A lesson in Thai schools:
Before I arrived in Thailand, the program I signed up with provided me with a lot of information about Thailand and the school system. I kept seeing a few pieces of advice over and over. I was instructed to go with the flow, not worry if I didn’t know exactly what was going on, and do what I was told as best I could. The Thai school system was described as being lax and not as uniform as American schools. The pamphlet also said uniform protocol is rare as well as future notice and scheduling of events. All of this sounded fine to me. I’m pretty good at going with the flow and rolling with the punches. Who doesn’t like the sound of a more laid back job anyway? Apparently “laid back” wasn’t what they meant when they said lack of protocol. My school, Anubanchonburi, is actually pretty demanding. Of all the other teachers I’ve talked to in my program no one does as much paperwork, after hours events and teaching as we do at Anubanchonburi. That being said, we do get paid better than all the teachers I’ve talked to as well. Besides learning how to write lesson plans and fill out feedback forms there are many other things I’ve learned while working at Anubanchonburi. In most ways the Thai school system is the polar opposite of America’s, but the kids, teachers and politics are pretty much the same.
-Grades are arbitrary. Really, they don’t matter. They matter so much that they cease to exist. Let me explain: no student is left behind. Nope not that ridiculous system we have in America, but another one that goes like this: Some kids are super smart, others skim by and yet others have no idea that the sky is blue, but they all have one thing in common: they pass. No one fails here. We were told that at orientation and we were all quite baffled. What’s the point of school if no one fails? How is that fair to the kids that actually pass? Well, it’s not, but that’s just the way it is. Before our midterm we said something to our coordinator like, “If kids can’t fail, what grade do we give?” She looked at us with a confused face and said in a high pitched voice, “Who said kids can’t fail?! They can fail! They get the grade they deserve, we are trying to see what level they are really at!” We all just sat there stunned and murmured “Okay.” The next week we all gave our midterms and sure enough some kids failed. Then a week later our coordinator held a big meeting. It went something like this: Come to school an hour early in the morning to personally tutor the kids that failed, then retest them, on the retest they cannot get below a ten a.k.a. all kids must pass, no matter what. So really if a kid fails it gives the teacher more work and sometimes that work is fruitless and they still don’t pass, but on paper they do.
Another instance of arbitrary grades just happened to me yesterday. I was given a packet of papers, each page had a list of my students and a subject area like writing, reading, speaking, or listening. I was asked to grade all my kids, right there on the spot on these four areas. No, I didn’t have time to test them and of course we weren’t told at the beginning of the year that we would have to give them a grade in these specific areas. So, I paged through my grade book, looked at the students’ notebooks and old tests and came up with what I thought were fair grades even though I wasn’t completely comfortable with my methods. Twenty minutes after I handed my grades in to the Thai homeroom teacher she came and found me. She started going off in Thai and all I could understand was “no good” “no have” “no, no, no.” I kind of got the gist of what she was saying; she didn’t like the way I graded. I had to change all my low grades to high grades, the kids who deserved 5/10 needed to have at least a 7/10. So I sat with a whiteout pen and erased every grade under 7 and then without even looking up who the student was (their names were in Thai on the sheet) I gave them a seven or higher. I didn’t even feel guilty or bad about it because like I learned from day one, T.I.T. This Is Thailand.
-Forfeiting Future Notice. Future notice simply does not exist here. I learned that on my first day of school when I was handed my lesson plans ten minutes before class. I also learned that when we were supposed to have two teacher in-service days, but they were changed to regular teaching days the day before. Also the time when I was told the day before about the class field trip. Or that Thursday when we were told we had to attend a teacher training course on that Saturday. Also last week when our school changed our last day of work from the 18th to the 23rd of March. Oh and all those times when I went to class and was handed some random test and told to explain it and give it to my kids, right then and there. There are a million other instances of finding things out days, hours or seconds before they’re about to take place. I thought CIEE was exaggerating when they said it’s the Thai way to plan things on the fly. It seems really hard for me to believe that they don’t have a rough school schedule outlining things like days off, midterms, finals, and the last day of school, but they really don’t. They plan weeks and days in advance. At a meeting in December one of the teachers asked what days in January we had off for holiday and our coordinator answered, “That’s next year, so we will talk about that then.” Last week I got an email hinting about a day off and I wasn’t actually told about it until I went around asking other teachers and our coordinator what that was all about. Apparently it’s a holiday that happens on the same date every year, but they failed to put it on our holiday calendar. I’m seriously starting to wonder if there are permanent records and documents anywhere in Thailand. I’m pretty sure whenever something has to be communicated or a schedule has to be made someone just plops down at a computer and tries to pull everything from memory. At first I was bothered by being in the dark all the time, but now I’m just plain used to it.
