What To Expect...When You Have No Idea What To Expect
Since coming to Thailand, I've had to learn to adapt and embrace a culture that is nothing like my own. Of course this shouldn't be a surprise, and anyone who does a little research on Thailand compared to the USA would agree with me. I came to Thailand to be an English teacher, even though I feel like I am by no means qualified. Thailand, however, would disagree. I am from America, English is my native language, I have a Bachelor's degree, and I am able to take advantage of all of these things, speak in front of a class and in some way try and influence a few hundred Thai students' learning. Is that actually what has taken place over these last couple of months...I'm not so sure?
There are many reasons for this, and I wanted to take some time to write down my thoughts about how it's been so far being a "teacher" (I use quotes because I don't think I'll ever be able to seriously think of myself as a teacher). There are also several things I wish I knew about the Thai education system and what life would actually be like before I hopped on a plane to come here.
For starters, let me give a little background info on my school. Me and my friend Kaitlin teach at SaoHai Wimolwitthayanukul School, which is a public high school with 2700 students. My classes are large, English levels are low, and any overall organization is almost nonexistent. I never thought that I wouldn't like where I was placed, partially because I had this dream idea that I'd be teaching perfect, respectful children who adore me and are eager to learn. But, if I had a say in where I was placed, I might choose to work at a different school. That might sound bad and I hate that I even typed it out, but I do want to be honest. This post isn't all negative however. I am so happy that I quit my job and hopped on that plane to embrace a whole new life away from my home. I don't want anything that I say next to deter someone from coming to Thailand to teach. This has simply been my experience so far and I want to share it! So for now, let me get into some specifics about what I wish I knew to expect before starting to teach (the good stuff is at the end by the way).
- Public schools are veryyyy different than private schools. I work at a public school, which means we don't have a bunch of extra money lying around for school supplies, decorations, working projectors and computers, clean classrooms, etc etc. The lack of resources can be extremely frustrating sometimes. If I want to plug my computer into the projector to show a PowerPoint in class, and for some reason the system isn't working (happens several times a week) there is generally nothing I can do about it besides cluelessly tinker with the different wires and hope for a miracle. It usually doesn't happen. At this point, I have made note of all the classrooms where the projectors don't work so I can prepare ahead of time for a much more difficult lesson. We do have whiteboards, and if you bring your own whiteboard markers then you are good to go. Another big issue is that the classroom sizes are almost unmanageable. Trying to get 50 Thai students to stop talking, get off their phones and pay attention to a language that they don't understand can seem impossible. Which is why I've had to accept the fact that you might have 5-15 students paying attention, and you kind of just deal with it and ignore the ones who aren't. What I've seen and heard about private schools is quite the opposite. There's more money available which means they can be more selective of their students, which means smaller class sizes, which means more resources and overall more organization.
