Have you ever wondered if you can actually make a positive difference as an English teacher abroad? We are so proud to bring you the story of Jazz McClure, an XploreAsia alumni who truly embraced an opportunity to make a change in her students lives, and took getting involved in a community to another level by planning, rehearsing, and performing a musical with her students!
I got my TESOL certification this past October in Chiang Mai. Currently, I’m teaching at a secondary school in Isaan, in Sakhon Nakon province. My semester has been rigorous, but I’ve loved it. This is exactly what I was looking for in coming to Thailand. I hold a bachelor’s degree in linguistics, and hope to pursue graduate studies, but I find myself teetering on my options (a career in ESL being one of them). I wanted to get a feel for this line of work before jumping into my masters. Yet after this experience, it feels right to continue teaching abroad for a while. I’m leaving Thailand after this semester though, and am going to look for work in Korea.
They learned all their lines in English, 7 songs and dances, and helped make all the props. I’m mighty proud of them!”
What inspired you to do the musical? Have you done something similar before?
Yes! I was heavily involved in the theatre when I was in high school. So from the minute I got here I had been looking for ways to get involved with the students musically. But after failing to find any type of choir or music club, I started to feel like there just wasn’t an opportunity. Thank god for Fallon, though. Hailing from the UK, she’s another new teacher who also comes from a theatre background. One Friday night, over a few cold ones on our balcony, we hatched this hazy idea to do our own musical. The veteran teachers said the kids would love it, and suggestions began spilling from all of us faster than we could keep up with. I went to sleep that night with my brain swirling in ideas, hoping that we could somehow pull this off.
How did your students and fellow teachers react to the activity? Where they excited straight away, or did it require some convincing first?
Oh, I’m laughing as I write this! Let’s just say that musicals are NOT a thing in Thailand. So yes, the idea required a lot of convincing! I think the concept of singing and dancing to songs that are a part of the story was strange to them. We actually had to go into our classrooms and pitch the show to the students, telling them they would get extra credit if they joined. At first, they seemed so unenthused, but after one or two students said they’d do it, more and more kept running to the office like, “Teacher! I want to do the musical too!” That went on for weeks!
Teacher Fallon with Best, who played Ms. Darbus
Can you elaborate on what the activity consisted in?
Who was involved in the planning and execution of the process?
After weighing our options, we decided to do a simplified version of High School Musical. The songs are easy, the English is reasonable, it appeals to a young audience, it teaches students about the culture of their American counterparts, and the kids could wear their own clothes for costumes (hands in the air for a $15 production!) Yet even with a simple story, getting it all together was not easy. We wrote a script, cut songs, added songs, played with harmonies, and held auditions. I made a proposal to my boss, who translated to the higher powers and asked if we could have stage time for rehearsals. I think he was cynical at first about being able to pull the show off, but once he saw how invested the students were, he was incredibly supportive, and even started coming to rehearsals to watch.
How often and when did you do the rehearsals, and how did you manage to find extra time?
We started practicing at the end of November, and just performed the show on Valentine’s Day. When classes were cancelled for things like Sports Week, we’d have big group rehearsals. For the main characters, we practiced mostly during lunch, or whenever they had free time. Sometimes, it was when they came running to the office with lyrics in hand and only 10 minutes to spare! After we could run the whole show, we started rehearsing on the stage after school. We usually stayed for about an hour 3-4 nights a week.
How do you think this has made a difference in your students’ lives?
The three M6 students in the show. They were really glad to so something like this the year they graduated!
I think it’s made a huge difference in their lives. First off, it must be hard for them to build relationships with their foreign teachers. The Thai school system usually sees a new foreign teacher every semester and, since the students are shy, having a stranger in the classroom every six months must be challenging. The musical was a good way for them to shake their shyness and feel comfortable with us. It also was our way to show them that we cared enough to spend an extra ten hours a week with them!
Bonding aside, the show forced them to speak a lot of English. They were exposed to new vocabulary, both about American high schools and about the theatre, and got to dabble in expressions that young English speakers use all the time.
In what way did you see the difference and growth in your students throughout the rehearsals and after the performance?
There is one student who envelops this the most. The M4 boy we cast to play Ryan was hesitant to accept the role; he didn’t think he was good enough to play the part. Even during rehearsals, he was always doubting his capacity. Fallon and I were always encouraging him, and that combined with unwavering support from the other students helped him have some faith in himself. As we neared the end of rehearsals, he and the girl playing Sharpay were stealing the show! Every time we did a run-through, they would add some new pose or reaction to different scenes, and by the time we performed, some of the funniest things in the show were things Fallon and I didn’t even stage. Seeing our Ryan so uplifted by his friends and watching his development into this super awesome character filled me with unspeakable pride.
Would you like to do this again? Would you encourage other teachers to do something similar?
Yes, I would. It was the unrivalled, absolute best part of my time here. And yes, I suggest other teachers do the same! I know it’s hard when there really isn’t a process to start your own activity at the school, but if you’re passionate about it, the Thai teachers will see that and they will help you. They want what’s best for the students, too. When we were finished with the show, they kept thanking us for taking time do to that with the kids. My advice is to find something you love and try to share it with them. There are so many things that would resonate with these kids: a sports club, an art club, a chess club, a theatre club, a glee club…even an anime club! If you can find your fit, you’ll amplify your relationships with your students and see how truly awesome they can be…and maybe even convince them of their own awesomeness, too!