Wednesday, August 26, 2009

An Ordinary Day in the Life of a Farang English Teacher in Thailand

So I feel like my blogs of late have been less about my day-to-day life here than about the more notable moments I have experienced, visa run trips, bouts with sickness, extraneous mishaps etc. But the truth is my day-to-day life here makes up, well, my day-to-day life. Five days out of the week I am an English teacher, and while it may not be glamorous or particularly exciting, it is my life right now, and in its own, more ordinary way, worthy of attention. So I thought for this blog I would document an ordinary day of my life here in Thailand, as ordinary as a day in Thailand can be for a farang English teacher.

Monday. Monday was the beginning of a new philosophy for me. The previous week, despite only teaching two full days, I ended Friday exhausted and nearly in tears. I had come to terms with the fact that I can’t really discipline these kids (I can’t threaten them with grades seeing as I don’t give any and while I technically could threaten them with physical violence, I haven’t been a teacher long enough to resort to hitting them). The difficult classes were going to be difficult right up until the end, but there had to be a better way of dealing with it, there had to be a strategy where I wouldn’t end the class as an exhausted wreck. So in a moment of inspiration I decided on a new philosophy. Love. I’ll give you a few moments to stop laughing. Okay, get it out of your system. I understand. If I read that I would probably laugh too, but my philosophy stemmed from the book “Eat, Pray, Love” (which is sort of my new Bible). See, in the book Elizabeth Gilbert has a problem meditating because all of these intrusive, pesky thoughts keep interrupting. And at first she gets so angry at these thoughts that the whole experience is ruined. But then one day someone suggests that maybe the answer is to not get angry at these thoughts, to just accept them with, yes, that’s right, love.

And in a weird way this sort of parallels my situation. Because these intrusive, pesky kids in these classes are not going to stop running or wrestling or screaming or playing or throwing or whatever the heck they decide to do that day in their ongoing attempt to drive me bonkers. I’m not a Thai teacher. They are not scared of me. I can’t really blame them. Before my only reaction to these kids was anger, and that anger would consume me and ultimately ruin the class. But, in my moment of inspiration, I wondered, why not try love. Let these kids throw anything they’ve got at me (and sometimes they do, literally, frikkin’ paper airplanes, I thought only kids in movies or cartoons threw paper airplanes), and let me react with the only thing that will keep me sane, love. Kid sitting at his desk doing his homework, love. Kids dueling with their plastic rulers, love. Kid running around in giant circles (I kid you not), love. Kid riding on other kid’s back (again, kid you not), love. This doesn’t mean I’ll completely let chaos reign. Usually when I see one kid clobbering another I’ll intervene (which is approximately once per class). And every few minutes I’ll walk to the back and attempt to make the 80% of students out of their seats go back to their desks. But I’ll do it with love in my heart. And yes this may sound like I’ve gone over the deep end, but I assure you I have not snapped. Nor am I on any kind of mood enhancing drugs, legal or otherwise. I just figured it had to be better than letting anger get the best of me. And you know what, when I set out on Monday with this philosophy, shock of shocks, it kind of worked. It changed absolutely nothing about the classroom atmosphere. All it did was change my outlook, my mood, my heart rate, and that made everything easier. So hey, maybe, this hippie dippie philosophy has got something going for it. Embrace the love people.

So Monday was a better day from the start. Here’s how a typical school day goes. I walk into school, sign a little book to say I’m there, go up to the tiny “office” that houses me and about nine other Thai women (and one British guy), gather my things, then head over to the Kindergarten building. The Kindergarten building is across a little street from the main part of the school. It was built recently and it’s exactly what you would expect a building would be like if it was built for the sole purpose of housing a Kindergarten. The steps are tiny, little kid sized (which by the way really work out your calves). There’s a big playground in the main courtyard, with swings and slides and all sorts of wonderful little kid things. There’s even a koi pond in one corner, which if I were a little kid, I would be glued to. My class starts at 8:30 but sometimes when I get there the little Kindergarten procession is still going on. They have a separate one from the regular school, but around the same time. All of the kids gather in straight lines outside the building and sing various songs, some of which come with intricate dance moves (which somehow they all know). About a fourth of these kids sob throughout the whole thing (the Kindergarten comprises three levels, so the youngest ones are like two years old, you’d cry too). And one cool thing is that most of the parents hang out and watch until every last one of these kids is inside the building. Family is hugely important in Thai society, and you can just tell from these parent’s faces that it’s killing them to have to send their little babushkas off to school. You imagine a Kindergarten drop off back home and maybe a few parents hang around but most drop the little munchkins off in the carpool lane and then rush off to work or to yoga classes or to other parent activities, but here nearly all of the parents stick around, every single day, for a solid twenty, thirty minutes, standing outside the gate, waving and smiling until their kids are ushered into classrooms and out of sight.

