Corrie T has been a teacher at an Islamic school in Pattani Province since October 2018. Let's find out what's it like to work there compared to a regular Thai school.
Corrie, welcome to the Ajarn Hot Seat. A number of teachers are put off working for schools in Thailand's South because of the political unrest, etc. You can understand their caution but what would you say to assure a potential teacher that they shouldn't be afraid?
Ah, the safety question! Take the same grain of salt with reports of the south that you take with international reports about your own country. There are two aspects: statistics and feeling.
There is risk. How much? I don't know. I don't have empirical, comparative data. From what I have read, the big, scary killers of farangs in any part of Thailand is traffic accidents and
disease. Wear your helmets and make doctor friends right? The next aspect is how do I feel? If I ever feel on edge, it’s because I just discovered there’s a snake in the linen closet.
I listen to the safety advice of my friends and the school, and adapt it to what works for me. In the end, I felt more unsafe at my city university in the USA, than I do here. Honestly, what I find is that your behavior is mirrored back. If you feel safe, smile, are open and warm, people reciprocate, you will feel safer, and if you don't, you will get frowns, scowls, shade, and you might start to feel unsafe. Keep smiling, even if it’s not reciprocated at first. Eventually it will be.
I feel safe, I don't know if empirical data would support that feeling. You should be genuine and listen to advice - and if you must feel afraid: cobras.
How many hours do you teach per week and what are the class sizes? Give us an idea of your schedule.
My contract is for 20 hours per week. During my only term/semester so far, I taught eighteen 45-minute lessons per week. These were split amongst two primary classes and six secondary classes.
I was required to be at school eight hours a day, 8:00-16:00. However, I came and went with always adequate communication and appropriate reasons. During non-class times, I work on lessons, grade papers, socialize etc. I participated in events etc, or my boss or a teacher asked for help with various things, but I found it all very manageable. I never took work home.
Class sizes taught me about high absenteeism. My average class was 35 students. My smallest class was 15 in the primary school. My largest class was almost 60 students in the secondary. BUT I didn't realize that until a few weeks in because absenteeism was so high. So for example, my class of 60 never had more than 40 students at a time and many times only 10 or 15 showed up. But generally, at least 20 students would show up to every class of mine.
How many foreign teaching staff do you have apart from yourself and what are the dress codes for male and female teachers?
There is one other foreign English teacher at my school. She is from Cameroon and she teaches at the primary and nursery schools. There are at least two (maybe more) from Malaysia who help teach Malay, Arabic and Quranic lessons.
For women, the dress code is only face and hands visible with loose, non-body-conforming dresses, tops and skirts. For men, it's the standard black pants and starched white collar shirt. Only neck, face and hands may be visible.
My attire is an ankle-length skirt and a wrist-length blouse with hair up, never loose. I wear rubber sandals, and keep my feet fastidiously pretty (French pedi). To prevent the gaps between my blouse buttons from showing off my bra, I sew the gaps shut. Otherwise, I would have to wear an undershirt. I choose skirts of the thinnest material possible that doesn't show through even when I hold it up to the sun. In the end though, it all helped me
What are some of the stricter school rules that foreign teachers may have a problem following or adapting to?
Personally, I found I have amazing freedom. The most restrictive thing would be the dress code, but that's a matter of heat and the right clothing materials. Stay close to a fan?
I think it could be the different rules and everyday practicalities that may be a challenge for Western teachers. For example, there are no policies regulating teacher-to-teacher or teacher-to-student interactions on Facebook/social media. No shoes in class or in hallways. No easily accessible western toilets. Halal only food (at the school).
After dress code, it’s probably the informal social rules that could be a challenge for a Westerner without any experience abroad.
How much of the students' school day is devoted to prayer?
About 20 minutes at school and 30 minutes at home or at the mosque. Islam has five prayers a day. Prayers are about ten minutes.
My school coordinates two on Sunday through Friday. The after-lunch prayer is at about 12:30, and the after-school prayer is at about 15:45. Some students go home right away to pray, but most seem to stay, socialize and then go home.
Students also take additional time for washing. Students may be excused from prayer, for a variety of pre-approved reasons, such as menstrual cycle, illness etc. The school will give opportunities to the promising, religious students to recite the call to prayer. Furthermore, all special events and the beginning of every school day is preceded with a recitation of the Quran (after the national anthem) to invite Allah’s blessings.
Are the students well-behaved and motivated to study?
Yes and no. This varies widely from class to class and within classes. The students who are super motivated will usually join the clubs, show up to class early and ask or send me questions. Most look for motivation and fun to come from me, the teacher. They love to ask for games and that keeps them engaged.
