I have now been an English teacher in Thailand for four full weeks. I am four days into my fifth week. I teach twenty-three classes a week, each lasting fifty minutes. I meet each class only once, meaning that I teach around five hundred different students every week, ranging in age from Kindergarten to fourth grade. I will teach until mid-September, almost twenty weeks when it is all said and done.
Those are the numbers that define my teaching experience thus far. They tell you something, sure. But in the end they're only numbers. To really talk about teaching, what it's been like so far, could never be summed up in such perfunctory terms. I am a teacher, a klu (the Thai word for teacher) and it is the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life.
Here's a little snapshot. I walk the non air-conditioned halls of my school (the classrooms have AC, thank the Lord) with a crinkled piece of paper in my hands. This piece of paper is sacred, because it is all that stands between me and complete and total disorientation. One of the very kind Thai teachers made it for me a couple of weeks ago, after I had gotten lost finding a class for the umpteenth time. On one side of the piece of paper are Thai numbers, and the other side has their corresponding numbers in English. You see, the Thai classrooms are labeled but the numbers are in Thai, and since I teach twenty three different classes per week (each one a different grade and each grade separated into four different sections), on three different floors, in two different buildings, along countless different hallways, I had been finding it impossible to remember where to go from class to class. For the first few weeks I either had to ask someone, or simply wander, peeking into the classes and hoping the students would call out if I passed the correct one. It was not the most efficient method and I usually ended up arriving late to class, sweaty from the exertion of going up and down stairs ten times to find the right floor.
So now I never go anywhere in the school without my trusted number translation sheet. It still takes me a while to find the right floor and the right hallway, but I'm getting better. Now when I look at my schedule and see that I have Grade 2, Section 4, there's something familiar there. I can at least get in the general vicinty of the classroom. So I'm walking along the hallway, paper in one hand. Under my arm I carry a blue ball, another extremely valued possession. It was left to me by the last foreign English teacher at the school, and I use it in almost every class. Take a tedious drilling exercise (asking the children to answer the question "How are you?" for example), add a ball, and suddenly it's a game. Simple solutions. Again and again I have found that the simplest solutions are what can make the biggest difference in a classroom.
In my free hand I carry my little plastic briefcase (they gave us these at orientation and thank God, because never once in my pre-trip packing did I think to get a bag to use for teaching). The briefcase is pink with a purple handle and it has accumulated several dozen stickers. The kids stick the stickers on me, I stick them on my briefcase. There are some Pokemon ones, some Disney princesses, a nice little mishmash of American and Asian culture all represented in tiny, colorful stick on pieces of paper. The briefcase always has my notebook in it (where I write down lesson plans), a couple of white erase markers (side note: white erase boards-worst idea EVER. Who decided to switch from chalk boards? I want to know your name mister or missy because I will hold you responsible for the constant smudginess of my hands. White erase marker gets everywhere. No matter how hard you try, you will end every class with blue or red hands, and quite possibly blue or red smudges all over your face and clothes. And even worse than that, white erase markers have no life. One will last me maybe two days. I have to buy these things every week, and yeah they're cheap, but it adds up. Give me chalk. I know it's dusty but chalk dust doesnt stain your clothes, and pieces of chalk don't suddenly run out of ink in the middle of a class, forcing you to put all your body weight into writing on the board so that maybe you will get a feeble outline. End of side note). In addition to the notebook and the markers, I will also usually have a thick stack of paper, most often something the kids can color. I mentioned before the power of coloring and I hold firm in that position. Some of my third and fourth graders will feign disinterest but by the end of the class (usually, not always) they are crouched over their desks, colored pencils in hand, brows furrowed in extreme concentration as they carefully color in shapes or the Amerian flag or any of the various other subject related objects printed out to be colored.