So after this I walk up to the third floor to the English Center. And so begins the best part of my day. I love teaching Kindergarten for several reasons. One I have a designated Thai teacher in with me every day. This Thai teacher is intrinsic to me being able to teach for fifty minutes. She’s a wonderful lady who switches from scary to kind in about two seconds, which I think is sort of how you have to be if you’re teaching five year olds. She can quiet these kids like nobody’s business and I really wish I could take her to all of my classes. She also is invaluable as a translator, because five year olds don’t know a ton of English. Kindergarten classes are small, only 25-30 kids in each, but without her it would be impossible. Now I do teach classes of forty six and seven year olds without any help, so that might give you a hint as to how difficult that is.

The Kindergarten English Center is a wonderful, clean, brightly lit room with no desks which is how I wish every one of my classes was. Desks are the enemy. Desks allow kids to hide things and store toys. Desks are hazards if I ever try to play any running game (I spend the whole time tensed, waiting for a kid to knock themselves out and get me sent straight back to the United States). Also about 80% of the ESL games you find online are IMPOSSIBLE to play if you have desks in the classroom, especially if there are forty or fifty desks crammed into a classroom that should have half that many. But my wonderful Kindergarten English center is a desk free zone. There’s a huge floor space and the walls and shelves are lined with English related games or books or puzzles, all sorts of things that I can use in my lessons. There’s even a little bathroom right off the room that has tiny little toilets and sinks (so cute!) The fifty minutes I spend in this room are quiet and easy, two things that do not exist outside of the English Center. I can talk at normal volume. I can do so many things I would never attempt in another class because of the floor space as well as the help of the Thai teacher. And these kids, oh, I don’t know what happens to a child the summer between Kindergarten and 1st grade, but obviously something big, because the difference between these perfect, wonderful, adorable little babies and their crazy, hyperactive 1st grade counterparts is immense. When they come into the class they all run up to me and hug me and then when the class is over they do the same thing. They’re enthusiastic and they learn quickly (probably because they, unlike some of my other classes, can actually hear the words coming out of my mouth). Oh, Kindergarten. If I could teach Kindergarten all day here I might not ever leave. They’re perfect. We sing songs and play games and I never want it to end.

But inevitably it does and 9:20 arrives. I have a free period so I always try to grab a computer but this is tricky as there are two and a half working computers (the half is what your computer was like back in the 90s) and lots of teachers. If I can get a computer I spend the next fifty minutes g-chatting and facebooking and just feasting on the internet. If I can’t get a computer I go up to my “office”, sit at my desk and either read or try to make lesson plans. Sometimes I go to our school’s little snack bar and get water or canned coffee (kind of as nasty as it sounds) or a yogurt. I’ve befriended the lady who sells tokens, Pe Oi (you exchange cash for tokens to use for food) so I stop for a little chat where I try to speak Thai (which pretty much means asking her “how are you”). 10:10 rolls around and with it my first non-Kindergarten class. On Monday I have second graders which (minus the 2-4) section are pretty good. They’re old enough to not be as totally insane as the first graders, but young enough not to be smart asses. I teach my lesson using the white board, flash cards, games, whatever teaching device I can come up with that I think might keep them entertained. Sometimes I really feel like I’m a paid clown, that that’s really the whole point of my job at this school. The kids certainly expect that if their chorus of “play game!” is any indication. I never attempt to “teach” for more than ten minutes (by “teach” I mean me standing at the front of the room talking while they sit at their desks, 50% listening, 50% ignoring me), and even ten minutes is a stretch. I think that might be why it’s so exhausting. I feel like at all times I must keep things fun and zany. Games! Songs! Crafts! I’m supposed to be entertainment, educational entertainment, but entertainment all the same, like a PBS kids show. They have teachers who teach them English grammar. They even learn math in English. So after nearly four months here I have come to terms with my true purpose. I am an English clown.

