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School Daze Part 2




Sometimes when opportunity knocks you’d better put down your cold beer, get your lazy butt off the sofa and answer the damned door…..especially here in the Land of Smiles. I did answer the door, which is how I find myself teaching at a Catholic school. Moi! The Jew (most formerly) in the Lotus greeted every morning by a statue of the Virgin Mary! What’s more, I actually look forward to going to work. (Well most of the time. It is after all still work.) “So how did you end up at this fine institution of learning?” Thanks for asking. Pull up a chair and let me tell an improbable tale.

You see, it was like this. The blush had definitely faded from the rose at KHS where I had been slogging away in an attempt to teach my “little darlings” to speak at least a smattering of rudimentary English. Specifically this was to Mattiyoms 1, 2, and 3, which is the equivalent of grades 7, 8, and 9.

Alas, despite heroic attempts at educating these young gentleman and ladies it was clear that I was going nowhere fast, and frankly the situation was beginning to annoy me. What should have been the simple pleasure of imparting knowledge was turning into something resembling the Seven Labors of Hercules.

I should say that for the most part the school administration and teachers were cordial enough. Any requests for supplies were immediately taken care of. There were plenty of smiles and wais all the live long day, but it was increasingly evident that our educational philosophies were light years apart. Mine was based on the premise of challenging young minds to achieve more than the bare minimum. Theirs was do not even dream of achieving the minimum! At the end of the day if you as a teacher were one step closer to collecting a pension, you were a success. As long as the functionaries in Bangkok were happy with your paperwork, the actual education of the students was a matter of trivial concern.

The frustrating thing is that I thought I had hashed all of this out before I had accepted my teaching position. I had sat down with the school director and the head of the English department for a lengthy explanation of my teaching methodology. I wanted to be clear up front so that later there would be no possible misunderstandings. These were the things I would present and this is how I would do it. I didn’t care if the students were “scholars” or as mediocre as tapioca. As long as they wanted to learn, I would give 110% to teach them. Even though I was nominally teaching “English Conversation” I would be teaching plenty of vocabulary. Your average Thai student’s vocabulary ranges from barely adequate to dreadful or even non-existent! It’s damned hard to have a conversation without knowing a few handfuls of words! I would also be assign homework (gasp!). It wouldn’t be much. I wouldn’t want to tax anyone’s grey matter or keep them from something really important like playing computer games. Ten minutes or so of work might just help them master a tiny amount of the material I had taught them in the classroom. All this was greeted with apparent enthusiasm all around. Lots of smiles and wais. Everyone was on the same page….right?

The grim reality of it all was soon to hit me square in the face like a bucket of ice water during Songkran. I should amend that “me” to “us” since my darling tee-rak had volunteered to be my teaching assistant. Yes I do mean volunteer as in not being paid one baht for her efforts. Why in the world you are wondering would she agree to such an arrangement? Well for starters she was thrilled that her farang husband was working full time again, and she wanted to make sure that I stayed gainfully employed. She also wanted to work toward getting a teaching certificate. My wife’s English was 10 times better than the Thai English teachers. She has tutored dozens of students at our home and is extremely good at it. She is also quite good at paperwork which is good since there was a small mountain of it to fill out each week. She was also as committed as I was to “doing a good job”.

From the very first class though it became apparent even to my wife that teaching English at this school would not be all “peaches and cream”! This was not the highest ranked school in the city academically. Most of these kids’ parents were not professionally employed. They were mostly farmers, laborers and shop employees. To be honest I don’t think that many of them cared if little Somchai or Somporn mastered the intricacies of the English language. They would be thrilled for their children just to make it through school……and then help out supporting the family. I can understand where these folks are coming from. Their parents and grandparents all worked like dogs just to get by without an education. If their kids mastered even a little “book learning” that would be a huge achievement.

Unfortunately the school itself had very low expectations for their students as well. The head of the English department later told us that she would be pleased if 5% of our students learned any English at all! That is a crying shame because there really were some bright boys and girls who were simply being written off. They wound up getting short changed because so much of class time was taken up with things not related to learning.

Each class was nominally 50 minutes. The reality was that it took a minimum of 15-20 minutes for the students to wander in and be seated. Then there was attendance to take. Some of our classes had 50-90 students, so you can imagine how long that took. Heaven forbid that valuable time for paperwork be taken up by mere teaching! Needless to say that simply calling the roll was a major project. If we were lucky we had 25-30 minutes of actual class time.

