Singing in the Rain

It’s Foreign Languages Day here at The Prince Royal’s College in Chiang Mai, Thailand–a gathering of five schools to compete in various English activities. There are debates, spelling bees, speech contests, storytelling contests, and singing contests. The last of these is really the focus of my story, but let me set the scene first.

I had just finished judging the debates, which had run late due to usual Thai chaos and lack of communication. I was exhausted, but relieved that my judging duties  were finished.

But despite simultaneous public events all centered around the building next to mine–Foreign Languages Day, ASEAN Day, Harris Institute Open House, and Childrens’ Book Fair–I still had to hold my dreaded Normal Program English class. This was a class full of sweet students with obvious learning disabilities (if one wants to count apathy as a learning disability). Amid the noise of various speaker systems blaring music and the bedlam of students running around haphazardly, I was not looking forward to teaching a class that, on a normal, distraction-free day, couldn’t be bothered to pay attention.

I approached the classroom, opened the door, and groans of disapproval filled the air. It was as if I had just told them they were to clean up after all the festivities. They stared at me with that “Really?” kind of look, amazed that I was actually going to try to teach them.

Just then, thunder cracked. Without any buildup, a torrent fell upon Chiang Mai. To call it rain would be too mild. The downpour was so thick and heavy that visibility was limited to about 40 feet. The weight and size of each drop were so large that awnings abandoned their intended utility and left soaked their refugees underneath. Within minutes, small floods of water formed on a ground that couldn’t absorb the angry sky’s abuse fast enough.

“Class is cancelled today,” I announced.

Cheers filled the room. Many in the class, though, did not understand even that much English, and looked around bewildered as their sharper peers rejoiced. It didn’t take long for them to get the idea. As I walked out of the classroom, stepping carefully so as not to slip on a newly rain-soaked (yet covered) walkway, one girl burst out of the classroom yelling, “Tea-CHAAAA!”

I spun around.

“I love you!” she said, holding up the classic hand symbol with the thumb, index, and pinky fingers extended. I smiled and continued back to my office.

I wanted footage of nature’s power. So I started filming from the same walkway where my classrooms were. I walked up the walkway further, trying to capture every angle of the tempest from my relatively dry vantage point.

Just as I was finishing the video, I heard music coming from just down the stairs near me. It was very distinctly a recorded track with a student’s live vocals. Then I remembered the singing contest. But I also recognized the tune. Was this not-more-than-fifteen-year-old student singing, publicly, for a school contest, Bruno Mars’s “Versace on the Floor”?

I want down the stairs to see. Sure enough, a ninth grader from Dara Academy was timidly singing, “Let’s just kiss till we’re naked, baby.”

Stifling my laughter, I looked at the judges. As a rule, all judges have to be native speakers of English. I looked over and saw several colleagues of mine simultaneously looking very serious and official while also stealing glances at each other. I’d seen those glances before in my students just moments earlier: “Really?”

I had to keep watching. It’s warming up. “Can you feel it?” It’s warming up. “Can you FEEEEEL it?” It’s warming up. “CAN YOU FEEL IT BABY?”

I chuckled to myself and returned to my office. Nothing screams Thailand education better than an innocent Thai junior high schooler singing a very sexual song, the lyrics to which she probably didn’t entirely understand, belying the probable lack of supervision she received in preparing for the contest, while foreign judges look on in absolute wonder.

The Closing of a Chapter with the Opening of a Book

I’ve thought of all kinds of ways to get philosophical and theoretical about what I’m about to share. Instead, I’ll let the images below speak for themselves, and speak for how proud I am to be a teacher, how blessed I’ve been to have the students I’ve had so far, and how affirmed I feel in my methodology. Because honestly, this has more emotional meaning than anything else.

Let me briefly explain the context. I’ve recently concluded one chapter of my new teaching life abroad. I’m leaving Pattaya, the city of misfit sexpats, and moving to Chiang Mai, the Oakland of Thailand, at least in terms of creativity, individuality, and cultural pride. I’m also leaving a school which serves the primary purpose of being a tax shelter for an alcohol distributor who couldn’t care less about education, and going to a school that is so focused on education it’s constantly trying to implement the latest ideas, including project-based learning. However, I also regret that I must leave some wonderful students midway through their school year.

