Matthew Noble

From Sri Lanka to Thailand

Life as a teacher in a small village


Before I came to Thailand just over a year ago, virtually all of my English teaching experience was in a small village environment in Sri Lanka. It was far cry, to say the least, from big bustling Bangkok Mahanakhon. So much so, in fact, that by the time had stepped off the flight from Colombo, hailed a cold, speedy taxi, and hit the BTS Skytrain, I felt like I had come straight through a time machine that had beamed me a thousand years into the future. Unbelievable. Bright lights, big city! I was dazzled (not to mention a bit dazed). At that point, however, the jaw-dropping City of Angels itself was not my final destination. I'd come to Thailand with a very different and specific goal in mind: to find a shack with a hammock on a beach where I could sleep for (most literally) a few weeks. Why? Well...

I was more physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted than I'd ever been before. After teaching in a tiny, dusty multilingual (many students spoke at least three among the Singhala, Tamil, English, and Arabic languages) "international" school (perhaps in name only) in a northwestern Sri Lankan mostly Catholic fishing village, I had swapped whiteboards and workbooks for pickaxes and ration palettes in a local tsunami relief project on the devastated southeast coast (we got flooding and panic, but no wave where I was, luckily). We were some of the first on the ground there in Kirinda. We worked fervently and continuously on as much sleep as we could muster on the stone floors of a small Muslim elementary school up on a hill (and therefore spared). Once we had eventually gotten most of the essential things under control and in order at the camp (such as the jerry-rigged "electrical grid" we pieced together to make sure we had lights on high posts through the night to keeping away packs of stomping wild elephants- "smokin'", perhaps, is the best way to describe it!) I was also able to organize activity sessions and games and classes for the many kids there. The ones who made it, that is. And there were a lot who didn't...

But I'm not going to go too far into the many deep sadnesses of that experience here (I'm still trying to write about most of them, but the flow of ink is almost always blocked by pain and tears which freeze my hand). Instead, I want to open this column by telling you about the specific moment that happened there in (what remained of) that Sri Lankan village when I realized I really wanted to be an ESL teacher...

Most nights, after long, hard days of work, the men at the camp would congregate in my tent to share stories, drink coconut whiskey, sing songs, cry, and dance; trying to forget, just for a moment, the living hell they were going through. Some of these guys had lost their whole immediate families. Wives and kids ripped out of their grip by the incoming waves or pull away out of reach in the outgoing currents. Sunil, one of three surviving brothers, watched his wife and daughter die even as he saved the lives of several other children. I know because I listened to the survivor's stories when they were still cruelly lucid and fresh in their wounded minds. I had been casually though intently studying Singhala, and I was glad I did, because these were words worth comprehending. And so, with a lot of miming and retelling, we communicated and we confided...Practical, busy things during the day as we worked to build a kitchen hut, latrines, or a new road, and emotional, heartwrenching things at night, when these tough men showed and shared their wounds and their worries and their wonder...

In those late night pow-wows I never really felt like I was doing any "teaching". I certainly wasn't consciously trying to "teach". Mostly I was just trying to be helpful, compassionate, and responsible. I had already fallen in love with Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan people. I was just there to work my tush off to help those with less luck then I (a last minute travel decision literally saved my life) and continue deepening my relationship to the place and the people...So, I wasn't teaching...

But I was. These guys were so interested in communicating with me, it was inevitable that I would need teach and they would have to learn. After all, they were continuously teaching me Singhalese. What do they say about learning always always being a two-way street? We were transferring language back and forth on a two-way emergency road. There was only one guy at the camp who I officially tutored. He was eager to improve his English skills because he anticipated a career change. He had been a fisherman just like all the rest of the men in this village. Unlike most of them, however, he was now absolutely terrified of the sea and vowed never to go out into it again. For him it was absolutely out of the question. So I tutored him while the others were back out there, mostly working with the subjects at hand- how he was feeling each new day, what we could do to improve the camp, what had happened, what do to next. We practiced telling, in English, the story of how he saved his family and others in a miraculous burst of physical speed and power he described best as "Spiderman" (The practice turned out to help when he had the oppurtunity to tell his story for the cameras of a visiting charity foundation). He thought he might be able to find work as a musician at a new hotel someday. But he was the only one I could call my "student" in the formal sense. For the rest (of the adults) at the camp, my English teaching was all...well, to put it in ELT terms, purely "activity- and task-based" in the extreme. How can we afford these three bags of onions and this mosquito net when we also need to buy more cement and a bottle of aspirin? It's amazing what guys will pick up when it helps get food on the table. About a month in and there were a handful of Westerners representing different aid agencies- if the guys at our camp could at least say hello or even "we need fill-in-the-blank in Kirinda" it helped...

