Failures in English Teaching

Nestled in the jungle outside of Chiangmai is the Night Safari. It’s just like any other glorified zoo, except instead of viewing the animals by day, you view them at night. 

Exciting, huh?


When I last came to Thailand, just over a year ago, I declined the opportunity to go on a night safari tour because there were many other things I’d rather spend my time and money on. However, a section of the safari is a walk-through area housing smaller animals in cages, and this is much cheaper to visit. Amy and I went one day, taking a lunch along and eating at an empty pavilion that stood along the trail.

There were multiple pavilions along the trail, and we couldn’t figure out why. There was nothing in them–neither animals, nor benches, nor tables. What could they possibly be used for?

On this trip, we found out.

Evidently, the Night Safari is not only a popular tourist destination, it also hosts events. Events like a weekend English camp. Events where random trailside pavilions become English learning stations for groups of children to visit one by one.

We arrived at the Night Safari early Saturday morning, while the sun was bright but the earth was still bathed in a cool breeze. The place wasn’t officially open yet. Cleaning ladies walked along the pathways with wide straw brooms. “We’re with the English Camp!” We said as we walked through the gate, and they waved us right through.

Zac, one of the organizers of the event, was waiting on the other side. He gave us badges to wear and ushered us into a large meeting room. There the four of us, plus the other English teachers, sat at a round table and drank instant coffee. Zac pulled a stack of papers from his yellow grocery bag.

“These are the papers you’ll need for your stations. These are for today, and these are for tomorrow. And this sheet is for assessment of their abilities.”

Looking over my papers I saw that some of them were labeled “actor,” and some “director.” The kids at my station were supposed to get into pairs, one being the director and one being the actor. The director would say things like, “Say ‘Hello.’ Pretend you are very very tired.” And then the actor would have to say “Hello” while pretending to be very very tired.

A simple enough concept, as long as the children could read and comprehend English. Amy said that Ben and I should run through it first so they knew what they were supposed to do.


Ben and I prepare to teach.

Ben and I settled in at our station, and pretty soon a line of sixteen children came marching up, flanked by two university students who were helping out. The university students quickly made themselves scarce. “Hello,” I said. “I am Emily, and this is Ben. To start, I want everyone numbered 1-8 to stand over here, and everyone numbered 9-16 to stand over there.”

The kids split neatly into two groups. So far, so good.

“You are going to pretend to be directors,” I said to one group, “and you are going to pretend to be actors,” I said to the other. I handed out their papers. “You will do what it says on the paper. Ben and I will show you how to do it.”

Ben and I did what the papers said.

“How are you?” I asked.

“I’m good,” said Ben.

“What kind of movies do you like?”

“I like funny movies.”

“Say ‘I’m hungry.’ Pretend you are very very hungry.”

“I’m hungry,” said Ben, moaning and holding his stomach.

We went through the whole paper. Then I turned to the children. “Okay, now you try it with your partner.”

Nothing happened.

“Can you read the paper and do what it says?”

They gave each other glances of utter confusion.

I went to a child. “Can you read? Look, it says, ‘how are you.’ Can you say, ‘how are you?”

Blank stare.

The teachers weren’t supposed to say anything to the children in Thai at all, but this clearly was going nowhere. I ran out of the pavilion to try to find the university students who were supposed to be helping out. They were hanging out next to some pastel ceramic penguins, chatting. “Come help me!” I said, “I need you to explain to the children what to do!”

They followed me inside, where I showed them the actor and director papers. They read them, discussed them with each other, asked me some questions, and then tried to explain to the children what to do. Thus we were able to muddle through the half hour session, with the kids who knew English better helping the ones who were still 100% lost.

Zac came lolloping through about then. “How’s it going? Do the kids understand what they’re supposed to do?”


“Oh well, give them all ones and we’ll come up with something different to do tomorrow.” And he trotted on down to the next station.

The point of the camp was not to teach English so much as to assess the current skills of the student, rating them a five if they could do the activity on their own and a one of they couldn’t do any of the activity.

We gave out a lot of ones.

As the subsequent groups came through we re-adjusted things, having the university students translating our directions from the very beginning. Instead of demonstrating the entire activity at once, Ben and I went through it line by line, first doing it ourselves, and then having the children do it. In this way we muddled through the rest of the day and were able to provide a skill assessment that was hopefully somewhat helpful.

When we finished supper that evening and walked out into the greater park area, there were people everywhere. This is prime tourist season. There were food carts, and traditional Thai dances, and little booths where  you could pet small animals.


Me and my friend, Mr. Albino Porcupine.

