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Published: March 5th 2009
Hill tribe school
Fiona and I saw this school on our trek at a Lahu village in northern Thailand. I imagined teaching at this kind of school before I arrived!
As I finish up this blog entry, I have just a couple of days of school left, though I have been working on these reflections throughout the term.
Before I came back to Thailand to teach, as I think I may have mentioned before, I envisioned myself teaching in some quaint little village up in the north of Thailand- one that just had one school like the hill tribe village school Fiona and I saw on our trek out of Pai. TEFL made it sound as though that might be a possibility. I sort of wanted a Peace Corps-esque experience, due to the fact that it was only 4-5 months. I pictured myself feeding the monks in the morning as they came around with their alms bowls, and going to the temple with the locals on weekends. I understand that this was a rather romantic idea, but it seemed possible. Instead most of my group ended up in one industrial city or another in Thailand. But my experience was certainly still "real," and I think I can still make some generalizations about the education system here in Thailand from my personal experience (even though I was not teaching at a
This class is still my rowdiest. They talk constantly, but are really quite adorable, so it is difficult to (stay) annoyed with them.
"government school" (i.e. public school), and from conversations with teacher friends at other schools.
In our TEFL training, we were taught that teachers are highly valued in Thailand and that therefore we would be well-respected by students and adults alike. We also learned that we should be careful of our behavior around town- not drinking or wearing revealing clothing, etc. etc. Fortunately, the latter wasn't seem a problem for me- I kept all my 'cavorting' out of Chonburi on the weekends.
Despite the fact that teachers are supposed to be highly esteemed, there seems to be a huge difference in student behavior for Thai teachers vs. their behavior for foreign teachers. It's not quite the way I thought it might be over here in terms of immediate respect and exceptionally good behavior from students (as I've heard really IS the case in China and Korea). Even though I was really lucky to have very manageable class sizes, it was an uphill battle in most of my classes to get students to stop talking over me and to listen (or attempt to, anyway, if they didn't understand the English). I think that a Thai teacher was always supposed to be sitting in on all the classes, and they sometimes were and sometimes weren't, but this could be both an asset and a hindrance anyway. It often helped to have the Thai teacher assist with classroom management in Thai and sometimes to explain something extra tricky to the students. When it didn't help was when they translated everything for the students (therefore taking away the chance for the students to stretch their brains to understand), and when they spent the entire time rebraiding all the girls' hair in the class (really!).
The things that I really appreciate about the Thai education system are that schooling starts at a younger age, so the students have 3 years of kindergarten, the third year corresponding to our kinder in the U.S. It is hard to say if the students at my school are really representative of the whole population, but by K.3, those little ones had their letters and numbers down in both Thai and English and could spell a lot of words, too. If our public schooling included preschool, or multiple years of kinder, which is being pushed by early childhood specialists, students would get a lot more exposure to letters and numbers before they are pushed and prodded into reading in kindergarten. Last year a lot of my students had never been to school before and were adjusting to the new environment along with the academics. Some of them knew hardly any letters at all at the beginning of the year, but yet were expected to read by the end of the year.
Another thing I like about the Thai system is that 'non-academic' subjects are part of the regular curriculum, promoted by the government. Art, music, P.E., health, 'morality' (buddhist teachings), and dancing are integral parts of the curriculum. At my school the littlest kids also took swimming lessons and had cooking class once a week. I felt that value was placed on all of these subjects and that there is an interest in well-roundedness.
Now, some downsides. The schooling here relies heavily on rote memorization and copying information into notebooks, with less emphasis on problem-solving and critical thinking. Students are ready to spit back answers, but if you probe a little deeper, you often realize that they don't actually understand the concepts behind the answer (and perhaps aren't encouraged to do so). Neatness and copying are valued over reasoning. Once one of the foreign teachers was chastised because his writing on the board was slanting downward. Mine is terribly messy, but luckily I never heard about it! The students would take maddeningly long copying down notes and information from the board, so much so that what I thought would be 1 day's lesson could easily stretch into 3 days. You see a lot of teacher at the front, lecturing, while students copy down notes. After that there is usually a passive workbook page to complete and answers are provided if students can't supply them.
There is a no-failure policy in Thailand, so even if a student never completes any work and gets a zero on all tests and assignments, he/she must receive a passing grade. Failing a student would cause him/her and the family to lose face, which is not acceptable in Thai society. While this doesn't play such a role at the primary level, secondary teachers find it very difficult to motivate students since they know that they can't fail no matter what they do(n't) do. The emphasis is often placed on completing workbooks instead of measuring actual learning, which can be very frustrating!
Apart from the education system, the language barrier can be frustrating for classroom management and even more importantly for getting to know the students as individuals. Some of the youngest (P.1 and P.2 especially) persist in speaking to me in Thai and it is so painful to me when it seems like they really want an answer to something and I just have absolutely no idea what they are saying. What I enjoy most about teaching is the relationship that forms between the teacher and student and that is difficult when you don't have enough common language. I think in the future if I teach English again in a foreign country, I would probably like it to be a Spanish-speaking one. Even if Spanish is banned in the classroom, it is nice to be able to use it outside of class to get to know students better.
Coming up on the end of the term, I'm really noticing that I have developed rapport with my students. In spite of the language barrier that stands tall between me and many of them, we have grown to trust each other, respect each other, and hopefully to understand each other a little bit more. It's a shame that now that I finally feel so connected to them and know ways to get them more involved and less chatty, it's just about time to leave.
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