As my first semester teaching in Thailand wraps up, I figured I’m way overdue for posting about my experiences in the Thai classroom so far.
Where even to begin? It’s hard to describe the classroom as many things in the Thai education system are contradictory.
First things first, I am absolutely in love with all of my 44 little kindergarteners.
Our classy class picture
They have stolen my heart (along with my sanity, mind you), with their “good morning, Teachaaa Deanna” and “thank you, Teachaaa Deanna.” Even though they have little knowledge of the English language, they shower me with hugs and kisses, look for my reaction when they lose their first tooth, and demand that I scowl any student who accidentally bumps into them. In other words, they act as any 5/6-year-old from the States would act.
At the same time, they are so much more mature than students back home. Thai students are expected from a young age to be very independent. Here, students are sometimes left unattended at the lunch table or in the classroom. I panicked the first time I walked into my classroom to see that no adults were in the room with them. Back home, this is a BIG no-no. But here, nobody cares because Thai children are expected to not (totally) lose their heads the second they are left alone.
Likewise, Thai students are expected to be tough. No coddling here. There’s also no nurse’s office here either. So if a child throws-up during the morning ceremony (unfortunately, a pretty common occurrence), he/she is expected to clean themselves up and get back to class. If they feel REALLY bad, they’re allowed to take out their bed and rest in the corner of the classroom while the rest of the class just moves around them. It’s a wonder as to why our whole school hasn’t been quarantined yet. On the plus side, I’m going to have a super awesome immune system when I get back home.
I’ve also found that Thai students (across all grade levels) are more advanced in their studies than the equivalent grade level back in the States. For instance, my students know how to identify, write, and say all the 44 Thai consonant characters PLUS the 26 alphabet letters and their corresponding sounds. They also know their English sight words, can solve basic addition and subtraction problems, count to 100 in Thai and English, and have begun to blend simple sounds together to form words. I’m not saying that kindergarteners back home can’t do this too. I’m just saying that the expectations here are more rigorous.
Me and my boys!
Don’t get me wrong though, Thai classrooms have not killed the imagination and spirit of their students. Not by a long shot. Thai kids in general are little balls of energy who MUST see the fun in an activity in order to stay engaged and learn. Otherwise, they are rolling on the floor (literally), wrestling each other, and talking loudly during teaching time.
Activities like this are required to keep these kiddos listening
Prior to teaching here, I joked that teaching in Thailand would be a breeze compared to my other teaching experiences. The worst thing that might happen is a student dropping a pencil on the ground.
Don’t let them trick you with their white outfits and innocent peace signs
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Many Thai students do not have the motivation to learn. This is largely due to the fact that the Thai education system does not allow teachers to fail their students; teachers have to provide retesting until a student passes. And so, there’s no fear of failing or being held back to keep a student from messing around during a lesson. Instead, Thai teachers will resort to physical punishments to keep their students in check.
But didn’t I just say that my Thai students are more advanced than students back home? And here’s where things get contradictory and blurry. I have these smart students with little desire to pay attention and learn. I have an education system that demands perfection, yet does not know how to address any situation that is less-than-perfect. The paradoxes here are mind-blowing.
So enough ranting. All education systems have their flaws. In the end, it’s how a teacher rolls with the “punches and throws” that matter.
Let me just reiterate really quickly: managing students with very little knowledge of English is, without a doubt, the hardest thing I’ve ever done while in the classroom.
Me and my girls!
But if at first you do not succeed, you got to try, try, and try again! For instance, back home when I wanted my classes’ attention, I’d say “Peanut butter!” My students knew to respond with “Jelly!” and get quiet. Day 1 in my Thai class, I wanted to establish the same drill using “Chicka Chicka, Boom Boom” (Thai people don’t know what peanut butter is, so “peanut butter and jelly” was out). My students quickly latched on to the idea of responding to my “Chicka Chicka” with “Boom Boom.” Problem was, they would begin talking right back up the moment after. No amount of “shhhh!” and quieting gestures would silence them.
Moving on to idea #2: reward system. I made a card for each of my students. If they were “caught being good” by me, they would get a hole punch in their card. 5 hole punches = a prize from my toy chest. Unfortunately, this method was hard to manage with 44 kids. Plus, the hole punch thing just wasn’t grabbing their attention. After a failed trial period, it was back to the drawing board.
Idea #3: stickers. Works about 50% of the time. I would like to move away from material rewards though (especially ones that need constant replenishing…)
Ironically, I found my best way of managing the volume of my class by accident. I was having trouble learning my students’ long and tongue-tying names. Feeling guilty about always pointing to a student and saying “you,” I got a bunch of popsicle sticks and wrote a student’s class number on each one. Whenever I want a student to give an answer, I pick a popsicle stick.
Pretty random procedure, right? Except for some reason, my kids think that what they’re doing at the moment will determine whether their popsicle stick is selected or not.
Now, all I have to do is shake my popsicle stick container to get my students to settle down. Many of them sit, cross their legs, close their eyes, and start to silently move their lips. Whether they are praying to be called on or not, I don’t know. All I know is that the talking stops because they all want to know who’s going to be IT and possibly traumatized by being asked “What day of the week is it?” by me.
My other way of controlling the class is through singing. I taught my students the “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” song and they are all obsessed with it. All I have to do is begin singing the song and my students stop what they are doing to perform the hand motions. This works on even the “bad boys” in the class.
