Friday, April 24, 2009

Teacher's diary: difficult situations

Summer School has been better this year. Teaching on a higher floor makes a whole lot of difference - this is Thailand in April after all - and the class sizes are smaller. Smaller classes are easier to teach as the teacher can dedicate more time for each student. However, it's a sign that business is not going so well. I often say that class sizes are a teacher's paradox; bigger classes mean your job is secure, smaller classes means you can do your job much better.

Summer School students tend be a mix of old, new and vaguely familiar faces. This year there are plenty of very familiar faces who will be going into grade eleven next year. The poor blighters have studied with me for nearly three years. I've tried to be sympathetic to the students (how would you feel if your parents sent you to school during the holidays?) and I've employed the KISS principle. I've been arming the students with remarkably basic classroom language ("Excuse me, how do you spell this in English?") that newer students may not be familiar with. It's screamingly easy and it's been successful and well received. One class has presented a real challenge though.............

Class 10 C caught me by surprise. Twenty five new faces looked up at me as I walked in. At least, they should have looked up, but half of them were talking to each other, talking on the phone or running around the room. When students are doing this with a brand new teacher, it's always a sure sign of a "challenging" class. Still, I figured it was best to keep things light. I went into a comedy routine that caught their attention and then began a basic activity (students had to design their own "passport") that distracted them enough for me to suss them out a little more.

It was painful though. At least four students - including twin brothers - could not speak a word of English, and I mean not one word. At their age, it was going to be extremely hard to catch up, and they showed no interest in even trying. Soon they would be learning about world religions, and today they didn't even want to learn "How are you today?".

Two other students presented an even greater challenge. One dressed in a pink shirt depicting Hitler in sunglasses presented himself as Simon. Simon spent his time chasing a girl around the classroom. Both showed no interest whatsoever in the class and over the next two weeks turned up late every time, usually just as I had got the class settled. Eventually they stopped coming altogether.

It seemed my problem had been solved, but then two more students stepped up to the plate: Fern and Joy. Joy took a liking to Fern in week 2 and decided to move next to her. I wouldn't have minded except the conversations distracted them from working. Every time I warned them with a smile, Joy would promise to listen. She'd then wait for me to return to the whiteboard and begin her conversation again.

Today Joy really pushed her luck. First by moving around the room three times, then trying the: "we both need to go to toilet right now" trick that usually is lost before sixth grade, followed by the equally pathetic: "we both need to go and drink water right now" gag. Fern helpfully tells me "my friend need to drink water" seven times over in case I couldn't understand English.

When this fails, Joy starts purposely trying to get herself thrown out of class by drumming on her table, shouting across the room in Thai and generally being obnoxious and disruptive. And in case I hadn't made myself clear, it is disruptiveness that is the problem. If a student wants to be ignorant, that's his or her choice and I will respect it. But when a student arrives late and starts telling her friends why, or starts shouting in Thai across the room or talking so loud his friends hear him rather than the teacher, it's just not on and any decent teacher has to resolve the issue in some way.

Such behaviour presents a challenge because the teacher has to strike a balance between taking action to deal with the problem, yet not doing so in a way that does not cause the teacher's action to distract from the lesson itself.

So when Joy is purposely drumming away on her desk, trying to be disruptive so she can be thrown out, with twenty or so teenage students awaiting your reaction, what do you do? In my early days I would probably have become very nervous and lost my way in the lesson or overreacted by yelling at Joy. But now I have a little experience under my belt. I've had this stunt done to me a whole bunch of times before, and in much smarter style, too. I simply continued on with the class until a stage where the students needed to copy what I wrote on the board.

Had Joy still been going then, I would have quietly taken her outside - discipline should be done out of sight of a student's friends for a variety of reasons - and either spoken to her myself or - as I do with students who cannot speak English - taken her to the year head. As it happened, I didn't need to, I had managed to pull the students through to a part of the lesson they found interesting. With their attention caught, Joy had given up on getting the attention for herself, and decided to copy the work.

As the clock ticked down Joy finished her work and began to ask me a slew of questions about myself - my age, my home town, my family and so on. This is not that strange; students who play up are sometimes - but not always - just expressing a need for attention. It's unusual for this age group (15-18) to behave like this though; but this whole class seems very immature. Perhaps it's because most of them come from a government school, perhaps it's because their English is so weak, perhaps it all ties into one. I don't know.

I score another minor victory with one of the twin brothers, too. Today I actually managed to get him to speak a few words of English. When he does so, I shock him by smiling and praising him. My gamble is rewarded as he turns to his brother with a triumphant grin. He's given himself a sense of achievment, and his brother looks annoyed enough by this to try and copy him next class. Everyone's a winner.

In any case, I must confess I am relieved that most of them will not be learning with me next semester. Whilst it would be a challenge, it might just be one challenge too many right now.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Changing times

Tomorrow I have an interview with an Australian radio station concerning the recent political turmoil in Bangkok. In preparation, I browsed through a few of my old blog posts to refresh my memory of all the events in the never ending saga of Thai politics.

Two blog that jumped out at me are this one and this one , from an old debate with Jotman. Ironically, Jotman has recently linked back to his post on the subject too. (Perhaps not that ironically actually, Jotman seems mightily proud of that particular post).

Two things struck me about my old posts. Firstly, they seem a lot more detailed and better written than the blogs I post these days. I can only offer my work schedule, the demands of fatherhood and my split attention between UK and Thai politics as excuses. By contrast, Jotman and Bangkok Pundit remain prolific and high in quality.