So with all of my teacher gear in hand I arrive in a classroom. I stride purposefully toward the desk, smiling but in what I hope is a firm, teacherly, authoritative way. I put my stuff on the desk. It's never my desk mind you. I don't have a classroom. I am a vagabond, wandering from class to class to class. If the teacher happens to be in the class when I walk in it's always a little awkward because I dont want to put my stuff on the desk while she's sitting here, but if I don't I have to just stand there with it, or maneuver it onto the ground into a little pile, all while attempting to keep my calm, cool, collected teacher demeanor of course. During this whole time there is usually a wall of noise, accompanied by lots and lots of movement. But for one brief, glorious moment (most times the only moment in the whole fifty minute class) the noise and movement stop. The class "leader" stands up and shouts in full on drill sargeant mode (and remember in my clases, this child is no older than ten, and half the time is only six or seven) "STAND UP". Everyone follows suit and then they half say, half scream this little gem "GOOD MORNING/AFTERNOON TEACHER." Now I'd say about 50 percent of the time do they get the morning afternoon part right (i.e. its 2pm and they're screaming good morning at the top of their lungs) but bless their little hearts for trying right?
And then they continue to stand, and in theory would continue to stand for the rest of the time if I didn't tell them it was okay to sit down. So that's kind of cool. If they ever really piss me off I might just test my theory out and see how long it takes for them to disobey and sit down on their own. But I am a kind and generous teacher (naturally) so I tell them it is okay for them to sit down. And then it begins. The class and the noise. I attempt to stave off the noise with a focus chant, which kind of works. It's simple. I do an action, they repeat. Hands up, hands down, hands up, hands down, to the left, to the right. You get the idea. And 9 out of 10 times the kids will do this. In first and second grade they're earnest and exited, all of their motions energetic. In 3rd and 4th they still do it but with that slight trace of irony, subtle maybe, but definitely there. Oh that terrible transition, when children get to the age where they start being ironic. Maybe that's my problem with older children. Even when they're giving you a straight answer there's this lingering feel of smart ass about it. Little kids feel every word they say. But at some point around age nine or ten kids start to learn that words can be manipulated and used, that emotion can be hidden. They learn to say what people want to hear, not what they actually mean. And maybe that's a part of life but I really hope my own children make it at least until they're 30 before they get to that stage. That's not too unrealistic an expectation right?
So the focus drill ends, and even after six weeks, there is always a tiny moment where a little voice inside my head says "oh shit". Now I have to actually teach, for fifty minutes, to a room full of Thai children, who don't speak my language. What in the world have I gotten myself into? But I soldier on, ready to put into practice my carefully constructed lesson plans. But there's that slight problem of the noise. Did I mention the noise. It shouldn't even be lower case n, noise. It should always be capital N, Noise. The Noise. Oh that unGodly wall of sound, voices at normal level, voices raised in shouts, voices in whispers, the sound of desks being scraped across linoleum, rulers and pencils and pens dropping at intervals with tiny clatters, chairs being scooted in and out, in and out. And that's just the kids in the background. No matter what we are doing there is always at least one, and very often many more than that, students sitting at their desks, hands in the air, shouting TEACHER!!!!!!!!!!!! over and over and over again. Although to be fair they're not always at their desks. Often they are only centimeters away from my face. And even though they are only centimeters away from my face they are still shouting as though we are on separate ends of a football field, TEACHER!!! They are Marlon Brando and I am Stella, and they are putting every ounce of lung power into getting my attention.
Some of them don't bother with the formality of shouting "teacher". Some merely walk right up and ask (sometimes in English but also sometimes in Thai) if they can go the toilet. They have to ask and I have to say yes (in theory, often they just walk out the door) and then they have to bow. Now I have learned the words for toilet and water (they all have water bottles which they can fill, where and with what water I have no idea). But there are lots of other requests or questions or maybe just statements I get in Thai which I have no comprehension of. A small child will come up to me, often when I'm in the middle of teaching, and when I look their way they let loose a long and very expressive stream of Thai. Then they look at me expectantly. And I offer my go to response, a smile and a yes. Now it's very likely their questions are not able to be answered with a yes or a no. They could be asking me whether they should use pencil or pen. Or what my favorite color is. Or any other question under the sun that requires more than a simple yes. But yes is what I say, because short of staring at them blankly for minutes on end, that's all I've got. Now I've given this some thought and I do wonder if at some point one of these children will ask me if it's okay for them to leave school early, or go play in traffic, or hitchike to Cambodia, or stab a pencil in their friend's eye. And me, being the hapless farang (foreigner) that I am, will smile, nod and say "yes", of course it's okay if you want to cut out of school early today and go get a full facial tatoo, of course it's fine if you want to go pee in the principle's office. This is not an entirely unlikely scenario (well the face tatoo part might be a little out there). But what can I do? As of yet I have not given permisson to any of these children to do something illegal, so here's hoping I keep that streak alive.