So, what does an average school day look like for me? Every morning, I walk the 20 minutes to school with Jessica, my fellow CIEE/OEG coworker. We both wear all-black dresses every day as Thai people are in a 1-year mourning period over their late King. We arrive at school at 7:30am and sign in with the school’s fingerprint scanner.
Every other Monday though, I arrive at school 30 minutes early for Gate Duty. This duty requires me (you guessed it) to stand by the entrance gate and have all the students wai (pressing hands together as if in prayer and bowing) into my open palm. Aside from still being half asleep, it’s pretty cute to see all the kids get dropped off by their parents on motorbikes.
At 7:50, our day begins with the morning ceremony. This is probably the most torturous part of the day. Everyone is required to stand under the school pavilion for roughly 20 minutes for prayer, chants, speeches, and songs. Since Chonburi is a coastal city, it gets very hot and humid. Thus, students and teachers are sweating like crazy the whole time. On the plus side, I get myself a daily detox.
Next, we climb the stairs to our classrooms, take off our shoes, get our students their water, have them settle on the floor (we have no desks and chairs), and then begin our teaching. My student teacher and I alternate teaching blocks. In the morning, I teach a phonics block and a block on whatever the topic of the week is.
Everyday I make my kids tell me what month we’re in and the days of the week (in complete sentences, of course). I reckon they have it down now!
On Tuesdays, I leave my students to teach in another classroom for 45 minutes. When it’s not my teaching block, I assist my Thai co-teacher and student teacher with managing the students.
For lunch, I am required to prepare the food bowls and serve my students extra helpings of food. Thai lunches consist of either rice or noodles paired with some sort of meat. Not going to lie, I sometimes want to eat what my students eat for lunch.
Next, it’s nap time. Meaning lunch/prep time for me. Jessica and I either eat at the school canteen or venture outside of school to our favorite noodle soup place. We stumbled upon this family-owned place by accident and it is definitely a hidden gem! Since Jessica is vegetarian, we don’t mess with trying new dishes in case there’s meat in it (many Thai people do not understand the concept of a vegetarian/vegan). Instead, the grandmother/shop owner has her son/cook make us the same noodle-poached-egg dish each time.
Only 86 cents for a huge bowl. I can eat this stuff for days…
We don’t even have to order or say anything when we walk in; they just automatically make it for us.
For the rest of nap time, I run around doing random prep work or preparing my students for upcoming English activities. As for English activities, so far I have…
1. Coached a Grade 5 student in correctly pronouncing and memorizing various speeches for English competitions.
2. Coached one of my kindergarteners in correctly pronouncing and memorizing a Mother’s Day speech. The student I coached for this competition so happened to be my favorite student, Patchara. For over a month, I had to wake poor Patchara up early and practice his speech. This was very difficult to do as this kid loves his naps. Even after I dragged him into the hall with me, getting him to memorize a speech while he was still half-asleep was brutal for both of us. I kept thinking how I would feel if I was 5 years old and a foreign teacher woke me up early from nap every day to sit outside in the heat and memorize words to a speech in a language that was unfamiliar to me. I have to say, Patchara handled the situation a lot better than I would at 5.
After a month and a half of this, Patchara had to stand in front of a room of teachers and deliver the speech. He ended up being the most cheerful and energetic student up on stage and flew through his lines. Of course, I recorded the whole speech and every time I watch it, I feel like a proud mama. After the competition, Patchara ran up to me, tears in his eyes, and hugged me. Too cute!
3. Coached two of my students in a “crossword puzzle” game board competition. Don’t ask me the specifics because I never learned them myself. That’s Thailand for you!
4. Coached a handful of my students in learning the lines to a Little Red Riding Hood play that I wrote. This play required some intense practicing and we actually just performed it yesterday for the whole kindergarten building and parents. I feel like a proud mama for this event too, so picture time!
The cast and I before showtime.
Hanging with the star of the show
We had butterfly princesses in our version of Little Red
Alright, back to my school schedule now… So after nap/prep/coaching, my kids wake up for specials and then I teach for one more block. Usually, I use this block for hands-on crafts, games, and demonstrations.
Sing-toe (lions) out of hearts
Teaching about family. Note: Patchara draws me a Spiderman on every assignment he hands in.
The topic of the week was “rice,” so of course I had them make paper sushi!
Learning about fruits by making shish kabobs
I’m the person responsible for introducing “Green Eggs and Ham” to Thai children. After this activity, I was asked if green eggs and ham are a type of “American food.” I believe I responded with an “ummm yes?” Sorry for the new American staple guys…
In case you haven’t picked up on it yet… I do a lot of food-related activities with my kids.
And so far, they have enjoyed every bite of it!
Every other Friday, I participate in “English Fun Friday.” This rivals the morning ceremony for “the most torturous part of the day.” Once again, I’m back at the outside pavilion, where the foreign teachers and I have 3 classes rotate between us. I teach each class for 20 minutes. Since most of the other kindergarten classes are not used to seeing a white foreigner, many of them will just give me blank stares, regardless if I speak to them in English or Thai.
Me as I realize that none of the kids have any idea what I’m asking.
So how do I get them to respond? I go all out with the dramatics and act like a crazy person. I give out a ton of high-fives, and “way to go’s!”
I feel like such a motivational speaker
The kids may not fully grasp what I was teaching them by the end of the 20 minutes, but I do get some hugs.
At 4pm, it’s finally time for Jessica and I to walk home and prepare for the next day (and mayyybbbeeee watch some Netflix).