-Uniformity through uniforms. Where grades fail to matter uniforms pick up the slack. Each day has it’s own color or uniform attached to it. Monday is yellow, Tuesday is pink, Wednesday is Hawaiian shirt day, Thursday is purple and Friday is sports day. The students also have to wear scout uniforms on Thursday instead of purple. There are also different shoes for different days, black for Mon, Tues, Thurs and white sneakers on Wed and Fri. Each student has the same haircut too. Boys have short hair that goes into a fade and girls have hair just below their chins. The girls also wear a blue or white bow in their hair depending on what grade they’re in. I always see teachers giving their students a hard time about their haircuts and styles. If a student accidentally wears the wrong uniform they’re usually made fun of for the most part of the day. Every time a different teacher walks by and sees them wearing the wrong shirt they make a comment and laugh with the homeroom teacher, which causes their classmates to then make fun of them too. Teachers also have to stick to the uniforms or they are destined to be the topic of lunchtime gossip. The first Wednesday of school I didn’t have a Hawaiian shirt and my homeroom teacher must have told me a dozen times that I needed to buy one. She doesn’t speak English so her telling me was more like her pointing to her shirt a lot and pointing North to where the school store is. She also took me around to other teachers who spoke English to tell me to buy one. We also had to buy Friday sports day uniforms that consisted of an itchy blue polo and tight, hot and heavy dark blue polyester pants. I would wear the Hawaiian shirt every day if I didn’t have to wear those pants on Fridays. Once the big sports day competition arrived (think track and field day in elementary school) we had to buy another jersey in our team’s color. Mine is green and I actually like it a lot. I remember bitching about it at the time because I didn’t feel like shelling out more cash on another uncomfortable polo, but it turned out to be more like a soccer jersey. Now I wear that every Friday and whenever I’m told to wear the polo I just say I don’t have one. It’s crazy how much they care about uniforms. It’s actually the one aspect of school that you get relatively future notice about. A day or two before the field trips or special days I’m told in English (a lot of messages are told to me in Thai which results in confusion and lack of understanding) to wear my sports day outfit. We also had a cowboy themed party for New Years where we were required to dress up in our western gear. The Thais love, love, love cowboy culture.
-ESL, wait what? In the U.S.A. lot of books, lesson plans and curriculum guides are stamped with what we know as an ESL label aka English as a Second Language. ESL materials take a different approach then plain and simple English curriculum and for good reason. When you learned a new language, let’s say Spanish, I can bet you didn’t take the same approach as you did for English. After all you probably weren’t a baby and surrounded by Spanish speakers. Chances are you were older, learned from a textbook and had a nonnative speaking teacher. Definitely not the best way to learn a new language, but decidedly not the worst either. It’s important to have texts and guides that realize Spanish isn’t your primary language so that you can learn simple nouns, verbs and adjectives in a way that makes sense, kind of like stepping stones, instead of just pushing you off the ledge. It is also important to learn from a native speaker, which is where most public school language programs fail. Without a native speaker, the speaking part of the language is typically useless. Unless the teacher is really good, there is a great chance you won’t really know how to say the words correctly with the proper accents and inflections making it really hard to communicate when you go on that trip to Mexico. The writing and listening aspects will still have some merit, but again actually grasping everything that is being said and being able to reply will be quite difficult. That being said, some knowledge is better than none and I’m not trying to discredit language lessons, I think it’s really important to attempt to learn new languages because it shows others that you have an interest in their culture and that is always appreciated even if you accidentally babble like a baby when you thought you were asking where the bathroom was. Anyway, back to the main gist of this bullet point: ESL does not exist here, at least not at my school. There is no curriculum in place to teach English in an introductory way for non-English speakers. All of the workbooks and homework books are designed for English speakers so the concepts and flow of lessons is extremely confusing for the kids. Also, the books are just crap. The workbooks I’m provided with have been the main source of my reoccurring headaches. I feel so angry and bad for my kids that they have to use these idiotic books. My p1 kids use “Best Friends” books. It is a workbook and a homework book combo that jumps around from topic to topic, has completely unrelated vocabulary words and stupid lesson and chapter titles and themes i.e. the dogs are sick, there are ten monkeys etc… One week the vocabulary words were brave, toy boat, hot dog, toy store, mommy, and hurry up. The books are also full of mistakes, which makes me think that one of our school suppliers got them really cheap and then sold them to our school to make some money. Every lesson plan has an error in it. It makes it confusing for the kids when they can’t figure out the right answer (because there isn’t one) and when I have to try and explain to them that the crossword puzzle doesn’t work out because the book is messed up. At first I was pretty stressed out about the books, but then I realized I could just fly through the pointless lessons and add supplementary lessons to make everything flow together and make more sense. I also started making more of my own worksheets and homework sheets instead of having them complete the ones filled with errors in the books. I can only hope that my school will get better texts for next year.
