Monday, February 2, 2015

The Ins and Outs, Ups and Downs of Teaching in Thailand

Well, it's been over a month since my last post, which makes me a pretty terrible blogger, but my lack of posts certainly is not a reflection of a lack of interesting subject matter. I do realize I've not actually spent much time on here talking about the main thing I do--teach--so I've decided to enlighten you all a bit on that subject today.

I'm not going to lie: teaching in a country where you lack the proper language faculties to communicate beyond simple commands and requests is extremely difficult. It has made me realize that my main sense of authority and ability to take control of a group of kids--or anyone, for that matter--comes from my ability to use language. I've realized this because it's a luxury I don't have in Thai classrooms. Back home, I could be handed a rowdy bunch of seven-year-olds at camp and keep them fairly well contained and quiet for as long as was necessary. Here, I have no such ability. If my students are running wild, I have two options: yell at them and bang on desks (which is what all the Thai teachers and my agent tells me to do) or bribe them with stickers and candy. Neither are ideal, but what else can you do in a room of seven-year-olds who don't know your language and who know that the government sanctions that all students (no matter their performance) will receive passing grades? The communication barrier gets less severe the older the students, but with my second-graders in particular, I feel totally helpless sometimes. Just last week, I yelled at my second-grade class for running in and out of the room and paying absolutely no attention to me, and all of a sudden I had a girl crying and holding her head, with a student gesturing and roughly translating that I pushed her into a desk. Obviously, I did no such thing and the girl had been complaining of a headache since the beginning of class, but I think because I yelled particularly severely--at her in particular because she's usually a good student and I was frustrated with her sudden lack of interest--she was upset. All of a sudden I had the whole class accusing me of hurting Grace and telling me, "Teacher, say sorry! We call mother!", threatening to tattle on me since at age seven that's about the worst thing you can do to a person you're angry at. A conflict that could have been resolved in five minutes if we spoke the same language took forty minutes. Even after finding a Thai teacher to translate (she looked like she told the students, "it was an accident, get over yourselves") they certainly didn't trust me. It was probably the most frustrating class to date simply because it made me realize how powerless I am in an atmosphere I am used to reining supreme in. (As a positive side note, by the next class, Grace was hugging me and blowing me kisses as I left at the end of the period, go figure.)

That being said, I am very lucky to be spending only 2 of my 19 hours teaching classes like that without an assistant, and the other 17 are spent with just two classes of students--a first grade class and second grade class--who are enrolled in a special English program that gives them access to materials and assistance the other general classes at my school don't have. These students tested in with a base knowledge of English, want to learn, care about doing well, have a smaller class size, have a Thai assistant to translate when needed, and most importantly, are in love with me. Because I don't have to stress about class control or being misunderstood, I can relax, be my goofy self around these kids, and let them adore exactly how dorky I am while also learning. And being dorky is possibly the most important skill I possess in this job, so thank god I'm a natural. Why? Let me do some explaining.

Thais are naturally very friendly and hospitable, but quite reserved. Expressing strong emotions is not done in public. Passive aggression is epidemic. As a foreigner, if you blow up or start crying in front of a Thai, they may not talk to you for weeks out of fear because they simply don't know how to deal with you. Americans in particular are generally assumed to be dramatic, loud, and alarmingly open, with very little control over their emotions, which I can't really deny. However, at school, I am embraced by staff and students alike for my unique set of skills. While negative reactions and emotions are terrifying to them, the over-the-top, shameless attitude in which I conduct myself in the classroom is what my Thai coworkers find so amusing and apparently endearing about me. Teachers are highly regarded by Thai society, and this respect translates into how classrooms are typically run; there is always order, cleanliness, regimented activity, and a controlled environment. Teachers are strict and composed, though usually revered by their students. As a foreign teacher, I will never be able to gain this level of respect, nor am I expected to act in such a way as to gain it. My job is to be the "fun teacher." The leader of my TESOL course once told us, "In Thailand, they could care less how good you are at teaching; what they want you to do is be engaging and fun, and if they like you, then that's all that matters." That's not entirely true here at Anuban Songkhla, where the MEP program has a challenging curriculum and parents with high standards, but at the end of the day, it's true; I'm so successful here not because my teaching of concepts is producing the highest scores (though I think I'm doing okay, all things considered), it's because I can get my students involved, acting, laughing--you name it--with a snap of my fingers. I am an entertainer extraordinaire first, educator second. At the end of the day, this means my kiddos will always call their Thai homeroom teacher "their teacher," and will run to her as first priority and authority. They idolize me and crave my attention, but I'm still placed in a different category. Sometimes this saddens me. However, it allows me to let loose in a classroom in a way a Thai teacher never could, and I absolutely love that.

