Teaching in Thailand

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As we wrap up the school year, the time to reflect on my semester of teaching in Thailand has arrived.  Lessons have been learned, homework handed in (most of it, anyway), and all that’s left before summer break are final exams.  Here is a view of the primary building on our lovely campus in Nakhon Si Thammarat.

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The secondary school building, where I have taught seventh and eighth grade math since November.  I have gate duty every Wednesday morning, which means I greet everyone who enters the school grounds the Thai way, with a wai and a smile.  Drivers slow down and open all their windows so passengers in the car can say hello.

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We start each day with assembly.  Every morning, the students line up military style before the flag raising and singing of the national anthem, followed by a short prayer and Christian song.  (Although the population is over 90% Buddhist, many of the private schools in Thailand are run by Christian organizations.)  Next, students recite the school philosophy and motto and listen to announcements.  At our school as well as throughout the rest of Thailand, everyone wears scout uniforms and participates in scout activities on Thursdays.

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My always messy desk in the office I share with several other Thai and foreign teachers, including Teacher Nicola from South Africa and Teacher Laura from New Zealand.  Rather than the students rotating through their different teachers’ classrooms as we do in the United States, the kids stay in one classroom all day and the teachers go to them.  During our free periods, we sit in the office to grade papers, write lesson plans, or just pass the time.  (With working hours 7:30-4:10, there can be a lot of sitting around.  Some days I only teach three periods.)  When students enter our office, they must kneel or crawl on the floor, as they’re not allowed to stand over us when we’re seated as a sign of respect.  All the students stand up to greet the teacher in unison at the beginning of class and again to say thank you at the end of the period.

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My seventh grade homeroom.  School wide, English proficiency varies from beginner to conversationally fluent.  Most of the kids in this class transferred into the program from other schools and are just learning basic English.  At all grade levels, more or less half of the subjects are taught in English by foreign teachers and the other half are in Thai.  Thai assistant teachers provide academic and English support, repeating instructions in Thai when too much is lost in translation and the students have that perplexed look on their faces.

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Having previously taught middle school in the United States, I’ve found that Thai students are much more respectful.  Nary a brooding or rude teenager here!  (Well, almost never.  We all have our moments.)

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I was able to write my own curriculum and try out several new projects.  With seventh grade, we busted out the old-fashioned protractors and compasses to draw angles and shapes with specific measurements, culminating in an illustrated book.  Eighth graders took a survey to gather data about their classmates and created pie chart posters.  They also had to endure my infamous Sierpinski triangle project, now in its 3.0 version, and a variety of math games.

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My classes are small, ranging from 18 to 26 students.  (I’ve heard that at public schools, there can be up to 60 students in one class.)  At our private school, classrooms are equipped with air conditioning and a projector, but kids are expected to bring all their own supplies, even basics like markers and colored pencils.  In the US, I was used to having standard materials like construction paper, but here I either have to buy my own and get reimbursed or just make do with what we have, which is pretty much just white printer paper, and even that is rationed.

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I have six classes, three seventh grade and three eighth grade, each of whom I see only three fifty minute periods a week.  Between all the holidays, school functions, and when school was canceled due to major flooding in both December and January, that meant sometimes I would only meet with my classes once or twice per week.

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One morning, I walked into my first period class to find several of the boys missing.  I asked the Thai teacher where they were, and she told me they were being punished.  “Their hair is too long,” she said.  When they returned to class, the sides of their heads had been buzzed, and not very neatly.  Visible streaks from the clippers ran across their scalps.  My words at the time were “total hack job,” I remember reporting to my parents during one of our weekly video chats on Sunday nights (Sunday mornings Chicago time).  The girls are required to have a blunt haircut of all one length, no layers or bangs.  Punishments for routine infractions are often corporal—usually getting hit with a stick designed for such a purpose, but sometimes misbehaving students are slapped with an open palm or smacked with whatever is within the teacher’s reach.  As a foreign teacher, I am not expected to partake in these rituals, and I certainly don’t approve of them.

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Guy and Teacher Boom working on the math review packet during the last week of classes. Most Thai people are known by a short nickname unrelated to their full name.  It took me about three months to learn the names of my 130 students, and that was just the nicknames!

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Education in Thailand is often synonymous with rote memorization.  For their homework in Thai subjects, it’s not uncommon for students to copy words or sentences five or ten times each or rewrite up to several pages from their textbooks into their notes, as if they are expected to learn the material by osmosis.  On occasion, I’ve walked into a classroom to find that the assistant teacher has written all the answers to the homework I’ve assigned on the board for the students to copy, and no one involved seems to view this as problematic.  All students in Thailand must receive passing grades, so if they get below a 50% average, the teacher is required to give them extra work so they can “up their score.”  With this in mind, teaching tends to cater to the lower level students to ensure all will pass.  It’s truly a shame for the many students who are really bright and hard-working.  However, at the same time, special education does not exist, and for the most part neither do the concepts of learning disabilities and other special needs.  Students with severe or moderate cognitive issues are not expected to understand the material, nor is the curriculum modified for them.

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Shoe parking outside of a classroom

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The school provides teachers with lunch every day, which can be hit or miss.  The curries are usually too spicy for me.  There’s always plenty of rice, unless it’s a noodle day.

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I brought my camera to school on a Thursday with the intention of photographing the scout uniforms, but it also happened to be a scout cookout.

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I’ll have whatever this group is making!

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On my birthday, Teacher Lukgate suggested we pose as flowers for a class photo…

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…and make “mini hearts” (crossed thumb and index finger).  Since the death of the king last October, teacher dress code is black, white, or gray clothing only for a full year.  Women must wear knee-length skirts or dresses and cover their shoulders.  For men, it’s collared shirts, with ties required on certain days of the week.

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Just a small sample of the many looks of the Thai student.  When they have PE and on Fridays, the kids wear their yellow and purple gym uniforms, and the teachers wear black track pants.

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By the end of the year, students and teachers alike are all getting silly.

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It’s hard to believe I have only two weeks left in Thailand.  What a fabulous year it’s been!  I will really miss these kids.  Once school lets out, I’ll jet over to Indonesia for a couple weeks to tour the islands of Java and Bali.  Then sweet home Chicago on April 4th!


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