A first lesson disaster
I mean, seriously, how many other teachers pass out in their first class?
I looked around the class and for the first time, the enormity of my new role hit home. These 16 year olds were all waiting for me to say or do something and I felt rather nervous and even a little shy.
How pathetic was I? 45 years old, and with plenty of life experience and travelling under my belt, how could I feel this way in front of children who had most probably never left the country of their birth?
I prayed that my greeting would be reciprocated and was so happy when they all replied.
Then a voice at the back barked out, ‘All stand up!'
And they did.
‘Good Morning Teacher, how are you?' I was on a roll here.
‘I am fine students, how are you?'
‘We are fine!'
‘Please sit down.' And they did.
Well, this was going far better than I had expected. I told the class where I was from and then wrote my name on the whiteboard.
‘Students, please can you write my name in your book?'
They all seemed to understand - after all, this was the top stream - and as they obeyed I started handing out the 5 questions. It wasn't easy because the desks were so close together, I had difficulty squeezing through the gaps. I then wrote the 5 questions on the board. I was pleased that although Mustafa hadn't yet returned, within a few minutes the students were coming to the front, in twos, and were answering the questions.
I had originally calculated that this exercise would see me through, and listened with more than a little pride as they belted through their answers to the rest of the class.
‘My name is Jackie, I am 16 years old, I was born in Kalasin, I have one sister and my favourite band is One Direction.'
I was a little surprised at the last declaration, as the group cited had come second in the UK X-factor just a year ago and I had no idea they'd become such a worldwide success already.
As Mustafa returned to the room I realised that all of the students had completed the task in hand and were looking to me for further instructions. Looking at my watch I realised that there was still fifteen minutes left! I counted the number of students and, to my dismay, discovered that this class only had 30, and not the 50 or so I had calculated for!
Mustafa must have sensed my concern and offered to take over for a few minutes if I needed a toilet break. I was glad to accept, and as I washed my hands and face in the bathroom I looked in the mirror and noticed that I was sweating heavily.
I hadn't been prepared, and I heard my wife's voice as I remembered her words, ‘Phil, I am not sure you can be a teacher. You don't even like kids!' This may have been true, but I was having a good stab at the profession my mother and sister had chosen - surely I could last another 10 minutes without lesson plans?
The toenail thought otherwise and began to throb like billio.
I walked back into the class and was shocked to see Mustafa bouncing around on one foot singing what I recognised as ‘Father Abraham'. Or was it ‘Simple Simon'?
Half of the class were attempting to copy him while the rest were filming this spectacle on their smartphones. No doubt Mustafa and his crazy dance would be trending around Isaan schools before lunchtime was over.
For a large man he was remarkably nimble, and by now the temperature in the class must have been in the mid-40s.
‘Mustafa, can we carry on with the lesson?' I pleaded, as he took a huge leap backwards, and I suddenly felt the weight of a 17-stone man come crashing down on my ingrown toenail.
I must have passed out because when I awoke, I was on the floor slumped against the wall. I looked up to see at least 30 faces looking down on me, and yes, the smartphones were out in force. I could only wonder how much of the event had already been recorded. They wanted entertainment and, by God, had we delivered!
My toe was past agony, and as I got to my feet I looked at the time on my watch and realised I must have been out for at least five minutes. The students were already leaving the room for lunch and Mustafa was looking apologetic, if a little impish.
‘I can't do this, teaching is not for me,' I stated firmly.
His face took on a concerned look and he tried his best to reassure me. ‘The students like you; they think you are handsome and very funny!'
This didn't have the desired affect and I knew that my toe was beyond any help I could give any longer - I needed to get to a hospital.
‘Mustafa, please tell Wannee or whoever that I have to leave, I will be back in touch but have to go to the hospital.'
He nodded and we went our separate ways.
I negotiated my way towards where my bike was parked and as I crossed the little bridge I must have caught my bad foot on the railings, because all hell broke loose in the hornets' nest and at least three of the buggers came for me. I tried to run but it was no use; I felt a sharp pain on my nose and recoiled as I realised one of them had stung me!
The combined pain from this and my ingrown toenail were just too much to bear. I stumbled down the stairs straight past a smiling Wannee and towards my yellow scooter, unashamedly whimpering. There at last, I plonked myself onto the red hot seat and turned the key.
I tried about five times more; by now was fuming. Words were coming out of my mouth that certainly were not part of my lesson plan. ‘Kick, kick!'
I turned my head and saw an elderly Thai man who was dressed like a janitor, doing a great impression of somebody kick-starting a motorbike. I thanked him, but there was no way my foot could take any more strain. In anguish I pushed the poor scooter to the ground before limping off towards the school gates.
‘But Phil, what about your lessons?'
I could make out Wannee's voice and turned back to see at least 100 students, all grinning at me, and the unmistakable shape of Mustafa and his pearly whites beaming in my direction. To hell with this! I turned and walked out of the school, and in my mind I would never set foot in the hideous place ever again.
I tried calling my wife, Jum, but there was no answer, and the combination of the heat, the exploded toenail and the damned hornet sting had all but finished me off. A few fruit sellers broke away from their gossip about the price of durian these days, gave me the once-over, and chuckled to themselves as I slumped on to the pavement outside the school.
I watched helplessly as the last remains of the phone battery faded away. Sitting on the kerb outside Kalasin Pittayasan School, I shook my head and finally admitted defeat.
Phil Hall was lucky enough to teach at a government school in Isaan from 2012 to 2013 and thoroughly enjoyed this experience. He also has a book published called Bangkok to Ben Nevis Backwards.
It takes the reader on a journey from the UK to India and finally Thailand. Debts, Dementia, poorly planned emigration, self discovery, family bonding and attempted murder are all part of the highs and lows of this 18-month true tale. This is an excerpt from the same book with a few alterations.
Visit Phil's website / Visit Phil's Facebook page
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An average day at any government school in Isaan,worked at three schools over a four year period.Not for the easily shocked or offended and not the rose tinted experience as described in many a TEFL advert. Met some very competitive ego maniacs thinly disguised as teachers.Good luck with the book,from what I have read on here it is an accurate account in my opinion.
By Stuart Branwhite, Greenock. (2nd April 2018)