Midterms. And I begin to feel like a real teacher.

The rubber is about to meet the proverbial road. It’s midterm time.  My students, who have been the unwitting subjects of my first two months of teaching English – wobbly, hilarious, and well-intentioned as it was — are about to show me if they’ve been learning anything at ALL.

Here’s the innate conundrum that comes with teaching beginning English to 20 classes of 50 teenage girls: It is nearly impossible to make sure that everyone learns everything.

My Type A self (who has grown less influential over the years, but still pops up in the form of perfectly folded dinner napkins and freakishly organized bathroom countertops) is really uncomfortable with that.

Teacher shoes.

This ratio speaks for itself!

So my priority this week is to make sure my students are prepared for the test next week. We’ve been doing midterm review in each class. The experience has been, oh – let’s call it eye-opening. For example:

Tuesday morning M2 “Smart Class” – Finished review in 20 minutes. One student asked, “Teacher Annie, how many questions will be on the test?”  Another asked, “Will it be written or speaking?”  After finishing with their articulate questions, they asked to play Simon Says. So we did, and I could not even come close to eliminating half the class. They are THAT good at Simon Says!

Tuesday afternoon M2 “Normal Class” – Started my review. After two minutes I realized the class had no idea what the words “test”, “exam”, or “midterm” meant.  Used a Thai dictionary to write the words in Thai on the board, and then consulted with several pockets of students around the room to make sure they understood the imminent danger. I would guess that 50% of the class knows a) that their midterm is next week and b) the material.  The girls in the back row, however, DID manage to master the creation of identical ponytail sprigs on the top of their heads by the end of class. So there’s that.

My classes are split evenly between these two scenarios, with a few landing in the middle. My main frustration with the Thai school system is that it is, quite literally, impossible to fail a student. So if group two above fails the test completely, there are no consequences. Which is why the threat of a test is a rather idle one, since it doesn’t impact moving forward in the system.

“But, Annie!” you might say, “That could be a positive thing! When grades don’t matter, you can focus on learning for learning’s sake!”

And you would be right. I have 100% flexibility and can decide to teach and test ANYTHING I want to. But it IS forcing me to think more creatively about how to motivate students to learn when I hold neither a carrot nor a stick. (Though in many Thai schools, teachers do carry an actual stick. Sometimes for a swift slap on a student’s hand, but more often – I hope – to scare students into paying attention with a loud, unexpected “Thwack!!” on a desk or a wall.)

[Also: The fact that I am unhindered by any type of bureaucracy telling me what to teach is almost unimaginable in the U.S. Which means that the frustrations and challenges I have are often balanced out because I realize that this opportunity is so rare.  I’m sure many teachers yearn for this exact situation.]

The second layer that makes teaching / testing a challenge is that, at Sa-Nguan Ying School, all of the classes stay together for their ENTIRE secondary school career. This means that each class section, by the time they’ve been together for two or three years, has a distinct personality, and a very distinct reputation. I can ask any Thai teacher about one of my classes and they know that particular group of 50 girls as naughty, smart, quiet, crazy, loud – choose your adjective.

I believe that the adage is true – people rise or fall based on the expectations that are held for them. Thus, the naughty M1’s (7th graders) take English for all six years together, and end up as naughty M6’s (12th graders) who speak very little English — because no one expected anything different along the way. Or raised the bar.

Which is what I am trying, really trying, to do!  In a consequence-free environment, where my students’ level of engagement runs the gamut from riveted to utterly disinterested, the only way to raise the bar and increase learning is to make English as intuitive, relevant, and fun for my students as I possibly can. Going through this midterm process has made this abundantly clear.  This halfway point has forced me to take a closer look at how effective I am as a teacher, and whether or not I’m reaching my students in a way that actually connects to their lives.

Yesterday I was walking out of school in the rain, huddled under my umbrella. One of my advanced students, App, who is fairly quiet and shy, skipped up next to me and said, brightly, “Goodbye Teacher Annie! See you on Friday!”  She shuffled through the standing water in her long skirt and heavy backpack to a beat-up car at the curb, where a tiny, weather-worn but kind-faced man hopped out to help. Her dad. I smiled and bowed my head into a wai, and said hello in Thai. He did the same – an authentic Thai smile, which is easy to recognize because it’s all in the eyes.

This simple moment was the first time I really felt and understood that I am connected to my students; that my class is a little part of their big life experience. I could write about funny anecdotes – classroom antics, mispronunciation, and my sweet-hearted students – for days. And I will! But this week made me realize that what I’m doing here is real, and it just might be important. It’s just up to me to make sure that it is.

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