by Kia Hogan
I have taught in Thailand for eight months, in both a government school and in a private language school. The differences between them are extraordinary! My first teaching position was at a private language school in northern Bangkok. I had air conditioned classrooms, classes of 6-10 students who all wanted to learn English and textbooks and teaching materials were provided and I have to tell you, I hated it! I came to Thailand to experience the culture, the food, meet Thai people, learn the language and fully submerse myself into the Thai lifestyle. The private language school for me was too reminiscent of England for me to be able to enjoy it, though I have many friends who do love working there.
On realizing that the private language school wasn’t for me, I transferred to a Thai government school teaching primary school children. Which means Thai teachers, Thai children, Thai teaching methods and Thai food! Oh and nobody speaks English!! I have never had so much fun in my life. The last seven months have been amazing. My children are so full of energy and personality; every lesson is dynamic, fun and enjoyable (hopefully for my students too!!). I have enjoyed myself more in a school where I have no teaching materials (unless I can find the hours needed to make them!), no discipline system teachings except the old style corporal punishment in place in some Thai schools and classes of 30-40 rowdy children who have no interest in learning English. Finding activities that interest them, without them realizing they are learning, has been hard work but it has also been worth it to see their language skills improving!
To my knowledge, the corporal punishment system in Thailand is in the process of being outlawed. However, in small country schools, this will be the discipline system in place and it is quite a shock to the system to see it. I always make my fellow co-teachers laugh when I’m trying to control a class as they come in and give me the whipping stick of which I refuse to use! It is difficult trying to punish bad behaviour in a school where nobody speaks English, but with a grasp of basic Thai, I have cut down behavioural problems by keeping the naughty students in during lunch time to finish the work. My “mai set, mai gin khao” list (If you don’t finish there will be no lunch time) is a well known, if slightly overused, philosophy within the school now! And it does work. Only two months ago, I had 45-60 students in every lunch time and now I very rarely have any.
I will admit to being totally unprepared for the behaviour of my students as when I arrived in Thailand (and even before I arrived here come to think of it), everybody that I met told me how respectful and well behaved Thai children are. This seems to only be the case when you punish them in the same way as the Thai teachers! Of course, once my students realised that I wouldn’t hit them, they took advantage of my Western nature, but now that they trust me and I trust them, they seem to have settled down in classes a lot more and are more willing to learn now that they have seen how much fun it can be (and they’re lunch times have been threatened!). They love singing and dancing so I bought Thai DVD’s in English which helps them to learn song lyrics and the dance moves to it and they love it as much as I do!
I was also rather shocked to find that country schools outside of Bangkok centre don’t seem to have a system for children with psychological problems or mental impairment. I have students who have Down’s Syndrome, brain damage and physical impairment who are expected to keep up with the rest of the class, which is impossible. I have also found that many psychological problems remain undiagnosed as mental illness still holds a stigma in Thailand. I have many students who I believe suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism, and Asperger’s Syndrome, and these are also expected to keep up academically with the rest of their class. Teaching these children can be so tiring, as a teacher it is mentally and physically exhausting, especially when you have another 34 students to control and keep entertained! However, when they do learn and rush up to you each morning with the phrases you have taught them, their pride and yours more than makes up for the effort involved.
Many idealists believe it is possible to teach English in Thailand without having to speak Thai. Whilst I believe this may be possible in an international or language school, when you are teaching children who speak no English, a basic grasp of the essentials is necessary. I spent my two months summer holidays learning classroom instruction (for example: sit down, be quiet, get out your English books, let’s go to the…room) in Thai and my classes have been much better behaved since I went back as they now understand me. I think it also scares them that I may know more Thai than I am letting on so they have stopped talking so much too!
Teaching in Thailand has opened my eyes to many things I didn’t realise. I never knew whilst I was at school as a student just how demanding teaching is. I’m up from 5am every morning and rarely get home before 6pm. There are many days when I am in bed by 8:30 at night as my students have completely exhausted me during the day! And I can’t count the times that I have spent whole weekends making teaching materials which leave my apartment looking like an arts and crafts centre!! But for all of the hard work, it only takes one child to come up to you and give you a big hug whilst telling you that you are the best teacher in the world to make it all worth while! There have been numerous times when I have sat in my office wondering if I will ever make a difference here; when one of my students has come in and given me a cake for being his favourite teacher, or a group of the girls have come in to ask me if they can style my hair, or vice versa. It’s the little things that children do that make teaching in Thailand such an incredibly fulfilling job!