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"What Did You Expect?" Culture Shock in the Thai Classroom

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

One of the challenges of youth is the inability to imagine that the rest of the world is really all that different from one’s own experiences.  Of course, there are people out there who speak different languages, eat different food, and have different customs.  But at the end of the day, people are people no matter where you go.

At twenty three years of age, and with less than a year in country, I began teaching English as a Foreign Language to undergraduate students at a government college in Central Thailand.   As a native English speaker with a bachelor’s degree, landing the job was easy.  Figuring out what I was supposed to do was something else.

The school that I was teaching at seemed fairly similar to colleges I had gone to in the U.S. and in France (where I studied abroad for one year).  There were teachers, students, classrooms, syllabi, department heads, and grades.  A school is a school, after all.

My culture shock began well before the first day of class.  I had been assigned to teach “Listening and Speaking 2”.  After reading a vague catalog description of the class, I asked the department head what topics in particular I was expected to cover.  “Just get them talking in English” was the reply.  I pressed further, “What did the students cover in Listening and Speaking 1?  What will they cover in Listening and Speaking 3?”  Same answer, “Just get them talking in English.  Practice speaking and listening, but you don’t need to do grammar”.  I quickly saw that I was on my own here.  The foreign teacher who taught Listening and Speaking 1 was no longer at the school.  And he helpfully left behind no record of what he had done.  

My cold shower continued as my first year of teaching progressed. The whole class not showing up because another teacher needed them to prepare for the pep rally.  Blatant plagiarism. Students who were too shy to ever talk in our conversational English class.  More than half the class not completing assignments that we needed for an in-class activity. Tape players whose plugs did not stay in the electrical sockets.  The growing suspicion that students who failed my class were subsequently given a passing grade by the department.  The utter inability of my undergraduate students to summarize something they’ve read (they just strung together direct quotes).  

Many of my assumptions about how college in Thailand worked turned out to be wrong.  Extrapolating from my own experience, I had assumed that the Thai education system works basically the same as “back home”.  

My “trial-by-fire” first year of teaching in Thailand taught me a lot. While a teacher’s expectations of his students is important, I learned that the expectations of the students, the institution and broader culture are equally important, especially when teaching cross-culturally.  And it is also necessary to be flexible.  Very flexible.


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