- Speaking of organization, I never knew it was possible for a school to be so disorganized, but damn Sao Hai does a pretty good job at it. Example 1, Kaitlin and I started school at the beginning of November. We aren't told specifically if there is a curriculum, or even what our general class topics are. Believe me, we asked, we just didn't get a straight answer. Not until at least a month in did I learn that two of my classes that I have to test are English for Writing and Reading, and the rest of the classes are Conversation. I also learned around this time that the students take English speaking classes with me, and then English grammar classes with Thai teachers (which you think would help to improve their English skills, but it does not). Example 2 was when I was told I have to hand in my midterm test at the end of November. At that point, I had seen my students maybe a couple of times and had absolutely no idea what I should be teaching them, what their proficiency levels were, and what they had already been taught in previous years. After this, I was also informed that I have to give them a quiz BEFORE the midterm, but for some reason they forgot to tell me. Sounds crazy right? Well it is, but I've learned to accept it. I now realize that essentially no one gives a shit, and that's ok. No one asked what I was going to test my students on, no one asks me what I teach them in my classes, no one even asks me how I'm getting along. But that's fine, because at least no one is breathing down my neck or pressuring me to teach something specific. I have free rein over what I do, which means lots and lots of English games! This is mostly because the students love them and get bored with anything else, like for example...a real lesson. And finally, and maybe my favorite, example 3, which only just happened this week. Our coordinator Kajee told Kaitlin that the school Director had asked how she knew whether or not her students' English was improving. You might be thinking, "yes indeed what a great and logical question." But the catch is that Kaitlin was told at the beginning of the semester that she didn't have to formally grade any of her classes. So she hasn't been. But now she's being told by Kajee that she should have been giving them speaking tests, and she wants Kaitlin to make up 4 test grades for each of her students. We have more than 600 students each by the way...so you do the math. She was told to grade them on a scale of 1-4, as if she knew who each of them was and how well they can (really can't) speak English, and to hand in the grades two days later. I'm kind of still laughing about that one because it's just so ridiculous. If they wonder how we're going to know how each student is improving, you'd think they would have us grade them all to begin with right? Evidently...wrong. And if you're wondering why we haven't been grading them informally, it's because we see our classes once a week, there's 50 students in each class, and it's just simply not realistic to try and teach them and then test them on it a week later. It would take several class periods, aka weeks, to do so. But again, this is simply my situation. Our other roommate Kat teaches at a different school in Saraburi within an English program. She sees her students three times a week, makes up detailed lesson plans, gives speaking tests, and is overall probably a better teacher than I am! But these are the cards I was dealt so I gotta play them.
- Sometimes you'll have to do things that you really didn't expect to do. For example, teach on Saturdays. I already wrote about the unfortunate circumstances that lead to Kaitlin and I being forced to "teach" on Saturdays because of Sports Day interfering with classes during the week back in November. With this wonderful idea, the students could get caught up with the course material in time for midterms in December. We were supposed to teach on five Saturdays, but they ended up cancelling the last two because they finally realized that the kids weren't exactly coming to school ready to learn. Some wouldn't even show up. The goal of those days was not met, and the kicker is that we weren't paid any extra for being there 6 days a week. Kaitlin and I both wished that OEG (our program) would have let us know that our school was going to make us do this. I personally felt like the school didn't really care about the teachers and wasn't concerned with what we wanted at all. It definitely wasn't a great feeling, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. It made it hard for me to feel a personal connection to the school because I felt like they really weren't concerned about us.
- No matter how much you want them to learn, some kids are just not motivated. That seems to be in part because of the school I'm at, and partly because of the Thai education system. For one, there are so many students at my school and no English program, so the overall proficiency levels are veryyyy low. This is really not surprising when you consider the impossible feat of trying to cater to 50 students' needs in the span of 40-50 minutes once a week. It's just not going to happen. So their motivation levels can sometimes be low since they know that the chances of them learning something that will stick with them is equally low. Another issue is the fact that they cannot fail. If they do fail, you re-test them. And re-test again until they pass. So why bother trying when you know the outcome already?! Great question, I would like to now refer you to 400 out of my 600 students and you can ask them! I definitely feel bad for the few kids in some of my classes who so very clearly want to learn. It's hard to try and control a classroom and also focus on trying to give all the students what they need. And again, at this point I've realized that that will never happen. Maybe if I had smaller classes, or saw them more than once or twice a week. But I've found that there's no point in wondering "what if" because you just have to adapt and learn what the best possible strategy is moving forward.
- Thai teachers are way stricter than I ever imagined. And I don't mean yelling or giving a lot of homework. I mean slapping kids on the head or using wooden sticks to hit them on their hands or backs when they've been bad. That was a fun surprise!! But once they see a farang (generally a white western foreigner) all bets are off the table (weirdly using a lot of card game references here?). They know we aren't going to do that with them, so they can go crazy, let loose and be EXTREMELY loud in our classrooms. Again, just something you have to deal with and learn to expect! I'd rather them have a little fun in my classes than be miserable.