It seems the curriculum should be much easier to plan for the kindergarten kids, but they have it even worse. Each week we are assigned a really random topic to teach them like trash, air, milk, tree, winter, good and bad behavior, father’s day… the list could go on. I agree the students should be learning about topics and subjects, but I think they should only be taught by their Thai teacher instead of both of us. Basically they learn about trees in Thai for an hour and then I teach them about trees in English for an hour. I think it would be beneficial if I was able to translate the key words and ideas about trees and teach with the Thai teacher and then during the English hour teach the alphabet and simple concepts like animals, colors, household objects and things of that sort. It is ridiculously hard to teach complex lessons like good and bad behavior when the child doesn’t know anything you’re saying. Beyond the seemingly random lessons, I have to work out of a workbook that’s designed for English speaking kindergarteners. The workbook is way above my students’ level, which causes a lot of stress and anxiety on both their part and mine. I struggle to explain how to complete the pages properly and most times they don’t understand and end up asking me over and over and over how to do it and still complete it wrong. The workbook is no help with this because of how the pages are set up. On the left-hand page there will be a word like Dog and a blank line for them to write Dog Dog Dog, but on the right-hand page there will be an incomplete sentence like Dogs like to _______ . The students are supposed to write run, but because they are used to copying words and phrases instead they write Dogs like to. If the workbook was set up in such a way that the students learned to copy and then to answer it would work out well, but when different types of activities are all jumbled together and there is no way to properly communicate that to my students they are bound to make mistakes, misunderstand and lose interest. I think it’s awesome that so many countries are taking the initiative to start teaching their students English at a young age, but I think if it was went about in a more systematic and practical way the kids would get a lot more out of it. Having native speaking teachers is a huge step in the right direction, but I think they wandered off the trail soon after that. Until then Dogs like to dogs like to.
-Distressing disparities. Thai schools are in a lot better shape then I thought they would be. For the most part they are equipped with all the important school supplies like pencils, books, whiteboards, projectors, computers and printers. Anubanconburi also has a nice little library, gym and music room. There is a huge auditorium where we have teacher parties and conferences and there are several play areas for the kids and a swimming pool on the larger campus across the street. We also have a nifty finger scanner that we have to sign into each morning and air conditioner in all the rooms. Lots of good and necessary things for a school to have, but why then is there a lack of paper, white board markers and supplementary supplies for lessons? Paper is to Anuban teachers as food is to contestants on survivor. It is hidden, well protected and rarely shared. The same goes for whiteboard markers. Under every whiteboard you’ll find dozens of markers, but none of them work. They are just pawns. The real ones are hidden in your purse, book bag or desk drawer. Oh, and toilet paper. Of course there’s none, after all we’re in Thailand. The toilet paper also gets hidden because if you make the mistake of just setting it under your desk you’ll find it down to the last square within a couple days. So hold onto your paper allotment and go buy art supplies with your first paycheck because there’s no way you’re getting any baht from the semester budget. It bums me out to see all the activities, games and books that fill the shelves of my kindergarten classroom because they’re never used. I taught my teacher how to play a few of the games so she would encourage the students to play them during free time, but it’s hard to get them away from the play dough. The older grades are also in need of more practical hands on supplies for the classroom. For instance there’s only one globe in the whole school that is always being shared and passed around. Material objects that help kids see, feel and learn at the same time are really needed. I found it pretty hard to find anything fun and useful for the classroom, but then again there could be a teacher supply store that no one is telling me about. My friend Kandy is studying to be a teacher in the states and she sent me a pack of 4 mini dry erase boards for my class. I use them every single day to play spelling games with the kids. They absolutely love them. I’ve had other teachers come in and watch my class and tell me that I’m doing a really good job and I think it’s mostly because they see how excited the kids are to learn. I already promised away the white boards to one of the Pilipino teachers, but in the mean time I’ve had at least a dozen other teachers ask me for them. I’ll have to send a care package of supplies for next semester.
