A few weeks ago, I told you that the Thai kids found me to be a complete panty waste laid back (you can read about it here). Many of you have asked through emails and covert comments to my wife about how my classes are going. After two weeks more of teaching, I am happy to report that I have found the solution to my predicament. It is unconventional, and I stumbled on it quite by chance, but it is a solution nonetheless. What is my solution to caning, you ask? What have I done to try and turn a scene from crazy town into an environment to cultivate learning and development? Well I’ll tell you. Or I suppose I’ll write it, and you’ll read it. Assuming you don’t find the entire thing drivel and click away from the post as if it contains the plague.
First, I decided to stay with the class and watch them with their next teacher. I looked past the disciplinary/beating style used by my colleague, and attempted to glean if there was anything I could take away from his teaching style. The gentlemen shall remain nameless, not because I’m trying to be covert, but because I don’t know his name. (I was told it once, but to my shame I don’t remember it, and I don’t know how to say, “What’s your name?” in Thai.) He is the longest tenured Thai teacher at my school which translates into the highest salary: 50,000 baht a month (around 1666.00 US). He is the big cheese on campus. My guess is he’s around fifty-eight years old. He’s slim and wears thick, brown frame glasses that look something close to what my friends in the military refer to as “BC’s” or “birth control” spectacles.
His classroom, which he vacates for my English lesson, sits on the second floor of a wooden building. There is no air conditioning, and it’s hot. Most of my day it looks as if I shower with my clothes on between classes. There is a rusty old ceiling fan in the room, but it’s never on. Even if it were, I’m not sure what good it would do. It would be like trying to cool down molten lava with a hand fan. In spite of the heat though, I observed from the doorway and leaned against the doorframe to see if I could learn anything from the man. My first few minutes of observation were not promising.
From previous classes, I had noticed that there was an old karaoke machine in the classroom. When I first saw it, I didn’t think anything of it. Thai’s are crazy about karaoke. Little did I know that this faded cream-colored singing machine wasn’t used for singing at all. It carried a different set of dulcet tones altogether. Namely, the voice of the older Thai gentleman while he teaches his students. Basically, he sits at his desk near the front of the room and speaks softly to his students. He only pauses to occasionally write something on the blackboard or whap a student when they are talking or misbehaving.
Keep in mind, these student’s are five years old. While I couldn’t understand what the man was droning on about, what I can tell you is that monotone is boring in any language. Regardless though, all of the children sat alert as the man taught because while in one hand he had a microphone, in the other he held the beating stick. I had seen previously what he used that stick for, and the children were all certainly aware of its function. I almost walked away defeated, but then I saw a glimmer of hope. Something I could use. A part of their routine that didn’t involve the stick. Something I could mimic without betraying my conscience.
That was my purpose in visiting after all. To see if the Thai gentlemen did something that I could mesh into my own style. My theory was that if I could do something moderately similar to what the Thai kids were used to, then it would be easier for them to learn without beating each other like a scene from Gangs of New York. After about ten minutes of droning on into the karaoke machine, the man gave them their assignment in their samut or notebook. I don’t know what it was, but after the students finished, they lined up for the teacher to inspect their work. They lined up nicely, and while the teacher occasionally rose to give the unruly ones a taste of the stick, for the most part, the kids just stood in line waiting for their papers to be inspected.
To me it looked easy enough. If this is what they were used to, I could do something like that. Teach a lesson, have them copy the information into their notebook and inspect. It was going to be as easy as pie. I walked away from the classroom with renewed hope and a strategy for my next class with the little nok rien or students.
The next day, I came into class armed with the “Lady Bug Picnic” song from Sesame Street, and a lesson centered around members of the family. I taught them the verb “to be” and words like “father, mother, brother, etc…” The lesson concluded with me having the kids draw a picture of their family, labeling the members of their family in English. When they finished, what did I have them do? You guessed it, line up and have me inspect their work.
It worked remarkably well. All of the kids lined up just as I had seen the day before, and I started to feel confident with my new strategy. What I didn’t know was that I had a secret weapon far more powerful than the cane. Something that gave me leverage that I didn’t know I had: the smiley face.
I graded the first few kids papers and signed my name. I quickly got bored doing this and started spicing it up a bit by drawing a goofy cross-eyed smiley face. It was nothing fancy, just a cross-eyed cartoon character. But as I finished it and looked into the face of the child whose paper I was grading, I saw a face of unbridled delight. As I handed him his notebook, he started shouting and pointing out his smiley face to the rest of the kids in the class. To my shock the kids all gathered round and then raced to return to the line to have me grade their papers and draw a character for them as well. Even the children whose papers I had already graded returned to the line demanding for a face of their own.
I’m not sure if the kids noticed or cared, but I smiled with each character that I drew. and it grew larger as each kid desperately asked for one of their own. I had something they wanted, something they liked. I had leverage, and I didn’t need a stick to do it. Apparently, the smiley face is mightier than the stick. And now that I know they want one, guess whose listening to teacher?
Until next time,
PS: Millions of people have been asking me if I had a twitter account (Okay, it was like three). But if you were among the millions, you can find me on twitter @jarrett_ingram.