Gladiator

May 29, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I’m in a love-hate relationship. Not with an individual, but with a group. Actually nine groups. Nine groups of 32 – 35 little individuals that are in my charge for one hour each twice a week. I’m supposed to be teaching them how to speak, read, and write English, but at least half of those hours are spent being a cop, judge, and prison warden. It’s exhausting.

My job as a teacher at the local government school started on May 16. That was the day that approximately 1500 students, ranging from Kindergarten to 6th grade, began walking onto the school grounds through the front gate at 7:15am. Each day, they queue up single file into small groups of perhaps 10 or 12 before the Thai teacher who has gate duty stops the line. They are then directed to wai* in the direction of the teacher as they greet her (usually a her) with the standard “sawaddee ka/krub”, then turn around and repeat the formal gesture in the direction of the small Buddha altar at the entrance of the school. After that, they are free to walk to the commissary/cafeteria for breakfast or to play on the soccer field or in the outdoor gymnasium until time for morning ceremony. Every other week, I am the foreign teacher scheduled to be there to greet the students with “good morning!”, or “hello!” so they remember that English is an important part of their curriculum.

The morning ceremony begins at 8am with all of the classes lined up around the soccer field with their respective teachers and assistant teachers. That is unless it is currently raining or the field is still soaked from a previous downpour. The ceremony consists of the Thai national anthem, played by the school band while two students raise the Thai flag up the pole. The goal is to have the flag hit the top of the pole at the exact moment the anthem finishes. But this rarely happens. Usually, the white, blue, and red striped standard rises in a jerky slow motion until about two meters from the terminus, then when the music ends, it is hoisted up at a frantic clip to an abrupt stop. After that, some Buddhist prayers are recited, a full minute of silence is (mostly) observed, and then the King’s anthem is played. If there are no speeches or awards to be given, the ceremony is over in about ten minutes. If there are speeches, then it can drag on for twenty. Bureaucrats everywhere love to listen to themselves drone on, and Thailand is no different. Even if nobody is paying attention. By 8am, the sun is powerfully making its presence felt, and it can be stifling unless there is a breeze. I’ve witnessed kids passing out in the heat as the school director bloviates about mostly meaningless and inconsequential items. Well, I’ve been told that it’s mostly unimportant stuff. I don’t understand any of it yet.

After filing back to their classrooms in rigid lines, the kids are all given a milk in individual plastic bags accompanied by straws with which to drink it, Capri Sun-style. I retreat to the little office that I share with Hans, another English teacher from Holland. It’s not air-conditioned, but is somewhat open-air with vented block masonry. The openings on the lower portion of the wall are covered with tape in an effort to keep rats or other animals from intruding. I doubt that it really works, because the other day my black dress shoes, which I leave at the school, smelled like a cat had peed in them. I stay in the office until first period ends at 9:30, as I have no teaching assignments during that slot. I’m pretty happy with that. I sometimes work on creating flash cards or other learning materials, but most of the time I’m busy on Facebook. The plastic resin chair that I sit on is uncomfortable for long periods, so I’m going to try to find a nice, cushy, second-hand office chair that reclines. Because I can spend up to three hours a day in the “teachers’ lounge” if I choose not to go out for coffee during my breaks, or back to my apartment which is only a short distance from the school.

As I head to the classrooms to begin the instruction, I feel both anticipation and dread. Anticipation because I enjoy interacting with 1st and 2nd grade kids who are brimming with eagerness to learn English. Dread, because there aren’t any of those. The Thai government has seen fit to require one hour of English instruction each day for all classes from 1st grade on. And that’s great, because Thailand lags far behind most other ASEAN countries in English fluency and understanding. But as we all know, mandating something does not automatically make it work. There is very little support for the teachers who must now add this to their repertoire of lesson planning. I’m lucky enough to be a native speaker of English, but the Thai faculty assigned to this don’t always speak the language well themselves. I had to ask repeatedly for a copy of the schoolbooks that the students are using. And I have yet to be introduced to the Thai teachers who are assigned to the classes on the alternating days that I’m not giving instruction to a particular classroom. It makes it impossible to coordinate a comprehensive lesson planning strategy. It feels like the school is not really taking the teaching of English to their students seriously. So how can I expect the kids to take it any differently?

