I was a Horrible English Teacher Abroad

Bonus: What Porn and teaching English have in common

Dec 7, 2011 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

After graduating from college, I flew to Thailand and took a bus to a fishing village a few hours east of Bangkok, where I spent three weeks binge-drinking and hanging out on the beach with 15-or-so classmates -- and emerged with certification to teach English to speakers of foreign languages.

I was instantly hired at a crappy language school. (Since the TEFL industry is so ridden with sex predators and vagrants, just being a lady gets you a job nearly any developing country in no time flat.)

True to form, my colleagues had the various social and physical maladies that seem to come with being an expat in Southeast Asia (missing teeth, skin rashes, belief in alien abductions). 

Every morning I woke up, ate some spicy fish ball soup and put on a fresh polyester pencil skirt and short sleeved blouse from the local outdoor market and went out into the smog to catch a longtail boat, which sped me to my new job via trash-chocked waterway.

I’d arrive, already hot and dirty, with droplets of the acidic goo that was canal water in my hair and already dreading the next six hours of classes.

SIDEBAR: A highly underreported irony in Thailand is the abundance of names including the word "porn" in a country so well known for its sex industry.  You’d think they would have figured it out by now but, no, children continue to be born and named Porn and every other iteration of that word you can manage to scrape from a pubescent boy's brain.

Taking attendance in my class often went something like this:

“Pikaporn? Is Pikaporn here?”

“Okay.  She must be absent.”

“ What about Titiporn?  Has anyone seen Titiporn?”

And the absolute worst:   

“Is Kitiporn here?”

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The people who say I was bad at my job -- mostly the old men who used to work with me and now leave nasty comments on my stories like, “You couldn’t teach for shit, you must be a fat lesbian by now”-- are correct on the first count at least.

Though I genuinely liked a lot of the students -- many were nearly my own age -- I was not a very good teacher.

I had very little idea of what I was doing. My major goal was to get through those two dreaded hours as quickly and painlessly as possible so that I could go back to my craphole of an apartment and wallow in my early 20s confusion.

A big part of my teaching problem stemmed from not actually having a keen grasp on the English language myself.

What is an adverb? “Jumping?” No.

Truly, I still don’t know. I love words, but my ability to identify grammatical articles walked out on me back in high school along with long division. 

Luckily the students had schoolbooks that explained it pretty well. And I had the teacher copy. As long as no one caught me off guard and asked me what a past participle was, I could maintain the illusion that I actually understood what I was teaching them.

I had one class, though, that was onto me. It was a Saturday morning class, which didn’t help. Everyone wanted to be watching cartoons, eating noodles and shopping for off-brand denim, but instead they were stuck with the idiot teacher who giggled uncontrollably when you asked too difficult a question.

There was one sneering girl with the nickname “Ice” who I could tell wanted to crush my skull inside her Hello Kitty binder every time I opened my mouth. She set the mood for the rest of them and finally found a way to destroy me one sweltering Saturday morning.

Those heady days involved a lot of what we in the business called “eliciting.” They spoke while I scrambled around the wipe board writing down what they said.

Along with being bad at grammar, I have never been a fantastic speller.

It started off fine. The class shouted words to my encouraging hand gestures and I wrote them on the dry erase board, trying to fill up as much time and space on the board as humanly possible.

Then someone yelled out the word “necessary.” This was far more advanced than I was used to getting from my students who were more interested in words like “shiny,” “shoe” and “money clip.”

I wrote the first to letters “ne” and then paused. I have never been able to spell that word. Even now, as I write this, I don't know if it's a “c” or an “s” and then an "e" and "i" perhaps an "a" even? Only spellcheck knows for sure!

I started to write a “c” and then, uncertain, curled it into an “s.”

The class watched, rapt. I felt the cold sweats coming on despite the near 100-degree temperature in the classroom.  A thick circle of ink was growing where my dry erase marker had stopped, as incriminating as a bloodstain.

I swallowed hard and finished the word as best I could.

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“Tea-cha, tea-cha!” I whipped around to find Ice’s normally dead eyes aglow with glee. “You spelled wrong!”

I looked at my mangled word and at the class' collective smirking face. To admit defeat would forever ruin me. I pushed some sweaty hair out of my eye, smiled and said,

“No no, you’re thinking of the British spelling. This is how we spell necessary in America.”

I quit teaching shortly thereafter. To become a professional writer. HAHAHAHA!