How It All Began Part 10
Well I know you’re all dying to know how things turned out. I suppose it was inevitable. All the farang teachers were immediately sacked! We were all a bunch of uncooperative agitators, who had “old fashioned” teaching philosophies! I take that as a compliment! I am old fashioned in that I actually expect students to be quiet, work hard, and do their best to complete the required work. That’s the generally accepted way to succeed academically in most modern societies. That’s not the case in LOS. The way to succeed here is to go through the motions, not make waves, and grease the appropriate palms with a smile on your face. The phrase “Failure is not an option” has been twisted into a sad parody. I actually saw envelopes of money change hands to get a student’s grades changed! (Sometimes you learn a lot when Thais think that you can’t understand a word of what they’re talking about!)
The future of Thailand is in grave jeopardy if my experience is typical throughout the country. Every so often you’ll read about some new education initiative to improve the quality of English instruction in Thailand. To me it’s all smoke and mirrors; another item to be checked off on someone’s check list. Okay. The proclamation has been issued throughout the land. (Now we can safely bury the damned thing and forget all about it, because we don’t have the slightest intention of changing anything!)
Let me give you a few examples of this kind of thinking that I experienced. We had a two day seminar at our school for English teachers. A very bright professor came down from Payap University in Chiang Mai to lead the seminar. Dr. P. started by bemoaning the fact that more than 80% of entering freshman needed to take remedial English! This is after 12 years of English instruction in the government school system. She made a plea for less emphasis on complicated grammar, and more on basic vocabulary. She made it clear that teachers needed to spend less time on the blind oral repetition of English that they did not understand, and more time encouraging students to think! Now that’s a novel idea in a Thai school; learning how to think! To illustrate her premise, she broke us down into teams and had us do variety of interesting exercises. For a moment, I thought that she must have x-ray vision and was sneaking a peak into my lesson plan book! During lunch, I actually showed her my lesson book, and was encouraged that I was right on the money! (“old fashioned teaching philosophy indeed!”) Hell compared to the mindless plodding Thai techniques, I was the cutting edge of EFL! At the end of the seminar, the school’s teachers gave Dr. P. a standing ovation. Speeches were made praising her “innovative approach” to English instruction. But the moment she drove away, everything she tried to teach went straight in the wastebasket! No doubt though that a box was ticked off: held required English seminar. Nothing had changed. Students would continue to be shuffled along, year after year, droning lessons they don’t understand. And after 12 years of this kind of instruction, what have they learned, certainly not very much English as you can see from my next example.
The farang teachers were asked to give a one day seminar to the Matayom 6 students, to prepare them for college interviews. The Thai teachers actually wanted us to prepare a “script” of questions and answers that students could learn by rote. Well guess what? Life is unscripted! What if the interviewers asked questions that were questions that were not in the script? My idea was to go over what college interviewers (at least in the U.S.) wanted to know about prospective students: “Why to want to attend our school?” “What was your favorite subject in school?” “What are some of your interests outside of school?” “What would you like to do after graduation (and why)?” I then wanted students to pair up and have them ask each other questions, while I listened and offered suggestions. At the end of the day I would run each student through an interview. There was nothing very startling in my approach. What was startling was the inability of these students to think, and to say a few simple declarative sentences! If a student managed to have the ability to say “I want to be a nurse.” They were still unable to answer the question. “Why would you like to be a nurse?” Silence! How about something like, “I want to help sick people get better.”? “I want to be an engineer.” “What kind of engineer would you like to be?” Silence! “There are many kinds of engineers. Do you want to be an electrical engineer, a mechanical engineer, a nuclear engineer, a choo-choo engineer?” What in God’s name have these guys been doing for the past 12 years in English their classes? Apparently nothing very useful! Apparently their parents think so as well! That’s why they pay to send their children to so many after-school programs! They know that their children are receiving an inadequate education, but are unwilling to publicly demand better. So in order to hopefully get their children into a “good” college or university, they pay a lot of money to send them to private learning institutions.
Despite my rather dismal experience working in the Thai “educational system”, I have not lost my enthusiasm for teaching. Although I have done some additional work in several elementary schools, and at private language schools, most of my teaching is done out of my home. I am constantly being asked by Thais if I will teach their children. My wife and I have worked out a system. I teach the ones who know enough English to benefit from me. She teaches the ones who really need to be instructed in Thai. Som is quite good at it, and now has her own following in Lampang. The core of what I like to teach is based on the 1000 most commonly used words in English. Learning these essential words backwards and forwards is a good solid foundation. Did you know that the first 25 words make up one third of all printed material in English, and that the first 100 make up one half? The only grammar I teach is in the context of making sentences with these words. The words are also a jumping off point for me to teach about a variety of different subjects: science, history, art….whatever they might find interesting. Hey I guess all those afternoons in my youth hanging out in the public library have come in handy! Being such a bibliophile, it truly grieves me that about the only way you might get a Thai to read a book (other than a comic book) is by threatening them with grievous bodily harm. I once bought all the Harry Potter books in Thai, hoping my darling wife would enjoy them. She could handle about 20 minutes and then gave up. How sad for her. How sad for Thailand!