Our “classroom” was a large auditorium like structure similar to a gymnasium. The acoustics were dreadful. Even with microphones, it was difficult for students to hear us, and equally hard for us to hear them. And of course this being atypical Thai schools, the majority of the students were busily engaged in every manner of activity except listening to their teachers! Let me assure you that I do know how to teach an interesting lesson…..even to Thai students! I make sure that there are plenty of smiles and laughter. I use games and competitions to practice the material. The problem was that many of these kids were not even vaguely interested in learning anything, especially if it involved actual work. The boys were of course the worst, both from an academic standpoint and from a disciplinary one. Many of them were simply killing time before they eventually picked up a pick and shovel. Of course the school's official reports to Bangkok will show them all to be model students, with test scores to match. That is of course once the numbers have been fudged….I mean “reevaluated”!

It wasn’t long before I began hearing the words I had been dreading all along from the English department. “Why are you giving them homework? Don’t be so serious about trying to teach them! Just sing some songs, play some games and keep everyone happy!” This was not what I had hoped for when I agreed to teach there. And yet here were a new set of “marching orders” I as a farang was just here for “show”. Now the school could brag that it had a genuine native English speaking ajarn. Now just keep everyone amused and don’t rock the boat. Even my wife was discouraged. At last she had some personal insight into what I’ve had to put up with all these years. She had worked hard with me in preparing lessons. She had done an excellent job in helping me communicate these lessons. Now she was being told not to “be serious” about teaching. She vainly complained about the discipline problem, only to be told to “just try harder”. Even the naughtiest student could not be thrown out of class. And when these students started skipping class, she found herself, along with me being “the problem”!

In the middle of this debacle I wound up with my buddy Dr. Pattarapong at Chiang Mai Ram hospital after a couple of close encounters with the Grim Reaper (of which all of you now know all the gory details from previous submissions). When I was finally back on my feet I started to seriously consider alternate employment. The last straw for me was the threat of World War III that was brewing in one of my Mathiyom 2 classes. Two groups of girls were at each other’s throats, and I mean that literally. One group was a half dozen or so “tough girls”. These 14 year olds were already smoking, drinking, and presumably screwing around. Their nemesis was a group of “good girls”. These were all demur, intelligent and studious. I liked these girls. They were always the first ones in class, sat in the front row, took notes, asked questions and did the assigned homework. In the natural order of school life, the nerds are always tormented by bullies. This is true the world over. Here in the so called “Land of Smiles” my good girls were getting the stuffing slapped out of them by their tormenters. And as we all know Thai girls young or old can be vicious as hell! And here I was in the middle of it, name calling, hair pulling, scratching and all. Enough was enough! I needed out of there!

Throughout my stay in Thailand I’ve had the good fortune to be occasionally at the right place at the right time. My salvation came born on the wings of my hairdresser Nut. Her husband Ajarn E. was an American friend teaching at the Lampang branch of Rajibat University. On Saturdays he was involved in an English enrichment program at ACL, the number 1 ranked school in the area. He told her that they were in need of a full time farang English teacher, and so she called my wife to urge me to go and apply. Let me tell you that I was knocking on the door of the English Department immediately.

My first surprise was that the woman who was head of the English department was not Thai, but Filipino, as I would later learn most of English teachers were. Her English was far superior to that of any Thai teacher I had ever met. We hit it off immediately. I wash just the kind of teacher that the school was looking for. The fact that I was married, had children and actually lived in Lampang was a plus as well. I made it clear that I was looking for a LONG term position. That of course exactly what the school wanted as well.

For me the school’s motto was everything that Thai government schools did not represent. “Labor Omnia Vincit”

If my rusty Latin serves me right that means “Hard work conquers all”. I’ve always believed that “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A free Lunch” and apparently these folks concurred.

The school is Catholic run, but not a religious school, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. Ninety-nine per cent of the students and faculty are Buddhist. Aside from a statue of the Virgin Mary and one of St. Louis de Montfort, you wouldn’t guess that this school is run by the Brothers of St. Gabriel. Well I suppose the few white robed Brothers strolling around might hint at something a little different. Brother Anthony with whom I’ve spoken with a few times is a bright engaging fellow with a serene smile on his face. It’s a little strange NOT to hear the usual Buddhist prayers following the national anthem, but the Morning Assembly Prayer that all students recite in unison is quite a nice one.

Morning Prayer

Let us pray to the Lord of Mercy,

Who loves us tremendously?

Who graciously protects us.

Dear God, please grant us fortitude and strength

So that we can study all day long.

Please help us to progress creatively,

To be good from day to day,

To be honest and morally conscious.

Please bless our nation, and His Majesty the King.

Bless our parents and teachers.

Bless our fellow countrymen,

So that they may love one another

And live in peace and harmony.

Amen

Aside from the reference to HRM the sentiments expressed are universally applicable. Yes, I know this is the same guy who wrote Missionary Fever, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate genuinely expressed spirituality. Nobody is trying to convert anyone at this school. There is no Catholic “point of view” being shoved down anyone’s throat. There are plenty of Buddha images and I’ve never heard the words Jesus or Christ uttered here.

