8 February 2009
The Thai Village School
For almost four years I worked in a village school in an area of Thailand called Chat Trakan; which is located in Phitsanulok province. Prior to moving to Thailand I had never spent any time in such a remote location; Chat Trakan is one hundred and twenty kilometres from the nearest city, and forty kilometres from the nearest 7eleven.
The reason I moved to such a rural location was that this was the village where my soon-to-be-wife had spent her childhood, and where she still had family. She still considered it home. We had been living in Phitsanulok city before the move, but the promise of a more peaceful existence appealed to me. My wife loves being near her family so she was delighted with the move. The village is called Muu Baan Pak Rong which means ‘village at the mouth of the river Rong’.
I had been teaching in Bangkok the year prior to this, but I left because I felt like a bit of a fraud; I didn’t have any proper teaching qualifications. I loved teaching though, so I decided to go back to education and get the pieces of paper that would allow me to hold my head high among my teaching peers. I would support myself during this time by yearly trips to Ireland where I could work for two or three months. I also volunteered to help out at the local village school so as to gain more practical experience.
Our local school had been built completely from wood obtained from the nearby jungle. My first impression was that it seemed like something out of a different century.; a far simpler time. Like much in the village the school was built for functionality, but it did look extremely quaint nevertheless. As well as the brown wood there was also colourful paint to brighten up the place, and it completely suited the tropical location. The only evidence of the 21st century was the computer, but even that looked out-dated and it wasn’t connected to the internet. The school population was very small with less than eighty students.
Pak Rong Village school is a rong rian pratom which is the Thai name for primary school. It was decided that I would only be teaching p3-p6; which would mean students aged nine to twelve years old. It was also decided that I should teach only on Fridays so as to not interrupt the normal schedule too much. The local teachers were delighted that I would be teaching English, but felt that it wasn’t such an important subject for young children who were mostly destined to become rice farmers. My classes would be considered extra-curricular, but all the students would be expected to attend.
My only other teaching experience had been in a Bangkok high school, and this did little to prepare me for a village school. The first shock was that nobody could speak a word of English. Not even the English teachers could hold a conversation in the language. The next shock was that there was no course syllabus for me to follow. The teachers had been using a textbook, but when I tried to use it I found that it was far too basic for a conversation class. These English textbooks didn’t go much beyond ABC and, “what is your name?” and my expectations for the students were far higher than this. I decided to leave the textbook to the Thai teachers, and they seemed pleased with this suggestion. I would need to create my own syllabus, but this was going to be a challenge - the school kids were unable to read English. All learning would need to be done purely through speaking and listening.
The classroom that I would be using had no chairs or desks, but the students were well used to sitting on the floor. This is the position from which they ate their food, watched television, and did their homework. If a household did possess a chair it would be only for ornamental purposes.
I quickly learned that what the students lacked in knowledge about English they made up for in enthusiasm. They didn’t just repeat the words that I was teaching them, but they would scream the words back at me while laughing and trying to mimic my Irish accent - they thought it all great fun. Some of the younger students cried when they first saw me enter the classroom. They had no previous dealings with a ‘farang’; the Thai word used to describe white-faced foreigners. After a couple of classes though these fearful students would be laughing and play-acting with the rest.
We played a lot of games during class time. I quickly found that this was the best strategy for keeping them engaged in the lesson. They gained new vocabulary far easier when it felt fun. Their favourite activity was the running game. I would make cards with pictures of the vocabulary we were currently working on, and when I called out the word two competing students would need to run the length of the classroom in search of that picture. They would be so full of energy that I often worried that they might do themselves an injury; but they never did.
In Pak Roong school I taught on Fridays. Thai school children have a different uniform for nearly every day of the week. On Fridays they wore an old-fashioned farmer’s garb; the sort of uniform that I previously associated with communist China during the 1960’s. When I first noticed the students wearing it I was half-expecting them to also remove a little red book from their pockets and for them to begin waving it at me.
During my time teaching these children I was working towards my Post-Graduate Certificate in Education. I did most of my learning while teaching these village students though. They made me think about how to keep them engaged. If I lost them during a lesson then I would need to work hard to get them back on course. I developed strategies. This is how I really learnt how to teach. I would go to a lesson and mess up by boring the students, but the next week I would try something different. This way I slowly found what worked and what didn’t work.
Working in the local village school meant that I soon became well-known by all the local village children. I felt a bit like a celebrity. It was nice. After a few years doing it I really began to feel like a part of the local community, and it felt like a great privilege to be a part of these young people’s lives. This is when I really fell in love with teaching.
Posted by Paul Garrigan at 13:17