“Student, student!” I respond.
“Do you speak Thai?”
“No, I only know a couple phrases.”
If I had a time machine, this would be one of the mistakes I’ve made in my life that I would address first (There have been quite a few. For example: two days ago when I got yelled at for taking a picture of this grumpy taser salesman). My students now know that they have the upper hand in EVERY single situation they may encounter with me, until I become fluent in Thai…which probably won’t happen very soon. At first I was just herding cats, now I’m herding cats who can organize and conspire against me. And not just a few cats, but 12 sections of cats.
There are 50 students in each section. 600 students per week. They can smell my fear.
Just look at ’em! Ready to strike at a moment’s notice. When I say strike, I mean watch videos on their smart phones, play Yugioh cards in the back, play soccer in the back, write on the white board when I’m not looking, wrestle, leave the classroom, and so on.
But they’re not always being this crazy…well at least for one day each year: Wai Khru Day! I mostly liked it because of the local style of lanna shirt I was required to wear. I think I worked it pretty hard.
On this day, students pay respect to their teachers. Educators are respected much more than in America. I’m not sure of the accuracy of the information, but I’ve been told here that the ranking of respect goes Royalty–>Monks–>Teachers. Dropping the phrase, “Phom bin khru” (I am a teacher), did help me knock yi sip baht off the price of that snazzy shirt.
Naturally, I deserved the upmost respect as I had been teaching for two whole days. At the Wai Khru Ceremony, the other teachers asked me to lead the procession onto the stage in front of all the students, which was a mistake on their part. I had no idea where to go, and ended up turing around, walking back across the stage, and asking another teacher. The students’ giggles will ring in my ears forever.
Once I found my seat and the ceremony began, I was met by a strange mixture of Buddhist prayers and Christian hymns, all followed by bowing. Then the students presented their elaborate floral creations to us. Each homeroom had made a several-tiered masterpiece to be judged in a friendly competition. My favorite had a floating lotus flower perched on top.
The whole ceremony was pretty overwhelming. After more songs, prayers, and bowing, I was back in the classroom, where the respect ended. I don’t remember accomplishing anything, but I do remember yelling a lot. This helped me to realize that I was being too serious in my teaching. By losing my cool and screaming, I had lost face, which is very much avoided in Thai culture. I’ve been trying so hard to get everyone completely quiet and in their seats so they could listen to me lecture about the present tense…this strategy was exhausting. I’m a conversational English teacher and my class only contributes to 20% of each student’s grade. Learning was not occurring when I tried to take my classes so seriously.
The Thai education system was a shock for me. Several trends struck me, and have kept a usually mellow man on edge. First, there is no punctuality. Some students wander in 15-20 minutes late like its no problem. Second, cheating is rampant, especially when they know you don’t speak Thai. Third, the threat of bad grades means nothing to students. The Thai teachers have asked me to just pass everyone, even if they’re turning in blank papers to me, which happens more often than you’d think. I can’t change these cultural trends, even though they disagree with my personal pedagogy. Trying to fight these trends is stopping my personality and teaching style from coming out during class.
I’ve spent far too much energy trying to be a disciplinarian instead of trying to get students excited to use even just a little English. The students are hilarious, so why am I being so dry? Time to start playing some games and finding ways to tame this herd of cats other than the thrilling combination of worksheets and yelling.