The deal I was offered was too good to pass up: 25% higher pay based on a contract written in English. I had been teaching at KHS strictly on an hourly basis. If a class was cancelled, which it frequently was, I didn’t get paid. I didn’t get paid for holidays, or have a paid vacation. There were no “benefits” available. Here at ACL I could have medical insurance. That, to someone who had his bank account wiped out from medical care was a serious incentive! Every two years I was entitled to a ticket back to the U.S. if I wanted it. My class load would be only 18 classes per week as opposed to 24 at KHS, and I would have a teaching assistant who really was there to assist me! They would take care of my work permit and even my visa if I wanted them to. Would I be interested I was asked? Could I start immediately? It took all of a blink of an eye to answer that no-brainer!

Now you would think that my wife would be tickled pink at this deal. I would be getting higher pay for less work at a school that genuinely wanted me to actually teach, and she could relax and go back to taking care of Sam (my mother-in-law had been doing that for us). Instead my wife felt racked with guilt about quitting KHS! “But they gave you a job she moaned”. So? Does that mean I’m bound to stay in a position I don’t like for the rest of my life? Hey Lincoln wasn’t the only one who freed the slaves. Here in Thailand the revered King Rama V did the same thing! I had no compunction about telling KHS that I had found a higher paying job. There was no need to even mention my dissatisfaction with their school. Money was something that all Thais could relate to. In the end they wished me well and I ran out of there as fast as my two little feet could carry me!

Now I don’t want to give the false impression that teaching here is all peaches and cream. Just because the parents can afford to send their little darlings to a private school doesn’t mean that my classes are full of eager young scholars. The truth is far from it. There is the usual percentage of dullards, and naughty brats, no matter where in the world you teach. But the standards here are much higher than at your typical Thai school. There is a genuine, knowledge based curriculum. The teachers work hard at lesson development. There are eager discussions in the staff room about educational modalities. Everyone works as a team and is fully committed to excellence. In short the school is not a sham. The attitude toward discipline is serious as well. When there are problems, real solutions are pursued. Teachers carry around bamboo switches and are not shy about using them when called for. I’m not talking about beating anyone, just enough of a whack to get someone’s attention. In a culture where losing face is all consuming, getting a public whacking across your bottom is not exactly something to brag about. I have my own approaches. When one class refused to be quiet I used a tried and true method of “getting their attention”. I simply stopped what I was doing, turned to the board and wrote a single sentence. ”I must be quiet for Ajarn L.” I asked them quietly to please write that sentence in their notebook. Everyone have it? Good, now write that again another 200 times. Mouths dropped in disbelief. But after my T.A. made it clear what I wanted them to do, they glumly set to work. I told them to please bring their notebooks by my office in the morning for me to sign. Apparently their aching wrists gave them something to consider when I ask them oh so politely to be quiet so that I can teach them! Now when I tried this approach at KHS I was criticized by the school. Here I was praised for trying a creative approach. With another unruly class I simply threw all of the boys out and had them march down to the head of Mathiyom 3’s office where they had some serious explaining to do. The girls in the class were thrilled that they could actually learn something and we had a great time. The boys came literally crawling into my office at the end of the day asking me to give them another chance. I was happy to do so….after they practiced their penmanship a bit. While my classrooms will never be completely silent, they are much better. The head of the Mathiyom department has sent out the word that any class that misbehaves in the future will simply not have the “privilege” of having Master L. teach them for the rest of the term. In addition letters would be sent home to their parents telling of their children’s deportment. I think that if I were a Thai parent, shelling out a tidy sum of money for my children’s education I would not be pleased at such a report.

On the whole I have been very warmly received by my fellow teachers and of course the students. There is no petty sniping and gossip in the staffroom. Students run up to say hello. The boys all wanting “high 5’s” and the girls giggling and blushing when I return their smiles. I put up some signs around the campus inviting students to play Scrabble during the lunch hour. I usually have a few come around every day. I think I impressed the boys when I told them that I was a big Carabao fan. They really started hooting and clapping when I made his famous buffalo hand sign. Gee this farang might be okay after all.

In addition to my regular classes I’ve been teaching some afternoon and Saturday classes that are part of an accelerated English program designed by Cambridge University. Here I see some of the brightest kids in the school, and there are some exceptionally bright ones. ACL starts with nursery school and runs through Mathiyom 6. Kids who start out here and make it through to the end actually have a chance of getting a decent education and a good preparation for higher learning. This is definitely where Sam will be going to school. Perhaps next year he might try nursery school. It’s a very cute little place.

As for me, I may have just found a “home” at last.

Stickman's thoughts:

The nightmares that foreign ajarns face in Thailand are a nationwide thing. Some schools are well run but wherever you teach, there will inevitably be problems…