We're going to invite 27-year-old Canadian Zach Laan into the ajarn.com hot seat for the first interview of 2013. Zach taught in Thailand for about five years and despite being a relative youngster, he's managed to cram an awful lot into his post-university teaching career.
Zach, welcome to the ajarn hot seat. You finished your degree in 2007 and decided on Thailand as your dream destination. Was it a case of sticking a pin in a big map of the world?
Well actually I finished my BA up in April 2007. My mother had gone to Thailand around December 2006 and started teaching there. She called me in February and said “option A I fly back for your graduation and we take a nice picture, option B I buy you a plane ticket as your graduation present and we go have some fun in Thailand.” I took option B.
I thought I was going to travel for a few months, come back home and start doing graduate school. Didn’t quite turn out that way haha.
You taught at several different government schools in Thailand. What was the attraction of the government school in particular?
After traveling a bit with my mom and getting over culture shock I decided to volunteer with an organization. They placed me in my first school in Udon Thani with a Thai home stay family. I had no idea that it was a government school when I accepted the placement.
I guess a better way to put it is, what made me stay? I really enjoyed being in Isaan and the students were really fun in class. Teaching wise, government schools are great for testing different lesson plans and teaching techniques. I could start a lesson plan Monday, keep changing certain parts to see which was most effective and have several variations of the same lesson Friday.
By doing this I created one lesson I could easily adjust for different levels in the future. You can try different projects and assignments with different classes. You can literally try anything you want and this freedom builds your confidence and professional practice.
Coaching sports was a blast, along with school activities such as Sports Week and Loy Kratong. I got to plan Halloween and Christmas Day events with other foreign staff, which remains one of the top highlights of my 5 years. One year an American co-worker and I dressed up in superhero tights and body paint. Great times. People in town were nice, warm and helpful.
My Thai home stay family in Udon was amazing and five years later we’re family. They adopted me as their own and I love them. So it was a mix of everything that kept me in the government schools.
Udon Thani, Sakhon Nakhon, Khon Kaen. You're clearly not a big city person right?
Don’t forget Kantaralak, Si Saket! That was by far the most remote, about 30km from the Cambodian border. Actually, school shut down for a week during the Thai Cambodian conflict over the temple because mortar shells were landing in student villages.
They set-up a makeshift refugee camp in the amphoe overnight when it all happened. Maybe I’ll try and write up the full story for you later, but back to the question at hand.
It’s funny because I come from Toronto, which is Canada’s biggest city with around 5 million people if you include the suburbs on the outskirts. Bangkok is a cool place, but the Thai countryside was just so different for me. I’m a city boy born and raised and Isaan is pretty much the exact opposite of where I came from. That was the appeal and that’s what made me stay after my initial placement in Udon Thani.
It was amazing getting the chance to immerse myself in the local culture and do something so far removed from what I was used to back home. These past 5 years have opened up my eyes a lot and I believe the experience has definitely changed me for the better.
Khon Kaen's not a bad little place though is it? Of all the places you laid your hat, would you say that was the easiest to survive in?
Oh man, Khon Kaen is sooooo easy compared to the other places I’ve stayed. I’ve been here a few months and there are a ton of Western “comfort places” where you can get almost anything you want. It’s been okay living here so far, but not great to be honest.
Khon Kaen seems to be having an identity crisis. It can’t seem to figure out if it wants to be like Chiang Mai and Bangkok or keep more of it’s rural charm. Not quite city, not quite country if you get my drift. After I finish my semester here, I would choose Bangkok or somewhere in the countryside. Being stuck in the middle ground isn’t for me.
What are some of the biggest challenges in regards to working in Thai government schools?
Inside the classroom resources are scarce, classes are big, teenagers are tough to engage and there’s the “oh my goodness” rooms. For my first 3 years it was chalk and fan classrooms with the occasional treat of a whiteboard and air-conditioned room. I had to be creative at times to say the least.
Class sizes are way too big and controlling 45-50 teenagers is a challenge. However, if you’re organized, switch up what you’re doing every 15-20 minutes and establish a routine, then classes tend to run smooth. The “oh my goodness” room for me is the Thai version of Dangerous.