They’re sweet, warmhearted students, as their work below will testify to, and we had quite a year together with me as their homeroom teacher. I’ve learned that compassion and empathy are a teacher’s biggest assets. I’ve learned that most students are totally perceptive of the amount of passion and care you put into their education. I’ve learned that honesty, consistency, and fairness are essential. And I’ve learned that a partnership with my students was the key strategy to get the results I desired in them. What’s wonderful about these lessons is that I learned them not by failing, but by succeeding. Sometimes we do have to learn from our failures, but I’m glad I didn’t have too many in my first year as a teacher (though I certainly had my share).

I may get into more detail about my overall approach to teaching and some of the specifics behind what I think made me successful—as well as the lessons learned from a few trips and falls along the way—in a separate article. For now, I’ll let my students do the talking, through a handmade book they tearfully gave me  on my last day.

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Happy Birthday to ME!

November 2015.

Despite my beard and stubborn little gut, there’s still an 8-year-old boy inside me that once a year wants to jump on the nearest table, put on a paper-coned hat, and shout, “It’s my birthday! What’d you get me?”

But my learned social composure and 32-year-old crow’s feet always keep me from making a scene. Luckily for the little despondent birthday boy inside, however, Thai people have cultivated a more subtle way to get attention.

“Anyone want pizza for lunch?” I blurted in the teacher’s lounge moments before morning assembly. A ripple of excitement flittered across the faces of a few of my fellows. B-r-r-r-r-ring! There was the bell that regulated the lives of student and teacher alike.

As the students lined up outside sucking in the moistening morning air, I gazed around in wonderment at how unremarkable the day would be. The sun wasn’t any brighter or dimmer. The students weren’t any more or less chipper. The sky was the same shade of pale blue with the same brownish overlays of pollution wafting here and there.

Thump! Thump! Thump! The bass drum counted in the national anthem. The flag-pulley’s irregular squeaks struck a dissonant harmony with the patriotic chimes of the xylophone no differently than any other morning. The tatters of the flag sighed apathetically in the light morning breeze.

On my last birthday, I had only been living in Thailand for a couple months, so it was the usual celebration—out to a bar for the night with any old acquaintance who could make it. The difference was that my acquaintances were new, not old, and there was actually cake. The Thais aren’t shy about carrying a cake into a bar and asking the service staff to help with cutting and plating. In a way, last year’s birthday was an official welcome to the Land of Smiles—a welcome to a foreigner using universal elements of birthday partying.

This year, my birthday landed in the middle of the workweek. That meant that I had to teach classes and get on with life as if nothing special was going on. It also meant I wasn’t going out partying that night or doing anything extravagant.

It’s only fitting, I told myself. Thirty-two is an unremarkable age. Tuesday is an unremarkable day of the week. Why should anyone make a fuss? I certainly wasn’t going to. Propriety had long taught me not to make a fuss, even on my birthday. However, honesty reminded me that I craved the attention.

So I went about it the Thai way. I ordered two large pizzas from my favorite pizza place. As the lunch hour neared its closing, my treat had finally arrived.

I carried the two giant boxes proudly through the canteen, feeling the heat of the students’ glares almost as viscerally as from the bottom of the pizza. As I crossed paths with students stumbling about as they’re wont to do during free periods, I had to stifle my laughter at how stunned and confused they were when they eyed my lunch. I became aware of a slowly rising mob of zombies salivating for the spoils of ambush. Don’t look back, I told myself.

I entered the teacher’s room, the beam of my smile lighting my way. “Oh, Lord,” uttered one British teacher.

The aromas of freshly baked dough and tomato sauce comingled and filled the room, betraying to all within nose-shot what repast we teachers were enjoying. I opened the box and felt a burst of steam flow through my face. My colleagues stood nearby, perplexed at what to do next. “Help yourselves,” I said.

They reached in and tried to manage the greasy cheesiness without the aid of plate, napkin, or fork. Eventually I brought A4 paper in from my classroom to serve as impromptu plates. And we all ate in satisfied silence. Compliments were given to the pizza restaurant, inspiring recommendations and a rough description of its location.

But in ten short minutes the tyrannical bell rang, and I left two largely uneaten pizzas on my desk in the staff room and proceeded to my next class. On my brief shuffle from staff room to classroom, rumors of “pizza” were being whispered among the students. They gazed at me with curiosity and supplication. A change was gradually infecting the students—some primal parasite prodding their mouths to water and their gait to limp. Pizzaaaa.

