Wai Khroo Day
If you are, like myself a teacher here in Thailand, June 11th stands out in the academic calendar. On that one day (at least) we receive some measure of the respect that we richly deserve…or at least the semblance of respect, all wrapped up in pageantry. Yes, today all across the Land of Smiles, is Teachers’ Day, or Wai Khroo Day as it is known in Thai. Khroo is the Thai word for teacher. Most Farangs are probably more familiar with the word ajarn, which generally refers to teachers at the secondary school or university level.
Wai Khroo Day is set aside to honor those hard working men and women who toil week in and week out to enlighten yet another group of young “Thai scholars”…or at least stumble through the motions. I of course, your oh so modest and humblest of scribes, count myself to be among the former.
Whether here in Thailand, or the far flung corners of Farangland, any teacher worth is or her salt truly deserves respect…lots and lots of it. The person who coined that old chestnut, “Those who can do; those who can’t teach” obviously never spent a day in the classroom. Folks, believe me, it ain’t easy to teach anything to anyone, let alone to a bunch of kids who frankly would just as soon be having a root canal, than be prisoners in school!
Teaching in Thailand is a major challenge, whether you are Thai or a foreigner. As I have mentioned a time or two in previous submissions, there is not a long standing tradition of scholarship here. Thais in general do not read much beyond comic books and gossip magazines. Needless to say, when Thai students come home after school, they won’t find a single book there. Most Thai students do little or no homework, so the only opportunity they have to learn anything is in the course of their lessons.
If you have never stepped into a Thai classroom, you don’t know the meaning of the word bedlam. A class period is theoretically 50 minutes. In reality, by the time students show up, are seated, and attendance taken, you are probably down to 40 minutes…if you are lucky! Typically, students meander in at a snail’s pace, or as an Australian friend once told me, like “Brown’s cows”. By the time the usual hubbub of conversation has died down enough for you to introduce the day’s lesson, you are looking at 35 minutes to actually do any teaching. During this time, while a teacher is attempting to teach, a fair portion of the students are, in no particular order: drawing cartons, gossiping with a neighbor, playing with their mobile phones, playing with their hair, putting on makeup, (those last two are applicable for girls and boys!) sleeping, going to the toilet, daydreaming, sleeping, and doing homework for another class. The list goes on and on. The next thing you know everyone is standing up and saying,”Thank you teacher. See you again tomorrow.” (Or next week… or whenever)
The meticulously detailed lesson plans you were required to write out turn out to be irrelevant to what goes on in the classroom. In the end a handful of students walked away learning anything at all. But, in typical Thai fashion, a box can be ticked off that you have “covered” unit X.
The above mentioned lesson plans are but the tip of an iceberg of paperwork that must be filled out everyday. This is often done on a teacher’s “off duty” hours. It matters not that most of this paperwork will never be read, and exists only to be filed away in a vault worth of an Indiana Jones movie. Any government bureaucracy is typically odorous by its very nature, but adding the word Thai in front of the word, turns it all into a many tentacled beast that defies belief. Pity the poor Thai teacher who has to jump through more hoops than a circus monkey, and I might add for very little money. Thai teachers earn considerably less money than their foreign counterparts. Why do they want to be teachers then? Of course, some folks are willing to work like the above mentioned monkey so that one day can receive a pension. The same motivation can be applied to some teachers back in Farangland. Others though are real educators at heart; that is to say that the joy of teaching is an intrinsic reward aside from any monetary one.
In this life, respect is a precious commodity that is often in short supply. Currently however I find myself with the daily recipient an endless supply of the genuine article. Who knew that teaching Kindergarten could be so rewarding? I have written before about the simple joy of teaching young children. It is a pleasure to teach them because they want to learn. Every day is an exciting adventure when you are young. There is so much to learn and scarcely enough time to ask all the questions that they are so eager to ask. The kids at my school are fortunate to have teachers who have the patience of Job, and an extraordinary sense of purpose.
I am continually amazed that these children are able to absorb so much English. Hell, they are still learning the mysteries of the Thai alphabet and grammar! Every day we take tiny steps on the path of the English language. Every day we achieve tiny milestones. It could be the names of the colors, the days of the week, or parts of the body. With each small success comes confidence to venture once more into unknown territory. My students know that I will be there patiently smiling every step of the way. I never frown. I never raise my voice. I encourage them to simply do their best, even if that is a barely audible whisper. Over time the seeds I have planted have bloomed a thousand times over. It shows on the smiling faces of my little darlings, who come running eagerly to see me throughout the day. Wow! What a fan club I have! It shows not only on the faces of my students, but on the faces of their parents who smile warmly whenever I meet them. I’m talking about real smiles. They are so pleased, not only that their children are enjoying learning English, but that I, a pale skinned foreigner, an ajarn farang, actually care about their children. This is the first year that anuban has had a full time native English speaking teacher. Although we are only a month into the school year, everyone seems pleased with how things are going.
I should also say that I am blessed with a wonderful working relationship with my fellow anuban teachers. There is a true team spirit at work here. We are constantly working to improve performance of out young charges, and enjoy each other’s company and the same time. No backbiting, no office politics, just the work-a-day life of teachers doing what we love to do.
So, on Thursday morning, all decked out in our school uniforms, we proudly marched into the gymnasium to receive the traditional tribute from our students. When it comes to “Pomp and Circumstance”, the Thais know how to put on spectacle worthy of Cecil B. Demille. (Note for you too young to remember: he was the Hollywood director who produced such epics as The 10 Commandments.) The otherwise utilitarian building had been transformed into an otherworldly garden of delights. Fragrant flowers were everywhere, as was bunting and streamers. Many children were holding elaborate floral arrangements and bouquets.
This morning we had not one, but two orchestras performing, a traditional Thai one, and a symphonic one. I am always enchanted with traditional Thai music. This morning was no exception. I counted at least a dozen or so kinds of instruments being played as we mounted the stage: percussion, stringed and woodwind. As soon as we were all on stage, the symphonic band played the school’s song.
Next the school’s Morning Prayer was recited. Hey, even though 99% of everyone is Buddhist, this is a Catholic run school.
“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.”
Except for the bit about HRM, I think the sentiments expressed are universal. In general I have little use for organized religion, but have no problem repeating the prayer along with everyone else.
Being the oldest teacher in attendance, I was given the honor of sitting in the center of the front row. As the Thai orchestra played, pairs of boys and girls came on stage carrying flowers. Standing in front of me they then proceeded to bow and present me with their floral tribute. By bow, I do not mean wai. On this day bow meant prostrating themselves face flat against the carpet. Even though I have been through this before, and I understand that this is a Thai tradition, it still is a little unsettling. I don’t need anyone kneeling before me or kissing my butt for that matter. A little everyday respect in the classroom is just fine for me. But, as a good member of Thai society (even an honorary member) I smile and accept the flowers with grace. Then I rise; lead the children down the steps and wai to the school director. This process is repeated until every teacher has been honored.
Eventually the ceremony is over and we are back in the classroom. This week’s lesson is about parts of the body. “This is my…” eye, ear, nose, arm, elbow, hand, finger, leg, knee, foot and toe. After a vigorous drill, it’s time to put it all into practice. How, you may ask? Why by doing the Hokey Pokey of course! As far as I’m concerned, the laughter I hear is worth more than all the bows I will ever receive.
Wai Kru Day, oh how I don't miss it! In Bangkok it was oh so horribly contrived. The Thais loved it and for the foreign teachers it was all a little bemusing, a day when the students really were on their best behaviour.