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Ajarn Strat Has Left The Building. Life as an English Teacher Living In Thailand

ESL Teacher Thailand Expat

Already it seems like a life time ago, in many ways it is, even though the memories are still fresh; a term as an English teacher at Sangkeet school, a government school specializing in music.

On that first day, anticipating that the bus conductor wouldn't understand my mangled Thai, I had written, copied down, the name of my school in Thai script. I was right to have done so, for everyday after I had dispensed with my note, I would have to repeat the name of the school several times for me to be understood, only for the conductor to understand and repeat back to me, correcting, what I thought I had said the first time. As the bus sped along, bullying its way through the morning rush, I nervously concentrated on the road and the landmarks that we passed, looking for the memorial that I knew signified for me to get off the bus. I knew that if I missed my stop and got lost I would have had a nightmare trying to find my bearings again. As the weeks passed, my window stare became less and less intense and my confidence grew to such a stage that I dared to close my eyes and catch some sleep that waking up at 5.45am had deprived me of, if you'll excuse the spilt infinitive!

If I was surprised how quickly I found a job without a working visa and completely dumbfounded how that job was in a government school, I was more surprised at how readily I was left in charge of a class of fifty students. After the briefest of introductions to the staff in the foreign languages department, Pee Toom, the head of the department, escorted me to my first lesson.

A gentle, welcoming breeze was blowing through the glassless, shuttered windows along the opposite wall as I walked into the classroom. The antiquated fans made little difference to the already oppressive heat and it was only 8.20am. The sparsely decorated concrete room was little bigger than the fifty conventional wooden writing desks that it contained, placed in rows facing the chalkboard. As we walked in, the class prefect called out "Stand up please", a well rehearsed class stood up. Unrehearsed as to what to do next, I stood for a few minutes looking at the fifty students standing, staring at me. Fifty students and each and every one of them was in uniform, shirts embroidered with the school name and the student's number, uniform shorts and shoes. This in itself was an incredible sight, no one was trying to deviate from the standard uniform, adding a personal touch in an attempt to mark their individuality; something you would have had to worked in a school in England to appreciate. It is a common sight to see Thai students still wearing their uniforms in the evening as they hang out with their friends, it's not unusual to see students wearing their uniform at the weekends. They are proud of their uniform and of their school.
As I stood there I quickly calculated that with 16 classes, each with about 50 students and with names such as Somkiat Tangkitvanich, I knew I didn't stand much of a chance of remembering names.

I managed to get through the first week without too many thoughts of 'what the hell am I doing here', and soon the weeks passed into months. Some lessons remained a struggle, some developed into fun, if very noisy lessons, whilst some didn't really qualify as lessons.
From the offset I sensed that there wasn't the animosity towards teachers from the students, an animosity that is all too apparent in classrooms in England. In England it may be a case of 'You're a teacher, I don't like you. I'm not going to learn anything in your lessons to spite you'. Whereas in Thailand, it is more the case of 'I don't want to learn anything in your lessons, but I do like you'. The whole philosophy is different, traditionally school is an extension of the home and the teachers are second parents. Thai teachers are respected by their students and the student's parents. Traditionally students bow as they pass a teacher and sit on the floor with their feet facing away, when speaking to a teacher. Paying respect to ones elders is an important part of Thai culture.
The difference between my classes and those of the Thai teachers were worlds apart. In a lesson taken by a Thai teacher, all the children were seated and silent, at worst they were possibly whispering to one another, maybe even asleep. In my lessons there was certainly more movement and you would have been forgiven for thinking that they had learnt to whisper in a helicopter.
I never expected them to treat me with the same level of respect that they have for their Thai teachers, but still many did. For all my struggles with discipline and getting their definition of quiet to match mine, I never felt that they were out to make my life difficult or to beat me, for the mere fact that I was a teacher. I felt more at ease walking into a classroom of fifty students in a foreign land than I did walking into some classes in England. Maybe the scenario is made a little clearer when the roles are reversed; a Thai teacher, who cannot speak any English walks into a classroom of fifty students in an English school, to teach them Thai, to the nearest second, how long do you think that teacher would last?

If I was looking for a teachers' nirvana, I certainly didn't find it. Some students were lazy, some were noisy, some didn't even bother to come to my lessons - but with fifty in a class I could afford to loose a few. What I did find were students that were more gentle in their manner and more respectful to me as a person.

It is true that Thai students see the school as an extension of their home and view the teachers as second parents. If one of the teachers wanted some food from the canteen then they would call a student to go to the canteen for them, and not fear for what additional nutrients may be added along the way. Pee Toom, enjoyed a closeness with her students that she could call them on their mobiles before school had started and ask them to buy her food from a street vendor on their way to school. After about a month students started to accept me as part of their extended family. Even with my status of a farrang teacher, students still offered to carry my equipment to and from class, and would stop in the corridor and Wai me as I passed. They also smiled at me and returned my smiles to them. Never before have I experienced such a wiliness to return a smile, and I have found this to be generally true of all the places I have been in Thailand. Quite a contrast from teaching in England, where I received advice from experienced teachers 'not to smile for the first term'.