If all of that didn't convince you to shut your computer and swear off ever coming to Thailand, then I'm glad! Because now I'd like to talk about the amazing things that I didn't expect to experience before coming to Thailand.
- The wonderful feeling you get when students tell you that they love you or get excited when you play a fun game in class. Just this week, one of my students from my favorite class left me a present and two cards on my desk for no reason at all. And actually while I was just typing this she came into the office and gave me another card. I do not deserve her.
- The huge smile that will break out on your face when you have the cutest student realize they said something properly in English. And yes I do have a favorite student who is the cutest thing I've EVER SEEN!!! And that's including puppies.
- Getting to know some of your students' personalities. I love laughing at the weird things they do or the sounds they make while being goofy in class. All of that warms my heart and makes me leave my classrooms smiling. And I don't even like kids!!! (Proof that anyone can do this).
- Overall getting to experience Thai culture and all the crazy, weird, and beautiful things that that entails. Like seeing three, four, or five people squished onto a motorbike drive by you. Without helmets I might add. Or taking a van to Bangkok for the weekend and swearing you're going to die at least five times on the trip as people zoom past you or drive on the wrong side of the road, but you always make it there safely. Or having teachers and students wai you in the morning, every morning to show respect (that's when you put your hands together and make a small bow with your head). Or learning to take cold showers and almost not even being bothered by it because it's so hot out. Or getting used to seeing the weirdest food combinations you could ever imagine being put into a crepe and devoured by a student after school. Or taking your shoes off outside most houses or stores. Or drinking soda out of a bag because this is Thailand. And also saying "this is Thailand" far too often but that's the only proper way to describe the crazy shit that happens here.
- The amount of places that you can manage to see on weekend trips and all the beauty that this country has to offer. I've so far been to Bangkok, Kanchanaburi, Ayutthaya, Lopburi, Krabi, Chiang Mai, and Pai and have plenty more plans for the rest of the semester. I am also planning on traveling around Asia afterwards, just because I can!
- Thai money will get you far. The first month of working I had to use my own personal money to buy things, as I get paid at the end of the month by my school. But after that, I have not once dipped into my own money. Granted I haven't been able to save a lot (or any) of that Thai money yet, but it has gotten me through the months of traveling and lots of eating!
- No matter how hard I think this job is or how frustrating my school can be, I would choose this over working at home every. damn. time. I quit my last job because I was unhappy, and so far the overwhelming feeling I've had while being here has been pure joy. Maybe I don't feel that 100% of the time, but at least I'm not sitting in an office hating my life for 9 hours a day. THAT was torture. THIS is paradise.
- The people that you meet and become friends with are just amazing. I came here expecting to live with Kaitlin, but didn't expect to also gain a second roommate. Our friend Kat, who used to live about 10 minutes away, recently moved in with us at the end of December. We had been saying for a while that she should move in, as we had an extra bedroom, and she finally did! Our friend Tracy and her boyfriend live in our neighborhood as well. And our friends Emily and Laura live a couple hours away south of Bangkok. We see them almost every weekend when we get together to travel, and it's always great to spend time with people who have similar mindsets as you. One funny thing we talked about was that everyone always has that "token" friend who up and moves across the country or the world to do something crazy. And for us, we are all that token friend. We all left our families and friends to come to Thailand, and now we're experiencing a totally different way of living together.
So, the moral of this story I guess is that if you want to put your life on pause and come teach in Thailand or anywhere else in Asia, do it. Do it now. There are a million and one schools in Thailand that desperately want foreign teachers to come and work at their schools. It's an amazing way to make a difference, even if you don't feel like you are, while also earning enough money to travel and see the world. My situation is just one of many. I know I'm going to be asked about my experience once I go home, so I figured this was a surefire way to get around answering the same question a bajillion times - I'll just direct them here. Looking at you relatives that I see once or twice a year!
P.S. - This is the card that my student just gave to me. BRB crying.
Make sure to check out my other personal blog for more stories and pictures! https://danielleinthailandblog.wordpress.com