-We like to party, and play games and have contests and dance and sing… It seems like there is always a new competition going on at Anubanchonburi. The students are always practicing something. This past week everyone had a waiing competition. The students had to practice the traditional Thai greeting known as a wai. They also had to perform other common practices in their culture like kneeling to pray with their feet under their butt and in “mermaid” style. They also walked in a long line with their heads bowed down, which is what you do if you walk between people conversing or if you walk by someone of a higher status. They also practiced short dialogues, which I guessed to be prayers, chants or something of the like. Before the waiing competition everyone was preparing for the nine square competition. Nine square is a marching activity in which every student has their own mat with nine squares on it. There are several different marching routines that all the kids know how to say and march too. Apparently it is supposed to help increase brain function and coordination. The kindergarteners have a rough time staying on track, but the older kids are really good at it and have even added music and hand motions to their routines. Before nine square and waiing we practiced every day twice a day for the Children’s day and Christmas day show. Each grade had a different song and dance that was performed in front of parents and the community on a big stage in the center of Chonburi. Before Children’s Day and Christmas everyone practiced their cheers and chants for sports day. The activities never stop here. Often times it seems like the group activities take precedence over the lessons, but I’ve noticed all the group events increase the school spirit and solidarity between both the teachers and the students. In between all the school wide activities, there are smaller contests taking place all the time. We are often asked to help kids study for spelling and speech competitions. Sometimes we are even asked to help judge the speech competitions at other schools. At first I was getting a bit dragged down by all the extra activities especially because we were often told about them a couple days before and expected to whip up amazing results, but after a few weeks I learned to embrace the crazy and just run with it. If you practice and work hard for a few weeks it will probably pay off and if it doesn’t everyone will forget about it by the time the next contest, competition or activity rolls around.
-Classroom control. Imagine someone telling you to be quiet, behave, sit down, stop it, etc. in another language. If you were surrounded by thirty of your peers and had not the faintest idea what that person was talking about, you probably wouldn’t listen. That pretty much sums up my life with my kindergarten kids. It is almost impossible for me to control their behavior unless they know what their doing is wrong. I’ve tried to teach them simple manners like covering their mouth and being patient, but it hasn’t really caught on. I’ve learned a few tricks for getting them to be quiet though. I usually do hand motions or say body parts and everyone has to point to those parts on their body, this grabs everyone’s attention and they unknowingly stop talking and goofing off. Or I break into song and they join in, which usually calms them down. Other times I’ll clap and say one, two, three, zip and zip my lips. They like things like that too because it involves clapping and motions and they understand what the desired result is. Usually though they’re crazy and have to be disciplined by the Thai teacher. They know that I won’t hit them or intimidate them so they definitely have less respect for me and they don’t really fear me at all. I’ve seen my Thai teacher do some pretty crazy stuff and it always ends in a lot of tears. I feel bad most times because I wouldn’t go about it the way she does, but at the same time she is teaching the same general lesson, be quiet, pay attention and behave, she just happens to be teaching it in a radically different way. I’ve seen my teacher hit a kid in the face with scissors and pretend to cut his lips off. She’s also put this one little girl high on top of a shelf in the classroom so that she couldn’t get down, because the girl just wouldn’t pay attention. Once when we were making a craft, this one girl who is seriously naughty and rebellious stuck her hands in glue and dipped them into a bowl of seeds and started waving them around. I told her to stop it, but she didn’t listen. I even made her wash her hands, but she ended up doing it again and my teacher caught her. She was so pissed off. Number one because we have very limited craft supplies and number two because this girl is a little devil child. Anyway, she grabbed the girl and rubbed the glue and the seeds all over her face for at least five minutes in front of the whole class and then made her go to lunch like that. I’d have to say after that day that same girl’s behavior has improved dramatically. I don’t know if my teacher talked to her parents or if that little glue incident got the point across, but she doesn’t act nearly as badly as she used to.