I finished my class without episode and reentered the staffroom. My pizza still sat there cooling. I grabbed another piece and chewed while contemplating the acute angles that marked it’s missing pieces. How in the hell was I going to finish this thing? No way was I bringing it home! I’ve become my mother—overzealous in preparation. It didn’t help that the other teachers had already eaten during the lunch hour, before the pizza arrived.

Then it occurred to me—I was in a building full of teenagers, whose appetites miraculously never wane even in spite of gluttonous gorging. I went back to my classroom and announced to the four girls milling about, “If you want a piece of pizza you may help yourselves.”

Beams of light shot from their eyes. “Really?”

“Yes, but keep it amongst yourselves. It’s a secret. I don’t have enough to go around.”

They each grabbed a slice and began chomping down on it. Immediately I realized I had made several mistakes. First, they were already late to class, and I was rewarding their tardiness with pizza. Second, there were teachers on other floors who should have had first dibs. Third, there has never been a time in human history when a teenager has been able to keep pizza a secret. Within minutes, other students were creeping out of their classrooms asking for pizza. I had to tell each student that other teachers needed to have a slice, but when the teachers have finished they could have the leftovers. That promise, however empty, was enough to keep the zombies at bay for another hour.

At afternoon break, I began visiting all the other classrooms. “I have pizza in the staffroom for all teachers, if you want a slice.” The Filipino teachers knew immediately what was up: “Oh, it’s your birthday today?”

One by one, teachers stepped into the staff room to claim their slice. Being walled with windows on all sides, the staffroom was fully visible from outside. Thus, students gathered around the windows peering in, drooling over promised pizza, groaning whenever another teacher entered the staffroom.

I entered the staffroom after making my rounds, passing a panting, murmuring mob of hungry students on my way inside. “Teacher, now?” they inquired.

“Let me make sure every teacher’s had some.”


I examined the pizza when I entered. There were 4 slices left, and I had taken a request to bring one up to the head teacher. I grabbed a slice and looked up. Fog waxed and waned on the windows of the staffroom as students smeared themselves against the glass. I couldn’t possibly pass the famished throng unscathed. I darted left where there were fewer of them, and dashed to the nearest staircase. I glanced over my shoulder—they had begun limping my way. I had only speed and wits as my advantage over them.

After delivering the pizza to my boss, I cautiously crept downstairs. They students were still smudged against the windows salivating. I ducked quickly into the staffroom–the only safe haven from the ravenous teenage mob. The pizza had been wholly consumed, with only a mound of cheese and toppings in the middle of each box. I brought the boxes into my classroom, with the undead in tow. “Eat your hearts out,” I said.

Their eyes narrowed. They licked their lips. They stared gluttonously at the boxes. After a momentary pause, they attacked the boxes. Seeing its contents, they slowly looked up from their scavenged scraps as if to say, “That’s it?” But they simultaneously shrugged and tore up chunks of cheese and toppings and devoured them. And like a gust of wind, they were gone.

Only an hour later, when the final bell had rung, did some of the students appear to me, looking human again, and wished me a happy birthday.

Advanced Vocabulary Lesson

One of my biggest challenges (and obsessions) as a new teacher is preparation, especially finding resources and materials that suit the needs of my students. Luckily, there are hundreds of ESL websites, many of them providing free materials, as well as articles that help teachers refine their techniques. I’m greatly indebted to my anonymous internet-based colleagues for the time they’ve taken in designing and sharing their worksheets, lesson plans, game printables, PowerPoint files, articles, and more.

In an effort to show my gratitude, this will be hopefully the first among a few posts where I share my successful lessons and materials. So if you’re an English teacher, particularly an ESL teacher, hopefully you’ll find the following lesson plan and attached worksheet and PowerPoint file useful.

            For you non-teachers, you might find this generally interesting, but even if you don’t, skip ahead to the Chain Stories section, where you can read some entertaining meandering stories, which feature all the grammatical errors one would expect from such a class of varied ability. You can read about the Chain Story activity in the Lesson Plan to understand why these stories feel so incoherent.



