So if I haven’t already made this clear, the reason I came to Thailand in the first place was to teach English. Now I’m not nor have ever been a teacher. I respect the profession but it is not my ambition. But it was a cheap (ish) and easy (ish) way to live abroad, and so I thought what the hey. How hard can teaching English be? Up until this very day I would have told you it was a piece of cake.
Let’s back up a little bit. Today was my first official teaching day, but it was not my first day at the school. I went in last Thursday and Friday for full days and sat at a desk and worked on lesson plans. Here’s some basic information about the school. It’s called Amnuavidya School, and I’m still not 100% sure how to pronounce that correctly. It runs from grades K-8. It’s private and Buddhist, and there are almost 2,000 students, all in matching uniforms. The person I deal most directly with at the school is my coordinator, Pe Tuk. Her name is Tuk, but “pe” is a Thai term used when talking about or addressing someone older than you. Thus for me she will always be Pe Tuk. She is for all extents and purposed my Thai mother. When I first got to the town she took me shopping in Bangkok for teacher appropriate clothes and then took me to a Tesco Lotus (which is apparently a British supermarket chain and which are everywhere here) to get all of the apartment things I need. She’s showed me where to eat and where to shop, and she is very firm in her opinions. My second night here I ate at the pub across from my apartment building and paid about 5 US dollars for my meal. A steal right? Well think again. I told Pe Tuk this the next day and after hearing how much I paid her face went quickly to disapproval. After a couple of beats she told me that she would take me to dinner that night, show me where to go that wouldn’t be so “expensive.” And she did. I now can name three places in Pra Pradaeng where I can get a full meal for no more than one American dollar. I’m sure by the time I leave I’ll know many, many more.
So last Wednesday Pe Tuk gave me a tour of the school. The main building is huge. It’s four or five stories tall (see I already forgot) and in an L shape which surrounds a courtyard. Now I’ve been there three full days, and I still cannot begin to tell you the rhyme or reason to the layout of the school. There are lots of staircases and hallways, all of which seem (in my mind at least) to never lead the same place twice (ala Hogwarts). The classrooms are identical, and would be distinguishable by the signs above their doors with the grade level, except for the fact that these signs are all in Thai. If the students are out of the classrooms things get even more confusing because the hallways are mobbed with boys and girls in navy and white. My tour was very informative, but the second we moved on to a different part of the school, I immediately forgot what I had been told before hand. What was that room for again? Which bathroom exactly was I supposed to use? And my desk, come again? But of course, I nodded and pretended that it was all sinking in.
So the next day I was to come in before 8am and go to my desk (one of many desks in a room with all Thai women teachers and one lone male British teacher, and me of course). I put on my best knee length skirt and collared shirt, grabbed my plastic brief case (called James Bonds here, which I think is absolutely hilarious), and marched right up to the school (or less marched and more fled across the street praying with all my might that I wouldn’t get hit by any of the rapidly moving cars). I confidently strode across the large open air cafeteria on the first floor and up the staircase that I was sure led to my office. Except the staircase didn’t seem to open up to the second floor this day. Instead it kept going right up to the third floor. Perplexed but still confident, I backtracked, trying to ignore all of the stares I was attracting from the students. I put on my best “I know exactly what I’m doing” face and tried again, up a new flight of stairs. I walked down the hall, again expecting to come across the room with my desk, except this time I walked past some infirmary I had never seen before, so wait a second, that can’t be right. After about three more attempts, I gave up and sheepishly walked down to the ground level to the school’s office. Feeling less like the new, confident and capable English teacher and more like a first grader on her first day of school, I confessed that I couldn’t find my desk. And to my immense embarrassment a twelve year old was summoned over (along with a gaggle of friends, these students, much like their American counterparts, only travel in packs) and told to lead me where I needed to go. So obviously I was off to a fantastic start.
