After seven days of teaching and seven weeks of living here, I have come to the conclusion that Thailand is chronically labile. Amorphous. There is no use trying to predict or resist anything that happens here. Because everything changes all the time. Any attempts to become accustomed to a schedule will be squashed. All expectations will likely be upset. The second you are comfortable, the shape of your situation will change. And will always be elusive. Rules are bendable, planning in advance is overrated, and schedules are obsolete. Official documents regularly go missing and are likely saturated with white-out. Split-second decisions and last minute amendments are the only routines. Spontaneity is king.
Prior to arriving in Chonburi, I was informed that I was to be a kindergarten teacher. I was hired as a kindergarten teacher. Am I a kindergarten teacher? No. I am a second and third grade teacher. No more babysitting or entertaining or consoling panicked kids after they discover their bowels unexpectedly gave way. I can throw that song and dance book out the window. Time for grammar lessons, and grade books, and pop quizzes. I was looking forward to working with kindergarten kids, but I am actually relieved to be teaching more challenging material. My kids are bright, self-aware, and know an impressive amount of English. They hold full conversations with me in between classes, ask me questions, and seem to be learning from me. They are sponges.
Already, I feel so connected to so many of my students. I have roughly 200 of them, and their names aren’t exactly sticking yet (i.e. Nattakakoman, Kanoknapat, Pattarasiree), but there is a certain magnetism between us. They constantly uplift me. In my homeroom, I have an autistic boy who goes by the name of Fry. He is very sensitive, gentle and physically affectionate. He is hugging me all the time. Fry is pretty good at English, but sometimes he struggles with speaking. In class, when he answers a question correctly, all the students clap and cheer. They are genuinely proud of him. They understand that he is different, but no one makes fun of him or singles him out. Instead, they are supportive and excited when he succeeds. A real tear-jerker to watch.
I am excited to be learning from children again. I feel I have a responsibility to them. First and foremost, before teaching, and worksheets, and pop quizzes, I have a commitment to being a positive influence in their lives–an adult whom they love, are comfortable with, and whom they do not fear. To be an example. If it is true that humans cannot understand concepts they have not perceived, then it is my duty to provide them with these opportunities for understanding. How can they know love, if they have not felt it? How can they know patience, if they have not seen it? How can they know compassion, if they have not received it? Our lives are examples for others. Whenever I am feeling lost, I look to the personalities of my friends for clarity. Depending on the situation, I find the most appropriate person and try to imagine what they would do in my situation. Everyone I’ve ever known and loved is continually teaching me things. Silently, unknowingly. I use their lives as examples. And I am aware that others may be using my life as an example as well.
Where schedules and rules are lax, dress code is strictly enforced at Anuban Chonburi. Teachers must wear skirts to their knees, but no longer or shorter, and none of that hippie-style business. Every day has a specific color. Monday is yellow, Tuesday is pink, Wednesday is a stiff, highly unfashionable Hawaiian shirt that the school provides, Thursday is purple, and Friday is sports day. On Tuesday, I committed a fashion faux pas, for which I received subsequent public humiliation and ridicule for all day. It was Tuesday, so I thought perfect–I will wear this stiff, uncomfortable hot pink collared shirt the school gave to me. It makes sense–wear this pink shirt on pink day right? Wrong. THAT pink shirt is for sports day, not pink day, silly English teacher. All day, teachers would tug at my shirt, giggling and mumbling something in Thai. I would be walking through the school and see people pointing at me, then turning to their fellow teachers and bursting into laughter. Mel was wearing the same shirt and I asked her later if she got the same response. She did. We are the black sheep. Luckily, I’ve had 3 years of practice with people pointing and laughing at me for the way I am dressed. Take that Thai teachers! But honestly, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest.
We were told by our training coordinator, Becky, to roll with the punches and to not take the Thai teachers too seriously. Sometimes, they will gossip about you, or ask you to do strange favors for them, or leave the room instead of helping you during your class. They are going to be harsh judges of you and your appearance and your personality. They may try and take advantage of you. But, we should just shrug it off and smile and nod, and not actually do anything they ask of us, unless we want to. Here are some Dos and Don’ts we should follow, as provided by Becky:
-Bring toilet paper with you wherever you go–at Anuban Chonburi, like all of Thailand, there is never any toilet paper in the bathrooms.
-Text the director the day that you are sick. It’s better than calling and being yelled at.
-Remember that showmanship is everything. Your personality is more important than your teaching.
-Make up grades for students if you are feeling overwhelmed.
-Remember that grades are arbitrary, but no one is allowed to fail. Change the grade to a 50% or higher if they are failing.
-Bribe your homeroom Thai teachers with gifts. Food of some kind is ideal.
-Bow to the director and shower him with compliments.
-Bow to every Thai teacher, just in case.
-Add ‘ka’ at the end of everything you say.
-Smile and nod to everything.
-Suck up to the lunch ladies. They will give you better food.
-Play dumb to the Thai teachers when they make ridiculous requests of you.
-Wear nail polish unless you want to be labeled a hooker.
-Be alarmed if 10 strangers walk into your classroom and shove a camera and a mic in your face.
-Worry about grades.
-Ever fail a student.
-Show your shoulders or your knees.
-Forget that you are under a microscope at all times.
-Stress. You are pretty much always going to be in the dark about everything.
-Use logic, just smile.
-Ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.
-Eat and walk at the same time. This is seen as rude. Always find somewhere to sit down.
-Make wild hand gestures while teaching.
-Open the door with your foot.
My Thai homeroom teacher, Teacher Teet, has been far from strict, judgmental or scornful. She is stern with the kids, but a sweetheart to me. Last week, she gave me a pack of whiteboard markers and a weird, sweet bean dessert, so I think that means she likes me. Besides, how can you fear someone when they call you Teacha Jos? Because they struggle with the pronunciation of my full name, everyone here–students, administrators, and teachers alike–calls me Teacha Jos. And I love it. It’s like we skipped the formalities and went straight to being good friends.