Natalie Laing clutches her attendance binder and steps into her weekly English classroom. She sets up her whiteboard, takes a deep breath and turns around to face her class. She is prepared to teach, and yet the only thing greeting her are rows of empty desks.
“I feel constantly disappointed whenever I walk into one of my classes, expecting class, but have no students show up,” Laing said.
“I came to Thailand thinking I would be making a large and positive impact on my students, but instead I find myself frustrated at how little they actually care about what I’m teaching.”
Her seemingly busy schedule has dwindled, as only around 50 percent of her classes actually show up. On any given day, she is almost guaranteed to have one entire class not show up.
Even though Laing’s story is just one extreme incident from a school in rural Phetchabun about six hours north of Bangkok, it is far from an uncommon tale, and is not the only tale being told.
Stories of students coming to class only for the air conditioner, showing up without books or any other materials, and stories of kids yelling at foreign teachers is commonplace.
The lack of motivation Thai students have for learning English is reflected not only in classrooms across Thailand, but it is also prominent in several international studies.
The EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) ranks countries according to their English proficiency.
Data from more than 910,000 adults who took the company’s online English tests in 2014 show that out of the 70 countries ranked, Thailand falls, disappointingly, at number 62, making it the third worst Asian country in English proficiency.
If you are not first, you are last, and if you are eighth to last, you have to question why. Especially when neighboring Asian countries such as Singapore and Malaysia have achieved much higher ratings.
Some might attribute the wide proficiency variance between neighboring nations to the fact that Asia is one of the most populous regions in the study, thus producing the most diverse results. Others might wonder why Thailand’s English proficiency can’t even compete with its neighbors.
Thailand’s dismal English ranking is far from a new trend, however, and many foreign English teachers throughout the Kingdom are coming to the same conclusion: Thai students are lacking serious incentives to learn English, which is reflected in the way foreign English teachers are being treated.
So now we have a picture of what is going on in many of the foreign teacher’s classes, how about the Thai teachers’ classrooms? Are they facing the same problems?
In my experience and research, the answer is no.
Walk into a Thai teacher’s classroom and you are likely to find students sitting upright, being quiet and attentively listening to everything the teacher is saying.
Perhaps it has something to do with the corporal punishment many Thai teachers arm themselves with when a student acts up. Whether or not that does have an effect, however, I think it is safe to say that the majority of Thai students interest lies in classes other than English.
The ‘no fail’ policy Thailand has in place isn’t helping, either. While I feel that there are better motivators to learn than fear of failing a class or being held back in school, it’s apparent that the widespread student acknowledgment of the no fail policy leaves many of them with an attitude towards education that can lead to almost nothing but failure.
What is the point of encouragement if students know that they will pass onto the next grade no matter how much or how little effort they put into their schooling? It is no wonder Laing’s students never came to class.
The education system in which students are so happy to mosey their way through is failing them; the irony here being that they can not fail.
The English teachers themselves are only adding to the problem. Most Thai students learn English from teachers whose first language is anything but. Teaching focuses on grammar, as opposed to conversational English, which is just as important.
Many schools are bringing in and utilizing foreign teachers, such as myself, to teach English as a second language. While this is effective, there can be a disconnect due to the language barrier between the school and the teacher; most foreigners know only a handful of Thai words, especially when they are just getting started.
The curriculum itself can be unclear, and some foreign teachers are oftentimes thrown into Thai classrooms with nothing but a TESOL or TEFL certificate in hand and a chalkboard to work with.
Regardless of potential language barriers, some Thai students just don’t understand the global importance of the English language.
“In Phetchabun, there is no need for English because everyone speaks Thai,” Laing said.
“None of my students have ever been on a plane, a lot of them have never even been so far as Bangkok, so conversational English is basically just the bottom of the barrel.”
As an English teacher, I can only hope to pinpoint some of the blockades to an education system that is responsible for the entire youth of a nation.
Despite preparing materials for every lesson, researching new content and spending hours crafting fun and interesting classroom activities to make my students’ education that much more enjoyable, there is only so much I can do before I have to think that the problem is bigger than something one teacher can fix.
Can teachers find a happy medium in a flawed grading system?
Some students enjoy the dependability of a numerical grade, while others are much more receptive to more comprehensive teacher analysis, such as feedback and comments aimed towards personal student development.
If teachers could better gauge how much or how little a student is learning, they could better develop strategies for each individual student. Some would even argue that a simple letter grade is not enough to effectively gauge and develop student comprehension anyway.
Education administrators in the U.S are considering these very notions right now.
Many U.S. states are making incredible changes to their grading systems, according to an August 19, 2015 neaToday article titled, “Are Letter Grades Failing Our Students?”
Some schools are utilizing standards-based grades, which are designed to measure students’ proficiencies on strict course objectives as opposed to slapping letter grades onto a report card. The state of Kentucky was the first of its kind to attempt the statewide reform in 2013. Two report cards were sent home: one with letter grades and the other showing how proficient a student was in a variety of subjects, including reading and writing.
Similarly, school districts in Colorado want to get rid of ‘D’s’ in their grading system, and Virginia is trying to reevaluate what an ‘F’ letter grade really means.
While a student in these courses could still potentially fail, they are given grades that have some substance to them as opposed to just a letter.
A no fail policy has the potential to create an utter lack of interest, but a grading policy that encourages students when they succeed and comes up with solutions for failures seems much more constructive than a letter grade could ever be.
Why it’s important
According to the Authority on World Travel & Tourism, 14.1 percent of employment in Thailand is supported by the travel and tourism industry, which totalled around 5,383,000 jobs in 2014. This number is expected to continue to grow to an estimated 8,140,000 jobs by 2025.
One of the key components to landing such a job in this growing industry is being able to speak and understand the English language. If Thailand’s English language proficiency continues to landslide in the rankings, there will be more lost, frustrated tourists trying to explore a country where the tourism industry is simply lacking in quality.
There is no denying that for Thai students, knowledge of the English language can be a ladder to a more prosperous life, even outside of the tourism industry. Businesses are no longer staying inside their borders. Employment opportunities are transcending boundaries, and the workforce is becoming more global each day.
Unless something in the Thai education system changes, the next generation of Thai youths may have these opportunities slip between the rungs and go to their Asian neighbors instead.
Photos by Kelly Iverson