With our nifty badges we could get on the Night Safari tour for free. We climbed onto an open-air bus that was painted to look like a giraffe, and set off down the dirt trail. It was night, and the tour guide shone bright lights on the animals as we passed, spouting various interesting facts about them in heavily accented English.

Which was cool and all, but I did feel sorry for those animals being awakened from their sleep by a brilliant light from a tour bus. (Although people did throw them lots of bananas and such, so perhaps that made up for it.)


Ben and a giraffe that ignored us because we had no food.

We slept at the safari that night. Away down another dirt road, on another open-air bus painted to look like a giraffe, we rumbled and chugged on and on until we came to a guest house of sorts, in what was apparently a “Camp Gronud.”


Our room had a bunk bed, one outlet, and a fake tree made out of cement and built into the wall.

I should have taken a picture of that fake tree. Perhaps hung my jacket on one of the branches. But I didn’t.

“Have you ever done that team-building exercise where everyone stands in a circle, and grabs hands with people across from them, and then they try to untangle themselves without letting go of hands?” Zac wondered the next morning.

“No, but I’ve heard of it.”

“Okay, well that’s what you can do at your station today. The university students all should know how to play it. It should take about fifteen minutes for them to untangle themselves.”

“What will the students do for the other fifteen minutes?”

“Oh, they can practice their cheer. Or they can practice their skit.”

I had no clue what their cheer or their skit consisted of, but I figured the university students would know what was what. I happily trotted off to my station, grateful that there would be no confusing actors and directors today.

Geshum, the 8-year-old child of one of the other teachers, came along with me since he speaks fluent Thai and English. I helped the children get into a clump and grasp the hands of the people across from them, and Geshum explained the concept of untangling themselves.

It didn’t go so well. They managed to form themselves into two interlocking circles instead of one big circle, and were thus never able to fully untangle themselves. Whatever. We did the best we could.

“Let’s play duck duck goose!” Whined Geshum.

Just like the day before, the first group was the one with AWOL university students, so I couldn’t get them to lead the students in practicing their skits or their cheer.

So we played duck duck goose.

Turns out, duck duck goose is a spectacular game that transcends language barriers.

The next three groups were able to untangle themselves quite quickly, after which we played about ten minutes of duck duck goose before I told them to practice their cheer. We never got to the skits. Ben left because he didn’t have anything to do, and Geshum left because he didn’t get picked often enough in duck duck goose. The teams were supposed to be at the stations for 30 minutes and spend 5 minutes between stations, but the time lagged more and more as things went on.

The last group could. not. untangle themselves. I couldn’t figure out how to untangle them either, or I would have given them some pointers. Should we just quit and play duck duck goose? Oh well. It’s a team-building exercise. Let them do some team-building.

Thirty minutes passed. I guess we’d just have to quit. I turned to the university students. “The time is up,” I said, pointing to my phone. “We’re done.”

“Oh, my phone is dead,” said one student, by which I assumed he meant that he hadn’t been watching the time.

I had noticed that the university students tended to hang around for a bit before finally leading the children to the next station. I didn’t know if they were confused or if this was just the Thai way. When these two university students didn’t leave, I just figured they wanted to wait a bit longer and see if the children could untangle themselves.

They couldn’t. We waited and waited, at least ten more minutes if not longer. Should I say something again? Tired and exhausted, the kids stepped over arms and ducked under, staying as tangled as ever before.

Finally one university student came to me with something written on her phone. It said, “If the children do not leave soon they will be too late, and will not be able to eat lunch.”

“Oh, they can go,” I said. “They can quit. It’s fine. I told you they were done!”

“Finished?” she asked.

“Yes, yes, they’re finished!”

We all left the stupid tangle game and went in for lunch. I felt so stupid. “The time is up?” Why had I kept saying “the time is up?” Of course that didn’t make any sense. Why is time up instead of down or sideways or forward or backward?

Finished. Finished is the word to use.

I’ve read a lot about needing to be willing to fail miserably in order to learn, and that’s how I comforted myself through my embarrassment.

After lunch was the grand finale, where the kids were supposed to perform their skits and their cheer. The skits, it turned out, were renditions of popular tales such as “The Three Little Pigs,” and were the focus of Amy’s station that day.

They dragged on…and on…and on. They never did get to their cheers.

Oh well, I’d heard most of them anyway.

“Little Pig, Little Pig, let me come in!”

Thus ended English camp.

“You’ve done so much already, you could probably call your trip a mission trip,” Caleb, another teacher, had joked to us earlier.

We laughed. It had been a hectic four days.

It was time for some relaxation. We went home and chilled for the rest of the day.

One response to “Failures in English Teaching

  1. I LOVE reading about your adventures! And I really like that jacket. Are there poppies on it?


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