Phil Hall

My first day at school

An introduction to the cast of characters (my teaching colleagues)

Philip! Het Ngaan Yoo!'

My thoughts were disturbed by this loud salutation and I looked up to see a large black man looking down on me, somewhat like an eagle about to consume a baby rabbit! I smiled back and he asked me, ‘Do you understand what I have just said?' I had an idea that he was using the Isaan dialect to ask what I was doing, or working on, but I replied in the negative, as I suspected he wanted to tell me anyway.

He said in his rather strong Ghanaian accent that he was speaking Laos/Isaan and asking what I was doing or working on. ‘Wow, you can speak Isaan?' I said in fake astonishment. ‘Yes! You too must learn this, because then the teachers and students will respect you!'

He strode off to his desk and I heard a few whispers from my group of ‘admirers'.  None of these seemed to be respectful though - quite the reverse.

In a few minutes Mustafa was back and told me in no uncertain terms that as it was 8am, we must now go to the assembly area. I followed suit and as we made our way down the stairs I saw a familiar face. I was pleased to see my son Tom, surrounded  by Thai female students all looking smitten by my handsome little boy. ‘That boy is very lucky!'  Mustafa told me in his booming voice.  ‘He will have many girlfriends because he is luk krung!' (Half Thai, half European.)

I was about to tell him that Tom was my son, but he had already marched off towards what seemed like a sea of green jerseys. I could see at least 1,000 students moving in unison, and a few minutes later I saw the assembly area with another 4,000 sat in perfect lines as the Thai National Anthem crackled through a loud, but poor quality, PA system.

I'd recently developed a bloody painful ingrown toenail and today seemed to be, literally, its' day in the sun. Mustafa was waiting for me, and as I was about to sit he reminded me that everybody had to stand during the Thai National Anthem. I took this opportunity to survey the scene and the sight and sound of 5,000-plus students all singing in unison was very impressive.

As the track faded out we sat down, and almost immediately another song began crackling through the speakers, one of which was directly above our heads. I smiled inwardly as I recognised the sounds of the Village People blasting through the school assembly area - YMCA being the song of choice! A teacher on the stage was gesticulating furiously, and all the students began to imitate this track-suited lady as she initiated a very Butlins-esque dance routine. Mustafa was following suit, pulling me to my feet - this I was not expecting!

It was already 35 degrees in the shade, and the last thing I really needed now was to be doing star jumps and the like. But it seemed that all of the teachers were getting their own dance moves on, and I had to do the same. I tried to get away with as little as possible, and thankfully about four minutes later the punishment ended.

My toe was hurting like billio and I was thinking seriously about ripping the bloody nail out there and then. ‘Do you feel alive, my friend?'  Mustafa was buzzing by now, and I was glugging away on the water bottle that Jum, my wife, had insisted I brought with me to school. ‘School is different in Thailand,'  she had warned me, and I was beginning to see how different it really was. After assembly we had a small snack by the coffee shop, and I was introduced to another foreign teacher. Her name was Bao, a pretty American lady in her mid-twenties.

She looked a little Thai, and she explained that she was actually born in North Eastern Thailand, to a hill tribe family. Sometime back in the 1980s, as a small child, Bao was airlifted to the U.S.A. as part of a United Nations programme, and had since become very American. She was back in Thailand to re-connect to her roots, and although she had asked the agency back in the States for a nursery role, preferably in either Bangkok or Northern Thailand, here she was in Kalasin.

Bao seemed less than happy about this fact, and was also bemoaning the lack of any support from the school with regards her first ever teaching experience. ‘They told me that I would have a Thai teacher to help me today, but that doesn't seem to be happening,' she grumbled. Instead of teaching kindergarten kids, Bao would be teaching M2 and M4, 14-year olds and 16/17-year olds.

I was teaching M3 and M4 Apparently M3 were always the toughest year to teach because the 16-year olds were full of hormones and really had little interest in learning anything, let alone English conversation. The schedule told me that I would be teaching M3/13 for my maiden lesson. Apparently the /13 indicated a top tier class according to the Thai streaming system, and I was thinking about the best way to tackle this challenge.

Wannee still hadn't appeared and, as with Bao, she had indicated that I would have some help for at least the first introductory lessons. I decided to use a tried and trusted TEFL icebreaking exercise that involved each student coming to the front of the class and introducing themselves.  I had already printed out hundreds of sheets of paper, each with about 20 sets of questions, ready to cut into little cards. Each one had the same set of 5 questions:

What is your name?

How old are you?

Where do you live?

Describe your family?

What is your favourite band?

Hardly high level content but it would serve its' purpose for now. I figured that these would take around a minute to answer verbally, and with around 50 or 60 kids per class, plus my own introduction, that would take care of the first lesson. I had about 25 minutes before my first-ever foray into teaching, so decided to take some fresh air out on the bridge.

As I stopped well short of the hornets' nest and looked below me, the bridge started to shake and I felt as if the whole structure was going to collapse. ‘My friend, why are you not teaching?' It was the unmistakeable sound of Mustafa as he took a few steps to the left while passing the hornets. I explained that my first lesson would kick off in about twenty minutes and he offered to come along with me for moral support. I was fairly sure that I knew where the classroom was, but according to Mustafa I had this totally wrong.

Apparently, 3/13 was in another block and he would show me the way - just as soon as he had chatted up the pretty new American Teacher. Bao was less than impressed as Mustafa tried in vain to get her to come along on a date later that day. She was having a time of it because her first lesson was also starting at 11:00 and she asked me to help her get through this fifty minutes of uncertainty. I had to say no because mine was running in tandem. I did suggest that Mustafa could accompany her, but strangely she wasn't keen. ‘Okay, Mr Philip, let us go and teach!' boomed Mustafa.

So we were off and I tried to keep up with the 6 foot 4 inch 20-something man-mountain as we crossed the assembly area to the furthest block in the school.  We climbed the three sets of stairs and, according to Mustafa, 3/13 was the furthest classroom from the Language Department. Mustafa was already in the room before I reached the doorway to see that this was in fact - 5/13!

It was almost 11:00. Making his apologies, Mustafa broke into a little run and told me that he now remembered where the classroom really was. My bastard toenail had decided to make an its presence known, and this time it meant business. Still we climbed more stairs, and crossed a bridge - only to find that this was in fact 6/13! At this point it was well after 11:00 and I wondered if Mustafa was just playing games with me. ‘Mustafa, I know where the bloody classroom is!' ‘Why didn't you say?' He replied. I had said, but had bowed to his superior knowledge, since he had already been teaching here for a year.

My bad.

Finally we reached 3/13. It was already 11:20. When I walked into the class it appeared that the students had decided to give up on me, and were already halfway through what seemed like a biology lesson instead. One of them was playing the role of teacher and as I looked at the whiteboard, I could see a diagram of a man who appeared to have three legs. On closer inspection the middle leg was - well, exactly that! Above his head the name ‘Mustafa' was scrawled, and I chuckled inwardly because the Thai students' sense of humour didn't appear to be that far off the British equivalent. I was about to introduce myself, but the big man was one step ahead.

‘Students! Please sit down!' he boomed, and they begrudgingly did so. ‘This is Teacher Philip!' They looked towards me and seemed distinctly non-plussed. I couldn't blame them because my tardiness was hardly going to win them over. I told Mustafa that I would take it from here and he went off for a toilet break, promising to return in a few minutes.


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