RATCHABURI, Thailand: When "Teacher Bally" emerges from his office, students burst into laughter. They clap and cheer as their English-language teacher struts down the corridor like a supermodel.
Long strides. Feet crossing. Hips swaying. Theeraphong "Bally" Meesat looks nothing like his colleagues at Prasartratprachakit School in Ratchaburi, with violet lips, bright orange cheeks and large false eyelashes.
The 29-year-old school teacher recently become a social media star in Thailand after wearing extravagant makeup to teach English in the secondary school, a 90-minute drive from Bangkok.
“It all began by accident, really. I took part in a school parade and had a class afterwards. So I just came to teach with makeup on because I didn’t have enough time to remove it,” Bally told CNA. On his desk, a cardboard tray is brimming with colourful shades of eyeshadow, blush palettes, lipsticks and foundations.
The children were surprised and excited. They thought it was hilarious and interesting. They were curious.
Entertainment defines Bally’s teaching. He believes students can learn better when they relax and enjoy the class, particularly when it comes to foreign-language subjects like English. He said many Thai children do not like studying English or lack confidence communicating in foreign languages because they grow up in a Thai-speaking environment where the use of English is extremely limited.
A big age gap between teachers and students in Thai schools also has a significant impact on the learners’ interest in subjects they are not familiar with, he said.
“So many teachers still follow the ‘traditional’ teaching style, which is strict and intense. They tend to focus on academic performance as that’s how the national curriculum is designed. It targets good grades in exams,” Bally said.
“But for me, English learning should start with listening and speaking. Once students can do that, good grades will follow.”
To encourage his students to speak English, Bally is determined to make his class fun. Since the school parade, he has put on makeup to imitate the look of various Internet idols in Thailand. But instead of making himself pretty, the English teacher strives for an eccentric look to make his students laugh.
But besides their giggles and smiles, he also gets their attention.
“Entertainment is so important for students. Before we can give them knowledge, we have to break the ice, tearing down the wall of difficulty, the wall of pressure and the wall of age gap,” Bally said.
Makeup is just one of my teaching techniques to get their attention. It helps them relax, enjoy the class and open up to English.
THAIS HAVE POOR ENGLISH SKILLS
In 2018, Thailand lagged behind most countries in a global ranking of English skills. It came 64th among 88 countries and regions participating in the English Proficiency Index by international education firm EF Education First. It was grouped with China, Japan and Taiwan in the Low Proficiency band.
Although it leads Myanmar (82nd) and Cambodia (85th), Thailand came behind most Southeast Asian countries including Singapore (3rd), Philippines (14th), Malaysia (22nd), Vietnam (41st) and Indonesia (51st).
According to educational researcher Phusima Pinyosinwa, its poor performance in English could be a result of rote learning, which is common in Thai schools.
“English and other foreign languages are generally taught through rote learning. Teachers often fail to link the content in textbooks such as grammar and vocabulary with students’ context. What they learn is therefore disconnected from their life and that’s why students don’t have the ownership of learning or enjoy English classes,” said Phusima, who is from the Thailand Development Research Institute Foundation.
The basic education curriculum also focuses on grammar more than the development of students’ communication skills, she added.
To increase English proficiency in Thailand, Phusima said teachers need to replace rote learning with active teaching using discussions, presentations and teamwork, and that the basic education curriculum should focus on English for communication as well as grammar.
“Fun teaching and learning methods are also very important for their skill development. By creating a classroom environment conducive to learning can engage students and encourage them to learn by themselves,” she said.
For Bally, however, Thailand’s basic education curriculum already covers both English grammar and communication skills. The real problem, he said, is that many teachers - particularly those at public schools - have many responsibilities at work and do not have enough time to focus on teaching alone.
“We have limited time, only a few hours per week, to teach. Teachers have to meet the demands from the school and the education ministry as well as prepare students for various national-level exams. So where can teachers find time to ensure fun learning when we have to focus on so many things in the class that only lasts 50 minutes?”
Still, the English teacher strives to give his students all he can, even when it means he has to spend extra time putting on makeup and a funny wig before teaching.
“I like it a lot. I’m happy and not stressed at all in his class. It’s exciting because we have to guess how he’ll look each time. He makes us laugh. We learn, we play and we gain knowledge all at the same time,” said one of Bally’s students, Sitanan Yueadnuea.
“It’s fun and makes our class colourful. When I’m stressed from other classes, this one helps me relax and makes me smile,” said her classmate, Wasan Kankulkrailerd.
“I feel like learning English more because he’s friendly.”