Volunteer in Thailand with Friends for Asia

Teaching Monks – Advice

Advice from Successful Volunteers – Teaching Monks Volunteer Project

The following are excerpts from the Volunteer Reports of four volunteers who successfully completed the Teaching Monks Project. The names of the volunteer who wrote the info is not listed and in most cases the names of the schools and teachers that volunteers worked with have been removed or replaced with “…”.

Volunteer 1

Things that went really well / Things you recommend future volunteers to do in your project/school/placement: Teaching at Wat …and the working environment with the other English teachers and staff there went very well. Everyone was extremely helpful and respectful there, as was the Friends for Asia staff. The classes were fun to teach because the students engaged more with me, than it seems the other teachers allow them to, i.e. allowing them to write on the board. I would recommend a far larger amount of student participation in class, because the other students attain encouragement from their classmates and become less shy when they see their friends participating in class and writing on the board. Also, I would recommend doing what you can to become friendly with the other English teachers, no matter what school you are sent to; this way they get to use their English more and improve on it, and they become more comfortable with asking you for help in making lessons, exams, etc. If you are at a placement for more than just a few weeks, you should try to really get to know your students as well. Learning their names and talking with them during lunch and free times can be a great experience for you as much as it can be for them. I became friendly with some of the students at … and helped tutor them before their exams for university entry, and a few will be headed to Chiang Mai University and another university in Bangkok. Remember when teaching also, that you were once a student. Teach how you wish you were taught a foreign language at that age. Try not to make it about boring memory and topics they may not understand. Try to understand Thai culture and what their interests are, this will make you think of different ways to teach a lesson. All of the students will be at different levels of English skills as well, regardless of what grade they are in. That is something to keep in mind, so you do not expect the same from all of your students. Be aware that some will have difficulties and some will just not be interested, but just go along with the lesson and do not let that get to you. Have fun, keep smiling, and do whatever you can in the limited time you have teaching, because even 6 months was not enough.

Things that didn’t go so well / Things you do not recommend future volunteers to do in your project/school/placement: The only thing that was difficult was the constant change in schedule with the school’s days off. I understand they make it up as they go along, but it would be nice if they could give you a schedule or for you to ask for one from each school so there is a general idea of when there will be time off. Also, do not talk about back home, unless the students ask you about what it is like. You do not want to sound like you are better than them or come from somewhere better.

Comments / Other Suggestions: Understand that you are in Thailand and not everything will go perfectly or as expected. Be patient, flexible and easygoing. There is no reason to be angry or in a bad mood in Thailand, as it is the land of smiles. Enjoy your time and take things as they come. Make friends with the teachers and students at your school. Also, try to engage with people from your school outside of school time. I was able to go out with some of the other teachers at … and it was a lot of fun for me. Do not just go there and leave like it’s a regular, miserable job. Try to teach for 8 weeks or more, it makes a big difference in your experience with the students, school, and classes.

Volunteer 2.

Things that went really well / Things you recommend future volunteers to do in your project/school/placement: First of all, I want to say that teaching at … has been an absolutely wonderful experience. I didn’t really have any expectations of how it was gonna be, also because I had never taught before in my entire life, but working at … was greater than I wished for. The way the teachers and novices treated me was amazing. I was a little hesitant at first, because even though I knew a lot about Buddhism already, I didn’t know much about the rules of interaction with the monks and novices. Turns out; there aren’t really any strict rules. Not for foreigners at least. As long as you’re polite and smile a lot, they won’t hold anything against you. When I ‘wai-ed’ them, they would wave back, when I said hi, they would wai; it all didn’t really make any sense. The only thing that’s important to remember, especially if you’re a woman, is to not touch them. But the distance that comes with that, is totally taken away by their friendliness.

I taught … classes during my volunteering at …. The four classes that I taught, I saw four times a week. The classes are pretty crowded; about 30 to 40 students per class. … is a great guy. In between classes, he taught me a lot about Buddhism, Thai language and Thai culture. Sometimes it’s hard to understand what he’s saying, but once you get used to his way of speaking English it gets easier. Another teacher at the school I hung out with a lot was …. His English is really good, but he’s shy about it so you might have to ask him to talk louder.

