I had my TEFL 100-hr certificate and my Younger Learner certificate. My roommate had neither, but we were on our way to a small town in Thailand together to try our hands at teaching English for a week during our winter break. A close family friend arranged for us to stay with him and teach in the high school right across the street from his house. Our responsibility was to tail one specific teacher for the week and guest teach her classes.
Sue was awesome. She was the cutest and friendliest teacher you could ask for, a little old Thai lady with an infectiously happy demeanor who seemed to be able to make friends with all of her students. I don’t know if it is a Thai thing or if it was just Sue, but she was very touchy-feely with her students, always giving them pats on the back and hugs and posing for pictures. On the first day we met her, she gave my roommate Simone and I coffee mugs as a gift and showed us where the coffee machine was in the English office. She gave us a tour of the school and print outs of our schedules, then told us to meet her the next morning so we could start teaching.
The next morning, we stood in front of our first class of teenage Thai students with microphones and introduced ourselves. Sue hadn’t given us any instructions, so we didn’t know where to go from there. From her seat among the students, she told us to talk about American culture. So we did. At first we were slow, taking our time to try to figure out what they would be interested in and didn’t already know, but it got easier and easier and for the rest of the week we never ran out of material. We talked about American pop culture, things that surprised us in Thailand, food, traditions, clothing, music and slang. The kids loved learning slang. And so did Sue- she and the class would get so excited by new phrases like whats up? and cool and then the class would repeat them after us, after Simone and I used them in real world examples.
There were so many things we taught them that we never really thought about before- things that as an American, you hear or experience a hundred times a day and take for granted. There is the fact that young people say like instead of um- like thats like so like totally cool. And there is another strange use of like- people use it instead of said. So we had to communicate to the Thai students that if a young American says John was like Ill see you later, it means John said Ill see you later.’
We taught the students about weddings and funerals, that if somebody asks you whats up or how are you, they don’t really want to know, and probably most importantly we warned the boys of the major fashion faux-pas of wearing too-short shorts. What the girls were most interested in, on the other hand, was Twilight. They asked us about Robert Pattinson and burst into fits of giggles at the mere mention of his name. We passed around our Ipods and some dollar bills and US coins, and the kids laughed while I sang and danced to Michael Jackson.
It was really interesting being on the other side of the language learning experience. I am a long time language learner- I studied Spanish from 6th grade until my first year in college, then German for a few years, as well as a semester of Italian and one of Russian. I’m teaching myself French now with Rosetta Stone. So I know exactly what it is like to learn a language, but still it always makes me nervous to talk to native speakers. As a teacher though, I realized how little it actually matters how smoothly you speak another language, as long as you have a few basic vocabulary words to string some sentences together. A lot of the students were too shy to speak English in front of the class, but many of the ones who did honestly didn’t speak very well technically. But for communication purposes, they did really well. They were able to get their points across enough to ask questions and make comments, and only a few times did Sue have to translate to proper English for me and Simone.
Our Thai students are some of the friendliest people I have ever met. Many of them approached us to ask for our contact information, and some students who weren’t even in any of our classes came up to us just so they could have the experience of talking to Americans. A few of our students took us on tours of their town and the neighboring temples, gave us the experience of horse and buggy rides through town, and taught us about spiritual Thai traditions, which we then participated in.
I feel like I need to mention one more thing. The first time we took a picture with all of our students we got a big laugh out of it. Within a few seconds, literally, of us asking if we could take a picture, every student in the room had formed a picture-perfect pyramid of smiling faces with a spot left open at the front for me and Simone. It was like they had rehearsed this a hundred times just for the occasion.
If you are looking to teach English as a foreign language (TEFL), consider Thailand. The people are friendly, everything is cheap, and the pictures come out awesome.