teenagers and get them squared up.

This year I'm teaching social studies. I was delighted to do this because it's a subject I love and I really thought I could bring it to life. By inducing the power plays of politics and the twists of the legal system I really thought I'd spice it up for the kids who thought learning jurisprudence in a foreign language would suck.

It turns out I was overoptimistic, at least for now. Five weeks into term, I've won over one of the classes but the other three are hopeless. Never before in my career have I come across students that will continue to do homework right in front of me after four requests to stop, who will refuse across the board - all thirty five of them - to answer questions to something they learned and wrote about the previous day, who curse teachers simply for asking if they are OK, shout and scream at me and each other out of the blue and generally have a totally negative and unco-operative attitude.

The fact that they speak English very well just exacerbates the aggitation on both sides, since they can't pretend they don't understand. They are not all like this of course - every difficult class always has some good kids and vice versa - but it's a huge majority in some cases.

Like I said, I've dealt with teenagers in bigger size classes before and more often than not, I've won them round. I once wrote about a class of forty five girls I taught every day for three years. On my last day of teaching them, every single student gave me a signed picture and a gift. Many of them cried and I nearly did myself. (I still carry their photos with me in my work bag, it gives me a boost to look through them during times like this). But that was government school students, now I'm dealing with spoilt, moody teenagers from rich families and it's an even bigger challenge.

I have a general system of tactics for difficult teenage classes. Plan A is simply to tolerate a lot and go easy with them for a few days. Plan B is to strike a good rapport and reward good work with games and 'fun' lessons. If that still fails, plan C is to firm up, give them a few speeches reminding them who's boss and who they shouldn't agitate if they want to enjoy the rest of the year and 'final resort' Plan D is simply to put the smack down. That means deducting points from exams, escorting offenders to the principal, shouting them down if they talk too much and so on. Basically, rule by force.

I'm now well down the line in plan C and entering plan D. I don't like doing it, in fact I hate it. It's not me and although I'm thick skinned, I don't really like to have thirty five hostile faces looking at me when I walk through the door to teach a subject I love. But at least two of my current classes have given me no choice. After trying to make the classes fun with games and mock silly elections and such, there was no improvement from them. I've dropped a few "Look , we can work together and have fun and get on or you can keep on with your big sulk and I'll still be here, and you'll just get lower tests scores and fewer activities" type speeches to them. These talks worked with nearly every other class I've taught and can often turn the tables, simply because what I say is true and fair. Not this time though.

I made my final decision to toughen up after I asked a class to close their notebooks at the end of a lesson. Most kids did , a few didn't. I asked them again three more times and still one girl - who was glaring at me - didn't. I asked her personally, and got the same glare. I walked to her desk and asked her up close. Never stopping her glare, she lifted up her book to my face, turned it over and dropped it on the desk in front of her. Basically an unspoken "fuck you" to the teacher who dared to ask her to close her book.

So it's time for rule by force. Every kid in the class now has full exam marks, but loses some of them every time they refuse to work or didn't make the effort. There's no end of lesson games, homework for other lessons is removed from kids who try to do it in my class and talkative students sit alone every lesson (they really hate that one). I don't like being a bastard but if it comes down to that or being a doormat in an out of control class, I'll take the former. When the kids realise why I'm doing what I do (I frequently remind them, it's only fair) and make the effort to change, I'll go back to being myself again.

I don't give up easy. Like I said, I've turned classes completely around before and I'm determined to do it again. If I can manage it with this lot, I'll be forever sure that I'm a good teacher.

But every "down day" in teaching usually has an opposite,and that opposite is my Saturday afternoon class. The class from heaven. (If you're reading this Carla, or Joe, it's the same class you both used to teach) Seven girls and one boy, all about twelve years old. They work, they listen, they try and they love to play games. It's so rare to get kids that like to play and learn, and even when they do, they usually want to spend more time playing, that's all part and parcel of being a kid! Not this class though, they love to play games but as soon as it's over, they'll open their text books and get cracking once again.

I make a point of telling them how great they are, and the feeling seems mutual. Today , when I returned to the room after coffee break, the kids had drawn a caricature of me on the board and written underneath: "Mr.Greg is the best teacher in the world".

I'm not sure if that statement is true, but it was a damn sight nicer than the reception I get from my teenage friends at the moment.

Still, that's teaching for you!


My good friend Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom is hosting a meeting at the Bangkok Foreign Correspondants club on Tuesday evening. Guess who is attending the press conference?????

I might just have an interesting blog to write next week.

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