First, I’ll share a bit of the context for this lesson. The class is a mix of Upper Intermediate to Advanced Learners, in Secondary 6 in Thailand. Their ages range from 17 to 19. Their nationalities include Thai, Russian, and German, and many of them are mixed nationalities—that is, their fathers are usually Westerners and their mothers Thai.

Some of them speak English so well you’d swear they’re native speakers. A couple of them write so well you can’t wait to look for their novels on Amazon. Then others…need a lot of work.

But they all share a deficiency in vocabulary. So I’ve implemented a learner-directed component to the class to help them expand their vocabulary. Essentially, they have to write down in their journals any new words they encounter in their weekly reading activities. I’ve even allowed them to include words they encounter outside my class.

At the end of each week, I check their notebooks and make a list of their words, keeping a tally of the ones that more than one student identifies. By doing this, my students essentially get to “vote” on their vocab for the following week. The following Monday, I give them the definitions of the words, clarify any nuance or connotations, and spend the rest of the week drilling the vocab before a weekly test.

So the lesson you’re about to see incorporates vocab words that the students selected themselves. Feel free to download the worksheet and PowerPoint file and alter them to fit any lexis you wish to cover in your class.


Lesson Plan

NOTE: The staging of this lesson basically follows the CELTA staging for a text-based lexis lesson.

Materials: Jeep Story Photos & Jeep Story Vocab Worksheet

  • Lead-in: Ask the students about any experiences they had spending time in nature. What was their most memorable experience? Since my students are fairly compliant, I allow them to choose their partners for this and future discussions (NOT the CELTA way!). Then sample some of their responses.
  • Pre-Text: Show the students the Jeep Story PowerPoint. Show them each photo one-by-one, and explain that they are to predict what happens in the story. Show the last slide (all four photos) to help them discuss these predictions with their partner. (You can also print and pass around a handout of the PowerPoint if displaying it electronically isn’t feasible.) Sample their predictions.
  • Text: Read the text to them once (the full text is in the notes of the fifth slide of the PowerPoint), and instruct them to compare their predictions. Then hand out the worksheet. Tell them to complete the gap fill as you read the text a second time (a third reading might be needed for the slower students). Check their answers as a whole class.
  • Clarification: Have the students answer the multiple-choice questions. If you want, you can have them compare answers before checking them as a whole class.
  • Practice: Story Chaining. Tell the students that they are going to write their own stories (which don’t have to be the same theme as the model story) using the vocabulary words they identified from the worksheet. But tell them there’s a catch: they won’t be finishing the stories on their own. Tell them to take out a sheet of paper (lined paper makes this activity easier to perform; no notebooks).
    1. Choose a vocab word at random and tell them to write the first sentence of their story. Tell them to write one sentence only.
    2. When they complete their first sentence, have them pass their paper to their left (facilitate the end students passing their papers). Choose a new vocab word, and instruct them to write the next sentence of their new story. Make sure they start this sentence on a new line.
    3. When they complete their second sentence, tell them to fold the top of the paper over so that it covers only the top sentence, and still shows the sentence they just wrote. Have them pass their papers to the left. Pick a new vocab word and have them write a new sentence on a new line in their new story.
    4. Repeat step c, instructing them to cover all except the sentence they just wrote before they pass the paper, until they have written a sentence for each vocab word.
    5. On the last vocab word, have the students open their stories and read them.
    6. Have a few students read their story aloud, highlight good vocab usage, and correct poor vocab usage.



It was such a fun lesson. Make sure students have ample time on the practice stage. With feedback at the end, it took almost 30 minutes in my class. As you can see in the stories below (included purely for amusement), some students demonstrated very good understanding of the vocab words. Others, not so much—but that’s why it’s important to leave 5 to 10 minutes at the end to offer feedback and help them understand their mistakes.


Chain Stories

Chain Story A

The snowflakes beguiled me as I walked past the pine trees. It literally held my breath for a minute. Everything started to become blurry and dark and the next thing I remember is waking up inside a pothole. I got myself out of there and astounded when I saw the elephant. My feelings at that moment was deliciously full of joy and excitement. And I would bewildered to do more things. But the things we do is also limited.