Fatherhood yet again
September 22, 2006: We arrived at the hospital the night before, when Som’s contractions starting getting regular. It’s too bad that there don’t seem to be pre-natal childbirth classes in Thailand. While of course not actually having gone through the trauma of childbirth, I had gone through the training classes with my ex-wife. I was also present in the delivery room for the birth of my three children, to offer what comfort I could. Now Som was lying there in extreme pain, not really understanding the whole process. I had gotten her some books in Thai on the subject, but…well you already know about how she feels about reading! There is no more distressing thing than to see someone you love in pain, and not be able to do anything about it. Fortunately we had a very nice and very competent obstetrician, Dr. Klong. When it was obvious that despite labor, Som wasn’t dilating enough for delivery, he decided to perform a caesarean. A delivery room was one thing, but an operating room! I had to bow out, or they would be scraping me off the floor! Dr. Klong, lived up to his name (“quick or fast”). At 11:04 little Samuel T. G. entered the world this time around! Samuel was my father’s name. Everyone calls him Sam. The “T” is for Som’s family name. I really couldn’t believe it, fatherhood again at 56 years old. I hoped that I would have what it took to give this little boy a good start on the road to life. Well at least two thirds of his name was lucky. In an amazing bit of cosmic coincidence, both my family name and Som’s family name mean the same thing: gold! Now there’s a real twilight zone moment for you! Somehow we’ll have to incorporate that “double gold” into his nick name. Does anyone know what two of my all-time favorite fictional characters share September 22’nd as a birthday? No prizes, but I’ll acknowledge your above average intelligence and literary taste!
Fast forward about 14 months to the present. Little Sam is now running all around, getting into everything. I swear that he will wind up being the kind of boy who’ll be on a first name basis with the local orthopaedist, ‘cause this kid is probably going to break more than a few bones! He is a wild one! He is one handsome devil though! Luckily for him, he has inherited his mother’s good looks. From me, all he’s gotten is brown hair and white skin. Yes he is a true look-kreung, and seems to be the apple of every Thai female’s eye! I swear, no matter where we are, they all want to pick him up, and squeeze him. (I’ll have to ask Mrs. Stick about why the Thais go all mushy over look-kreungs.)
Those of you who have children know how difficult child rearing is. You worry over every sniffle and fever, and that’s doubly true in Thailand. No matter how many precautions you take, mosquitoes are going to score some points, and you never know what they might be carrying. We’ve made sure that Sam had had every inoculation that’s available. I’ve insisted that we get them from a reliable private paediatrician. I’ll never take him to a government doctor. Knowing how corrupt and incompetent the government medical system is, I wouldn’t doubt that they would use some outdated vaccine!
Som has been a wonderful mother. I don’t know how she does it. Little Sam is the light of her life, but is not always easy. He is an extremely demanding child. It will be good when he gets just a little older, and we can start really communicating. Som speaks to him in Thai and English. Obviously I speak only English. If he’s going to learn both languages simultaneously, he might as well hear Thai pronounced correctly!
I spend many nights thinking of Sam’s future. To be honest, I never would have moved here if I had known we would have a child. What kind of a life can he possibly have here? Time will tell. I certainly hope that things improve in Thai society, but so many things are up in the air. What will happen when HRH the King finally passes away? He unites various factions. Without showing any disrespect to the HRH the Prince, he’s got some BIG souse to fill. I hope that there will be a peaceful transition, but I’m prepared for the alternative. One of the first things I did after Sam was born was go to the U.S. Consulate and get him a U.S. passport. I’m ready to “get out of Dodge” on a moment’s notice! In a related “Only in Thailand” story; the municipality of Lampang refused to write on Sam’s birth certificate that he is an American citizen! They have his nationality listed as Thai. Pointing out to this typical nit-wit of a Thai bureaucrat that both I and Som are American citizens didn’t help. I have been here long enough to know that getting steamed up wasn’t going to fix anything. I just smiled on my way out, even though I would have gladly kicked her ass! Luckily the American Consulate had a simple form which corrected everything.
Anyway, getting back to Sam’s future; there is no way in hell that we are sending him to a Thai government school! Fortunately there is an International School in Lampang that uses a standard British curriculum. It may not be perfect, but it will be infinitely better than becoming an ignoramus!
Nothing would make me happier than for my son to integrate both halves of his heritage. I want him to be proud of his two heritages. I want him be successful in both worlds. Maybe he can with a lot of hard work, and a little chok-dee.
Another really, really nice series which I THOROUGHLY enjoyed reading!