Richard Constable

A short-lived teaching career?

I'm not sure whether Thailand isn't right for me or I'm not right for Thailand.

I spotted the advert on Ajarn Dot Com. 

Exquisite English requires a female teacher to teach kindergarten for a private school in Phra Khanong. 

I sent my application; creepy cover letter, romantic CV, mug shot, photocopy of harp emblemed passport, and educational certificates - ink not dry yet. I had all of a sudden graduated from the Khoa San Road, "Nudge, nudge, a nods as good as a wink to a blind bat."

Actually, I graduated from the Trinity College Dublin last year with a 2.1 in Ancient History.

"The foreigner not like the question, I have to ask. You not black?"

Now, having spoken to the recruiting agent, Khun Nang of Exquisite English, on the phone, and having assured her that I was not black. She had been quite concerned.

"I wasn't black the last time I looked even if I've been hitting the beach in Hua Hin a lot lately," I said. She couldn't see the funny side perhaps because she was a racist. 

"You are Iceland, Iceland people speak very well English!" I wasn't sure where to go with that, so I just thanked her. (Thai people often pronounce Ireland, 'Iceland.')

I'm meeting Khun Nang at BTS (Skytrain) Phra Khanong this morning. She is going to escort me to the school, and if everything goes nicely I will be starting tomorrow.

I couldn't see Khun Nang at the BTS Phra Khanong but she spied me. And began calling out and waving me over - concerned again. Khun Nang was in her forties with a well-preserved figure, and a not unpleasant oval shaped Chinese-Thai face. 

She had been watching me, and she'd perceived I possessed a slight limp. I have minor lateral curvature. My spine is not 100% straight, though very few people had either mentioned or noticed this before. It is not like I'm Quasimodo ('the bells! the bells!) In fact, a doctor has never officially diagnosed the condition. Feeling dismayed by her finicky observation - she was saying that the school wouldn't like it. I just denied the fact that I had a slight limp and she let go. Is it wrong to lie when you really need an iPhone X?

The guy who is showing me around is the owner's son. His parents' own two other schools as well as this one. Ergo, he is either fabulously rich, or he will be one day. 

With a small sheltered playground at the double-gated entrance, the school is made up entirely of basic single room wide concrete structures with sheet metal fabricated roofs. Near the gate there's an office adjacent to a small library, that is next to a large teachers' office. The paved terraced fronted classrooms are situated around the back. These remind me of chalets on holiday camps I'd seen in old British comedy films from the 60s and 70s. 

Also, alongside the classrooms, there's a small kitchen that serves a canteen with scaled-down benches and dining tables. And everything, and I mean everything is painted pale blue and pastel pink. The mind boggles. The owner's son was quite polite, but a little condescending and clearly gay, nevertheless he tells me he is happily married with a child. Any hopes of a romantic liaison have been totally scuppered. 

A little later, I'm back at my six thousand baht (€157) a month, compact and cost-effective 35 square meter room with a separate shower. Now, sitting comfortably on my two-seater black plastic sofa, surrounded by no more than a wonky side table, a small grey fridge, an iron bed, and a tacky wardrobe. I pour myself a long cold glass of duty-free plonk. Congratulations to me. Fianna got the job! I will be starting on Monday 28 May, as the German fraulein who is teaching in the kindergarten position at present will not be returning to the fatherland until Friday.

The director who was wearing the most obvious wig I have ever seen; like a bearskin pith helmet, and the pompous Filipino English programme manager both seemed relatively pleasant too.

I was slightly unnerved by Khun Nang as she kept gripping and nipping my right arse cheek, though I didn't like to mention anything, I did subject her to a wide-eyed expression after the third or fourth grope. That did nothing to deter her at all. Whether this counts as sexual harassment or not I don't know, but she certainly took advantage of her position in an interview situation.

Fortunately, The Groper will not be coming to the school again unless there is a problem. For instance, if the school does not take to me, and requires her to replace me with another teacher, and this is quite possible as there is no contract. Khun Nang conveyed to me that I was perfectly fine to work without a work permit as I hold a student visa, whilst I know that isn't legal. It's probably the protocol, as I understand it many foreign teachers teach in schools without work permits.

