Teaching Thailand #3: On Starting a New School Year

Every year since 2020 has seen months of delays and indecision with distance-learning ultimately winning out. With COVID-19 falling farther into the past, the one known fact in 2023 is that all of the government schools will begin classes on 15 May. It is just the contracts between the staffing agencies and the schools themselves that are as yet unsigned. Once that task is completed, the agencies can begin assigning teachers to the schools and the teachers can sign their employment contracts with the agencies — good for the full First Term Only.

Term 2 in 2021 at this school started two days before Christmas rather than the usual early or mid-November. It was in-person for about a week before reverting to online lessons due to yet another COVID-19 outbreak. This class had more than 50 students in it. It was difficult to get their nicknames although some put their student numbers in their LINE profile names, helping in taking attendance.

This is the Thai system and it can be nerve-wracking not knowing one’s school assignment until shortly before classes begin. In reality, few schools change agencies mid-year but it does happen occasionally. Last October, my agency was not even allowed to bid on the school contracts due to a clerical error. I had worked for them 12 years and suddenly found myself going to a rival agency in order to teach at a school during Term 2. I still don’t know if my new agency will successfully bid on the contract with this school for the upcoming school year; I hope so as I really like this school, the children, the parents, and the teachers. I expect the news to come within the next week or two.

Field trip to the zoo with my first Thai government school about 12 years ago.. Two of these girls still send me birthday greetings on Facebook every December, one is married with two lovely kids of her own and one is attending university here in Phuket with a Tourism and Hospitality major.

Even if I receive a different school assignment, I will be ready to enter a classroom from Day One to teach my students. I have been preparing since before the last school year finished.

But it has been a few years since I began a “normal” school year in an actual classroom. By normal, I mean one that has not been hampered by months of delays and one in which the children are actually at the school. Even before the pandemic, I was often brought into schools sometime after the start of a new term in order to replace a teacher who had not worked out for whatever reason. Teaching in Thai government schools is not for everybody! Often, this late start has meant that the Beginning of the Year Tasks are long past and I am forced to plunge right into the existing curriculum.

Starting late means something simple like learning the names of the students is made infinitely more difficult. More so as I am now almost exclusively teaching at the Kindergarten level. In Thailand, everyone is given a nickname shortly after birth:

The nicknames are often used more frequently than their real names. Parents, teachers, friends, and more will refer to them by this name. Nicknames are often one or two syllables long, making them much easier to say or write. In fact, some people may not even know their close friends’ “real” names. I have found that many of my students cannot even spell their long names in English; luckily, they are embroidered onto their school uniform shirts so they can refer to that when needed!

Thainess Part 6

I wrote the above about nicknames a few months ago in my “Thainess” series but left out the difficulty that can occur when trying to ask individual students their nicknames inside of classrooms. When I began teaching in the Thai government schools, the vast majority of the nicknames were English words associated with the parents of a child. Many girls had nicknames like April, May, June with Ploy being the most common non-English (but still easy) word. I had many boy students named Bank, Beer, Boom, Boss, and Gun. Later on, Man-U was a popular name for boys or girls (never knew a Liverpool or Barcelona, though!).

I never had a problem getting the names of adult students!

As time has marched on, however, an increasing number of the names are Thai and not so easy. If I ask kids on my first day in the classroom what their name is, I tend to struggle now with pronunciations and spellings. It is often difficult to hear the child’s response — there is always background noise in a Thai school (even if all the kids are absolutely silent) and many of them are nervous around the new (foreign) teacher upon their first encounter so they generally respond very quietly.

The older students are usually pretty good at giving their nicknames (volume levels better, for one thing) and, I have found, about half can actually spell it! All of them have a notebook, often with their name written on the front cover or first page in English (if the previous teacher had done that task). If I could not hear the child’s response after two or three attempts or could not work out a spelling, I would often check their notebook for verification. All of this does take a bit of time so I have to break it down in bits over several lessons to build up a list. Most schools would not provide any list of names until late in the term and often those would just have their proper names (long and in Thai, sometimes transliterated, sometimes still in Thai script — totally useless).

With the Kindergarteners, many of them are deathly afraid to say ANYTHING to the new (foreign) teacher upon their initial several encounters so getting their nicknames is a daunting process at best. If they do say something, it is a struggle to hear and then write it down correctly. Add in the 30-minute time crunch at my most recent school and it was a seemingly impossible task. Some of the Thai teachers did help me out (one in particular typed out a list keyed to the student numbers) and I got the names of the “trouble-makers” fairly quickly (teachers remember the names of kids that they have to constantly remind to be quiet or to sit down or whatever). Some names I did not get until it was time for the final exams!

Even when doing one-day fill-ins for sick teachers, I always start with a “What’s your name?” session.

Many years ago, when starting my second year at the same school I spent the first week of classes taking a head shot of each student. I would have the Thai teacher line them up based on their in-class student number and then would photograph each child (I taught Grades 1 through 6 at that school, most classes had around 30 students in each). I also had them make name placards to tape on the upper left corner of their desks — these had their student number plus their nickname. There was a Thai teaching assistant in most of the Lower Primary classrooms that helped with the spelling but most were fairly easy English names anyway at that time. I spent time before or after the classes writing those numbers and names into my notebook and later transferred this onto the photos I had taken of each child. Finally, I printed out these photos with their names as a contact sheet and laminated the resultant one or two pages per class. This was great as I used it as my attendance sheet; if a child was not in class on a particular day, I would put an “X” on their photo and later transfer this information into my Excel attendance log. I learnt their names easily by seeing the photo every time I took attendance and being able to read the name placards as I wandered through the classrooms during the lessons.