I used to try and fight The Noise. I would spend half the class miming quiet to the kids. I would walk the aisles and break up one little huddle of children only to see another huddle form out of the corner of my eye across the room. I tried everything. I tried yelling. I tried...okay mainly I just tried yelling. And let me tell you, yelling don't work. So now I try to work with The Noise. It's not going anywhere but neither am I. I may not be able to defeat The Noise but I darn well won't let it defeat me. After a couple of very hoarse weeks, I have gotten used to speaking at a permanent shout. It makes me feel a little ridiculous, especially when I'm doing something like going over the lyrics to the Itsy Bitsy Spider (for a unit on weather) and I'm practicaly screaming "down came the rain and washed the spider out." It sort of ruins the whole calm, pleasant teacher image to be standing at the front of the room, red in the face from shouting, but alas, it is my lot in life to do so.
Now The Noise has a companion, a little thing I like to call The Movement. I go back and forth on which is worse. The Noise is irritating sure, and it definitely makes it hard to teach lessons, just on a logistical level (if the students can't hear the teacher, that's a significant problem). But The Movement, well The Movement, is another monster. These kids could not sit still in their desks if their lives depended on it. I want to know if their parents are sending them out the door with mugs of coffee. Does the cafeteria serve red bull? Children all over the world are little balls of hyperactivity, but the kids at this school, at all times of the day, are simply tiny litte Tasmian devils. There are two ways The Movement works. There are the sweet, enthusiastic, excited children at the front of the class who move primarily to get my attention. A simple game of hang man creates a stampede of children who are all determined to plant themselves directly in my line of vision so as to be called on to guess the next correct letter in "January". And that's just hangman. In a lot of my lessons I play racing games where one kid from each team has a dry erase marker and they have to race to write something correctly on the board. And good God, I had no idea the frenzy that would be created from lettting children write on the board. I often find myselfs in impromptu games of tug of war with small children, me hanging onto one end of the dry erase marker, them on the other, locked in a battle of wills. Or else I'm in a mob of eight year olds, closing in from all sides, chanting "TEACHER!" and waving their hands in my face. The only thing that saves me from suffocation is the sheer fact that I'm taller than they are. I cannot tell you the number of times in one class I say (in calm teacher voice) "Go back to your desks please" or "I will only call on you if you're at your desk". I cannot also tell you the number of times in one class I yell (in desperate, dear God I'm about to be crushed to death by a horde of uniformed children voice) BACK TO YOUR DESKS NOW. And some of them do. Most simply go and stand next to their desks and dance around like they have ants in their pants, which I used to try to fight, but now realize I need to accept it for the small improvement that it is.
But like I said that's just one type of The Movement. The other type is the defiant, yay the white teacher is here, time for recess/gossip hour/playtime type of movement. And this is the kind that drives me slowly to the edge. Because the enthusiastic movement I can forgive. Heck most times I find it kind of endearing. I mean you have to love kids being manically, out of control excited about a lesson on the months of the year or numbers up to 25. But the other kind of movement is why I could never be a teacher for life. I dont have nearly thick enough skin to be outright ignored, and I think being outright ignored just comes with the territory of teaching. I cannot tell you the number of activities these children engage in in one fifty minute period. Every week I think I've seen it all and then I look over and one of my students is knitting, KNITTING. But at least that's contained. I don't have to worry about any collateral damage from crochet work. But especially in my younger classes, there is full on physical contact. I'll be trying to work through a lesson and then out of the corner of my eye I will see a small blur of white and navy launch through the air and land with an enormous crash onto another small blur of white and navy. They tackle each other. They jump on each other's backs. They crash into desks. They crash into walls. They knock chairs over. They knock posters off the walls. They are human wrecking balls, and half the time I simply try to get through the class without anyone losing an eye or breaking something (either bone or furniture). Depending on the class and how much energy I have, I choose one of two tacks to deal with this. If I have a lot of energy and am feeling particularly spunky, I'll chase them around and attempt to keep them in their seats. I will be stern and firm and grab students by their collars and point menacingly toward the hallway (usually it's empty but I think they get that I'm referring to the threat of going to get their Thai teacher). But this is problematic. One, they will stay in their seats maybe five seconds before bouding out again to body slam each other or stand on something or start running in circles (seriously these kids are on speed). Two, if I do this, and make it my mission to maintain control, then there will be no teaching. I will spend the entire lesson chasing the little monkeys around, and every time I corner one little monkey, why another little monkey on the other side of the class will be up and running around. It's like wack-a-mole. Except I can't beat them with giant hammers. But you get the idea.