There are two reasons why I decided to study Thai in a language centre two evenings a week. The first is, that a student visa is good for twelve months in Thailand - it allows me to live here. The second is, I have a love of languages, although I'm finding Thai to be overwhelming with its 29 vowels and 44 consonants.

I arrived at the school horribly early on Monday morning, as I have a duty today. The duty entails greeting the students and any accompanying family at the gate. It is barely seven o'clock but the sun is already high in the sky. 

The students seem excited to see me. I wave to them and say good morning and they wai to me. It is a show of respect made by putting their hands together and holding them to their mouths as if to pray. I return the children's wai with a smile and return the wais directed to me by their parents or grandparents or their abductor. By the time I have finished greeting duty at seven thirty, I'm sweating; I am not going to make a great impression like this. Luckily, greeting duty is only once a week.

I meet my co-teachers. One is a cool and fashionable young guy from Denmark, and there's a stunted pensionable Italian with a permanent expression of bemused surprise - I think he's just trying to be friendly. They came-over like a couple of nice guys, and they unloaded lots of information about the school on me. Comparatively, I am more an antique Roman than a Dane.

Then the moment of truth has arrived. Off I go for my first ever lesson since doing my TEFL course. The lesson plan calls for a review of fruit vocabulary in alphabetical order; apple, banana, cantaloupe, and durian; a, b, c, d. I introduce myself. Good - morn - ing! Eve - ry -one! - My - name - is - Fi - anna - I - come - from - Ire - land!

The classroom looks like circa 1930's utility style, except for a whiteboard at the front. The little tots are sitting on wooden chairs around six wooden tables - a row of three on either side. I cannot believe how cute little Thai people are - and surprisingly quiet! They're dressed in immaculately pressed pale blue and pastel pink coloured uniforms. 

As I call the names on the attendance sheet, I notice a few are of mixed race. There's a chubby little foreign Thai girl Toni, and at least a few other half European half Thai children. Their names are much easier to remember than the convoluted tonal names of their classmates - Richele, Joey, Jasmine.

I begin teaching by eliciting the word 'apple' by holding up a flashcard of an apple for all the students to view. A stout little boy with a pageboy hairstyle, shouts out, "Apple!" I applaud his answer; he looks like the cat that's got the cream. When I've elicited all four flashcards I drill the students chorally and then individually. As I maneuver my way around the cramped classroom, I can feel little hands patting the shins and calves of my legs. 

Playful in their acquisition of a second language while they've still yet to master their native tongue - I reflect. Next, an extremely thin young assistant begins to handout workbooks to each member of the class, while another assistant, better-nourished, prettier but older, places a tin pot of coloured pencils on each desk. The students hastily begin to color line drawings of the fruit. When each has finished their abstracted artistry, I put a huge tick on each student's page with a red felt pen. After, I ponder - it's a heartfelt wonderful feeling being an educator of young minds.

At the conclusion of the lesson the other adults in the classroom. All of whom are women, one teacher plus the two assistants. Distant and detached, the bespeckled teacher who has remained seated in the front right-hand corner at her desk - asks me, "Where - you - come from?" For the second time that I am from Ireland. "Ohh, Iceland!" She patronisingly replies, while nodding her head knowingly. What - your name?" "Fianna," I respond. I ask her name. It's Pung, she tells me it means bee in English - something I already knew. The assistants, who have yet to crack a smile between them, tell me their nicknames are Prae and Ying and having gained that information I can leave. I thank them all very much and say goodbye to my class. Right on cue, all the students begin waving in unison like mesmerizing miniature cartoon robots.

