Understanding culture

Or the culture of understanding?

In August, 2005 I had a very interesting and educational experience as a teacher. I was teaching an academic writing class at AUA in Bangkok. Things weren't going very well. Students were complaining. It wasn't a bright and shining moment in my TESOL career. But I think I've learned a lot since then. At least I hope so. Anyway, you can read all about it in my September, 2005 column on ajarn.com.

In that class a student commented that I should learn more about Thai society and culture before stepping into the classroom. I'm still not sure if he was referring to me personally, or simply making a blanket statement about all Westerners knowing more about a certain culture before attempting to teach students from the far east. Maybe he was just trying to help, but at the time I saw it as a personal attack. Perhaps I shouldn't have. Maybe he had a point.

I bring this up because recently I saw this on the ajarn.com website:



Please be advised that the Ministry of Education with Teacher's Council of Thailand and the Labor Office require each and everyone who wishes to teach in Thailand to take a Teacher's License Course and Testing to be given/renew work permit.

The twenty-hour training programme is as follows:

--- Thai Society 4 hours
--- Thai Language and Thai Culture 6 hours
--- Thai Manners 2 hours
--- Thai Art and Thai Music 2 hours
--- Professional Ethics 6 hours
20 hours

And the cost of the said course and testing are as follows:

1. Ranging from 6,000 -- 8,000 baht depending on the Institution enrolled in is
the License course fee with free accommodation.
2. Registration Fee for license at 500 baht.
3. Translation fees for documents like diploma, TEFLcertificate, etc. amounting
to 1,000 baht (approximately and may vary among different translators.)
4. Testing Fee by Teacher's Council of Thailand amounting to 1,000 baht for
onsite testing and additional 30 baht for online testing. (pls see pdf
attachment for full details -- http://foreprof.ksp.or.th)

WE feel that this is another way of extorting money from foreigners who wish to teach in Thailand and highly unnecessary in time and cost.

WE urgently request that you send a written objection to this emal addressed to me to be taken personally to the Ministry of Education to protest this course.

Sincerely yours,

Lynnette Vince-Jillings
Email: mkteachers@gmail.com
Human Resources Manager
MediaKids Academy

In September 2005, and late into that year, I may have agreed wholeheartedly with Ms. Vince-Jillings. After that academic writing class I may have signed that petition. But I'm not so sure now. Maybe the Thai Ministry of Education is on to something here.

In my September 2005 column I said that "we (EFL teachers) are not here to understand and interpret Thai society. We are here to change it for the better."
Although that was said in anger and disappointment, to a large extent I still agree with what I said back then. We are here to make people's lives better. And in making other people's lives better, we improve our own. However I have questions I didn't have before. Namely, why?

Although studying Thai culture, art, manners, language, music, and ethics can be fascinating, I can't help but wonder why the MoE would force future EFL teachers to study all this before issuing a teacher's license to them. It's a great idea, but why? What is their objective? Their purpose? Their aim and goals? Has Ms. Vince-Jillings, and others who are against this plan, bothered to ask the MoE these important questions? It could shed some light on the MoE's purpose and objectives. Afterall, many of the foreign teachers in Thailand, and elsewhere, have ulterior motives for being here and should certainly not be teaching.

If the MoE's purpose for implementing this course is to help foreigners become better teachers, then I'm all for it. If by studying someone else's culture--- it's language, art, music, ethics, etc.--- makes an EFL teacher better able to help his students achieve their goals and potential, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. In fact, this should be the aim and goal of every Education Ministry wherever foreign English teachers live and work.

However, I still have doubts. Human nature and my own experience tells me that the best intentions of this MoE course may end up going awry. Unless this course is run by decent people who seriously desire to turn bad and mediocre English teachers into better ones by presenting their culture, and everything within it, in an objective and balanced light, then this course is bound to fail. As long as this course is run by decent people who are unafraid to show both the good and bad sides of their society, then foreign English teachers stand a chance of walking away from it with a good taste in their mouth. A tall order indeed, but an objective for which it is well worth striving.

In the year 2000 I spent a short time at a school in the Chinese province of Shandong. It was a wonderful experience and I fell in love with many of the students I was teaching. It was the first time they had been taught by a foreigner and I felt privileged to have the opportunity to share my time with them. One night in particular stood out as five foreign English teachers, including myself, sat in the principal's office and listened to one of his underlings expound on the virtues and moral superiority of Chinese society. It may have been insulting to the Western ear, but it was also embarrassing. Worst of all, it was a missed opportunity. An opportunity for several people from different parts of the world to understand why we were all here: To figure out the best way to help our students, and to help each other grow as people.

After all, that is what culture really is. The word culture comes from the Latin "Cultura", which means to grow, to cultivate. In many parts of the world we now have taken the word to mean something akin to "Cult", as in CULTure. Discussions about culture rarely bring people together. Discussions that begin with "In my culture we care about older people", are neither intended nor designed to bridge the gap between people of different societies. And future foreign English teachers who are made to sit through a similar cultural sensitivity evening that I experienced in China may end up writing letters and petitions such as the one written by Ms. Vince-Jillings.

Far too often cultures, especially those here in the far east, tend to put their own people in a box. Individuality and, at times, creativity, are stiffled to ensure peace and harmony. Rarely does this work well. One way or another individuality tends to find a way of seeping through the veneer of collectivity. And at times in negative or pathological ways. Many of these societies who place their own people in the cultural box may find it appealing to put foreign English teachers in there as well, thus cutting us off from our own creativity and individuality--- the very things that many of us need to teach our students effectively.

South Korea certainly has this problem with their own teachers as well as foreigners, and I can say from personal experience that it is very frustrating when a Korean teacher or administrator attempts to put me in the Korean cultural box. "You must teach this way" or, "You must use this book." My instinct is to fight tooth and nail to escape. When I do, it's usually at the expense of my job.

Attempting to "fit in" to someone else's culture is a tough challenge, especially if it compromises one's own beliefs, values, and principles. A great many people never seem to accomplish this. Suspending one's beliefs about how things ought to be can certainly be helpful if teachers and administrators focus on why we are all here: To help our students succeed and reach their full potential.

So I am hoping, sometimes against my better judgement, that this MoE course in Thai culture will work. I'm hoping that courses of this nature will work anywhere they are planned and implemented. But the goals must be clear, the purpose unambiguous, the mission obvious, and the objectives explicit and unequivocal: To produce and train teachers who will put the educational needs of their students front and center. After all, that is why teachers are being paid.

If knowing more about a specific culture can make me a better teacher while I'm living there, then I'd be more than happy to sign up and pay for the course. But keep the "My Culture Is Better Than Your Culture" crap out of it. Or I may end up signing Ms. Vince-Jillings petition.

One more thing: To the student in the academic writing class almost three years ago who told me that I must understand Thai society before stepping into the classroom, thank you. I now know you didn't mean any harm. I agree with you now a lot more than I did then. Oh well, better late than never.


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