The next couple of days I spent poring over the lesson plans left by old foreign teachers. My head swam with ideas for my first lesson and I put together what I thought was a very detailed and very fool proof lesson for my first day. I practiced at home the night before and felt ready. So today arrived, my first actual teaching day. It was the first day without morning showers so there was an assembly outside (which they do every day it’s not raining). I stood in the back and watched and it’s sort of like what I used to do in elementary school (pledge of allegiance, some kind of prayer if I remember right) except much, much, much longer, much, much, much hotter (two little students in the rows in front of me had to be taken/carried away because of the heat) and much, much, much more in Thai. Tomorrow I can look forward to being introduced to the entire school at the assembly (gulp).After the assembly I had two hours before my first class and though the nerves were building I still felt confident and capable. I was a college graduate for God’s sake, an English major, a nanny. I was perfectly capable of handling 30-35 eight year olds. This would be easy, just like being a camp counselor. It would be fun.
10:10 arrived and with some assistance (still have no idea which classrooms are for which grades) I walked to my first class, grade 2, section 1 (there are four sections for each grade, from what I’ve inferred the higher the section number the better the class). So 2-1 would definitely not be any trouble right? Right? I walked in as the Thai teacher walked out, smiled broadly, and walked to put my things on the desk. I had been pre-warned about the next part so it didn’t take me as much by surprise as it probably would have. The “class leader” instructed the class to stand up, and then in unison they said “good morning teacher”. So that’s definitely a good thing about Thai students. They know how and when to be respectful. Walking through hallways students literally bow to you (in Thai it’s called a wai, I bow whenever I meet someone older, especially if it’s someone who works at the school). So I smile, tell them they can sit down and prepare to start class.
Now during orientation we were taught that a great way to break the ice is to write a list of answers about yourself (ie my name is liz, I am 23 years old) and have the students tell you what the questions would be (ie what’s your name, how old are you). So I launched into this with my spirits high. I say the first answer and ask if anyone knows the question-blank stares. But that’s ok. I prepared for blank stares. I explain what the question is and move on. More blank stares. Except now only half the class is staring blankly. The other half is talking, loudly, to each other, to me, to friends across the school judging by the volume of their voices. I try to get things under control, use the shh-ing motion. And am promptly ignored by half the class. So I try and move on. I try to spice things up a little. Show a purple piece of paper when I’m talking about my favorite color, show a picture of a penguin when I’m talking about my favorite animal. I’m ready for the kids to be captivated, except well they’re not. Or maybe about 5 of them are, the good ones,( I’ve only taught three classes and I can already tell that you know in seconds who the good ones are-they sit at the front, they remain quite even when chaos erupts around them, and they look at you with these weirdly mature eyes, as if to say “I feel you teacher, these other kids are so childish”). I start to panic a little but I try and keep it in check. My mind keeps flashing blank and I have to remind myself what the lesson plan is, remember that carefully constructed, brilliant lesson plan I talked about. So on to the next thing, a focus chant. I got this idea from some of the lesson plans left by old teacher and I can tell you it was the one thing that worked across the board today. Basically whenever the kids get rowdy you get them to chant “hands up, hands down, hands up…”and so on and do the motions.
But that ends quickly, too quickly and when I glance at my watch only fifteen minutes have gone by. Shit! According to my carefully calibrated lesson plan, I should be halfway done. Except I’m not, not even close. So what was I supposed to do? Oh that’s right, try and get them to tell me their names. So I toss a ball to kids (again an idea from former teachers) and have them tell me their names when I ask. And this works fairly well for a while. But then only about half of the kids are into it, and while I’m trying to work with them and have them say “My name is…” the other half start shouting and running and just being little, squirmy, impatient kids. So deep breath, hold it together. What’s next?
Oh that’s right. The “About Me” cards, the most brilliant of my many brilliant ideas. I would have the kids make “About Me” cards with their names and pictures of their favorite animals and food. I even drew up one for myself as an example. How could that possibly go wrong? So the kids come up to get their paper and then go back to their desks and then stare at me. I repeat the instructions, draw a pretend piece of paper on the white board and wait for them to start. In seconds I’m sure they’ll be silent and captivated by their individual works. But they continue to stare. Or some of them. The other ones are talking to each other. One boy runs back and forth in the back of the room. Three of them come up simultaneously and ask me questions in Thai which I can only blink back in response to.