A few weeks down the line my schedule still consists of four, forty-five minute periods a day, but disappointingly the infants often sleep in the afternoon. Then I get, "No!" "No, teacher, no!" (If the students are sleeping, the lesson will not take place. And the school never reschedules.) This information comes via the Thai homeroom teachers - their English is pathetic! Be as it may, when I do teach they still insist on helping me drill the students, although their pronunciation is not correct. This enforces poor pronunciation and is extremely frustrating for me as it often undoes any progress I make with the students.

On the bright side, my commute to work is only a couple of sky-train stops from Phra Khanong, so I'm not forced to haul myself out of bed too early to be at the school by seven thirty. Also, I don't feel obliged to write lesson plans because kindergarten classes are really basic. In addition to this, I religiously take a nap at my desk between my two lessons in the morning and my two in the afternoon, so it is not exactly a hectic, trying schedule.

The evenings that I don't study Thai I spend in Khoa San Road, an area of the Big Mango where both foreigners and Thais hang out. It's multiculturally geared up to cater for everyone! 

Khoa San is basically a famous road with cheap rooms, trendy bars with live music, foreign and Thai restaurants, market stalls, and some great used bookshops. It is also infamous for being the place to obtain fake educational certificates or fake anything for that matter.

Hordes of tourists, particularly backpackers make their to Khoa San while in the 'City of Angels'. It's such a fabulous and entertaining venue to socialize or just chill. The evenings are so warm and welcoming, I normally have a delicious tastebud-exploding curry, then if I've any room I'll squeeze in a heavenly crispy banana pancake followed by two large Chang lagers with bucket loads of ice. I drink them at a snail's pace and make them last till closing time.

I really love randomly making acquaintances of other foreign travellers. Some of these are just gypsying around Thailand's provinces, while others our encompassing far-off places in Asia, or even encroaching on vast and variant continents. One thing they all have in common is having interesting times, investing in precious memories for their probable conventional future lives. They have such amazing tales to relate to places they have seen and/or experiences they have lived - and I'm a great listener.

One evening I literally piddled myself. The irony is, that I was laughing about a story that a girl told about having shat herself in a helicopter over Victoria Falls while wearing a pair of designer snakeskin dungarees. Of course, she'd only intended to break wind, though she knew it would be close to shit!

Yet, she still said, it was worth it for the view! That has got to be the best endorsement I have ever heard.

In contrast to the adventures I hear about during my evenings at Khoa San, my days have become the stuff that dreams aren't made of.

The Thai teachers and assistants often strike the little learners across their hands with a ruler. They are not supposed to - there are laws against this! That's the reason why they take them into the corner of the classroom under the security camera. The other day a rotund middle-aged assistant teacher hit a little African-Thai boy Ali, with such force across his hand that he wouldn't stop howling for 15 minutes. Afterwards, she kept examining his hand over and over again, presumably because she was worried she had injured the child. (The cow was anxious for the calf) 

I just didn't know where to look because it was so heartrending, and I was even more perturbed about him than she was. I know he can be naughty as well as overactive, but I feel such a responsibility - I am his teacher! I keep telling myself it's their culture - and that you cannot change them!

Much worse than this, in another kindergarten classroom the assistant teachers have a deplorable way of keeping the students quiet. It is pitiful to watch the poor little cherubs when they have to sit in complete silence. I could not believe my eyes when I first saw what they did. The better-nourished assistant teacher was literally threatening them with a roll of green duct tape. Brandishing the adhesive she kept repeating, "Si keo ou si keo mai." (Green! Do you want green?) 

A few minutes later one little girl Toni, made the mistake of saying something to a classmate who was sitting next to her - the sinewy young assistant heard her and immediately lurched over. The little girl realized at once what was going to happen. She broke-out with "Mai ou mai ou mai ou." (Please no!) as the assistant got near, the infant held up her hands to try to stop her, while continuing to repeat "Mai ou mai ou mai ou." hysterical, hopelessly trying to prevent the 5-centimeter wide green tape from being stuck over her entire mouth. Once the tape muffled her she properly subdued, and resembled, for all the world a pint pot sized Hannibal Lecter.