Chain Story B

We were driving beguiled. And the driver literally couldn’t find the way out from this dark forest. My car was in the pothole, because we’re sticked in a mud and were starting to sink down. But then all of the sudden, an astounding horse came out of the nowhere, with it a man who put a rope on the car, and the horse started to pull us out. Back at home we eat horses, so deliciously I looked at the horse and said, “That would make one great dinner.” My neighbors are so bewildered that I will kill a horse for dinner. The horse was limited edition. It was a pink horse with a rainbow tail.


Chain Story C

The new guy in class was so beguiling he made all the girls blush and giggle. Literally, they want to embarrassing me. I was soooo shy. So to cover my shyness I put a horse mask on my head so no one could see my face, and I ran away, running into a pothole, and I was about to fall. My astounding belly broke my fall. I’m deliciously enjoying myself I’ve done. The old man was bewildered of what you done he got an heart attack. But lastly, he couldn’t make it through the limited time that he needs to operation.


Chain Story D

He was absolutely beguiled because of what he saw. The woman literally looked like an angel. But we looked like a potholes on the road. And it was astounding that no one stepped in one of the potholes. In a home I had deliciously dinner, I ate a lot of food which I didn’t try before. It was delicious. But then all of the sudden a friend told me there was horse in the food, and bewildered me, and I threw up all the food. Everything that we had to eat was full of horse meat. The food I could eat wasn’t even limited because literally everything had horse in it.


Chain Story E

“Stop trying to beguile me with gifts, you deceptive hobbit. Your gift literally smells like fish.” My feelings were like going through a hundred of potholes. And it doesn’t seem very astounding at all. When we came to a restaurant not far away from we all thought the food looked deliciously good. I was so bewildering, because the food was tasted deliciously. I’ve never try it before. And for my surprise it was horse meat—limited horse meat. Since then I love horse meat more than everything else, and eat it every day.


Chain Story F

She beguiled me with her unusually high voice. I literally slapped her to teach her a lesson…and made her face looks like a pothole. It was astounding in a negative way. But it could be deliciously as well for some reason. But then suddenly we all got bewildered when the car suddenly stopped and a bear was standing in front of us. But was have limited time to thinking about it, we’re running away from the car.


Chain Story G

That man beguiled the woman with buying her a drink at the bar. When she was literally smile at him and started to talk to the men. She was like a pothole, deep and unexpected. It was astounding that she was just ten years old. I found it deliciously satisfying to steal her candy when her mom wasn’t looking. I unwrapped the candy, ate the wrap, then threw away the sweet, then bewilderedly started choking. With limited oxygen in my throat.


Chain Story H

Her family beguiled her with money and love. Her family literally gives her everything thing she wants. But her family has a pothole of secrets that never been reveal. They knew people would be astounded if they found out what it was. It was deliciously teasing to keep this secret inside. I felt absolutely bewildered. At the end of the day they limited my choices of options.


Chain Story I

So there was I, standing in front of that horse, holding that carrot to beguile it into letting me ride it. I literally felt an immediate deep connection with the horse that I wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. We’ve been through good and bad times. Yesterday the horse ran into a potholes. Luckily it didn’t get hurt. It was an astonishing news that the horse didn’t get hurt. It was deliciously dangerous what the horse going through the night. But they are afraid of everything. Even one unfamiliar noise can bewilder them. They were too limited in time to save their lives.

Classroom Anecdotes

This Classroom Anecdote will take a bit of context to appreciate, in three parts.

Context Part 1: Lesson Plan

Recently, I developed a 3-hour lesson designed to help students improve their listening skills, penmanship, skimming and research skills, and paragraph writing. It begins with dictation. I read off seven questions on a topic, and then read the answers. The students have to copy down each sentence as they hear them. They’re allowed to ask me to spell difficult words on the board. The topic: Who is President Obama? (Obama is probably the best-known world leader outside of Thailand among ignorant Thai schoolchildren, so he earned the pleasure of joining my class.)

Then, I display a neat PowerPoint slideshow I made showing Mr. President’s picture, along with the seven questions and answers. The students must then compare their sentences to what they see on screen and fix any errors. Then they copy each sentence two times. Finally, they notice the grammar structures used to answer the questions. That ends stage one.

In stage two, my PowerPoint beautifully shows via animation that if we put the seven answers into a block of prose, they constitute a cohesive and brief biographical paragraph. The students must then copy the paragraph they see on screen. They’re also reminded of what exactly a paragraph is.

