Monday, March 10, 2014

teacha! teacha!

The opportunity to work in Thailand fell into my lap last year at a time where I was unsure of my future plans. I needed to decide which country I would jet off to next after my second summer in Croatia. Thailand was put on the table and in the months that followed, it kept popping up in my life. Ready for change and eager for a culture shock, I decided that Thailand would be the perfect remedy. I arrived in this wonderfully surprising country at the end of October to teach at an elementary school and explore the Land of Smiles.

I arrived with no end date of my travels. I figured that if I felt tied to the country and connected enough to plant roots then I would stay. Thailand has my heart but I know that it is not the place that I will spend the rest of my life at. I have learned that Thailand is a place that breeds evolving; it humbles, challenges, and enlightens you.  Thailand is an integral part of my journey and has blessed me with opportunities that I would have never received in any Western country.

After a 36-hour trip, I landed in Thailand sweaty and sleep deprived. Several quick tours of the town and a low down on our school left me laughing - I already knew it would be one hell of an adventure. I signed up for a one year contract at my school that would have me teaching from November to March and then May to October.  I was placed in second grade at Anubanchonburi and also made the second grade team leader. The Thai education system is unique and far different than anything I have ever experienced.

My school is government run and offers an English Program to the students, giving them 18 hours of instruction by an English teacher every week. A STEM program was also instituted in the school, making the curriculum and lessons integrative and relative. After orientation week I was excited to be part of something that held so much potential, but also knew that Thai traditions would come into play at some point.

That point came the first day of school. Effectively fusing Western and Eastern practices requires communication, organization, and implementation and has proved nearly impossible at this school. Thai culture prides itself on tradition, values, and respect – all of which are commendable.  However, the power struggles, need for conformity, and focus on presentation take away from true learning.  The students are drilled with routines and are forced to regurgitate facts. Pageantry trumps education. The numbers and scores hold precedence over the student understanding.

I found a great struggle in accepting this. I know that Thai schools love to glorify their students’ capabilities and beauty; however, I cannot justify the excess pageantry. Shows, dance routines, contests and performances are wonderful creative outlets that are extremely fun for the children and should be school activities; yet, these productions should be extra-curricular and not take away any time from the children’s learning.  I found myself spending more time on booths and dance routines than the actual learning taking place in my classroom. I could not rationalize how a dance competition during school mattered more than what took place in the classroom. I was frustrated when plans constantly changed without being communicated. I did not understand why the students had to waste twenty minutes tracing perfect lines rather than just writing freestyle. I was disappointed that imagination and creativity was not encouraged. I was angered that special education does not exist; leaving students with high special needs mainstreamed into classes with over 35 students and expected to score the same grades. There is an unspoken standard of intelligence and excellence here that excludes too many children. In a crowded classroom of 35 students, how can all of their needs be met? How can they master comprehension of blended disciplines when we must rush through books and test every Friday? How can the STEM curriculum have any effect when all that matters are the test scores and not the creative thinking?

In addition to my battle with Thai education I witnessed power struggles within my administration. The clash of Eastern and Western practices divided our leadership. Our supervising teacher who introduced STEM to the school and held high hopes for the future of Thai education fought an uphill battle for far too long, causing the fire of her passion to blow out. Asking for change and modernity in a place where history and traditional practices are redeemed is a challenge in itself. My fellow teachers and I have both witnessed and been part of the war between Thai and English administration.  Lying, manipulation, deceit, and greed have taken all the focus off education and placed it onto the power struggle. Native English speakers are seen as an accessory and not a necessity. Although there is an abundance of English teachers in Thailand, I believe that valuing a capable and skilled teacher would ensure a long lasting partnership. I honestly wonder if they reflect upon the high turnover rate of English teachers and ask themselves why that may be.  I am trained as a professional to educate young minds and being placed in an environment that does not recognize my qualifications is frustrating. I am a person that feels an inherent desire to fix problems and change things for the better. I must constantly remind myself that I cannot change a country. I cannot change the culture of Thailand. This is what I signed up for. I wanted a culture shock and found a great one at my place of work.

Many people see teaching abroad as an easy way to fund traveling. While it wonderfully allows people to enjoy extended travel, it is not an easy ride. I am a professional and an adult – a job is still a job and I will always take mine seriously. I do not believe that educating a child, for no matter how long or in what country, is a joke. Teachers hold more influence in a child’s life than parents do at times. They are part of how a child develops their values, sense of self, and intelligence. I put my heart and time into my classroom so I am disheartened when these efforts have no influence on the big picture.

Nevertheless, I am truly grateful for the opportunity to teach at Anubanchonburi. It has given me the chance to learn and grow as an educator.  I have been exposed to the interesting politics of Thai culture and their education system, which in turn have strengthened my own beliefs.  Although I cannot endorse every style of teaching here, I do acknowledge the difference in learning values and the strengths of the Thai culture. The amount of parent involvement is incredible here in Thailand. Also, there truly is a sense of community at this school which I believe to be fundamental to all children’s upbringing.

My adorable 35 second graders have my heart. Their genuine smiles and unconditional love kept me coming to school every day. My classroom was my safe haven where I aimed to make every lesson and activity fun, integrative, and exciting. I focused on the learning rather than the testing. My students’ knowledge was assessed more in those conversations between the periods than during their week of finals (which it is also ridiculous that second graders are forced to endure 2 weeks of midterms and finals). Watching their eyes light up when they grasp new facts or can easily communicate a story reminds me why I am in this career field. Education, whether in or out of a classroom, is the basis and the future of every society. This is what I believe in: education and experience. Only with this can the minds of great leaders, artists, and inventors grow.

I realized early on that my one year contract would turn to half a year. I could not work for an institution that does not value the same things I do. I need to be part of an organization that encourages change, inspires learning, and treasures every individual. I believe in educating humanity – young, old, and in between – to become better and do better. We will not evolve unless we are open to change and willing to learn from each other. I cannot say that one country, one culture, or one educational system is better than another. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. However, if we cannot adapt to this world’s changing society and adopt new practices to survive, then we are not growing.

It pains me to leave these 35 innocent souls. I pray that they never lose their sense of wonder and they never stop playing. I hope they will all be adventurers and explore the world. I pray that they know I gave them all my love. I hope they don’t think I gave up on them but know that the school couldn’t fulfill my soul’s needs. I have cherished my time here – the good, bad, and crazy - and will always hold their laughter and smiles in my heart.


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