School Days: The good, the bad, and the peculiar

Although I’ve been teaching at two elementary schools in Northeastern Thailand for over three months now, I have yet to share many details of my teaching experiences. During this time I’ve acquired a handful of interesting, and yes, peculiar, stories about my students, fellow teachers, and others who find their way into my daily life.

First let me begin by outlining a typical day: On Mondays, Thursdays, and every other Wednesday, I wait at the corner of the ban pak kru (teacher housing) for Kru Khem, my co-teacher at Wang Yang. On Tuesdays, Fridays, and the other Wednesdays I bike to Pi Tuk’s house (who is married to Kru Khem) and from there we drive to Pla Pak Noi. About a month ago during a car ride she exclaimed: “Bai-Khao, new time! New pick-up time!” What was once a loosely-established 8:00am pick-up time in front of my ban pak kru shifted to 8:20 and before I knew it I was asked (well okay, told) to bike to her house rather than having her drive in the opposite direction of Pla Pak Noi to pick me up. I see no big problem with this arrangement…until the rainy season, at least.

Upon arrival at school around 8:30am I am typically greeted by some of my bravest and most curious students. I go to the teacher’s office/lounge to sign in, print off any materials for the day, and head to my room to prep for class. I typically teach 3 to 4 classes per day, with a lunch at noon and an hour between each class, leaving me a lot of time to work on materials for the next day’s lesson. As I have become more integrated into the school culture, however, I am finding it more and more difficult to utilize this prep time for work because my students actively seek me out and request to play games. I usually give in (I mean come on, how can I not??) and set up a fun alphabet scramble game that Dr. J, another WorldTeach volunteer, taught us during orientation. I’ve also started reading stories at Wang Yang which was sparked by the realization that the students are watching Thai soap operas in the library! I think the TV is meant for distance learning television (a concept that is very popular among Thai teachers here) but Wang Yang has seemed to stray a bit from this practice. By 4:00pm the students are usually finished with their closing assembly and are heading home, along with the teachers. If I’m at Pla Pak Noi at this time you can usually find me in the school garden with some of my students, who are testing me on the names of the various onions, greens, and herbs they are growing. Each grade has it’s own plot and they are responsible for planting, watering, and picking the vegetables. Here’s a picture of the garden and a few of my fifth graders:

Chompoo, Guay, Noi and Oern work in the garden after school

School days are always full of surprises and challenges and luckily my recent visitors were able to experience some of these moments with me. For example, it is not uncommon for salespeople to show up during our lunchtime to market  their products while we eat. During Alyssa’s visit there was a young guy with spiked hair, skinny jeans, and gauges selling a sticky rice maker at Wang Yang. He actually made sticky rice for the teachers, which meant he sat there while we ate (about 25 minutes) just watching the machine. I tried the rice. It was good but I think the traditional (slower) way is much better.

Another really peculiar event happened during Amber’s visit. It was late afternoon at Wang Yang and Amber was studying the world map with some of my students while I was posting some materials in the room, when all of a sudden I heard her shout: “Caitlyn, Caitlyn, he’s on fire! There’s smoke everywhere!” As she exclaimed this I smelled a really awful odor and I turned around to see a thick haze of smoke trail out the classroom door. I quickly followed the trail (fearing the worst) and saw one of my third graders holding a backpack with smoke just billowing out of it. It was dark grey and smelled like burning plastic or something. I grabbed him by the arm and told him to let go but before I knew it he had the backpack turned upside down and out fell a huge battery pack with a thud onto the dirt. The smoke immediately stopped (it must have heated up and started melting the backpack) and he ran off with both items. Another teacher was walking by and witnessed the entire scene without so much as a blink of the eye and I did the same. I shrugged at Amber and went back to my taping. She was still a little shaken by the whole ordeal and told me she was surprised that I hadn’t acted with more urgency. After thinking about it, I realized that the alarm in her voice didn’t startle me because I was listening for alarm in my students’ voices. Kids here are so resilient and overly mature for their age in many respects so what I was really listening for was a sense of urgency from them. When I didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary as I turned around and saw the smoke I knew things must have been okay. Even so, I think it’s time to learn “stop, drop and roll” in Thai!

