Uniformed guards whistle frantically, waving me through busy gates as I prepare to begin my third year teaching at a secondary school in Chonburi, Thailand. I park my motorbike, sign in and thread my way through students. As I make my way to the office, students and fellow teachers press their hands together and gently bow, waiing me as I pass.
Occasionally I'll get a 'hello, how are you', a ‘sawasdee krap', and I'll return their greeting with an exaggerated grin or a pat on the shoulder. It's hard not to feel special at this time of day.
Around 7:50 am, music signals students to gather in the assembly area. The flag will be raised, the national anthem sung, a brief Buddhist prayer will follow, after which teachers will address the troops in an attempt to inform, exhort or inspire.
You might be tempted to jump to the wrong conclusion as a first time observer-the haircuts, uniforms, precise rows, somber expressions and apparent order. Upon closer inspection, however, you'll notice a group of teachers brandishing switches patrolling the increasingly restless audience. Occasionally one will wade into the crowd. There will be the flick of a switch, an audible ‘thwack', a yelp, and a semblance of order will be regained.
Alas, the power of the switch is only temporary, and when they are dismissed the students scatter like birds.
A host of characters
The rituals may differ, but types remain familiar. Here, too, there are nerds, jocks, clowns, tough guys, loners, stoners, cheerleaders, show-offs and misfits to rival their American counterparts, though there's a definite lack of racial diversity, all faces being distinctly Asian.
Another obvious disparity is the number of overtly gay boys, but they co-exist better here. For some reason it doesn't bother anyone. Yes, there is good natured teasing, but I've yet to see any bullying. It is accepted.
Thai schools are also littered with enemies of the educational system - ‘techno distractions' such as cell phones and iPods - and consequently have the same problems with obesity and microscopically short attention spans that seem symptomatic of modern teens in the USA .
Booze, cigarettes and yaba (meth) are also concerns, though certainly not of the magnitude they are in the States, but this school is quick to identify problems, and there are daily random tests for anyone even suspected of using illegal substances.
Yes, technology has advanced, but many of the challenges are similar to what adolescents dealt with when I was in school half a century ago.
One of the benefits (?) of being American is we aren't required to learn a second language. We can go pretty much anywhere and encounter someone who speaks English. Most of the rest of the world isn't so fortunate. English has been a part of the Thai education system for over a decade now, but judging by my experiences the news hasn't reached the students yet.
In addition, with the emergence of the Chinese economy, Chinese has become a part of the curriculum, and Chinese teachers are finding many opportunities to teach.
Interacting with students
My first class, I ask my students,"Krai mai mee samong (who doesn't have a brain?)', urging them to raise their hands. Of course no one does. I give a huge sigh of relief and tell them I'm very happy everyone in my class has a brain. Then I urge them to use it. And so begins my third year teaching here.
I'm one of two native English speaking instructors here, along with twelve other Thai women in the department. Most take the job seriously and have a thorough knowledge of English grammar, though most will concede they don't speak English well. Most have decades of experience, have dealt with thousands of students, and many spend much of their free time coaching them. They (most) are a hard-working, dedicated bunch.
While I'm more comfortable with the routines and know my way around, when facing entirely new classes, whatever the nationality, one has to adapt and improvise. I'm still nervous, still uncertain and I'm still excited, because this is a profession requiring creativity, a sense of humor, patience and perhaps a bit of showmanship.
Over the past two years I've sang, danced, and joked with my students. I've pleaded, threatened, bribed, criticized and praised them. I've played basketball with them and made it plain I'll try anything short of nude dancing (that's where I draw the line) in the hope of of piquing their interest.
I've done most everything but use the dreaded switch in an attempt to stimulate and motivate them, though I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to bang heads now and then.
Hiding the frustrations
Because the biggest problem is the students themselves.
It's a well-known fact among teachers that most Thai boys are lazy, disruptive, lack motivation, and perform poorly in all subjects, though in reality most students here, boys and girls, have no desire to learn English. Their families don't speak it, their friends don't speak it, and outside the classroom they rarely hear it.
Still, many perform poorly in all subjects. Ironically, in the age of the internet, with all the knowledge of the world at one's fingertips, students are performing worse, schools here are in a state of crisis, and all the teachers here will tell you students have gotten lazier and seemingly more stupid.
In fact, EF (Education First), a leader in international education, indicated Thailand ranked 42nd out of 44 nations. In spite of all the resources spent, it was the worst Asian country tested. Yet teaching young men and women who have no desire to learn is the Sisyphean task English teachers here have been given.
At one time I was so frustrated I suggested installing chutes leading from the windows on each floor down to enclosures in the fields below the classrooms, giving teachers another option in dealing with disruptive students. Depending on abilities and attitude, these incorrigibles would be trained to sit, heel and fetch, or given appropriate survival skills and released into the wild.
Apparently they thought I was joking.
Many problems lie within the system. Most of my classes last year had in excess of 40 students - some close to 50, which pretty much eliminates any personal attention you might want to give. Another major obstacle is Thais don't fail students so pupils often advance regardless of performance.
Being slow isn't a crime...of course it isn't. Neither is being lazy, which many are guilty of. But what incentive is there to succeed if you can't fail?
This leads to another concern; these underachievers steal time from other infinitely more capable or hungry students. And time is precious.
The same old problems
We have 50 minutes weekly to teach each class. Roll call takes five minutes. Stragglers eat up another ten. Finally there is the time spent policing the class, which leaves about 30 minutes to communicate and engage each of the 40+ students with dramatically different abilities so they have an opportunity to actually listen and speak - all the while knowing once they walk out those doors it will be forgotten by most.
The textbooks, many put out by English publishers, don't help either. Few, if any have Thai translations, nor do they have locales, celebrities, or history any of the young people can relate to. Most students I teach haven't been out of the city, let alone the country, and have more chance encountering a pig on a snowboard than they do of visiting America.
Learning a second language is difficult enough without burdening them with geography, history and personalities of no use or interest to them. We (farangs) are here to teach conversation.
And then there are the tests. Every one of the standardized exams measuring student's English abilities I've encountered has had numerous errors. Here, at least, the Thai teachers usually bring them to us to correct before giving them to the students.
Putting myself in the students' shoes
On my part, I've been attempting to learn Thai for the past 5 years with modest results, so I can appreciate the problems a student has learning our language. There are profound differences.
To begin with, the script bears little resemblance to the English alphabet. The structure of written Thai is also dramatically different. First, there are no tenses;'go' is always 'go', for example--no 'go' 'going', 'went' or 'gone'. Next, Thai script has no punctuation. Imagine this article minus capitol letters, spaces between words, plurals (teaching students to add 's' for plurals is a major hurdle) and no indentations for paragraphs, and you begin to get an idea of what they're up against.
But the reality is many of the students have given up on learning. They don't believe they can learn. Others don't want to learn. What truly amazes me is given the environment, given all the obstacles, some students actually do progress. Some actually do make an effort and learn, which is small consolation, but it's something to build on I suppose.
'Well, how'd it go?' I asked Alan, my British counterpart last year.
'Nobody died,' he replied with a tired grin.
We clapped high fives as I passed him on the way to my next class, because at times 'nobody died' is as good as it gets.