It wasn't, however, my "student" or the daily "activity-based" practical language teaching that ultimately tipped the balance towards committed TEFL teaching or provided me with my "moment". That came late one quieter than usual night in my tsunami camp tent. I was sitting there with a young man named Nimal. Another one of the three surviving brothers I mentioned above, Nimal was a true leader in the community- an expert fisherman and conch-shell diver, builder, singer and storyteller, husband, father, and good friend to many. His energy seemed boundless, even in the midst of hopelessness and devastation. Nimal was raring and ready to start building a new house from scratch before many others had even settled into their temporary shelters. You could see the constant plotting and planning behind his eyes at all times. I saw it this night. And the owner of a nearby plot of land had just made clear his intention to donate the area to the tsunami victims at our camp. That night we were looking at a map of that plot of land...

Nimal, unlike a lot of the people at the camp, never attempted a word of English around me. I thought it was probably because he was too busy, too proud, or maybe just to scared to. I spoke some Singhala with him, but he was all business all the time, so we didn't get into much conversation. He was also the first one back out on the water catching fish for all of our dinners (survivors and volunteers alike). All this seemed to be his best way of coping, and I respected that. In fact I was, and still am, more truly awed by him then anyone I've ever met. Looking at the map of the land that night, I pointed to where he might be able to break ground, looked up at him, and said "this area". He looked up from the map, at me, and then back at the map. Circling the spot with his index, his eyes wide, looking back, he repeated, clearly, loudly "ah...this area". Our eyes met. He smiled. Recognition. Communication. Success! It wasn't so much that I had taught him two words of English. It was the meaningfulness of those two words coming from him, in "my" language. In our language! It's not really something I can explain. Or maybe it's just that simple. Whatever it was, it was at this specific moment, those two simple words, that somehow bent my path most definitely towards becoming a professional ESL teacher...I'll never forget it, even if I don't stick with this career forever.

It didn't take me long to find my shack with a hammock on a gorgeous white sand island beach soon after I got here to Thailand. And I did sleep down there for a few weeks. I could never definitively determine whether it was the intense physical work I did at the camp or the emotional toll of being so intimate with trauma that made me need that retreat into a long, dreamless tropical slumber so badly. Maybe it was the combination of both. In any case, I came, I saw, and I slept. But not forever...

When I was finally ready to get up and walk it, the next turn in my path led me to right ECC in Siam Square and the CELTA course. And the rest is recent history...

I'd like to thank Bangkok Phil for giving me this lil' space on his site to post some "articles" (let's use that term loosely!). Look out for a steady monthly column as I wouldn't like to waste this opportunity. I won't always be telling such personal stories. I'd like to write a little bit about some of the ELT methodology I've learned so far, about the slooow process of figuring out how teach in the classroom in Thailand, and about some of the (I think) common experiences of newbies teaching in Thailand, among other things. Just reflections on this thing called TEFLing and things I think may be helpful to someone in my shoes not more than two years ago, ready to set out to conquer, in my own little way, some tiny corner of SE Asia. Of course, I'll be leaving the tough issues and supercogent analysis to the experts. I'd like this column simply to be like a folksy postcard from a regular young TEFL hack in Thailand. Nothing special. In the end, it may just be nothing more a monthly demonstration of my -uh- imperfect writing style. Well, thanks for reading it! See you next month!




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