I recently started teaching English in Surat Thani, Thailand. I would tell you the name of the school if I knew it. The truth is I don’t. What I can tell you is that it’s located about nine kilometers outside of the city along HWY 401. You may think it strange that I don’t know the name of the school where I teach (god knows I do), but for some reason, it has never come up. The only time I even think about the question is when I am riding one of my two sonthaews during my commute and someone asks me where I teach English. I mumble something unintelligible that they pretend to understand to be polite, but they don’t know either. Regardless of the institution’s name though, the fact of the matter is that I have been teaching English in Thailand for nearly three weeks. During that time I have experienced many things that I will share with you over the coming weeks, but for today, I just wanted to let you know something: The Thai kids view me as a complete panty waste. This is not because of my size, I am at least a foot taller than every adult at the school, and two foot taller than most. However tall I may be though, there is one difference between myself and the Thai teachers that I did not become aware of until after my third day of classes, and now that I know the difference, there is nothing I can or want to change about it.
Before I get to the difference, let me explain that I teach Prathome one through six and Matthayom one through three. Basically, everything from kindergarten to the eleventh grade is under my purview for teaching English. I get about two hours with each of them each week. For the younger classes, ages ranging from four to six, I am afforded a Thai assistant. It’s a good thing too because in each class there is around forty kids.
I will upload some photos and videos in later posts, but let me give you some highlights. My school is in a jungle and it’s hot. Unbelievably hot and guess what, there’s no A/C. So my day is spent with a perpetual patina of moisture glistening on my skin. My constant sweating combined with the portion sizes of the school lunch, that are not fit for a bird, have combined to help me lose around 35 lbs in my first four months in Thailand. At the rate I perspire, I am pretty sure I will look like Ghandi at the end of the month.
Sweat and all though, I am enjoying it and my first few classes with the little P.1 and P.2 kids went awesome. For my first few classes, I felt like a rock star. My life was full of high fives, gifts of deliciousness, and notes that said “I love you teacher Jarrett”. I was able to communicate in English with them and expand their vocabulary and speaking abilities fairly quickly. After the first week, I thought that the job would be a cinch. That was until my Thai assistant called out sick, leaving me alone for an hour in a sweatbox with forty Thai kids that don’t speak of a lick of English.
No one notified me that she was absent that day. After about five minutes, I just assumed she wasn’t coming. That’s kind of how things work around here. You have a schedule, you follow it, but the reality is much more organic and raw than what they put on paper. You just have to kind of go with it. So when I realized my Thai assistant wasn’t coming, I didn’t panic, I could handle it. After all, it was only 40 kids who barely stand as tall as my thigh. How tough can it be? If only I had known what my Thai assistant always kept nearby to keep the children in line, I wouldn’t have felt so confident. But I didn’t know, and I as I walked into the class I was confident that all would go well.
I handed out their name tags and then started singing the ABC song with the children. And that’s when all hell started to break loose. The children that had been hugging and writing me love notes just two days before had somehow transformed and turned into something straight out of the Lord of the Flies of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. They went rogue and it didn’t take long. I literally turned for one second to write a vocab word on the blackboard and by the time I turned around I was frozen in horror. Thai kid after Thai kid was engaged in some form of combat. I watched in terror as child stuck child in the face, stomach, or any other painful place you could imagine. I rushed to break up the fight only to find more springing up all around me. Before I knew it a few of the boys were sobbing, victimized by one of the forty kids in the classroom. God knows who, so much was going on, I couldn’t keep track of who was hitting who. On top of the sheer level of chaos, the Thai kids all wear the exact same uniform. Isolating anyone is challenging.
I stopped trying to teach and my role evolved into that of a life guard saving children from the sea of chaos that was my classroom. I felt like a failure, how could I not be able to keep just forty kids in line? I had seen them behave the previous days when my Thai assistant was there, why aren’t they doing the same for me? The answer came to me, delivered by one small Thai boy that stayed outside of the Chaos. I have come to learn that he is the bright one in the class. Apparently, he could tell that I was struggling and he brought me a present in my time of need: A three foot long piece of bamboo.
When he handed it to me, I was ignorant as to its purpose. So I thanked him and set it on the desk. When I did, he gave me a look that said, “What are you doing stupid, don’t you know the stick is the answer to all your problems?” He picked the stick up and handed it to me again. Confused, I thanked him again but was forced to lay aside the stick. Even though I didn’t know it, the kid was giving me my first hint at why the kids viewed me as a pushover. Even though the stick was near, no matter what, I wouldn’t beat them.
The next twenty minutes were excruciating as I watched the children do anything shy of murdering each other. After the class I walked away slowly and ashamed. Forty Thai kids totally owned me. My discouragement only lasted for a moment though. I decided to see how another teacher handles kids in that age range. So I returned to the scene of the crime classroom to investigate.
I walked in on the same class with an old Thai male teacher. Unlike me, no one had to hand him a stick. His was five feet tall and he carried it with him wherever he went. Every child that had been a little delinquent just moments before sat at complete attention, poised to answer any question. I was perplexed at the metamorphosis seen before me, and I felt compelled to investigate and watch. It only took me a few seconds to recognize his secret. Any time a student wasn’t paying attention or talking or laughing, the gentleman would give them a whap with his stick. When I say whap, I’m not talking about a playful or polite impact, I mean a good old fashion rare back and put your back into it blow. My eyes went wide as his beating stick impacted with the child before me and it occurred to me why the children weren’t listening. One, they couldn’t understand me and two, I showed them that no matter how crazy they acted, I wouldn’t use the stick. I am a pushover.