English: Lost in translation

We should educate foreign teachers instead of funding vanity trips for students, says Vivien Zhu

Photo: Vivien Zhu

You might expect to ask a child something like “You like apple?”, “Where do you live?” or “What’s your favourite colour?” Alas, I was not speaking to a child but a fully grown man. In fact, he was a Thai English teacher. Only 21 years old and barely out of uni, he was being entrusted with the education of English for a hundred 4-12 year-olds. Yet he could barely string together a coherent sentence himself.

Teaching and education is a cycle. One generation teaches another and the knowledge they have obtained is then passed down. For Thailand, however, that is where the problem lies. Thai teachers are being taught at universities by teachers who themselves were taught badly, and they then go on to teach their own students poorly, and the vicious cycle repeats itself.

Before I started teaching, I was told to shadow the Thai teacher, and from this, I could clearly see the problems teachers and students faced when I wasn’t around.

Frequently it seemed like he had no idea what he was teaching. One lesson plan he handed me was titled “Love is…” and under vocabulary were words like ‘bend over’ and ‘rub’, which made me wonder what he had typed into Google to get the lesson plan. The lessons themselves were formulaic and draining. It was no wonder these children weren’t retaining much of the English they had learnt.

For the most part, money was the main obstacle for solving these problems. The schools did not have the funds to hire better teachers or buy better teaching resources. Western teachers would naturally demand higher wages than Thai ones and some Thai teachers couldn’t even search for better teaching resources because of their poor English. Some schools were particularly bad: another English teacher reported their school needed fundraising events and people would donate money for the poorer kids to attend school.

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The situation had become so dire that Westerners were now paying the schools to allow them to teach English, which is exactly what I did. I was meant to be the magical solution, yet it feels like I barely made a dent. Before I arrived, there had already been two cycles of English teaching interns before me in the academic year and even more since the programme started.

To the western teachers, the whole teaching-English-abroad thing is a novelty, a ‘gap yah’ thing, and it’s how people ‘discover themselves’ over the summer. Yes, they go with the right intentions, but whose recollection of their experience focuses on the teaching rather than the novelty of it? Couldn’t the money they paid be spent better elsewhere?

Our money should be spent not on sending more Western teachers to teach the students themselves, but to educate the Thai English teachers so they can continue teaching children a good standard of English even when there are no Westerners around, breaking free of the vicious cycle.

Being a teacher comes with great responsibility, and a heavy burden should you fail. Thus, we should stop treating the teaching experience as if it were a novelty and properly invest in our children’s futures.