The children, oh, the children. So wonderful, so shy and cute yet engaging, welcoming, and full of life; eager to take us in.
Warning, this post will be full of pictures, I couldn’t put my camera down the entire day, even when teaching. I encourage you to click on any of the pictures in the gallery below and scroll through (or download) the higher quality images.
We arrived at the rural school about 15 km outside Chiang Mai just before the scheduled 8am start of the day. The ride over had been interesting….a few instructions and last minute helpful hints from Jack and then a lot of silence. A little music in the van lightened atmosphere a bit, but we were still concerned about how this day would go.
The school has about 220 kids divided almost equally across 12 different levels from kindergarten through ‘high school’. Exiting the van, there were a couple hundred children gawking at the strange white people that invaded their campus. It took only a few minutes for us to start playing and interacting with the kids, chasing them around the schoolyard, asking questions, and generally getting our feet wet while trying to make them feel comfortable with the aliens that just landed on their turf.
Physically, the grounds were comprised of two parallel, two-story buildings with a football (“soccer”) pitch in the middle. It’s exactly what you’d expect in a rural southeast Asian setting…a bit run down, but it was fully functional and it was happy. The children lined up on the football field for the flag raising, a “pledge of allegiance” (I surmise) and several announcements, including our introductions. I joined the kids, single, file on the field and they seemed to appreciate the unity.
After introductions, it was straight into the fire. One classroom, one teacher….one of us versus 18 of them. I had four classes scheduled during the 5-period day. I was to teach Prathom 1, 4, and 6 as well as Matthayom 2 (the rough equivalent of grades 1, 4, 6, and 8). I was to teach Letters, Frequency (e.g. never, rarely, sometimes, usually, and always), Past Progressive, and Future Simple verb tenses. No problem, right?
Actually, it wasn’t. While some of us were wearing our nervous system as an exoskeleton, there was really nothing to worry about. The children were receptive, and in many cases very bright. Their English skills were weak, but there was a basis from which to begin. This particular school does not have a foreign or English teacher, so there were very happy to have us there.
The behaved quite well and we all got on fabulously. Lesson planning, taught to us only four days prior, was paying off in spades. We were (surprisingly) well prepared, rehearsed, and comfortable. This is to the credit of both Cap’n Jack as well as the children. Even my jokes and funny pictures elicited the laughter I had hoped.
For me, time flew by. The hour of the first lesson (“frequency”) to the fourth graders went according to plan and on my (hoped for) timetable. No one acted out, attention levels were high, and participation excellent. Everyone had a good time, especially me, and I only hoped that what they learned would stick with them for more than the hour. The children were a real treat and Cap’n Jack’s teachings and my preparation left me in total control.
I’ve heard professional educators in the past suggest that everyone should teach for one year in their careers/lives. Now I can understand why. The feeling of reaching a child, opening their minds in a classroom, is unlike anything else. It is amazing.
Our classes are 50 minutes and then we are shuffling off to another classroom to teach another level with a different lesson. New faces, new encounters, fresh challenges for both teacher and student. Three classes in the morning and each went better than the last. I could not immediately think of a way I would have improved those first lessons or the receptiveness of the audience.
Lunch was an amazing opportunity for everyone. Most of us sat and ate with the kids. We laughed and struggled with language. But such an informal setting was a perfect forum to reinforce the idea that we are all the same and that we can learn from one another. The children were well fed (including large bowls of Thai chills on the table) and then we were off to play. This, for some of us lead to the football pitch, for others, jumping “rope” (rubber bands strung together), or the volleyball courts.
I played volleyball and sweat through my clothes instantly and entirely. But such fun.
Following lunch I had my favorite moments of the day. I had a period off and spent it strolling from classroom to classroom watching my fellow students cum educators lead their classes. So much fun. Too much fun. Such great people doing such great work. I’m really proud to be among them. Personalities continue to make themselves more apparent, confidences grow, futures get brighter.
