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Part 4: Challenges for a “Non-native” (L2) ESL Teacher

by: Rolly Obedencio, ang ating ULIRANG GURO in Thailand
** Part 1
** Part 2
** Part 3

Another trying experience was on the use of educational technology. My boss provided the teachers the needed facilities and equipment, like built-in moving LCD, projectors, computers and other high-tech gadgets. The money and effort spent rippled back as many of the students became motivated to study the moment my class period would come. Their language skills significantly developed as indicated in their achievement progress report.
As a result, the most daring experience was when my boss at this first school gave me the credits, confidence and recommendation to train a group of top 50 Thai ESL teachers reviewing for their national test, using their material on phonology from the British Council, with those audio-visual electronic devices. (I wondered why my boss preferred me to seven L1 teachers in teaching phonology. I entertained the thought that, perhaps, they were busy finishing the students’ marks). I was impressed how good those Thai teachers were at producing British sounds. That week-long review workshop sponsored by E.R.I.C towards the end of the school year was worth attending, since I learned a lot from them, too.
Knowing my financial constraints, my boss was so nice to me to suggest that I find a part-time job around. I found one at a language school. The owner was a very kind Chinese Thai. We had different levels of learners—students and professionals. This business-oriented school gave a chance to L2 ESL teachers, especially Filipinos.
I got a much better offer from one of the Catholic schools towards the fourth quarter of 2006. I felt, however, I had to finish the whole year as indicated in the contract. Besides, the relationship I established with my boss was a test whether to leave or not. It was hard to say goodbye to the former one, but I had to, since my family needed this new one. It was a different challenge here than before.
Language barrier is has been a big test for me at this new school this year 2007. I don’t have a Thai counterpart with me to translate some words and ideas. I haven’t learned much Thai, since the previous school was so strict in speaking only English once we were within the school premises. My partner is also a foreign teacher. Both of us have to divide the class into two smaller ones and teach them just by ourselves. I have to use every means available—a real EFL/ESL teaching, which is short of the comfort I was used to at the previous government school. There isn’t any better technology than the former school. I have to use the conventional way: whiteboard, marker, photos, and other audio-visual materials that take a week or two to request. Besides other aids, I have to use my own notebook computer to present in small classes of about sixteen to 20 students per class.
There are more foreign teachers, about fifty, at this new school. Most of the teachers are Filipinos. There is a challenge as to how I relate myself to each of them. There is a big tendency to speak in our vernacular once I’m with them on campus, even if our head had announced to speak English at school, especially in front of the students, faculty and parents. On one hand, I’m cautious not to be ostracized by fellow Filipinos and branded a half-cooked Filipino-American (“Fil-Am”). On the other hand, I’m careful of not losing my job, since some of my boss’ staff members sometimes show some questionable stare to any foreign teacher who speaks any vernacular. These Thai staff members were just silent, but I have been wondering what has been going on in their minds.
After midterm, my foreign co-teacher and I were busy calculating the marks of the students. While he was encoding the marks into the computer, our Thai coordinator, who happened to be seated next to him, kept on telling him to doctor the marks to pass the students. I couldn’t believe what I saw with my two eyes. I was told by my other co-teacher not to intervene, or I would be history like the previous teacher the last year. I couldn’t understand this system. To me it’s grave dishonesty. Trying to understand that system led me into internet search and I have figured out that there is such “No Fail” policy among primary and secondary schools, and that the same problems many of the foreign teachers encounter at their respective schools. I later understood that the “no fail” policy is for special case with special students—students with learning disabilities. However, the way it is implemented by some Thai teachers seems questionable, in that, able students are given passing marks too when they failed the tests because of their negligence to study or do the tests. I have observed that students don’t dare to strive during midterm and final tests, because they know they are not going to fail the test anyway. I don’t see any feeling of urgency on the part of the Matthayom 2 and 3 students to strive or pass the tests. It seems that tests or exams don’t mean anything to them but just an ordinary daily activity. They even sleep during tests. Some students noisily play some musical instruments, or throw balls inside the classroom. Some do some makeup on their faces in front of their mirror for the whole period. They keep on cheating openly no matter how I warn them not to. After three times of warning, I couldn’t help but take some action, by getting some test papers and let them retake in our faculty office. I’m not sure what’s going on in the minds of these fourteen and sixteen year old students.
Recently, a group of Thai teachers proved themselves a better match to the way foreign L2 teachers performed during our English Camp. There was a clash of strategies, management and implementation of programs between the two groups of teachers. Thai kids seemed to be more active and participative with their Thai English teachers than with the foreign teachers on the second night. There was a threatening statement from one of the organizers that if foreign L2 teachers are not cooperative and able to handle the students, then the Thai organizers might employ their local teachers only for the next English Camp.
Keeping the job is important to me and for my family at this time. My conscience tells me not to be complacent at all times. While I do make a distinction between workplace and home, I make sure that all the requirements at schools are done within the specified time. I also have to be sensitive to both Thai teachers and students’ expectation. This is not often easy, since I may not be able to please every one of them. There is always a second thought of looking for a better job, just in case.
There may be more unexpected challenges ahead. Predicting them to some degree ahead of time may be helpful. For instance, I honestly don’t expect that I will be an ESL teacher throughout life for some reasons beyond my control. For instance, some schools may prefer to hire younger, more able and appealing teachers. Before this happens, at least I have some other options, such as taking an area within educational domain, but not restricted to ESL teaching. I like to explore and broaden my skills in the area of education, and not just language teaching. Hence, the present degree in educational leadership I’m pursuing might help me a lot. This is a branch of educational administration, but the emphasis is on looking for some new ways education can take turn. Therefore, I learn not to be traditional and stick to what is commonly accepted norm, but respond to any need in any situations.
At present, there is a need for self discovery for more potentials and skills for better challenges in the future. Whatever future thing this profession may offer, I must be ready to face every challenge with willingness, confidence and determination to move on, because this is what I know about what it takes to be an L2 ESL teacher.
Rolly Cainglet Obedencio, MA-Religion (Biblical Studies-Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Languages), ESL teacher, Assumption College Thonburi. Rolly has been teaching ESL in the Philippines, China and Thailand for about nine years. He has earned a Certificate in TESOL. He is presently pursuing his second MA in Educational Leadership. He lives in Bangkok at the moment.


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