So usually I go back and forth between ignoring them and dealing with it whenever it starts go get out of hand. And it kind of works. I try to focus on the students who are actually paying attention, because really what else can I do? So there's that and then like I mentioned there are the many, many disparate other ways these kids stay in motion. They play rock, paper, scissors. They color in coloring books. They turn their chairs around (as in their backs are to me, and then they look surprised when I ask them to turn around) and talk amongst themselves (nine year olds clearly have very complex personal lives that needs to be discussed at all times). They do their other homework (this is the most prevalent form of movement, yet oddly the one I mind least. I know I should fight it and sometimes I do but the honest truth is that if they're doing other work at least they're quiet . Also my class isn't graded. It's a supplement to their other English class, and these poor kids are at school all afternoon. Does it make me an awful teacher if I think it's kind of okay for them to get some homework done while I talk). They go and stand by the window and look out. They go to the bathroom...constantly. Again I used to try and fight this. I tried to say that only two at a time could go. But I dont think they understood me and they thought I was just saying no outright. Which I would never do because I have the smallest bladder in human history and the last thing I would want to do is say no to some poor child that legitimately has to go to pee. So I say yes to two and seconds later three come up to me and I say yes to them and it goes like that all class. And half the time they come back and their faces and hair are soaking wet which...? Again could fight it, but I've learned to pick my battles and that simply isnt one worth fighting.
I'll look over and there will be three of them at my desk. I never see them approach but nearly every time I look there they are. They shuffle through the worksheets I brought. They pick up my flashcards. They inspect my briefcase and play with the clasp. And if I forgot and left the ball somewhere easy to reach, they will pick up the ball and start throwing it to or more likely at each other. Now that is a battle that I willingly fight and that I quickly put an end to. How are these kids this energetic? I mean I know when you're little you are naturally more sprightly, but really? And the toys. How do they have these toys in school? They have little plastic cars they race over their desks. They have stuffed animals (one class I confiscated a pile of these and the little sneaks took them back when I wasnt looking and hid them well enough where I couldnt find them. I think I might have burst a blood vessel on that one). They have little video games. And if I somehow manage to take/get them to put away the darned toys, well then they just improvise. They start sword fighting with rulers. If it's a Scout day (I think it's sort of like our version of the Boy/Girl Scouts, but I'm not entirely sure), they play with the various accessories to their Scout uniforms, the crazy hats and a rope that goes around their necks which I kid you not, looks just like a noose.