Over the past several weeks I’ve also witnessed occurrences of corporal punishment at both of my schools, which is really hard for me. As one teacher explained to me at Pla Pak Noi, students in Thailand “no listen” unless you hit. At this school I’ve seen pretty harmless practices like slapping a student’s hand with a ruler and more severe forms of punishment like twisting and pulling a student’s ear until he raised out of his seat in pain. After this latter incident I actually confronted the teacher (as tactfully as I could) and asked why she was doing that. She explained that students do not listen unless they are punished. I then explained that corporal punishment was illegal (recently passed in 2005 under the Ministry of Education), knowing very well it was a futile attempt, since issues of violence like corporal punishment are so engrained in cultures. It is also important to remember my role as an outsider and the importance of maintaining good relationships with those I most depend on here, like my fellow teachers. I just hope it is clear that this type of punishment is not acceptable during my class hours.

Another disturbing occurrence happened this past Monday at Wang Yang, in which several boys were pulled to the front of the morning assembly and spanked (rather gently, however) with a skinny three-foot long stick for not following the strict dress code. What was so unsettling about this was that one of the boys was also ridiculed about being overweight. I heard the teacher say “fat” in Thai as she poked at his belly and the buttons that were pulling on his shirt. He is probably one of my favorite students because of his unrivaled eagerness for the English language and his sweet disposition and it concerns me that this type of open criticism will damage him. At this point I turned to my principal and asked what the teacher was doing. When he explained that the kids were not following the dress code I again explained that hitting was illegal. His response: “Just a little.” While I may become accustomed to children starting on fire and other alarming occurrences, this is one to which I will never acculturate.

It is so difficult to accept the complexities of my co-teachers because while they may use forms of corporal punishment, they are also extremely loving and caring individuals who really look after their students. In Thailand teachers are sometimes regarded as extended parts of the family because they play such an important part in children’s lives, and this is definitely apparent on a daily basis. Pla Pak Noi in particular functions very much like a large family, where everyone takes part in preparing and cooking meals, cleaning, and tending to the school grounds. It is quite incredible to witness.

To end, I’d like to share a funny story that really demonstrates how far nonverbal communication can take you in conversation. Yesterday at Wang Yang I was eating lunch with several other teachers (two women, two men) and was really engrossed in my food until I heard a change in tone (ha, a bit of a meaningless expression when the language spoken is tonal!) from the two female teachers. I looked up to see both of them squishing their breasts (clothed, of course) and pantomiming other peculiar motions. I knew the government just held their annual health examinations at the local high school for all government-employed workers. Then it clicked. And I shouted: ” MAMMOGRAM!!!” Surprised, the two women turned to me and burst out laughing (apparently it is the same word in both languages), along with the two male teachers who really didn’t look at all uncomfortable. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder with Thais and I was happy to share with them a moment that needed no translation.

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6 responses to “School Days: The good, the bad, and the peculiar

  • alyssa

    your story about that sweet little boy in your class makes me sad. i really like him and i agree with you that its scary what will happen, if his confidence gets knocked about his weight will he lose that eagerness for learning?! i surely hope not.

    • Caitlyn

      I know, it does worry me. I did not expect to be confronted about body issues like this when I first arrived in Thailand but it is definitely a re-occurring theme here.

  • Aunt Val

    OK, you have teachers hitting students and I have students hitting students (actually last year we had a student hit a teacher!). Last week I was truely inducted as a teacher. I had to break up my first fight! Lucky for me they were boys (and not a girl fight) and they were smaller boys!! Good Luck Caitlyn! It sounds like you are doing a WONDERFUL job!! Love Aunt Val

    • Caitlyn

      Yeah, girl fights are way worse-they show no mercy! This is a true initiation though, and now you can claim the title of veteran middle school teacher! Thanks for the support and tell the kids (and Uncle Duane) I say hello =)

  • Jane Deering

    Hi Caitlyn, I just took the time to read many of your posts. I am so impressed by what you are doing to make a difference for these children. Your courage in gently confronting the corporal punishment you have witnessed is to be admired. I enjoy so much the photographs of these beautiful children you are privileged to teach. I feel your writing allows a real glimpse of what the culture is truly like . And you write beautifully! Love, Jane

    • Caitlyn

      Jane, thank you for all your support. I have learned so much already in just the short amount of time I’ve been here. As always, it’s great to hear from you!

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