For those who aren’t familiar with Thai government schools every grade is ranked, with the top students going into the best classes. For example, 4/1 is the top class while 4/14 would be the worst. Classes such as 4/12, 4/13 and 4/14 would have some interesting characters. They were extremely challenging students, but it helped build my teaching chops and improve my classroom management skills.
Outside of the classroom the main challenge is relationships. If you make a good first impression, establish positive relationships with the right people and do the appropriate things to maintain those relationships then you’re golden. If not, then it can be a bumpy road.
A lot of this means you have to pay attention to Thai culture and recognize what works and doesn’t. For me, it meant lots of deference to older teachers and showing that I was putting in that extra effort to earn my salary, which is often double that of most Thai teachers.
I don’t like mornings so I would seize opportunities when I could such as helping to clean up after a school event or volunteering to coach a sports team. I was lucky because my Thai home stay family was there to tell me what to do.
Do you feel as if you made a difference?
In the general one hour a week classrooms it was hit and miss. For the top classes yes. They came ready to learn and I could see the improvement. For the lower ranked classes no, but there was a 6/8 class in Sakon Nakhon that was very rewarding. In Si Saket I got to teach physical and health education for the M1 EP program and felt I did some good work there. Right now in Khon Kaen I’m teaching IEC 5-8 hours a week and the kids are improving a lot which is nice to see.
However, the place where I felt I made the biggest difference was actually outside the classroom coaching sports. I think this is because of all the time you spend together. My boy’s basketball team in Si Saket practiced at least 3 times a week for about 7 months and we got to know each other really well. At this point in my 5 years I was basically fluent in Thai so communication was easy. I was teaching M4 that year and the boys were all M5 and M6 so it was never a teacher-student relationship. I think this helped because it eliminated any confusion as to whether I was in teacher or coach mode. The kids were more relaxed as a result and opened up more about themselves.
I’d like to think I made a positive impact on them because they certainly made a big impact on me. I made very strong bonds with a few of the players and consider them all little brothers. All of the boys from that team are now studying in university, which is great. I was always trying to remind them they weren’t going to the NBA and needed to continue their education. We all keep in touch and last year had a reunion in Kantaralak, which was a blast.
In Sakhon Nakon and Kantaralak, you actually coached the school basketball teams. So you have a sporty background?
My BA is in kinesiology and I’ve been playing sports since I was 3 years old. Baseball and basketball are my strongest so I took to coaching hoops in Thailand because there’s no such thing as baseball here haha.
One of the best decisions I ever made in Thailand was walking to the basketball court after school and playing pick-up with the local guys. I’ve played in at least 10 tournaments across Isaan over the years and have a bunch of Thai basketball buddies. Sport is universal and I’ve made some really good friends in my 5 years hooping it up after school. Also, it was a great way to blow off steam and disconnect from everything at school, especially when I was having a bad day or week. Some people drink or do yoga, I shoot jumpers.
Did the teams enjoy any success?
The boy’s team I coached in Si Saket won the provincial championship and we went to Udon Thani for the Northeast elimination part of the Thailand Sponsor Championship in 2010. We got knocked out in the first round and lost the final game in the last seconds, which was a real heart breaker.
Side note: One of the coolest things about coaching a sports team in Thailand (especially rural Thailand) as a farang are the looks you get when you show up to a game or match. Priceless. I think when I started yelling at my kids in Thai to get back on defense their heads almost exploded
You've done a wide variety of things Zach. You even taught for a while at a temple school. For those not familiar with the concept of a temple school - how would you define it?
It’s another world, completely different from any classroom at a government, private, language or international school. Nothing happens until 1 or 2pm. Monks wake up at 4am to get their alms, then come back and pray and at 11am they have their last meal.
Time is fluid in a temple and there’s no real schedule. Why worry about when class start times when you’re in the middle of reaching Nirvana? Classes are held at the temple and classrooms often make the worst government school rooms look Hi-So.
