As the sun sets on another busy day of learning at Wattanothaipayap School in Chiangmai, northern Thailand, there’s a new sound in the early evening air. Not the rote learning of spelling chants that usually echo the sun-striped corridors of South-East Asian learning. But the sound of active, engaged learners, communicating with their teacher and with each other, spontaneously, in English, thanks to the Regional English Training Centres (RETC) which are being set-up all over the country.
The RETC Project is designed to develop English levels and teaching methods to improve the confidence of thousands of primary and secondary school language teachers throughout Thailand. The three week intensive course, with a short follow-up session two months later, covers the basics of communicative language teaching and involves assessed micro-teaching sessions where teachers try out their new skills, as well as input sessions and reflective practice.
More than 5,000 teachers will benefit from the training in the first year, which takes place in training centres in working schools. RETC began with a five week pilot in Pattaya, which led to the opening of four centres in September 2016. This was followed by an additional four centres in both February 2017 and June 2017, bringing the total number of centres to twelve. The Ministry plans to open six additional centres next year.
Each centre has three trainers, including a lead trainer. With each centre training around 75 teachers per cohort, the estimated reach of the training is more than 1 million learners at both primary and secondary level in the first year alone.
The trainers use a mixture of British Council Teaching for Success materials and specially developed materials, designed to be relevant to the Thai context. Sessions invite teachers to look at their own course books to identify learning aims and consider how to put into practice what they’ve just been taught.
In addition to British Council trainers each centre has two or three Thai Master Trainers (TMTs), who are RETC course graduates who have been specially selected to undertake trainer training. They are based at a centre and mentored by their British Council colleagues to prepare them for future teacher development duties. TMTs typically support the trainers in planning and delivery of the regular training sessions, but also have a training role, delivering some sessions each cohort. The aim is for them to become the teacher trainers and trainer trainers of the future.
Three weeks is not a long time for the teachers. However, as academic manager, Jeremy Hanshaw explains “it is the start of a journey for teachers, and if they have a good start, they can travel far and travel well. If at the end of three weeks, teachers are able to set-up an activity, monitor it effectively, and provide meaningful feedback to their students, all in English, that is an achievement, and one on which they can build. The use of English in itself marks a change.”
The results of the training are already visible in the teachers themselves, who are observed at the start and end of the training, with 94% of teachers reporting an overall increase in confidence, 97% showing improvement in their overall teaching competence, and 92% improving in their use of classroom language.
The teachers are also positive about the impact of the course. One primary teacher from Surat Thani, told us that “After the course, I go to school and I have more confidence. I try to use English with my students. I use games and songs and many activities for my students.”
Maew, a secondary teacher from Khon Kaen said of her experience: “I changed myself and my way of teaching a lot. I now prepare more group work for my students I manage whole class activities and use more games and songs. So my students are more interested in and happy with my English class.”
In the meantime, as the excited teachers leave their classrooms after a successful afternoon of micro-teaching, you get the feeling that they are getting a well-deserved boost to their careers, to their English teaching skills, and to their confidence, to the benefit of their very many students, now and in the future.
All over Thailand, 900 other educators have been practising new skills in their micro-teaching lessons this afternoon. And despite the now fading light, as this group of teachers chat excitedly on the return to their hotel, you realise that the future of education in Thailand is very bright indeed.