Does the school observe both Thai and Islamic holidays?
The school is only closed for teachers and students on “Thai National Holidays” such as Chulalongkorn day, Mother’s Day etc. Any Buddhist holiday such as Maka Bucha or Loy Krathong is a normal school day.
For the school to close on Islamic holidays such as Eid or the last ten days of Ramadan, permission is requested from the central government. Then it just depends on whether or not the request is granted.
The school also has its own mosque in the grounds right? Is that common for schools in the south?
Yes, from what I have seen exploring the area, Islamic schools in the South have a mosque on site or sit next to a local community mosque. This makes it easy to help coach and teach the children in the proper ways to take care of themselves according to Islamic teaching.
Side note: The majority of South Thailand’s Muslims are Sunni. Many don’t view Shia as legitimate Islam. Wahabi Muslims are a (Sunni-approved) minority.
In a brief chat before this interview, you told me that none of the classrooms have air-conditioning. Wow! It must get pretty hot and sticky at times. How do you cope?
Probably the modest clothing (and lack of AC) helped me acclimate to the heat faster, than if I had had easy access to AC. Anyway, I don’t drip like a popsicle anymore. If a fan in the classroom is broken, I will take the class outside. I usually keep a couple of “outdoor friendly” lesson plans on hand just in case.
So how many languages do students get exposed to?
At least four languages, give or take. Obviously they must learn to read, write and speak Thai: the language of their nationality.
Secondly, at home most students speak a local dialect of Bahasa Malay with their family or for informal situations (student-student, teacher-teacher). At school the students learn to read and write this Malay dialect in both the English and Arabic alphabet.
Thirdly, Arabic is essential to their faith and the study of the Quran. Fourth is English and in secondary school students may choose Mandarin as an (additional) elective course.
In their own time, many of the students consume Korean or Japanese media and have clearly learned some of those languages too. As a foreign teacher, it’s a plus to watch some K-drama and have a favorite K-pop band or two.
You have something called 'high-achievement classes'. How does a student get to be a high-achiever?
Simply through an application process. Students with high examination scores and a demonstrated interest (from observations of teachers) in math, science and English can apply for the program. The school will give them additional tests in each of the three subject matters. An interview with the director and a character evaluation will follow. The passing students are admitted to the SMP (science and math program). Next semester we will also add a program focused on improving improving English and Mandarin only.
I was surprised to hear that teachers have to pay for all their own class materials. Sounds a bit unfair?
To be fair, I never thought to ask for reimbursement. After I did ask about it, I learned that I should give any receipts I have for school expenses to the administration for reimbursement. So thank you for this question!
Do you at least get a free lunch in the school canteen?
I pay for my meals and groceries. If I buy food at the canteen, I can get a small portion of veggies for five baht. I usually supplement that with fruit I buy at the market in the morning. If I do buy a full canteen meal with a drink, it’s 40 baht or less. When I taught at the primary school (Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday), they provided lunch.
On your blog, it says 'foreign teachers get to choose whether they cover classes or not'. Can you expand on that a bit?
Sure! So, the Cameroonian teacher is Christian, but covers in respect to the school’s faith. I’m heathen and began by covering for the same reason. The heat proved my undoing. The school totally understood and encouraged me not to cover anymore.
Now that I am more acclimated, I plan to cover next term. The school has encouraged me in either way to do what works for me. One school I visited for a special event specifically requested that I did not cover so they could have a “real farang” for the photos, lol.
Final question Corrie is what made you decide to teach English at a school in this region?
This is a tough question to answer without writing a book chapter. So, short and sweet, I heard about the opportunity through friends of my Mother who live here. I was already looking for something in teaching English. I had been to South Thailand before, so I knew I loved the weather, the (halal) food, the bare feet, the squatty potties etc. Plus the location, close to Malaysia, easy to fly to Bangkok, makes it perfect for weekend getaways and a diversity of culture and food.
Finally, of course, the paycheck. After rent, food, expenses etc., I make (save) more money than I did in Amsterdam or Washington DC.
In conclusion, I would say, negotiate a good contract, visit the school, ask lots of questions about amenities / reimbursements, learn Thai as you can, and some Malay (market bargaining power), have lots of fun with students, sign up for school trips, smile and laugh a lot, especially when you don't know what's happening, and please connect with me if you do decide to “come on down.”
Cheers and many thanks for your time. I hope you learned something new, and obviously (plug warning) more details and information on my blog,