Grades are non-existent for the most part, along with levels. Most classrooms have a gap of at least 5 years between the highest and lowest functioning student. You have to adjust your material accordingly. Showing a picture of Jessica Alba in a bikini probably isn’t the best idea to introduce a unit on clothes (works great at government schools though).
For female teachers no contact is allowed and you have to place handouts, pencils etc. on the desk and let the novice accept them. I’m not really doing it any justice with this description, better to go see for yourself.
Was the temple school a good experience?
The temple school was incredible. One day I woke up at 4am and went on the morning alms trip, which was one for the bucket list. There’s moments when you’re traveling and you kind of step back outside of yourself and think “wow, look at where I am and what I’m doing!” The temple school brought me many moments like that.
You've also done some voice recording for a textbook apparently?
Yeah, for my mom’s book haha. She did a bunch of work in temple schools in Isaan and ending up getting funding from the National Institute of Buddhism to write a book. It’s written for Thai English teachers and the focus is on how to do projects. Each unit/chapter breaks down all the grammar, how to introduce stuff, how to vary levels, games and activities, the research phase, building towards presenting etc. I did the voice recordings of the vocabulary they would have to do for each unit/project. It sounds fun, but doing 15 takes of “I like to eat fish” trying to get the sound and pronunciation clear can be tedious.
I'm not sure how you've managed to fit it all in but you also presented two research papers at two education conferences. What topics were you talking about?
I wrote a paper about teaching what I named the “Internet generation” (kids born in the mid-90’s) and ways to incorporate and integrate technology into the classroom. As an educator I feel technology can be a great aid, but it can also be cumbersome and take away from the learning process if it’s not used appropriately. Teachers have to be able to weave technology into the flow of their teaching process.
You ended up going back to Canada to do a degree in education. Was this to improve your chances of getting better-paid work in Asia?
Yes and no. The BEd certifies me to teach high school phys.ed and history back home, but the school boards are a mess right now and there are about 7,000 teachers out of work. I want to get my life started in Canada, but may need to wait a few years before the school boards get their act together. I’m applying back home and that’s option A. If I don’t get it then an international school in Thailand for August/September 2013 is option B, but I’ll only accept an offer than pays appropriately for a BEd. If both of those fall through then it’s on to plan C, but I’m still working on that one.
You'd been away from home for five years. What did you realise you had missed most about your homeland apart from family and friends?
I would say the diversity pace of life. Toronto, London and New York are always flip-flopping for the top spot in the diversity category. I love the fact that my city is one of the world’s melting pots and being in a place so homogenous like Thailand makes me miss home at times.
The pace of life in Isaan can wear you down, especially for a city boy. Sometimes it feels like you’re suffocating and I would miss home at those moments. In Toronto we have everything and the nightlife is awesome. It was a tough adjustment and I’ve dealt with those “grass is greener on the other side” type of emotions a number of times over the past 5 years going back and forth between home and Isaan. I think in the end home has won.
Also, good bread and cheese. I love sandwiches and I have yet to find a sandwich as good as what I can make back home. Dr. Pepper as well while I’m at it. Not cool Thailand. Not cool.
If you return to Thailand one day, how do you think you'll be better-prepared or what past mistakes would you be determined not to make again?
I know the culture and the language and at this point it’s next to impossible to catch me off-guard with anything. The big mistake I made in my initial years was being a bit too open and trusting with everything. I arrived when I was 22 and knew nothing about Thailand except the country’s name. A young foreigner who knows nothing about Thai culture in a small amphoe where the Thai’s know very little about Western culture can be a deadly mix. I was being observed and judged at all times, but was blissfully unaware. I took the smiles at face value and didn’t see what was behind them, which came back to bite me a bit.
Also, I have a dry sense of humour and like to kid around. A teacher would ask me if I had a girlfriend and I would tell them “Three!” with a cute smile thinking they got the joke. Well, they didn’t haha. My Thai home stay family helped correct me and teach about Thai culture so I didn’t get caught in any nasty stuff down the road. Small town Thailand can be vicious with the gossip!