(It is worth noting that some of the students in my TEFL class gave up or sold everything “back home” and come to Thailand to create a new life. They are planning on getting a job teaching English soon after graduation and staying in Thailand for the long haul. Each has an interesting background, motivation, and story. So, to watch them all move step by step closer to the realization of that dream makes me very happy.)
The children, through the ups and downs of sugar highs, post-lunch doldrums, and ever-changing teachers) continue to be cooperative and supportive. My biggest challenges of the day are helping the kids think for themselves (instead of simply parroting the child next to them). Independent thinking is perhaps one of the paramount goals for a TEFL teacher in Thailand. So, we are not just teaching vocabulary, structure, and grammar, we are teaching life lessons that hopefully will pervade other aspects of their lives.
Between classes in the afternoon, I had a ten year old boy show me his notebook. it was brand new, so I said “new” and had him repeat it a few times. Then I threw in the word “book”. We repeated it several times more before I pulled out my notebook. I said “old book”. He pointed to mine and said “old book” and pointed to his and said “new book”. By now there are 15 students all around my legs participating. But I remembered this boy from my first classroom of the day. So, I asked him, “how often do you write in your book?” (in that ultra slow monotone way we speak to kids who are just learning our language). He got a big grin on his face, looked me in the eyes and said, “I NEVER write in book”. Then he pointed to my book and flipping through my pages filled with travel journaling notes, he said, “you ALWAYS write in your book.” Holy crap, this kid remembered that lesson (four hours ago) and has already internalized both the concept and vocabulary.
I love this day, we all love this day. The mood in the van leaving the school is one of real joy and relief. It wasn’t the terror some of us feared. The children weren’t complete animals (thought some of us did report having minor discipline issues). Unanimously we loved the experience.
A lot of lessons were learned that first day and that lead to a lot of work that night for people. Some of us wanted to change their lesson plans for the next day’s classes, some of us hadn’t prepared those lessons at all yet. So, for many, it was back to the grindstone. I was content with my work and preparation, so I took the night off. And I have to say, I was tired. Being ‘on stage’ all day was tiring. I probably ran several miles dashing back and forth in the classrooms up and down the aisles of desks. It was a complete effort and I probably lost three pounds just in sweat.
Day two was great. New classes, new lessons we’d never delivered before, but the same amazing reception. And the same rock-star treatment from the children, lots of hugs, tons of pictures, requests for our Facebook pages, and running after us asking for autographs.
I had expected to see the Thai teachers hanging around in the classrooms, watching over their students, watching over the strange teachers, but they were largely absent. I guess these were essentially two days off for them. And frankly, I preferred it this way. With a Thai teacher in the classroom, the children probably would have acted differently and that might have lead me to question the authenticity of my experience.
On this day, I did not get a free period as scheduled. Somehow, somewhere someone or something got confused and there was a classroom without a teacher during my break period, so I happily took the job. It happened to be my P3 class from earlier in the day, so we all knew each other. And, because I had planned “expanded” lessons (not knowing the knowledge level of the students), I was prepared. I took out my visual aids from that morning’s class and put them back up on the board. After a quick review, I pulled out the “expanded” lesson plan materials and moved the morning’s lesson forward.
Lunch was great again, although most of us teachers did not play heavy sports in the blazing sun this time around.
We were all getting more comfortable in the classrooms, with the materials, and with issues such as discipline and general classroom management. I am completely intrigued by watching everyone’s transformation.
The day sailed by for me. But after five classes, I have to say, I am really tired. There is no homework today and no classes (per se) tomorrow. So on the way back to the hotel we make a plan for a pool party. Ah, that beach ball I’d been using in the classrooms just found a new application.
We drink way too much, party way too long, and blew off enough steam to power a locomotive. We are celebrating. We’ve done it, come through the other side….and frankly I’m pretty darn proud of all of us.
Tomorrow we have English Camp, and none of us are quite sure what that means.