In stage three, they are shown the exact same questions, except that they’ve been altered to ask, “Who is the King of Thailand?” The students copy the questions. Then I hand out a single sheet from a Thai-English textbook about the king. I’ve already checked to make sure the answers can all be found. The students then practice skimming for specific information. I help them along in this process, teaching them to look for key words. Then, I have them notice the proper grammar to answer the questions in complete sentences. They answer the questions then copy those answers into a paragraph block.

Results: marvelous! The students are a little more adept at research, more confident in their writing abilities, and now understand what a paragraph is. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I can give them a simple paragraph prompt and they’ll wax eloquent for five or more sentences on the topic. But they now understand the logic and structure of a paragraph.


Context Part 2: His Majesty the King

One thing that any visitor to Thailand immediately learns is how respected and important the king is. He is in all respects a demi-god. He embodies a dharma so superior that he’s a second Buddha of sorts. In the past kings have been retroactively given titles that essentially mean “Second Buddha” or “Buddha Incarnate.” His perceived religious piety is only matched by his wealth. The Crown Property Bureau has an estimated worth of $30 billion. The king is robed in power, wealth, prestige, and spiritual serenity. Yet he is the most Western king the kingdom has ever had. Born in Cambridge, Massachusettes, and raised and educated in Switzerland, King Rama IX has developed Western tastes for jazz music, photography, and writing. He has learned Western philosophy, Western languages, and Western political science. So he’s woven from the finest of both Eastern and Western cloths.


Enter stage three of the lesson. The students have received their texts on the King to research answers. We’re on the final question: “What makes the king different from other kings?” The answer is essentially his enthusiasm for the arts, especially jazz music. In Thailand, he’s regarded as an accomplished jazz musician. Here’s me eliciting at least that much, if not the bit about writing and photography, let alone the all-too-complex insight that he was the only one born in America.

Me: What makes the King of Thailand different?

(students chatter in Thai)

Me: Guys, what makes the King of Thailand different? See the section on the page titled “King of Arts”? (‘chests’ handout and points to the section) Read that to find the answer.

(students read)

Ploy: He a mu-si-….musician?

Me: Good, Ploy. He’s a musician. What kind of music?

(students glare at each other)

Me: What does the text say? What kind of music? Rock? Pop?

Franco: Morlam!

Context Part 3: Morlam

If you haven’t read my three-part post on Thai music, then you wouldn’t know that Morlam is a traditional folk style of music originating in the northeastern area of Isaan. Morlam is a music of the poorest rural people that talks about the hardships of rural life. It began as an instructive lyrically driven music, but has evolved into a dance music backed by guitars, bass, drums, and synthesizers, as well as scantily clad female dancers.


Franco’s intentional joke had us imagining the wealthy, pious, and serious king lead-singing in front of a bunch of sexy dancers in feathery, glittery garb, swooning audiences with tales of a simple poor rice farmer’s life and all its struggles and hardships.

For this image, I salute Franco.

Classroom Anecdotes

Context: Teaching 14- to 15-year-old remedial students to ask and answer biographical questions in English.

Me: Franco, when were you born?
Franco: Win I bored?
Me: No. When were you bornnnn?
Franco: ???
Me: I was born in 1983. When were you born?
Franco: When?
Me: Mm-hmm.
Franco: (thinks for a minute) one nine nine nine
Me: Nineteen ninety-nine
Franco: Ok
Me: Say it. “Nineteen ninety-nine.”
Franco: Nineteen ninety-nine.
Me: Good. Now say, “I was born in nineteen ninety-nine.”
Franco: I born nineteen ninety-nine.
Me: I was born in nineteen ninety-nine.
Franco: I was born in nineteen ninety-nine.
Me: Good. (Turning to Ploy) Ploy, when was Franco born?
Ploy: (staring blankly) Not know…


Five minutes later, we’ve moved on to the next question.

Me: James, where were you born?
James: a-rai? (What?)
Me: No Thai. (Franco starts explaining the question to James in Thai) I said, “NO THAI!” James, where…were…you…born?
James: Oooohhh. Nineteen ninety-nine.
Me: No. Where?
James: (shakes his head) Not know…
Me: Were you born in Thailand?
James: (nods)
Me: Were you born in Pattaya?
James: (nods)
Me: Say, “I was born in Pattaya.”
James: I born Pattaya.
Me: I was born in Pattaya.
James: Yes. I tired now.
Me: Ok, go to sleep.