I teach in a whirlwind of chaos, messiness, and improvisation. PE with Thai teachers is students in a military-style block doing independent exercises. PE with Teacher Mel is playing bowling with water bottles, balancing games with bags of ramen on our heads, and wheelbarrow races. Science with Thai teachers is showing pictures of different kinds of soil and having students repeat words and phrases over and over again. Science with Teacher Mel is seeing the soil samples she brought in, squishing them between our fingers, and drawing what we see. Art with Thai teachers is pencil drawings. Art with Teacher Mel is finger painting. We use all five senses in my classes, we never stay seated for more than 15 minutes at a time, and we're total clowns when we need to be to remember words and illustrate concepts. Because how on earth am I supposed to explain good/bad posture and electrocution and "sharks eat fish" any other way?

I am serious when I need to be. The communication barrier is still difficult in MEP when it comes to classes like science and health where I have to teach concepts that can be hard for first and second graders to even grasp in their own language (teaching about electricity and different forms of energy SUCKED folks). But sometimes these are the classes where all those games of Charades and Cranium in my youth pay off because you can't hold up a flash card of "soil gives plants nutrients and support" or "cold-blooded animals need the sun to regulate their body temperature." So you have to get a bit creative and sometimes leave your comfort zone, especially when a vocabulary word in Health Class is "diarrhea." Besides, it's much more memorable if your teacher dramatically flops onto your desk and plays dead until someone pulls on your shoulder and asks, "Teacher Mel? Teacher Mel okay?" than it is to write the phrase "I feel concerned" in your notebook.

I love being unconventional in the classroom, but I do find myself doubting my abilities at reaching long-term goals because, as an outsider, I have very little authority and no ability to enact change. The textbooks we use are written in Singapore, where English is spoken at a much higher proficiency than in Thailand, so they're much too hard for my kids, but I'm required to teach by them. I cannot fail any of my kids, even when some of them drag the whole class down because of how far behind they are. My PE supplies consist of three plastic balls, four jump ropes, and one hula hoop. I'm not allowed to let my students use paint in first grade Art Class because it is "too messy." I'm not allowed to play any rhythm games in Music Class that involve any motion besides clapping because they are "too loud." Good thing I don't have any access to a single musical instrument because they'd probably be too loud too.

I do wonder if I'll ever be able to teach back in the states and feel comfortable doing so. Nothing is regulated here, students are punished physically, your body is free game for anyone to touch anywhere (I despise this), I teach private lessons in my one-room apartment, students see me on the weekend and invite me into their homes to play board games with them, random parents offer to give you rides home from school (this is common courtesy, not creepiness), and a stray cat sometimes wanders into my second grade class and curls up on an empty seat. This is a country where cows are loaded into the beds of pickup trucks and 80-pound pet pythons are kept in wooden bird cages. My classes went on a field trip to a planetarium to watch an animated video about chickens and then a fish hatchery to feed small fish to big fish who my assistant told me in all seriousness would eat a child if they fell in the pool. It's an odd place, but that's what makes every day so exhilarating (and sometimes exhausting). In the US I couldn't tackle wriggling, giggling first-graders playing "strong currents can make you drown!" or have everyone pull out their ten baht coins and eraser collections so we can learn the difference between buying and selling. Then again, I probably wouldn't have students who tried to eat their concoction of raw eggs, sugar, and fish sauce we were using to demonstrate actions in the kitchen either.

I've barely scraped the surface of my experiences teaching, but I guess that just means I have more than enough material for another time. I feel I've rambled on long enough for one night, so I think I'll sign off for now. If you have any questions, or want me to expand on specifics of any of my given experiences, please mention so in the comments below. I write what I think is interesting and what I remember, but that's only about 3% of what occurs on a daily basis. So don't be shy :) Happy Groundhog's Day, everyone, and to all a good night!

 Off on a field trip! On a luxury bus wooooo! The kids couldn't see over the seats so they stood pretty much the whole time to watch the cartoon playing on the TV up front.
Everyone wanted to sit next to me. Luckily, Thai children are typically small and the seats were huge, so we fit me plus three kiddos in on pair of seats pretty easily.

                                                               My first grade class.
                                                                My second grade class.
                                                            Tonkaew and Si being dorks.
Singing some Karaoke on the bus ride home, because Karaoke is an essential part of any Thai event, be it a birthday party, a wedding, a funeral, or a field trip.

They are just too cute.