Teaching English in Thailand: A Rewarding Challenge
Teaching, in any sense of the profession, is not all apples and chocolate. It’s hard work. It doesn’t matter what subject or age you teach, or which country you teach in, it’s inevitable that your job will have negatives to go along with the positives. But with all of those challenges come brilliant rewards.The first reward to me is I am in Thailand now and this is the country I always want to visit.
My first day in rural, Northeast Thailand was an eye opener. Not only was it my first time teaching – ever – I had just stepped away from a sleepless, overnight bus ride and had barely enough time to shower before going to the high school, where my new coworkers promptly and proudly ushered me to the podium and asked me to introduce myself to 2,000 students.
Shortly after, I was handed a blue marker, gently shoved into a classroom with 50 pairs of curious eyes staring back, and wished good luck. It didn’t take long to realize my last-minute lesson plan – which I had derived on the dark, crowded bus, not at all knowing what to expect – was way beyond the level of my students.
“Good morning, teacher,” they all rose and said in unison after I made my way to the center of the battered shed and stood in front of the two stained and scratched white boards that hung from the crooked wall.
“Good morning, class,” I followed suit. “How are you?”
“I am fine, thank you. And you?”
“Very well, thank you. How old are you?”
“Where are you from?”
I asked an individual student, “How are you today?” and received no answer. And then I asked another. She looked at me and giggled, the Thai way of showing embarrassment.
Their morning routine was a memorized one, and their English-speaking abilities didn’t reach far beyond it. Sure, most of them can read and write with ease - they have been studying English for four-plus years – but understanding and speaking are difficult to learn from a textbook.
That’s where I come in.
As a foreign English teacher, at a poor school with no previous English speakers, my job was simply to give the students an introduction to speaking and listening. The government’s goal is to make Thailand an English-speaking country by 2015, and the school’s realistic approach was to invite native speakers to campus with hopes of giving everyone a reason, a mandated urgency, to speak a language that hadn’t before left the classroom.
At first, the simplicity of this goal seemed unimportant and unchallenging; I wanted to make a bigger difference than that. But, over time, I realized the small difference I was making and understood the benefits of my job. My students, shy by nature, were slowly coming out of their shells and approaching me on campus. Despite the language barrier, I was able to see their true personalities shine.
The more reserved, studious ones would quietly come up to me and practice all the vocabulary they knew. The class clowns would make funny jokes and try to get me to repeat them in their language. “Teacher, speak Thai!” they would say, which always brought immense laughter when I tried.
Perhaps the biggest compliment, though, in my six months of teaching came from a co-worker, a fellow English teacher, who became my good friend. Pussadee said that talking to me on a daily basis had improved her own English skills, and therefore she was now able to teach the entirety of her lessons in English, as opposed to the Thai she spoke in class before I arrived. Pussadee taught 10 different classes that term, each consisting of about 45 students, so I knew the small impact I had on her was actually a positive effect on over 400 students.
Despite the fact I had never taught before and a majority of my students proved to be typical, uninterested high schoolers, I caught enough of a glimpse into the profession to know that sharing knowledge with others and gaining some for myself – an inevitable trade-off in this profession – is a test I want to take again and again, and a reward as simple as the smile on a student’s face when she finally understands what I’m saying makes it all worth it.
Looking back on that first experience, in the village that stole a piece of my heart and showed me the kind of teacher – the kind of person – I want to be, I can’t help but think that its effect on me was quite possibly more profound than my effect on it.
But I certainly hope I’m wrong.
Jessica J. Hill, the Teach Abroad Editor for Wandering Educators, is an Oregon native currently working in China. She writes about traveling, teaching abroad, and coming home. Find more of her stories here: www.jessicajhill.com.