Things that didn’t go so well / Things you do not recommend future volunteers to do in your project/school/placement: …, even though he’s really nice, left me pretty much in the dark when it came to teaching his classes. He would prepare a class for me sometimes, but most of the time he left it all up to me. My lack of teaching experience made it even more difficult. What’s most important to keep in mind when you’re teaching is that the students already know a lot of words and grammar. They even know how to spell the words right. But the thing that’s most challenging for them is pronunciation and having an actual conversation in English. Try to have as many conversations with them as you can and make them speak English out loud. Don’t let them get away with ‘I don’t know, I don’t know’. It’s not gonna be easy, because they are very shy, but speaking English is gonna help them way more in life than to know grammar or how to spell words right.

Besides the novices there are also regular boys (they call them ‘the boys’) going to school at …. The difference between teaching novices and teaching boys is huge. Where the novices are polite, listening carefully to what you’re saying, eager to learn and disciplined, most of the boys are all over the place and bouncing off the walls. It’s hard to get their attention, especially on days that the school would be busy preparing for some event that was coming up (and Wat … has a lot of those). But even though the boys are not easy to control, you’re gonna love them all once you get to know them better.

Comments / Other Suggestions: Though I was supposed to teach for two months, I only really taught for three weeks in total. You have to keep in mind that this is Thailand. The schools here have a lot of holidays. Sometimes there would be a teachers meeting in the morning, in which they would decide that the school would be closed the whole next week. Surprise!.. I didn’t let it bother me too much, because there’s really nothing you can do about it. Just make the best of it; go to Pai a few days, hang out in the city, just enjoy the free time.

What’s great about Wat …is that it’s the largest temple in northern Thailand (don’t forget to check out all the temples around the school and ask … to tell you about them, he wants to be a tour guide in the future). Next to that; … with “many” is probably the largest temple school. Because of that, there are a lot of things going on at the school besides providing education. There are sports events, Buddhist events, dinner parties, national holiday’s celebrations and more like that. Participate in these events as much as you can. It’s a good way to get to know the students and teachers better and to get to know more about Thai culture.

Volunteer 3.

Things that went really well / Things you recommend future volunteers to do in your project/school/placement:

When volunteering at … Temple School, your responsibilities can range from assisting the teacher, to running every class alone. I was not placed with one teacher at the beginning of my service, but I ended up assisting Ajaan … (his English is very good) for the majority of time at …. He planned the lessons, and would tell me the day before what he would be teaching, and I would follow his lead in the classroom. But I have also been told to teach a class with no assistance and with only five minutes notice by other English teachers, so it’s good to have a few ideas ready. If you will be teaching solo, I have found that the most successful lessons are the ones that are practical to their daily lives. Lessons dealing with money, time, food, and speaking with foreigners were the ones that they really enjoyed. The boys and novices also responded well, and actively participated when they were put into teams, and given points for correct answers. (The monks didn’t mind that the novices were competing). The students at … are good spirited, and have a good sense of humour. There are a few students that are very interested in studying English, and want to practice speaking with you. Once they warm up to you, you’ll have students stopping you in the halls to talk to you, and coming to speak with you on their spare.

Things that didn’t go so well / Things you do not recommend future volunteers to do in your project/school/placement:

My experience at … has been fantastic, however, to avoid frustration it is important to be patient with the students and teachers. The schools don’t run like clockwork, so you need to be flexible and adjust to the needs of the school. The students talk a lot in the class, but I found the best way to control the class is to prepare a really active and dynamic class that involves a combination of speaking and note taking.

Comments / Other Suggestions:

… is a very busy school. There are always activities and events taking place at the school. I would definitely suggest taking part in all the activities the school has to offer. There are parades, and sports days, and dinner parties. I really felt part of the school community and accepted by the other teachers. It is a good way to learn about Thai people.

Volunteer 4.

