Generic Advice for Anyone Embarking on a Volunteer English-Teaching Trip

It certainly has been a while.  My first year of teaching just ended and summer is still so green and fresh that I’m still having a hard time adjusting its relaxed change of pace.  It feels so good to not be constantly thinking about planning/ grading and finally be getting to the tasks that, for so long, were pushed to the back burner.  One of those “round-to-it”s was writing back to a friend of mine who is going to be volunteering for six weeks as an English teacher in Thailand.  She was asking me for advice on how she could prepare for her adventure, especially in regards to the teaching.  Today, I was finally able to give her a sufficient response, and I figured I’d share it here, in case any readers were considering or planning similar trips and found the advice helpful.

So, to any novice English as a Foreign Language teachers, especially those of you preparing for a 2-8 week long volunteer trip, here are some tips:

1) Take time on the first day to introduce yourself in a friendly way, but also establish some rules within the room.  Especially if there will not be another, local teacher there in the room with you.  Some of the kids, as cute as they may be, will look at the pale-skinned, blue-eyed foreigner (or whatever colored foreigner you are) and think that she would never get mad at them, so they’ll try to run a muck.  Just set expectations, basic rules (raise your hand if you want to answer, pay attention, be respectful, etc.) and you should be fine.  Of course, there may be a massive language barrier, so maybe before you leave for Thailand, for each expectation, print off a picture illustrating the rule, with a caption of your rule stated in very simple English, then put the paper in a page protector, so that you have a visual for your first day when you are explaining how you want your classes to go.
2) Try to learn the kids’ names (which will be really hard because they will be Thai names! Hahahahah welcome to the world of an international educator!)  Just an attempt will make all the difference, and you will definitely learn many of their names in 6 weeks (especially the naughty ones ;).  Starting the first day, after the schpeel on rules and the introduction of their new fabulous teacher, teach them “What’s your name?” and “My name is” and have them go around (maybe a few times) saying their names correctly.  The whole class can say, “What’s your name?” and then trade which student will answer with his/her name.

3) Use/ bring the following supplies in your classroom:

  • a foamy ball (about the size of a softball) that you can use when playing games, or just as a way of getting the students engaged while you ask the class questions (and throw it to the person you call on to answer).
  • If you have time, buy a pack of white cardstock (or any color, really) and some sheet protectors.  Go to a dollar store and get those 4 packs of mini dry-erase markers.  Either at home or in Thailand, assemble yourself a set of about 30 (not sure what class sizes you’ll be dealing with) dry-erase boards by putting a couple pieces of cardstock into each sheet protector, then taping up the open side.  Pass these out to the kids, explain to them that they shouldn’t use them to draw on (but they will, hehe), then ask a question and have them use the dry erase boards to all write their answers, then shoot the boards up.  It’s a great way to gauge how everyone is doing or do some review, and the kids LOVE it!  I’m not sure about Thailand, but in Ecuador, very little money was allotted for education, so anything other than rote memorization, copying from the board, and writing in notebooks was hugely appreciated by the kids, and obviously, they learned more through fun and engaging activities than they did using traditional, boring methods.
  • If you can get your hands on a basic English textbook, do, just in case the school doesn’t have any.  This way, you will have a basic curriculum that you can follow.  Usually, a curriculum will start with basics: greetings, farewells, please, thank you, how are you, fine thank you, etc.  Then, after they have spent some time on that, move onto the alphabet.  Considering the fact that their language uses completely different characters, I’m not sure how long you should spend on the alphabet!  If they already know it, that will be great, but who knows?  Definitely teach them the alphabet song (maybe skipping over some of the words for the younger kids and just humming the tune instead), and teach them how to write their names down, but with just 6 weeks, I’m not sure how much emphasis you should put on how the language is written.  You’ll feel that out.  One idea I have for teaching alphabet letters is writing the letter onto an 8×11 piece of colorful paper, holding up the paper, and having the kids say what the letter is.  You can also use that with any word you teach them (ie, draw or glue a picture of a cat to the paper and have them say what animal it is).  Other topics curricula cover: colors, numbers, shapes, animals, parts of the body, food,  feelings, actions (running, swimming, etc.), maybe the verb “to be,” since that is used for expressing just about everything in English.  I don’t think you’ll be able to teach much beyond that in 6 weeks.
  • Use songs!  I really like Super Simple Learning, and used their “Hello” song to begin most of my K-6 classes.    Either download the mp3 or try to get a SIM card with internet and use your phone to stream the songs online while you are in class.  (Speaking of phone, is your phone unlocked?  Most US phones aren’t, but if yours is, you can use it.  If not, you may want to buy a cheap nokia that is unlocked to use in Thailand.  Oh yeah, back to teaching English!)  I would recommend buying the whole album on itunes.  The good thing about Super Simple Learning is that the songs are slow and uncomplicated, so the students, if they have zero level of English, can pick up on them and feel successful.  Also bring some speakers that connect to your ipod/ phone and do not need an outlet!  Battery-powered or charged on your computer.  In Ecuador, power in schools was never a given.  If you find that your kids have a decent level of English, or are too cool for school, good “real” songs that you can teach them are “Hello Goodbye,” (Beatles), “Hot and Cold,” (Katy Perry), or even “Baby,” (the Biebs).  They might like to learn how to sing a song that they have probably heard on the radio (like Baby).
  • This is not something you can bring, but if the kids don’t have a textbook/ workbook and can afford it (and usually, supplies like this are uber cheap in small stationary stores that every town is sure to have), maybe have them buy little notebooks for English class.  I don’t know what supplies the program will set them up with or make them buy, but if you are allowed to mandate supplies, have them buy small notebooks, so that they have notes on what they have learned.  You can also buy white posterboard and markers when you arrive in Thailand, and make a wordwall for each class you teach in, putting it up on the wall.  Every word or concept you teach them, draw/ write it on your word wall.  At the end of the six weeks, it stands in the classroom as documentation of what they have learned.  You can have them use their notebooks as little dictionaries, writing everything you teach them in it, maybe accompanied by pictures.