Moving to Thailand. Step 4: Apply for CELTA

What does it take to get a CELTA certificate? To start with, you’ve got to get into the damn course. And that’s no simple application. Cambridge boasts that somewhere around 97% of people who take the CELTA pass it, and they can proudly attribute this success rate to their admissions. Applying to the program is a rigorous test of your knowledge of the English language, and sounding of your passion for teaching.

Eager to get in, and confident that my Berkeley English degree more than prepped me for this esteemed course, I downloaded the application. The first page explained that I would probably need reference books to finish. Bullshit, I said to myself, and proceeded to answer the first grammar question. I suddenly realized that I didn’t know the difference between past perfect and past simple tenses. I could consult the Internet, but was I going to hang my chances of getting into the CELTA course on what a few could-be-hacks have written in a Yahoo Answers forum?

Consulting the list of recommended reading found on the first page of the application, I hit up Amazon. Thirty minutes and $100 later, I was sitting in front of a blank application stunned by the fact that I actually need to wait for UPS to arrive before I can complete it. I shook off my stupor and said to myself, No problem, I’ll just answer the personalized essay-form questions first. Let’s see: why do I want to teach in 500 words or less…

When the grammar book and teaching guides came in two days later, it still took me two days to finish the application. I labored over incorrect sentences, explanations of synonyms, verb tenses, short answers about teaching theory, and the like. I learned that the Queen’s English pronounces “march” and “after” with the same vowel phonemes. Hell, I learned what a phucking phoneme is!

After losing a weekend on this application, I submitted it via email. Within a few days I received a reply. Sze at International House in Bangkok would be calling me at 10 pm California time in two days to interview me over the phone. Time to sweat again, I thought.

As I fretted over the next few days, I wondered what she could possibly ask me. The email said she’d go over my answers on the application. Did that mean I got something wrong? Did that mean I was vague? Maybe it’s a trap!

Though long, the interview was quite pleasant. Sze asked a few tough questions, but never did she seem bothered to correct my answers if they were wrong. In fact, it seemed to be more a test of my readiness to learn than my knowledge of the English language. It was also a way to gauge of my personality, as is any interview. With nearly 2 years’ professional interviewing experience, I had learned how to get across the better parts of my personality quite well.

After about 30 minutes, she was offering me a position in the course. More importantly, as was one of the trainers she was offering me a position in her class. She handpicked me.

Me teaching

I later learned how important her selection process was. A CELTA is no joke. It’s rigorous. No one who has taken it can adequately describe how draining it is. It’s not necessarily that it’s difficult. If you get in, you’re probably smart enough and passionate enough to succeed. It’s just intensely time-consuming. Every day from 9 to 5, I was at the school—sometimes later; every evening I was pouring over my lesson plans in my studio apartment; every weekend I was completing assignments that were due sometime next week.

Some people struggled more than others. While I found myself falling naturally into a long-desired dream role in the front of the classroom, others would become flustered and have nervous breakdowns, some of them in front of their practice students. But regardless of how well we all immediately took to teaching, everyone spend hours writing lesson plans, perfecting games and activities, and printing and photocopying well over our allotted page count. Twice a week, we were given 45 minutes to teach. It felt like preparing for a performance. It was a performance. It was a delicate balance of remembering every little thing you learned in your morning “input sessions,” from keeping your TTT (teacher talking time) lower than the STT (student talking time), to giving clear directions, to monitoring, and much more.

In my mid-course one-on-one—a private session where your trainer checks in with you to gauge how you feel you’re progressing, as well as tell you how she thinks you’re doing—Sze asked me where I had taught before the CELTA. Many of the trainees had already initiated EFL careers and were simply honing their skills, or were just gaining the credentials needed to earn more money or clout.

“I’ve never taught a classroom before this course,” I replied.

She was surprised at this. “You’re a natural,” she said.

In hindsight, I realize that the rigorous application did exactly what it was supposed to do—at least it did for me. It gave me a sample of the hard work ahead of me. It indicated that I was a capable and promising candidate for the CELTA certificate. It showed that my heart was in the right place, and that I could excel at the profession if I put my mind to it. And I have to say that makes me feel proud.