Things that went really well / Things you recommend future volunteers to do in your project/school/placement:

The teachers at … are the friendliest and nicest group of people you would ever want to meet. They will do everything reasonable (within their power) to make your stay and work pleasant. I worked mainly with Ajaan …, and he couldn’t have been nicer. He took us on a tour of several areas of Chiang Mai, and I leave considering him a personal friend (we would sing Elvis Presley songs after lunch, etc). On a professional level, he showed me his lesson plans and curriculum, and I think he has set up a really good English program. I taught with him and think he is a very good teacher. Also, for “Westerners”, his spoken English is the best of all of the teachers – not quite as good as the school’s director (sorry, his name escapes me, if I ever knew it), but better than the two other English teachers, Ajaan … and Ajaan … (both of whom were hard for me to understand), so try to use him to communicate with others at the school. He will be helpful.

The students are wonderful. Don’t mistake their initial discomfort with you for misbehavior. I made that mistake, but soon learned that they are just teenage boys who are very nervous around you. Nearly all of them want to learn English badly. Know that if you are from the “West”, the students do not really understand you very well, because the other English teachers’ accents are so different from yours. Plus, the other teachers fall back on using Thai in the classroom (something that I wish they wouldn’t do, but would probably also do if I could). Try to learn some of the students’ names (I was only here for 2 weeks, so I didn’t learn enough, but wish I had learned more).

My advice is to try to get the teacher you are working under to give you his/her lesson plan (yes, they do have one – … seems to be better than other schools in doing so), and then add your own stuff to it. I would NOT recommend trying to come up with your own curriculum at this school. It is just too difficult to know the students’ level of English, and it is taught so differently here. I realize that this approach might require you to approach the teacher and “request” a conference, and they might resist it, but in my opinion, your input to the teachers (whether they want it or not) could be as valuable as teaching the students. I don’t think that this will be that difficult, but of course, I didn’t do it, so it is easy for me to advise this.

In addition to the workbooks, I tried several methods of student involvement – one being to divide the class into “lions” and “tigers” and have group answer sessions / interactions. Yes, it was somewhat competitive, a concept that I would not particularly endorse and one that the school probably didn’t care for, but one that worked. Blank stares from the students didn’t do it for me, so I improvised, and it worked for a while. Other techniques, such as talking about my home town and country, were less effective, since the students didn’t understand me and have such limited knowledge about the rest of the world (I don’t think they formally study world history or geography). If I was here longer, I would have to come up with more “gimmicks”. But keep in mind that any “gimmicks” I used were used mainly in the context of their curriculum.

Be yourself. If you want coffee, just go and make it (they will show you how). If you want to see the Art Room (fantastic artwork, don’t miss it), just go in.

Try to eat and socialize with the other teachers. At …, several teachers spend the morning cooking (no teaching!); try to assist if you know how to use a knife well. Generally, the lunches are good, but be prepared for floating fish heads in the soup. It might be a good idea to take a snack, just in case.

Things that didn’t go so well / Things you do not recommend future volunteers to do in your project/school/placement:

In my opinion, this teaching is very difficult and demanding work. You should be commended. I have taught before in the U.S., and it is nothing like this. While well intentioned, I don’t believe the other teachers realize how hard it is for those not currently teaching, or for those who do not speak Thai (to fall back on). I taught five straight classes for two days, and it was physically and mentally exhausting. I only did it “in a pinch”, but would not do it again. If you are faced with such a dilemma for a longer period of time, graciously decline (in the Thai way) in you are not up to it. Do not allow yourself to be overworked.

On the other hand, I saw evidence that in some cases, they will not utilize a teacher to the extent appropriate for someone who is donating their time and has flown thousands of miles. Do not allow them (within reason) to waste your time.

All of this points toward better communication and a better sense of both parties’ expectations. Confronting these expectations is not “Thai-like”, and it will be difficult, but if there are any problems with your service, I think that this issue will be at the crux of them. I realize that we are not here to change anything or tell them how we do it in the West, but I believe some degree of organization of your duties will not be the bane of Thai culture.

The canceling of classes or other disruptions will happen; they did not bother me. Expect them. They like for you to grade papers, but there is little direction on how to do it. Don’t belabor the point, just do the best you can, and that will be good enough.