Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Discovery of Thai Time

 So early this morning we brushed our teeth, combed our hair, shined our shoes, checked our teaching supplies one last time for the markers and alphabet cutouts and posters and stickers, snapped a few "first day of school" photos and packed into a van, anxious for our first "live" teaching experience. We were ready to TEACH gosh dang it! As a way of breaking us in, the local schools arrange for a free "English Camp" and though it is mid-vacation, some kids are so eager to learn English they show up for extra school. We are working in teams of three for six days, primary grades in the morning and high school in the afternoon. We actually teach one at a time, an hour at a time, while the other two film and critique the performance. It is a sound method for easing in those on our team who have never taught or trained as teachers in undergraduate school. I am teamed up with Kerry, an effervescent young woman straight out of her elementary training- a terrific match for someone like me who last worked with first and second graders in graduate school 16 years ago- and Sarah, the youngest member of our team, just 21 and fresh out of University of Texas at Austin. I will do an entry on several of these remarkable young people at some point. If you knew them, you would truly feel hopeful about the future and proud of the land that formed them. But back to teaching. As I said, this experience is all to bolster us and scaffold our future teaching; to ensure that we will have the best chance possible of a safe take-off from such a short runway. Next Thursday, when we leave for our actual assignments, we will be completely on our own, most of us many miles from another native speaker of English. In my small house I will be about 20 minutes by bike from Ben, about 35 minutes from Zach, and 20 minutes by commuter truck (saawng tao) from Rita. After that I am about 30 minutes in the other direction from the relatively large city of Nakhon Phanom where there are 3 other volunteers, each about 10 to 15 minutes from each other.  The other volunteers are loosely clustered further south, and about 45 minutes from me by car. Though World Teach requires a Thai teacher be present in any kindergarten classes with us, most of the school day we will be alone with our kids, one hour at a time. Some volunteers have a separate classroom and some visit various homerooms to teach various grades.  will teach 2 and a half days at Thai Samakee and 2 and a half days at Nong ya sai and I have classes with every grade k-6. In both buildings I have my own space the kids come to. I will of course blog all of this once I get going. Some schools have an "English" teacher, but usually this is not a teacher who has studied the subject, and in no school (other than the one in which  we are currently staying) is that teacher fluent in English. Most of them speak at best in limited and broken phrases, which is why you see shirts like these for sale at the local night market:

Believe me, I know my Thai designed t-shirts would be far worse. So that is our challenge- to teach and make progress without any real understanding of the native language. Yet it is possible, and we have already begun to pick up lots of Thai phrases and words. We are obviously better than the alternative of nothing at all. There were far more schools who wanted a WT volunteer than were available. At one point last year there were 25 people signed up for the program, but that number dropped by 10 when the rioting broke out in Bangkok. I say good riddance to total wussies. And yet, gentle reader, I digress from my story of the day, the first day of Thai children in the classroom. It is easy to do as there is always far more I have to tell you than there is time or the means to write it.
So yes, we packed into the van, meandered down a few country lanes and over bridges, past the newly starting rice harvest and the occasional water buffalo, rolled up to our first teaching site to find...nothing. The driver was flummoxed and embarrassed, poking about this very rudimentary primary school as if he might flush the students and teachers out like pheasants from the overgrown grass. Hmm... head scratching and phone calls. The 20th? Oh we were planning on the 21st! No problem. Just wait there, we will put out the call and run about the village and see who we can scrounge up! And in fact an hour later 17(we were set for 45) children straggled out of every direction, grubby and barefoot. One of their teachers arrived with several bunches of bananas "from her house" as a gift. The kids swept the classroom and set up chairs. This is not unusual. The children do a lot of the manual labor for the schools, from a very young age, including polishing the wood floors if there are any. This might be the first thing the US might look into when doing school reform. We would decry it as child labor, but in fact it gives them a real sense of duty and ownership, and probably does more than 1000 hours of the so-called self esteem lessons we foist on our own spoiled youth. Now I digress with ranting. Again, my apologies, dear readers. You want to know what happened. We combined teams, shortened lesson plans, threw in a few more games and had a marvelous morning.
 We beat down the first day jitters, I hooted and hollered my Abc's, and the students proved they learned from last year's volunteers. They made, sometimes with our help, name tags, which were really of no help at all as I attempted to call on them. It felt like a landing on a distant shore as they tried their English and I my Thai. There was a set of twins and a pair of class clowns who sat in the back row; there were a few older girls who joined us, making no bones about being with the very young. They laughed at me and I at them. Afterwards, when we got back, it turned out the other primary group never did have school, and the high school groups began half an hour late because some students were harvesting rice. So the most valuable lesson of the day was learned by us, the volunteers: that this is the way things shall be in the non-western world. If the saang tao is on time you get on, and if it is not you wait. And if there is a miscommunication, you gently say, Mai pen rai, which means you're welcome  and  no worries  and deal with it  and  life is transitory and desire is the cause of all suffering and oh well and we're cool and more than this and less. And there are 13 of us blogging in the building and all of us are, without doubt, tapping away at a version of explaining Mai pen rai to our friends, flung afar across the globe. Here are some of the faces I gazed on for the first time today, each a blessing.


  1. Peter,

    Any supplies the school might need?If so send us a list,we'll send it and it might arrive by January.Also those T-shirts would be a big hit in Worland.Half the people here probably wouldn't realize that something was wrong with them.

  2. I got two things:
    1. The Japanese can't design English shirts either... It must be an Asian thing.
    2. When I was in elementary school in Japan, we used to sweep the classroom, wipe down the windows, and scrub the toilets... Must be another Asian thing.

  3. And look what a helpful and hardworking student you turned into as you left the soft gaijin in the dust! And stylin'!