I get to where there is only three minutes left of class and then I count up the points. Usually the kids will count with me in English (hey subtle teaching tool! See I’m crafty) and then one team is announced as the winner. The kids cheer and dance and I give the winning team high fives or fist bumps (I never initiate the fist bumps, they do, and each time I do it I feel like I’m a 100 years old). Then I get a kid to erase the board (this is not difficult, they usually end up fighting over the eraser like it’s made of chocolate) then make my triumphant exit. Then comes lunch.

Lunch is pretty much the same every day. I grab my tokens, go down to the cafeteria, buy a water, then go to the food line. I could get noodle soup but I always end up splashing myself and staining my clothes, so I usually go to the section where you get a plate of rice and your choice of several toppings. There are a few curries and a hot dog type dish, but I almost always get the same thing (I am nothing if not a creature of habit). I go for the omelet (mmm always yummy and they always eat omelets over rice here, which at first I thought was weird but which I might keep doing when I get home, that’s how used to it I am) and this spicy pork (I think it’s pork) minced salad. Some days they have these fried chicken pieces and I’ll get those, although it’s always a tad embarrassing because none of the other teachers eat them. They are, however, a big hit with the kids. I grab my silverware, put a little spicy sauce on top (they have a big bowl of it by the silverware and the kids put it on everything, they grow up with it so it’s their ketchup), then go back up to my office. There are a few tables in the cafeteria for teachers but all of the teachers who have desks in my office eat there, which I much prefer. Despite being here for nearly four months, I still get a lot of attention walking around the school, especially in the crowded cafeteria. I’ve perfect the look straight ahead walk, but a chorus of “HELLO TEACHER” follows me everywhere I go. Some kids are constantly trying to touch me, and after the germ fest that was my first two months here, I’m not so big on the touching. I feel like eating in the cafeteria would be tantamount to feeding time at the zoo, me being the zoo’s star attraction. I do feel that I am well prepared if, in the future, I ever become an instant celebrity, people staring, people reaching out their hands to touch you, people shouting out your name as you pass. There’s really only one way to deal with it. Accept that you’re going to be stared at as though you have an extra head and keep walking.

After lunch comes two more classes, and then I have a wonderful three hour break. Usually if it’s Monday I’m going to need groceries so I use this break to walk the five minutes or so to the main street in town and visit our little Tesco Lotus express (about the size of a CVS). I load up my shopping basket and every time I get in line to pay there’s a moment where I look down and think, wow, my purchases could not be more American if they were wrapped up with a big red, white and blue bow. I always get whole wheat bread, a half gallon of milk, tuna fish, corn flakes (they are sold everywhere here and despite earlier reservations I’ve become an avid fan) and apples. Sometimes if I’m out and can’t wait to go to the bigger Tesco Lotus or Gourmet Market in Bangkok, I get a little jar of Skippy Peanut Butter. Like I said, could not be more American. The girls that work there know me by now and I always try to get through the transaction without speaking English (not too difficult seeing as all I have to say is hello and thank you). If I have heavy stuff I take a little bicycle cab home. They’re really common in my town and the easiest way to get around unless you want to take a motorbike (which I never will, I’m sorry but I’d really like to leave Thailand with all of my limbs). I felt bad at first taking pedicabs because all of the drivers are about 60 years old and look as though they’ll have a stroke if they go more than two blocks, but then I realized they’re making money and they must be stronger than they look, biking people around in this crazy heat.

I get back to my apartment, rest or work on the lesson plan for my extra class that starts at 4:30. The first few weeks I napped but I try not to now, because once I overslept and was late. I’m very bad at waking up to alarms, especially if I’m napping. I tend to get disoriented during afternoon naps, so often I’ll wake up, confuse my alarm with something else, and then just go back to sleep. So as a precaution I’ve tried to stay awake despite being utterly exhausted by this point in the day.

A little after four I head back to school for what is the hardest part of my week. I teach this extra class three times a week and it is the same fifteen kids each time (the first month it was thirty kids from four different grades so it has gotten easier). So I have to come up with three extra lesson plans every week that cover new subjects not taught in my regular classes (I have all of these kids at other points in the week so I don’t want to repeat what I’ve already taught). I’ve tried to get creative and some things have worked better than others, but at this point in the afternoon the kids are cranky and hot and tired (so’s the teacher). They’ve spent the last half hour before class stuffing their faces with candy from the school’s snack bar, so in addition to the crankiness they’re also hyperactive. It’s trying, I will say that. But I get very well compensated so in the end it’s worth it. 5:30 rolls around and I’m done, free!