After another five minutes or so of this confusion, some of them start to draw. Little groups of them keep running up to my desk to look at my “about me” sheet which kind of throws me off, but okay, maybe they still don’t understand. Now one thing that really cracked me up is that they all took out rulers when I told them to draw. Apparently Thai children are very, very exact with their artwork, even eight year olds, and let me tell you their names on those pieces of paper were as straight as arrows across the board.
So I start to walk up and down the aisles in my best teacher fashion and I notice something strange. They’re all drawing penguins for their favorite animals. And they’re all drawing spaghetti for their favorite food. And this is when I realize that this supposedly “simple” and “easy” exercise I dreamed up is anything but. If I spoke their language, sure it would be easy. But this is not the case. For the briefest of moments I thought about trying to clear this up. They’d understand right. I wanted to see their favorite animal and food, not mine. But as I opened my mouth to talk, I realized there was no way they’d understand now if they didn’t understand to start with. I made a very simple and very fundamental mistake. I thought something was easy and simple just because it would have been easy and simple if they spoke English. But they don’t speak English. That’s precisely why I’m here after all, to teach them.
So as chaos continued to reign (these kids cannot stay in their desks, which I’m told is because they don’t get recess, which really kind of sucks and makes it hard for me to order them back to their desks, sigh), I walked around and couldn’t help but be a little amused by the level of care and detail they were putting into drawing the favorite animal and food of their new, weird, difficult to understand foreign English teacher. There were some really good penguins and spaghetti. One of them even drew a penguin eating spaghetti which I think showed remarkable initiative.
So that was my first lesson. It was kind of a disaster. I thought the lesson was foolproof and it was the opposite. What’s the opposite of fool proof? Foolish? The kids had way more energy than I anticipated and many of them were clearly of the opinion that English class was a good enough time as any for recess. But I regrouped, frantically tried to come up with some new ideas, and walked to my second class of the day.
On the way I passed the students from my first class. I was sure the last thing they wanted to see was the crazy lady who made them draw her favorite animal and food, but to my surprise they greeted me with huge smiles and waves. Some of them even came running out of the class to see me. So they couldn’t have hated it too much right? Knowing that even a disastrous class apparently didn’t faze the kids, I went to my second class with a little more confidence. I tweaked what I thought needed to be tweaked and the class went insanely smoother (the Thai teacher also happened to be in the room for a good chunk of it which I have a sneaking suspicion might have something to do with their better behavior, just maybe). After it ended I was again thinking I might have a foolproof first lesson.
And then I went to my third class of the day, 3-4 (which if what I’m led to believe is right, is the most difficult section of grade 3). And well if they’re not the most difficult then so help me God. Because it was rough. Only about 10 of the kids really listened. The rest talked amongst themselves or played or just flat out ignored me despite my most valiant efforts. By the end of the lesson I was so desperate and so exhausted from shouting that I feebly suggested they all make name tags, which went over about as well as the “About Me” cards. One kid even came up to the front and right beside me started break dancing. For a few seconds I just stared in shock, then took a deep breath and pointed to the Thai teacher just outside the door (who happened to look in at this moment and let me tell you, break dancing kid got an earful out in that hallway). And then the day was over and I could barely see straight I was so tired. My voice (already nearly lost from being sick) was on its last leg. My head was pounding. My fingers were covered in marker smudge. All of my carefully laid plans were stood on their heads.
And I think that’s when I realized what it means to be a teacher, this strange mix of moments that melt your heart (this one little girl who marched right up to me and said she loved me about five minutes into the class, or the clearly shy kid who raised her hand and got the answer right when no one else knew it) and moments where you think your head is going to explode (see exhibit A, break dancing child), all in this haze of exhaustion and frustration and above all else, a desire to do it better next time, make it simpler, more easy to understand, better for the kids.
So for a first day I’d say it went about as rocky as I could expect. And I’m guessing every class this week will be like that. But I didn’t do this because I thought it would be easy. And I’m not going to go in tomorrow thinking it will be easy. I’m going to suck it up, forget all those well thought plans, and just do whatever I can to teach these crazy kids English, even the ones I sort of want to strangle by the end of the day.