“Hello, class!” I call out as I enter the front of the classroom. “Hello, class!” has been the standard reply from most of them up until now. I strain to listen for and recognize the small voice giving the correct response, “Hello, Teacher Bob!” From this point on, it’s usually all on me to maintain order and discipline to the class of almost three dozen children. The form (or homeroom) teacher usually quickly heads out of the room to escape for the next hour. I can’t say that I blame them.  Depending on which grade I am teaching, I alternating my lessons. Each class gets a little bit of introduction training. We work on “My name is..” and “what is your name?” Some kids get it. Some still don’t. I drill them on the phrasing as a class, and also individually. I will walk between the cramped rows of desks and stop in front of a random student, crouch down to their level, and say, “My name is Teacher Bob. What is YOUR name?” Much of the time, I get a blank stare as they try to comprehend what I am saying to them. I find that this is equally true for both 1st and 2nd graders. Sometimes, I am gratified to hear them reply, “My name is POOM” or “My name is MIMI.” I will say that it’s much easier for me if they have chosen a nickname from the English language. Although, it does lead to some weirdness. “My name is Apple/Cherry/Beer/PingPong/Icy/Mean/Earth.” Beer? I’ve met three Beers since I’ve gotten here. And they were all female. I swear I’m not making this up when I tell you that I saw a post in the one of the local Chiang Mai Facebook groups by a woman named Doughnut.

Honestly, the Thai kids are beautiful. They are generally very nice and polite. And they really do look up to their teachers, especially the foreign ones. The desire to please is definitely there. If I give an assignment to write their names, fill in blanks, or draw a picture, they are constantly walking up to me with the book or paper to show me what they have done to see if I approve. I am mobbed from the time I walk into the general population before and after classes. They shout greetings in English to me, run up for high fives and hugs. It feels so weird still to be hugging or even touching a stranger’s kid. I know I’ll get used to it, but I still find myself suppressing the urge to look over my shoulder for the disapproving parent. I sometimes also will be greeted after school or on the weekend when I’m in one of the local shops or cafes. Here’s my problem: I don’t know the kid’s name. I cannot remember if they are even in one of my classes. The truth is, I have a very difficult time telling the children apart. I know this will possibly sound cliché or racist, but they kind of all look the same to me right now. Obviously, there are some who are smaller, taller, rounder, skinnier, or with different teeth, but it seems like there are the same 10 kids with their clones running around the school. It doesn’t help that they wear uniforms. Most every boy has the same haircut. Pretty much all of the girls have their long, black hair parted in the middle and braided pigtails with blue ribbons on either side.

On the flip side, the kids can also be monsters. Some days, half of my time is spent putting kids back in their seats, confiscating rulers or other objects being used as swords or alternative distractions, slapping a metal ruler on one of the old, wooden desks to recapture the attention of students who continually turn around to talk to their neighbor. (I got myself the metal ruler after shattering one of the plastic rulers that I took away from someone. I felt pretty bad about that.)  I’ve had to put repeat offenders in time-out in the corner. Truthfully, I understand why a teacher might be tempted to tie or duct tape a kid to their seat. I’ve seen the Thai teachers smack the kids with their hands or with a bamboo rod when they misbehave. I grew up in a time when corporal punishment was acceptable in the classroom, and we NEVER showed disrespect. I am not going to go down that road, however. I am attempting other means to control the classes. I’ve proposed the idea of having my own classroom, an English lab, where the kids would have to come to MY turf, where I am in control of the surroundings. If I can control the environment, I will have a much easier time with classroom management. So far, the assistant director of the school is amenable to the idea, but also non-committal, as he needs to ask the school director and probably go through some labyrinthine Thai bureaucratic quagmire to get it done. I’m going to be patiently optimistic for now. Meanwhile, I’m fighting the battle for supremacy in the coliseum.

I cannot really be angry at the kids. It’s hot in the rooms. The building where my classes are has no air conditioning, and the outside temperatures can easily reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. There are fans, but they only do so much. The classroom doors stay open, as do the shutters on the other side, but in addition to allowing a slight breeze to flow through, the openings also allow for distractions. Another problem that I have discovered is that the kids may be under the influence of sugar. The commissary, in addition to providing a hot meal, also sells snacks. I’ve seen kids eating popsicles, cookies, and candy for breakfast. I’m pretty sure that is not conducive for a proper physical and mental state that is needed for learning. And I’m also pretty sure that the school makes a profit on the sale of these stimulants, so complaining about it will fall on deaf ears. But it can make my job hell.

So I look forward to my alone time in the small, fan-only lounge with the uncomfortable plastic chair, where I can take a respite from my gladiatorial battles with the army of Lilliputians. Speaking of which, it is time for me to take up arms and go forth to the arena.

*wai:

The Thai greeting referred to as the wai (Thaiไหว้pronounced [wâi]) consists of a slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion.   (wikipedia)

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