The assaulted pupil was still taped and seated in the same spot when I left the classroom approximately twenty minutes later. I am glad I did not have to witness the removing of the tape from her mouth. Just how painful would that have been for a little child?  

In spite of the draconian disciplinary measures, the students are basically normal, mostly happy, playful, loving children, who are extremely well behaved, and attentive to my classroom instructions - when the Thai teachers and assistants are present. 

As such, you have to begrudgingly appreciate the way the assistant Thai teachers bring the best out of them at such an incredibly young age. From what I have witnessed I do believe that the Thai staff ultimately have the children's best interests at heart. Predominately encouraging them in their progress, praising and appreciating in the right measure, and even weeping the odd tear when a student has been in distress.

Although they are hard-nosed disciplinarians, they are neither vindictively nor intentionally cruel. It is simply that this is not my culture, it is not the system I was brought up to believe in.

I am not even saying that it's wrong, but - I - can't take it anymore.

Five weeks to the day since I started, and Khun Nang with her bottom fetish is coming to the school today - She is coming to pay our salaries in cash.

All the same, it will be my first and last salary. My personal integrity won't allow me to stand by and continue to witness the beatings, the rulers across the hands, or anymore tapings. After having thought about all this a great deal, I discussed the situation in depth with my parents via phone - they support me in my decision to leave, and they will send some funds if I don't get another job directly.

Anyhow, I have recently been in communication with an agency in South America, and it is almost one hundred percent certain that I'll be going to teach English in Mucha Pica in Peru. I've already packed my sombrero and maracas.

Thailand isn't or me and I'm not for Thailand. Wish me luck with the lingo in the land of the Ancient Incas!


Fianna, you should try teaching different age groups.

10 years old boys were reduced to tears by a homeroom teacher for not wai-ing properly. And I object to cruel & unusual instructions for competitions. Technical English, learn this by heart is mind-destroyingly wrong IMHO. Impromptu speech with the participant not getting coached properly (to use rhetorics, to speak loudly, clearly and to make pauses). No, the subject will be leaked and some dreadful text, prepared by an adult, must be memorized!

Some schools won't even say what exactly they want the foreigners to do. To the point of contradictory stuff like "book / no book".

Add office politics and you might understand why many foreigners are fed up with teaching. Although they do care for the students.

By Anon, up North (14th August 2018)

Interesting, informative, witty, you’re a good writer Fianna.

Those of us slightly (a lot) older will remember corporal punishment in the west, but not at the level of taping mouths! Job or no job, that’s where I’d have put my foot down, video taped it and threatened exposure if I saw it happen again. Arguably, the possesion of video evidence would let you carry on working, while being able to change those practices. Standing in a corner with your hands on your head is one thing but tape is abuse, there’s no other word for it and they know it’s illegal. I’ve not heard this happening in government schools anywhere in Asia, it’s usually in the private sector.

If you do ever get the chance, try to get in government schools and I’m sure you will find them very different. I do wish you luck for the future.

By John V, Thailand (12th June 2018)

I found this an entertaining read. I do wonder how long it will be before the next article ('I;m not sure if I'm not meant for Peru, or that Peru is not meant for me'). Maybe I will look out for the Peruvian equivalent of, if there is one!

By David, UK (2nd June 2018)

Hi Richard, I am a friend of your mum and she suggested I read your blogs.
Thoroughly enjoyed your report on schooling in Thailand. It’s certainly not the uk way of teaching little ones but interesting to hear that you acknowledge the custom.
Good luck in Peru.

By Val Boreham, Uk (31st May 2018)

"I am not even saying that it's wrong, but - I - can't take it anymore"

Before I hit a child with a ruler away from the camera, or I put tape over a child's mouth, etc, I think, "Would I do this to an animal?" The answer is always a firm 'NO'. Now there's a universal benchmark we can all use.

You did the right thing leaving that school.

By Simon, Thailand (17th May 2018)

Good luck, maybe you should have given yourself a little more time to adjust, but you didn't, on the other hand maybe you are making the right decision to move on, who knows?

By Jack, In Thailand (14th May 2018)

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