This is the enivronment I teach in. These are my two major foes, The Noise and The Movement, and if you've just read that and have never taught before you're probably thinking, why in the world would any sane human subject themselves to it? And sometimes I ask myself that too. When I try to hand out what I thought was a fun birthday project (the kids would make a list of all of their classmates' birthdays and then color and decorate it) and the little twerps look at me, shake their heads and say "no" I ask that question. When I'm teaching first and second grade and at least one child in every class is crying I ask it. Oh the crying, that could almost be a capital letter too. It shocked me the first time it happened. I went to the crying child, tried to ask what was wrong (of course she or he couldnt explain it in English, but they definitely explained it, in detail, in Thai), tried to ask if they needed the nurse (again, language barrier), tried to ask who was responsible (this I could ascertain through the wonderfully universal act of pointing) but then what? I have no means of punshing these kids and boy do they know it. As far as I know there's no detention. They don't have recess so I can't threaten to take that away. I could send them to the principal's office but as far as I know that's not a thing here, and I'd probably just end up pissing off the very busy principal who doesnt have time to deal with things like that. Pretty much the only form of discipline at my disposal is physical violence, which as tempting as it sometimes is, I could never do. So when I see a kid hit another kid and then one starts crying all I can really do it speak in a harsh tone of voice, say a bunch of words the kid won't understand, and shake my finger. So that's usually what I do. So because I have no choice I've learned to just live with the crying, the same way I live with The Noise and The Movement. As of yet every crying child has eventually stopped. None of them have been sick or really hurt. They're just still babies really and well like all babies they occasionally cry.
So then why do I do this? What keeps me here? It's not the pay, although I probably make more than most of the much harder working, much more deserving Thai teachers. It's not because it's some relaxing vacay. My weekends my be filled with tropical island paradises or fun trips to Bangkok with friends (thank the Lord for my weekends, they keep me sane) but my weekdays are just plain old hard work. I'm tired all the time. I no longer have an immune system. Out of the six weeks I've been here, I've been healthy for approximately two. On the rare occasions I have an afternoon off, I take these crazy 5 or 6 hour black out naps, naps that are very nearly miniature comas. I wake up and I barely remember my name. This is exhausting. It's hard, harder than any job I've ever had (and I used to have to get up at 4:30 in the morning to go make espresso for eight hours). So then why do I do it?
Well I can say that every day, at least once, and on good days sometimes quite often, there are good moments, wonderful moments even. When I walk into a Kindergarten class and I'm surrounded by a mob of children all trying to hug me. When I walk down a hallway and every kid I pass lights up, shouts "ELIZABETH" (it's easier for them to say than Liz, go figure) and tries to shake my hand or get a high five. When those same, Tasmanian devils of energy get so into a game or lesson that I can see it in their eyes, when they're literally jumping up and down with enthusiasm and I know that somehow, against all odds, I did something right. When I go to review a previous week's lesson and amid a sea of blank stares, one child raises a timid hand and gets the answer right and I know that I actually, legitimately taught something, even if it only stuck to one out of the forty kids in the class. When I stop thinking about traffic control and babysitting and let myself have fun, let myself enjoy the pure and untarnished energy of the only people on earth who can be that energetic and not be on some kind of drug. There are things I really love about this job. I love the dorky kids in my classes, the ones who wear glasses and don't rough house around with the obviously "cool" kids (even in second grade there are cool kids, they just might not know it yet), and who sit in their seats all fifty minutes and never take their eyes off me. Oh how these kids melt my heart, the quiet ones who pay attention, who shoot irritated glances at their other, loud and hyperactive classmates. They're these little kids but they look at me with genuine, very adult commiseration. They try to help out and get the other kids to quiet down (they have about as much luck as I do). And I honestly love them for it. Some of them I can tell will have a rough go of it in school. They're quirky and crazy smart and they'll probably have to survive a few rough years (if the Thai social hiearchy is anything like at home) But I just want to take them by the shoulders and tell them how awesome they are, how they're going to get to college and everyone will suddenly realize how awesome they are too, because they have something that no amount of popularity will ever bestow, kindness and empathy and a wisdom that is far, far beyond their years.
Or the kids who are both class clown and super nerd. Who have a ton of energy and can't sit still but who so obviously love school and learning and who want to do well. I love how competitive Thai children are. I've talked about how I divide my classes up into three teams and give points for participation and take away points if they're too noisy. And they get so into it. One of my favorite noises in the world now is the sound of ten or fifteen Thai children cheering like they just won the lottery because they got one little point. They don't get a prize if they win, not unless you count a high five from me a prize. And well, the thing is they do treat it like a prize. They get excited and students from the losing teams try to sneak in for high fives, like I'm giving away buckets of candy.