4) Use as much of a routine in your classes as you can.  Maybe begin each one of your classes with a song.  If the kids are anything like my Ecuadorian chicos, they will beg for you to play the song again 🙂  Kids really love singing.  Then, maybe do some kind of a cumulative review before jumping into the new lesson.  After the new lesson, practice the concept you just taught with them.  First, do a class practice, allowing them to get help from a partner.  Then, check everyone’s work.  After that, if you have time, have them practice the concept independently.  At the end of class, tell the students what the answers are to the independent practice, or go over the work for them.  Then, before you leave, you could use another song to signal the end of the class.

5) Check with the person organizing your classes to see if s/he wants you to give homework.  I found out well into my classes that the principal at my school was upset that I wasn’t giving homework, so then I had to start!  I didn’t give real grades, but I checked to see if they had done their homework at the beginning of the class and gave the kids who had done it a star and those of them who hadn’t a dash.  On the note of communicating with any upper level staff, definitely ask them questions from the beginning on how much they want you to cover, if they have a preference in how you teach, etc.  You want their support.

6) Try to use informal/ formal forms of assessment to see how much the students have learned.  Whether it’s on the “white boards” or on notebook paper, give little quizzes to see what the students remember.  The more review and cumulative knowledge they build, the better.

7) Enjoy your time there, take lots of pictures, and go with the flow!!  Teaching in another country is one of the best ways to learn about a foreign culture.  The Thai people seemed to me to be genuinely kind, so I think that the kids will be nothing but wonderful.  Don’t get frustrated at yourself or them if you find that they are not learning as much as you had hoped, just take your time there for what it is: a positive learning experience for you and the kids.

That’s all for today, but I should be able to post more this summer 🙂


4 thoughts on “Generic Advice for Anyone Embarking on a Volunteer English-Teaching Trip

  1. Wow! It makes me feel proud to “hear” you “speak” like such a teacher! I hope you realize how professional you have become and are proud of it.

    • Lee Anne, your comment really brightened my day. Thank you for your encouragement! I plan on spending most of my summer reflecting and “perfecting” my second teaching year, really researching the best teaching techniques and implementing sound ideas. Thanks for showing me how successful a teacher can be when she puts in overtime and isn’t afraid to do things differently 🙂

  2. Good to hear from you. I was beginning to wonder about you. I finally hung it up with 501. We are in the process of moving to Kentucky. Probably not as exciting as your trips

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