Teaching in Thailand: Discipline Problems in the Classroom

For the past few years, I have been teaching EFL to fifth graders in a Thailand school. It has been a very interesting and rewarding experience; however, I have lately come to the conclusion that in many classes my presence in the classroom is more of that as a policeman than as a teacher. After first describing my classroom environment and culture as well as influences on students, I will detail discipline policing actions in many of my classrooms which take precious time away from teaching and learning.

The classroom environment and culture of the EFL school in Thailand where I teach is diverse and challenging. For starters, there are 42 students packed into a small classroom in almost half of the classes I teach. There isn’t much room for the students to move around, much less adequate space for the teacher’s desk and chair in front of the class. Although an optimum class size for instruction would be no more than 20 students, the school obviously would make less money with half as many students.

My students are all girls and as fifth graders they are either 10 or 11 years of age. Most of the girls are from upper-class families of Thai-Chinese ethnicity.

The biggest challenge is that all classes are of mixed ability. This streamlining of all abilities has been in effect for the past few years due to parents’ objections of grouping students by ability and previous academic performance. A streamlined class will include the gifted and talented, average, academically challenged working below grade level, and students with special needs such as dyslexia, autism, and attention deficit disorder.

As 10 and 11-year-old kids, there will also be students of different physical maturation. Some of the girls have already entered puberty and seem almost physically grown up. Others seem like peanuts and are about as big as first or second graders. This presents other challenges in the class for physical and emotional reasons.

In addition to the classroom environment and culture, students are also the recipients of other influences from the school, Thai society, and their homes. School influences include holding all core subject classes in the students’ homerooms, the policy of passing all students, and not paying attention to starting classes on time.

With the exception of art, music, computer science, and physical education classes, all core subjects like math, English, and science are held in the students’ homerooms which teachers visit on a regular schedule. Since it is their homeroom, students have regular access to all of their art and music supplies which are at times used as distractions in class.

Sanctioned by the Ministry of Education, all schools must pass all students regardless of whether they are attaining the minimum passing score of 50 percent. Since all students know they can not fail, many are lazy and unwilling to do classwork and homework.

Another bad influence is the policy of not beginning classes on time. Classes for the third and fifth periods which follow the morning recess and lunch hour respectively are consistently 10 minutes late in starting. This is due to the policy of students waiting for a song to be played to call them for assembly and then to go to class. Unfortunately, the song is not played far enough in advance to allow the students sufficient time to make it up to their classrooms. Time is not valued in Thailand as it is in the West; consequently, many students waste it and don’t value it in the classroom.

Finally, many of the parents don’t insist that their kids practice English at home. For many of the students, the only English they actively use is in the classroom. It seems that English is not spoken outside of class.

Classroom environment and culture and influences on the students have led to the teacher taking an increased discipline policing action in the classroom. These actions include:

1. Making Sure Students Are All in Their Seats and Not Tardy

The teacher has no control over whether a class starts at 10:20 or 1:00 after the third and fifth periods. School administration controls this by playing a song to call students to class. What the teacher must police, however, is making sure that all students promptly sit at their desks upon entering the classroom, and that there are no stragglers who are tardy. At times there are students who are wandering around the room or talking to their friends. These kids have to be ordered to take their seats.

2. Make Sure Students Have Learning Materials and Open Books to Assigned Classwork

After the students are seated and give a customary greeting to the teacher, the instructor has to ensure that every student first has her books or notebook needed for the lesson, and then to check whether every pupil has her book open to the assignment of the day. It never fails that a few students don’t bring their books to class. They must be ordered to share a book with their seated partner and warned not to forget their book next time. Other students who have their books don’t open them immediately. This being the case, I must walk around the room and stop at each desk to ensure that every student is complying with my order. At least five minutes of instruction time is lost here. The assigned page is written boldly on the board, but it never fails that some students will still ask me for the assigned book page.

3. Confiscate Material Not Related to Lesson

It’s amazing the amount of non-related lesson material I confiscate during most classes. During every English class, there will always be some students doing other homework such as math, history, Thai, or Chinese. Students who aren’t doing other homework will be drawing pictures, playing with toys, using their camera, reading comic books, or doing an art project by cutting colored paper with scissors.

4. Keeping The Attention of All Students

If students don’t consider something to be fun, you will lose their attention, and they will entertain themselves by doing something else. If the teacher can’t make something fun, he or she must constantly call on and single out the inattentive students.

5. Make Sure Students Stay in Their Seats and Don’t Hide on The Floor

Some of my students have extremely short attention spans and think it is alright to be constantly out of their seats during class time. A few that do get out of their seat during class without me noticing them will try to hide on the floor behind desks in the back of the classroom. It is the teacher’s duty to catch these transgressors and ensure that they stay at their desks.

6. Make Students Participate in Class and Do In-Class Assignments

In almost every one of my classes, it is the few smartest kids who monopolize class discussion and have millions of questions and answers while classwork is done. The other students sit passively without participating. Some don’t even open their books to do assignments. In situations like this, I will play a game by throwing a cloth ball and having other students throw the ball to unwilling students. If the ball touches an unwilling student, she must go to the board to answer a question. During written assignments at their desk, I must walk around the room and patrol, making sure that every student is at least trying to do the assignment.

When I started teaching kids EFL in Thailand, I never realized that I would have to do so much discipline police work in the class. Although this police work isn’t necessary for my smaller, better classes, it is still something that demands a lot of time and effort in other classes. Obviously, there is very little time left for instruction.