Needless to say I don’t use the intimidation approach. I mean, how intimidating can I be? Even when I’m yelling at them or hitting them over the head with a little notebook I’m making a funny face or trying not to laugh. I’ve actually found hitting them on the head with some papers or their composition notebook is one of the best tactics because it causes all their classmates to laugh and they get really embarrassed. In Thailand it is a really big deal if you “lose face” which is why it is rare for Thais to get angry, argue and raise their voice so by embarrassing the kids a little bit like that it puts them back in their place and at the same time I know I didn’t really hurt them. My teachers tend to use what I think of as extreme versions of intimidation like shaking a kids entire desk, hitting them with rulers or making them stand on their chair for the entire class; that works for them and unlike me their kids actually listen really well and get quiet when they enter the room. I take more round-a-bout approaches that allow me to control the kids without feeling bad about the way I acted. Usually I write a word on the board like game, sticker, or snack. Every time the kids are too noisy I will erase a letter. Most times I only have to erase one or two letters and they will stay quiet for the whole class. Once I had to erase every letter and they were so crazy I started to write a new word, ‘work,’ on the board. I made them all write a bunch of sentences until the end of class. I think most of them felt pretty badly about it, but thankfully it only had to happen once. Games are my big reward. I love playing games with them because they are actually learning something and it encourages willing participation from every single student. After the first week of hating my p1 class I learned that it wasn’t their job to pay attention, it was my job to hold their attention. I started to plan my lessons in ten minute blocks so that we were always doing a new activity. I added short songs and movies to my lessons and asked for increased participation from the kids. I also let them make choices about what activity we would do next and I let their behavior decide how class would proceed. In the end it’s working out really well for me and I leave class feeling happy because I love my students and they love me back.
I also got great positive feed back from one of the higher ups in the office the other day. She came in and watched my lesson and told me in a few English and Thai words that I was doing really well. Some of the Thai teachers have asked me if I’m staying next semester and when I shake my head no they grab my arms and squeeze me and make a frowning face. These small gestures really mean a lot to me and they also confirm how much I feel like Anubanchonburi is my community and my workplace. The Pilipino teacher, Nitzsan, who works in my grade 1 classroom with my Thai teacher, Teacher Now, pulled me aside on Friday and asked if I was staying. I told her no and she looked pretty bummed. She told me that Teacher Now thinks I’m teaching well and that if she didn’t like me she wouldn’t help me out with controlling the kids like she does. She also said that Teacher Now had never helped out an English teacher as much as me and that she really likes me. I honestly wanted to cry, I was so happy. It was one of the biggest compliments I have ever received in my entire life. The day before school started, a couple Pilipino teachers told me that Teacher Now was rough to work with. I knew from day one that she was strict and old fashioned and that she probably wouldn’t be too warm to me, but I decided I wanted to try my hardest to get on her good side. It really wasn’t that hard. The first couple weeks I felt like she was testing me by interrupting me, talking to me in Thai, and telling me how to teach, but after about a month every thing changed. Maybe I broke her down with all my smiles and “kopkunkah” (thank you) or maybe I passed whatever test she was giving me. To be honest I really did like her after the first week because I realized whenever she was in the room the kids were quiet and would listen to me and that was what I needed. I needed a second to be able to think, stop being nervous about teaching, and learn how to work with these little Thai devils and she gave me that. So even though I couldn’t dicipline my students the way my Thai teachers do I realize that that is the way of the Thai school system and that’s what works for them. I honestly don’t think Thai teachers recognize the power of positive reinforcement. Maybe it could be integrated into their system, but maybe they don’t want it to be. Different cultures have different ways of dealing with things and after an entire semester I’ve found a way to accept and adapt their practice to work for me.
There a lots of other interesting aspects of the Thai education system or maybe you didn’t find these too interesting at all, but either way you’ll learn more about what the school and the kids do during the day when you watch the video I’m producing. I’ve been filming for a few weeks now and I’m finally starting to put it all together. I’d like to get it done within the next two weeks, but I have another more pressing video I have finish so I’m not sure if that will happen. When it’s complete my coordinator is going to show it at one of the huge teachers’ parties so they can see what I see. I’m pretty excited for all the Thai teachers to realize why I carry around a camera, microphone and tripod all day. I get some pretty funny stares while I’m recording the kids at morning assembly, lunch and naptime.