Some Reflections on My First Year of Teaching Seminary in Thailand

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

This past May marked the end of my first year of teaching seminary in Thailand, so I thought it would be a good time to step back and reflect, and to dispel a persistent misconception.And if anyone reading this is considering teaching seminary classes in a second-language, perhaps this brief account of my experience might give them some idea of what they would be in for.

When other foreigners learn that I teach seminary in Thailand, and that I teach it in Thai (not English), they are often very impressed.Overly impressed, I would say. The reality is much less impressive and I feel much less competent and qualified than many seem to think I am.

I started learning Thai twelve years ago, and have been in Thailand for eight years, but I have found my first year of teaching seminary to be very challenging because,

  1. I am not as familiar as I need to be with the content that I am teaching. (I have never taught these courses before).

  2. I don’t have the range of Thai language ability to teach that content to the same level of quality as my students would receive from a native Thai speaker.

Concerning the first point, I found very quickly that liking missions and church history is one thing, but being prepared to stand up and teach on them is quite another.  I’ve had to do a lot of review and refreshing to teach courses on “Intro to World Missions” and “Church History Survey.”  And that’s not to mention learning a lot of new material for a course on “Thai & Asian Church History.”  Many hours per week have been put into reading, researching, and getting the bare bones content of what I need to teach into my mind and on paper so that I will know what to talk about for two and half hours per week per course (I taught one course during the first semester, and two courses during the second semester).  It was not uncommon for me to stay up into the wee hours of the night at least once per week doing course prep.

As for the second point: Yes, I do teach in Thai, but it has been a real challenge.  I have really been pushing the envelope as to what I am capable of talking about in Thai.  Ideally, I would be doing the majority of my course prep in Thai but I am a slow reader in general, and especially when it comes to a foreign language in a non-Romanized script. I can’t effectively skim Thai books so it is extremely time consuming to work through Thai materials for lesson prep.  This past year, I was preparing most of my lessons from scratch and I simply didn’t have time to do all my prep in Thai. 

My usual practice was to do the reading and research for my lectures in English, and to write up my lecture notes in English, with bits of Thai phrases interspersed for those proper names, and technical words and concepts that I don’t know off the top of my head in Thai.   Words like “Pietism”, “nationalism”, and “cholera”, I had to look up and write down so I would have the Thai words in my notes.  And sometimes my students had to correct me.  I can’t tell you how many times I slaughtered the Thai spelling and pronunciation of Chinese names when I did a three-week section on the history of Christianity in China.

Since I did 95% of my prep in English, I ended up carrying English lectures notes (with bits of Thai interspersed) into the classroom to teach from.  After eight years in Thailand, I am thankfully at a stage in my language development where I can usually look at my notes in English and translate on the fly what I want to say in Thai.  I should probably note here that I prepared my English notes with translation in mind, so I left out words and phrases that are hard to translate, and sometimes adapted the structure of my English phrases to match the Thai word order that I’d be using when I teach the material in Thai.  I don’t think I’ve ever used a full manuscript to teach from, whether it is preaching or teaching.  Even in English, I tend to lose my place with a manuscript and find it too confining.  And in Thai, if I lose my place, it is near impossible to quickly find my place again on a piece of paper filled with Thai.  It is like looking at the Matrix.  

During my second year in Thailand, I learned how to touch type in Thai to a reasonable level, and that skill has come in handy this year as I have typed up syllabi and tests.  Even so, it has taken me extra time to prepare those as I needed to allow time to have a native Thai speaker to proofread and correct my Thai before I make a bazillion copies for my students. 

And speaking of tests, grading has been a huge mountain to scale.  Thankfully, some students have easy-to-read handwriting.  Others…. well, not so much.   Usually, lots of time and copious amounts of squinting and guessing from the context have helped me understand the more difficult to decipher tests answers.  On a few occasions, I have had to ask a Thai colleague what on earth a student had written.  I assume that five to ten more years of correcting tests will remedy my inferior skills in deciphering Thai handwriting, but I am not there yet.  Reading report and papers was somewhat easier as they are typed, but with my slow reading speed, it takes a while to evaluate and grade their papers.  Even with a small class of 13 students, if they all hand in 4 page papers, that’s 52 pages of Thai.  And my other class this past term had 38 students.  I don’t want to calculate how many total pages that is.

Reading end-of-course student evaluations was rather humbling.   I learned that some students had trouble understanding me because of my language ability, while others had trouble paying attention in class because they felt sleepy after lunchtime.  A number of students thought I should have had handouts, and others wanted more group activities. None of these were really a surprise to me.  I know that my Thai is lacking in some areas, and that many times I was reaching to explain things to my class that I had never talked about in Thai before.  And then there was the day that I made a beginner’s mistake and told the class enthusiastically that John Wesley rode a dog.  When I really get into what I am talking about, I sometimes don't pay as much attention to my tones, and thus horses turn into dogs (they are pronounced the same in Thai except for the tone).  I never seem to lack reminders that I need to develop my language.

Considering this was my first year of teaching though, I think it went well.  It was challenging and sometimes I didn’t think I was going to make it.  But by the grace of God, I did. And on several occasions, questions and comments from students in class showed that they really "got it."  Not all of them.  And not all the time.  But some did. Those were very encouraging moments.

Now that I’ve got done the basic core content of what I want to teach, I can spend sometime during the summer holidays improving what I’ve got so that I will do a better job when I teach the same classes next year.  During the next few months, I hope to

  • re-organize my class notes into a tidy Thai outlines that can serve as hand outs,

  • put together some basic Powerpoints with photos to use in class

  • do more reading in areas that I lack in order to improve the breadth and depth of my teaching

I have no delusions of grandeur, and know that I am not an incredible teacher.  And I feel somewhat uncomfortable when people are impressed that I teach seminary classes in Thai.  Sure, I can get the job done, but I wouldn’t say I am doing a fantastic job.  But I like what I am doing and hope that the years ahead will see significant improvement in my teaching so that I can be a greater benefit and blessing to my students (and the broader church in Thailand, by extension).  I have a long way to go, but thanks be to God that He has gotten me to where I am.  And I am also thankful to God for my faculty colleagues who have been supportive and encouraging this past year as I have pushed my way through new territory (others have gone this route before, but it is new to me). 

It's a good group of folks here at Bangkok Bible Seminary and this newbie prof is glad to be part of the team.

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