Secondly, so many of my views on Thai political issues have changed. Most likely this is due to experience. Indeed, although I stand by the evidence and questions I raised in my debate with Jotman, I am more inclined to agree with him that resentment on the part of the middle classes formed at least part of the motivation to remove Thaksin.

More on this later.

Stating the bleedin' obvious

Ther Nation had this to say concerning the attackers who assaulted Sonthi, tried to take his life, fired over one hundred bullets, hit him several times in the arm and at least once in the skull....

"According to Sondhi's media firm Manager, he is furious with his attackers."

Friday, April 17, 2009

The latest postmortem

"In war there are no winners, only losers" is how the old saying goes, but I've never believed this to be true. There are winners, usually the rich,powerful leaders who can be sure they have lost no loved ones in the horror that preceded the victory.

But if the ongoing conflict in Thailand can be called a war, then it is truly perplexing to anyone searching for a victor.

Thaksin is certainly no better off after the week of violence. His appearance on Sky News was bizarre, reports state the ex-PM seemed rambling and disoriented, most likely due to a lack of sleep. The "revolution" called for by Thaksin has not materialised. In its place is a self-imposed exile without a passport. Thaksin may be able to get by with a passport from another country or simply by relying on his fortune to "solve" problems at the border but its a risky ploy. Any country seen to assist Thaksin too much will create a lot of problems with equally powerful people Thailand and not every immigration border is corrupt.One can only wonder how Thaksin's family feel about being forced to flee the motherland, too.

Aphisit has fared little better. From the start, international media have question just how in control the young leader has been, and the decisive action demanded by non-reds was slow in coming, so slow that the forced cancellation of ASEAN was a massive loss of face for the leadership, regardless of the sympathetic noises made by other national leaders. Equally damaging was the sudden appearance of 'blue shirt' thugs, that just happened to materialise around eh same time Newin Chidchob appeared in Pattaya.

The red-shirts themselves failed to achieve their objective and feel victim to public disapproval as cameras caught what can only be described as terrorist figures torching stolen buses.

The Thai police, yet again, seemed to stand around, equipped with expensive looking riot gear and police vans, looking utterly useless.

The PAD made angry noises yet stayed on the sidelines, quite possibly after some pleading by other players in the gate.

The Thai courts took remarkably decisive action against UDD leaders hats served only to highlight their lack of similar action against those who sieged Bangkok Airport for days.

Yet perhaps the greatest irony of all is that the only unit to emerge with any credit or public appreciation is the military. After bungled operations elsewhere, the clearance of Bangkok was handled reasonably well and came with thanks from any members of the public.

One can only imagine how people would feel about the military if they had not staged the coup that triggered this whole domino sequence in the first place.


The popular attitude towards the DAAD and PAD amongst the Thai public seems to be "They're as bad as each other" which I find to be a somewhat lazy supposition. The DAAD have generally not resorted to the violence adopted by the PAD. The torching of buses was clearly the action by a renegade few and the inconvenience to the public actually came with an apology and a clear - and viable explanation - that it was short term suffering for a brighter future.

And some may feel this is true. Those with Thai children can make a simple analysis - imagine the PAD win the struggle; how will Thailand be in thirty year's time? Will your children be better off? Now imagine if the DAAD win their objectives; would Thailand be ore democratically stable twenty years down the line? I believe it would.

Anyone who thinks I support or like Thaksin clearly has not read much of my previous work. Thaksin is interested only in his frozen assets and would be a dangerous man to have as PM, this is why it is crucial the red shirt faction grow to something bigger and more visionary than the return of Thaksin. They must expand to a true movement of people who wan a c lean democracy without interference, they must achieve this by weight of numbers and not weight of violence or burned buses. No other method can achieve a better future.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The day that never was

I don't like public speaking, in fact I get quite nervous when doing so, but I still volunteer whenever my school needs sometime to address parents or other public figures. I figure it's good practice for when I return home and enter politics.

Still, when my school told me yesterday that I was to literally take the stage alone and address all parents about the Songkran festival I was distinctly concerned, despite the hidden compliment. Firstly, although my vertigo has greatly subsided, it was not totally cleared up and a little stage fright could make it worse. More importantly though, the English in my statement had several faults and I was forbidden to correct it. This may seem strange to those who have never worked in Thailand but the rest will be neither surprised or lost for a guess as to how this could happen. Finally, I am always anxious about teaching Thai adults about their own customs.

I needn't have worried. Last night PM Aphisit declared today (Friday) a holiday to clear out the red shirt protests in Bangkok. The teachers in my school arrived for work anyway, but the students were not daft enough to pass up the chance for an extra holiday and those with a choice did not arrive. School - and my speech - were cancelled.

But this could be the beginning of something big. Thaksin's comments last night seem to have passed over as another rant. In fact, I found them to be the most blunt and revealing so far. Thaksin has already broken a key taboo by attacking a privy councillor but yesterday's remarks seemed even more surprising.

It's a truly compelling deadlock. The reds lack the support of elite institutions that so transparently aided the yellow shirts during their rampage that climaxed with the takeover of Bangkok airport, but the sheer number of red shirt protesters has clearly shaken the government. Whilst it remains unspoken, the reds have been notably lacking in certain accouterments that are usually obligatory in any gathering of Thais. There seems to have been a real change in the political thinking of some northern Thais and it's just possible that another military crackdown may not be able to quash the problem this time. Once freedom has been found, it can never be forgotten.