Sometimes I’ll go online if there’s a free computer. If not I’ll either go home and make dinner (a favorite of late, tuna sandwiches, yes such a departure from what I eat at home) or I’ll walk back to the market and get food there. Usually I’ll go for Pad Thai. There are two vendors, both with excellent food and I try to alternate so as to not offend either of them. I order my Pad Thai with dried shrimp and stand while they make it. At this point the market is crowded with students in their uniforms (there are three different schools in like a 1 mile radius), and people home from work picking up dinner. The air is hot and sticky, and most days it has either already stormed or will soon (remember it’s rainy season). I stand, usually covered in sweat after the long day, and no matter how many times I’ve seen them do it I always watch, fascinated, while they make my pad thai.

It takes about a minute and costs less than a dollar so it’s going to be real difficult for me to go home and sit at a pricey Thai restaurant and wait a half hour for my 10 dollar pad thai that’s half as good. The lady who cooks it has clearly done it enough times where she could make it with her eyes closed. First she cracks an egg onto the large skillet that sits over a small flame. A few seconds later after the egg has started to cook (the skillet is kept super hot so it cooks fast), she throws the noodles in, then she pours a brown liquid over the noodles (nothing is measured, nothing has to be). Next comes some tofu, some sugar, the dried shrimp, some brown stuff which I can’t really identify. Last come the green onions and sprouts. Everything is tossed together, the delicious smelling smoke wafting up from the skillet, mingling with the smells of all the neighboring street vendors, chicken and duck and fish and assorted fried things. Taxis and motorbikes rush past only inches away. Kids talk loudly as they walk past sipping on iced coffee drinks (hugely popular here). Mothers loaded down with a dozen different bags stop to inspect the food at various stands before moving on.

Finally my pad thai lady takes the contents of the skillet and dumps them onto a plate which is passed off to another woman who works there, assembly line style. Skillfully and quickly the other woman takes the content of the plate, dumps some crushed peanuts on it, wraps it in paper, ties it with a rubber band and puts it into a plastic bag. She then takes a bunch of green onions, a handful of sprouts and a packet of dried chilis, puts those in the bag too, and hands them to me, a very happy customer. I give her my 25 baht (again that’s less than a dollar) and walk home.

There’s a quicker route but I usually walk over to the road by the river. It’s a quieter street and I like to walk past all of the restaurants that come to life at night all along the river. They’re not restaurants as you would imagine, just a collection of low tables on top of carpets (you sit on the ground). The kitchen is a big stove and some counters under little awnings. By 6 these places start to get crowded, people sitting on the ground enjoying soup or rice with a cold beer. I reach my school and cross over one street, then walk a few more minutes until I get to the tiny alley where my apartment building is, almost directly underneath the huge suspension bridge that leads to Bangkok.

I usually pass the daughter of the man who owns the building. She’s in her twenties and runs the building’s office and she has a four or five year old son. At this time of day they’re usually outside playing badminton or some kind of game. Sometimes one of the men who works at the pub next door (also owned by the man who owns the building) plays with the little boy while his mom takes down laundry from the hangers outside. I wave to them, reach the door to my building and walk up the stairs to my apartment. The first thing I always do, even before turning on the AC or eating my dinner, is to take a shower. There’s no hot water and I’ve realized that the best way to deal with this is to take showers immediately after coming inside when the apartment is still warm from the day.

And then a little after 6, with the sky darkening (it gets dark here around 7 every day) I finally sit on my bed, put on some TV on DVD, eat my delicious, cheap dinner, and relax. And that’s an ordinary day, maybe not the most thrilling thing in the world, but it’s how I’ve spent most of my minutes and hours here in Thailand. And I have to say despite the crazy kids and the heat and the no hot water, I will miss these routines when they come to an end in a few weeks. Whenever I reach my apartment building now after a long day teaching, I have that unmistakable feeling that you get after truly living somewhere, even if just for a little while. I feel like I’m happy to be home.

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