All the classrooms led off from an open corridor that surrounds a square, central courtyard. It is in this courtyard, every morning that the children pledge allegiance to the King and Country, pay their respects to their teachers and parents, promise to be good students and citizens and offer their prayers to Buddha. The assembly starts with the flag raising ceremony at 8.00am, with the whole school assembled in neat uniform facing the principle. Throughout Thailand, and all public places, the flag is raised and the National Anthem is played at 8.00am and lowered again at 6.00pm. It is quite a sight to see a busy train station come to a complete standstill as people stop and play their respects to King and Country.

I was extremely lucky to have a very light timetable - 16, 50 minute lessons from Monday to Thursday, Friday I was on call to cover for any of the other teachers from the company I worked for should they be sick; three out of four times, Friday was a day off. If I was lucky with my timetable I was even more fortunate with my Thai colleagues.

Many times I would be late for my lessons as I waited for my Thai colleagues to stop complimenting me. 'Sorry I have to go teach now, but I'll leave my ego at my desk and you can feel free to carry on massaging it'. Although I wondered if they were just being friendly and polite, I figured it wouldn't do me any harm to hear them comment on how handsome I was or how beautiful my eyes were. However much I enjoyed my ego being inflated I did suspect they were scraping the bottom of the compliment barrel when they complimented on how well I used a spoon and fork. Even my ego failed to take them seriously when they actually complimented me on my English.
"You speak English very well".
"Well, that's very fortunate" I replied, "as English is the only language I can speak".
As well as the compliments, they spoilt me rotten with all the different foods they brought in for me to try, however some days I would go hungry, if I didn't like the food they had brought in for me, I thought it would be impolite to leave it and to get something else from the canteen, so I feigned being imp, full. The canteen comprised of about 10 separate stalls selling different foods, all freshly cooked that day, inexpensive, proper food with fruit and vegetables, none of the processed junk that is stupefying school children in the West.

Sanuk means fun in Thai and is a large part of Thai life; things are either Sanuk Mak, very fun, or Mai Sanuk, not fun. Therefore games became an important part of my lessons, from Bingo, to reinforce new vocabulary, to board races where teams would race each other to correct a sentence I had written on the board. 'Teacher, teacher, play game' would become a familiar plea. Teaching at its best is a performance, and Thai children are a particularly demanding audience. To keep them interested and to explain new vocabulary I would have to run around the classroom, miming actions and generally acting like a silly bugger. After each class and performance I was left soaking in sweat, to the point where the bank notes in my pocket would be damp. By the end of each day I was exhausted.

Even if I felt the students were noisy, had trouble staying in their seats, and were generally content to ignore me, there was no denying that out of the classroom they were very sweet, polite and affectionate. Often as I walked to class, a student would walk up to me and Wai and ask me Bai Nai, where are you going? They would then take me by the arm and lead me to my class. Once whilst I had a speaking test with a class, I felt something on my leg, I looked down and a student was sitting on the floor by my feet, massaging my calf muscle. I was completely dumbstruck and a little worried, in England you are advised not to touch students at all, even to comfort them, and here I was having my leg massaged by a 17 year old boy, who was neither gay, from what I could tell, or a ladyboy, which is easy to tell. I quickly told Pee Toom who just laughed and explained that the students liked me and trusted me, and that was their way of accepting me as part of their extended family.

On my last day, Pee Toom accompanied me to my lessons and explained to the class that it was my last day. I had to give a speech and then a member of the class had to thank me on behalf of the class. I was surprised a number of times when the student selected to thank me on behalf of the class spoke really good English, it left me thinking 'hang-on, you can speak English? Where the hell have you been this term?' Those that already knew it was my last day gave me gifts.
It was also the last day for the older students who were about to start their examinations, so throughout the day the students would come into the English staffroom and on their knees, with their hands in the Wai position, thanked their Thai teachers.

Did I enjoy it? Well, nostalgia is all about creating fond memories. There is no doubt that by the end of the term I was completely exhausted, and forever hanging out my bank notes to dry. My teaching style is usually high octane, with that and the early starts and the crippling heat, I was glad by the time the end was in sight. I was frustrated by those classes that didn't want to learn and concerned that I wasn't making much progress with those that did, but as I was told many times, don't take it too seriously, just have fun with them. I did have to remind myself that I wasn't doing this to pay the mortgage or to feed my pension. It was my choice to be 12,000 miles away from home, working in a foreign school. I had wanted to experience the differences, to observe the similarities.
I feel privileged to have had an insight into such a rich culture, I have made some wonderful friends within the English department and they are already planning to visit me, when and wherever I settle; they have started saving 1 Baht a day, I didn't have the heart to tell them that at that rate it would take them 63 years to save enough money for the airfare.

To be welcomed into a school and into peoples lives so warmly and with such open hearts, exemplifies the Thai concept of Jai Dee, good heart. And I'll use this, as good a reason as any to keep on travelling.
Published: 2007-05-01
Author: Stratford Blyth

About the author or the publisher
Travel writer. Living in Asia. Writing stories about life as an English Teacher in Thailand, Korea and China. Travel stories include travelling to these countries and others

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