I would like to do something very similar at the start of this school year. I will take my photos of the kids during the first lesson. To save time, I might try a group photo and then cut out the individual faces if they are all clear. I will then begin the process of assigning the numbers and names; they do not have desks (just sit on the floor) so I cannot make the name placards but perhaps I can make a name necklace they can wear during the lessons. Could be a fun crafts project.

I have started buying very tiny notebooks (A7 size, I believe) for each of my students. I plan to affix their photo inside the front cover and write their nickname. I will use these to keep track of the various categories that we have to assess them on each term, namely comprehension, participation and behavior. I will have space for individual notes on each kid and, if they earn any stickers during the Term (well, they all do) I will affix those in the tiny notebook as well. My plan is to keep these in a box at my office desk and update them each day. At the end of the term, I will give these notebooks to the students to make room for the next term’s batch. By then, I will have transferred any information needed into our score sheets.

Tiny notebooks for the upcoming school year. I found these online (less than 2 THB each) but the seller sold-out before I had enough for all of my students. Once I find another source, I will purchase the balance.

Before the term begins, I will have an empty chart with numbers in one column and spaces for the nicknames in the second column. Once I get my actual school assignment, I hope I can go up to the school before classes begin and start asking the Thai teachers for assistance in listing the nicknames.

As 15 May — the first day of the school year — is a Monday, we will teach our full schedule of lessons right from Week One (many terms will have the first day on a Tuesday or Wednesday which I have always disliked). Thus, my first week would look something like this (provided I am in the same school):

Pre-K (1)1 Lesson: Hello, What’s your name? (student photos, ask Thai teacher for help in putting the kids in numerical order)
Pre-K (2)1 Lesson: Hello, What’s your name? (ditto)
K1 (three classrooms)Lesson 1: Hello, What’s your name? (ditto) + Curriculum Lesson 1 (Introductions)
Lesson 2: Alphabet – Letter “A”
K2 (three classrooms)Lesson 1: Hello, What’s your name? (ditto) + Curriculum Lesson 1 (Greetings + What’s that?)
Lesson 2: Alphabet – Letter “A”
K3 (three classrooms)Lesson 1: Hello, What’s your name? (ditto) + Curriculum Lesson 1 (Nice to meet you)
Lesson 2: Role-Plays — Nice to meet you; Curriculum Lesson 2 (What’s that?)
Lesson 3: Alphabet – Letter “A”

New Year 2023 luncheon with K3 students.

I will adapt the process of getting the photos to fit the curriculum goals in the K1, K2 and K3 lessons. Each of these are different ways of greeting or introducing oneself with the K3 lesson to include a third person (“Who’s that?” “That’s my friend, (name).” “Nice to meet you.”). I hope to have time for at least a few role-plays starting with the very first lesson as this will be one way in which I can get the kids to move about the classrooms without playing a full-blown game. This is a routine I hope to include in most lessons as well so the children soon become comfortable talking in English rather than just repeating vocabulary words en masse.

Starting with Week Two, I will probably flip the Alphabet lesson to the first lesson of the week with the Conversation as the second and third lessons, reinforced by Alphabet review and practice (with games!).

COVID Kindergarten class in Kok Kloy.

This is a lot to pack into 30-minute lessons, especially considering that each class begins with a “Hello Song” which involves the kids singing and dancing a bit. I hope to find a similarly upbeat “Goodbye Song” or at least a fun chant to end lessons with. Once we get into the flow of things and with proper time management, those 30 minutes should be just long enough. The unknown factor is that some students have a tendency to want to act out when a foreign teacher arrives. I have been in schools where the Thai teachers actually have told the students that the English lesson is “free time”. Thankfully, this was not the case at my school last term. Some time might be wasted when children would rather run around than pay attention but the goal is to quickly minimize this type of behavior.

Alright. I have now written three lengthy articles giving my background teaching in Thailand (16 years this month!), my thoughts on the importance of teaching the English alphabet, and my gameplans for teaching Letter Recognition as well as quickly learning the names of my students. That means that it is time to start presenting some of the materials I will use in the upcoming school year.

I have boxes full of flashcards and games created in previous years but I always make new materials each year. I like to individualize them for a particular school and its often unique curriculum. By annually making new things to use in the classroom, I am able to better remember exactly what I have for any given lesson. Also, I really enjoy the creation process. If I plan ahead and make as much as I can before the term actually begins, then I can relax most evenings rather than spending them creating materials for an upcoming week. If I am called upon to do something else (invariably with very little notice), than I have time to concentrate on the unexpected assignment as I am already prepared for my regular schedule.

The next posts will showcase what I have made for the new school year. I hope to keep the commentary down to the bare minimum (hooray!).

Look for Teaching Thailand #4: “Greetings & Introductions” very soon…

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