So these are the moments that are good. And even though to be honest the good moments are more rare than the "run screaming from the building" moments, they just matter more. I can't explain why but they do. Here's an example. This past Tuesday I started each of my four third grade classes by asking them to take out their calendar projects we had started the week before. Now in three out of these four classes, there was absolute silence after I said this. I had to draw a calendar on the board and then only about five of them took them out. They hadn't worked on them at all since the last week which was fine because I planned on finishing them in class. I never intended for them to be homework. So maybe two out of the five started working on them in earnest, with colored pencils and rulers and everything. The other three I had to cajole into doing it, much to their evident dismay. And then the rest of the class, the ones who hadn't taken their calendars out. I had to go up to every single student and stand there with my hands on my hip until they took the darn thing out of their backpack or desk. Most of them tried to say "no" to me, you know, just "nope, teacher I'd rather not, I'd kind of rather play cards with my friend over here." I couldn't help myself. Immediately in a raised, very annoyed voice I said "this isn't optional!", even though of course they dont know what optional means. So finally they would take it out and then go back to whatever they were doing before, even with me standing there. So it would take another few minutes of negotiations before they would pick up a pencil and even then they looked at the calendar like it was an impromptu ten page essay. All they had to do was fill in numbers and draw a picture, but it was the last thing these kids wanted to do, much to my dissapointment.
And so it went for three classes, but then I got to my last third grade class of the day. I walked in with slumped shoulders, ready to go home, tired and annoyed and honestly a little hurt that these kids thought my calendar project was stupid. I had worked hard on it and paid for the copies myself and paper clipped them together for each student. And so I walked to my desk, wearily faced the students, ready for another tug of war. But before I even opened my mouth five students came up with their calendars in hand. I took them and looked down and I swear to God I nearly cried. Every single one of these students created the most beautiful, most colorful, most perfect calendars I could have asked for. And then after these five, more came up. And suddenly I was in a mob of students, but this mob I didn't mind. I welcomed it because they were all very eagerly holding out their wonderful little calendars to me, wish such evident but still slightly tentative pride that I could have started blubbering right there (luckily I didn't). Their drawings looked like they must have taken ages. Whereas my other students sketched a birthday cake in pencil and handed it in, these kids had drawn elaborate artwork. Sure it was a little random and not exactly what I wanted (originally in theory I wanted them to draw a picture related to the month, but I soon realized, as I often do, that explaining directions is the most challenging part of my job. These kids may know the numbers all the way to 100 but they do not, unfortunately, know what "be creative" means), but it was beautiful. I had several Pokemon calendars but no two exactly alike. And these Pokemons, well I never thought I'd be so thrilled to look over pages and pages of Pokemon characters. They had created stories, each calendar page bursting with color and characters, some even with little thought bubble above the character's heads. And that's just the Pokemon ones. I had calendars with Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse. I had calendars with princesses. I had ones with ninjas in full on battles. I had calendars with stickers, calendars with glitter marker. I had one calendar that apparently told a full story about a girl and a cat, each month a different chapter, with text and everything (in Thai sadly so I could not read it). I had in my hands calendars that had been drawn with care and with thought and with such childlike purity and singularity of purpose that it was one of the most touching things I've ever experienced. They had worked on these at home. They hadn't needed to. They probably had a ton of other work to do, but they had worked on my calendars at home. Whereas the other kids obviously chucked them in their desks without another thought, these 35 kids, for whatever reason, had decided to treat my little project like it meant something, like it was graded even though they knew perfectly well it wasn't.
And I can think of no better way to describe why I keep doing this, why I will finish the semester and why I havent already booked the next flight home. For every ten horrible moments where I think these kids are little monsters, there is one moment like that, where they are perfect and beautiful and precious and where all I want to do is help them to stay like that, if just for a little longer. And maybe 10 to 1 seems like not a great ratio. And I guess it isnt. But like I said before, the good moments just seem to mean a lot more. They are the ones that stick with me, the ones I find myself thinking of most often. And so it goes.
I am an English teacher in Thailand and it is the hardest, most impossible thing I have ever done. I am a teacher and there are moments when I love it. And those moments, well they make all the difference.