“You could have done so much more with your level of education and capability, but you’re teaching primary and secondary school kids.”
So that was what my close friend Kathy said that to me when she visited me last month. I brought her to the school where I’m teaching because I wanted her to have an idea of what the Thai school system was like and to experience my life as a foreign teacher in Thailand. After all, Kathy was about to embark on a different journey of life after having worked in the film industry for years – she would soon teach in the very university I used to study and teach at.
While I have heard many people telling me the same thing ever since I accepted this teaching job after my seven years of service in the tertiary education setting, what Kat said to me, surprisingly, hit me like a thunderbolt as if it was a bold, new fact to me.
Has there been some truth in what people are telling me, or have I been turning a deaf ear all this while?
Well, not that I don’t know the answer. Not that I’ve never thought about all these questions. The fact is that I know, very well, what is going on.
But those words came from a person who has witnessed my life as a teacher in Thailand. They came from someone who has seen how I have gone from one class to another, trying to teach the simplest of words or phrases to cohorts of students who should’ve already learned them in their pre-school or primary years. She understands how tiresome it is having to bring student attention back to my teaching every ten minutes.
Having also witnessed the times when I used to teach in two higher education institutions back in Malaysia, Kat knows this job is no comfort zone and one that requires a hell lot of energy.
True enough, my job sucks a great deal of energy out of me every day, yet it takes such a long time to see even the tiniest results.
The challenges of teaching in Thailand are three-fold. First of all, we’re talking about a country where its education system is ranked well below international average and its English standards are lagging behind other countries where the language is little spoken. Secondly, I’m teaching in a rural school where most children are not so academically inclined, as proven in Thailand’s Ordinary National Educational Test (O-NET) results. This, however, doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent in other areas.
Lastly, I’m just a foreign teacher who speak limited Thai. Yes, it’s true there are local teachers who would assist me in every class. But the process of translating every other word or sentence into Thai every time just consumes so much time and isn’t a long-term solution in my opinion.
It made me think: if I could master the Thai language well, it would then be so much easier to deliver my lessons, to make the communication between myself and my students work better.
Deep down inside me, I want to do much more than just teaching school children. I would love to do my PhD and write some papers. Or maybe pen another book. Also, having taught students of various levels, I know I enjoy teaching college or university students much better.
Yet, I’ve stayed back to teach the Thai kids. Why?
After some thinking and reflection, I’ve come to realise that my life as a foreign teacher in Thailand isn’t just about going to school to teach and waiting for my salary to come in at the end of the month. It’s also about learning to blend into this community and embracing its beautiful culture and language. This environment gives me the tranquility and peace of mind which I wasn’t able to get when I was in Peninsular Malaysia. Here, I don’t even have to worry about people breaking into my home whenever I’m outside.
While this environment isn’t unfriendly or uncomfortable, it isn’t exactly the most convenient; it’s relatively “rawer” than where I come from. As a result, it forces one to be creative and go about things in different ways in order to get jobs done. It teaches me how there is zero need to be perfect all the time.
Back at home in Kuching, my kitchen is equipped with two fridges and expensive cookware and yet it’s the same old mediocre dishes we cook every day. But it’s the total opposite here. The fridge at my better half’s place is so empty you could hear your own echo, and yet they manage to come out with something different and delicious every time – effortlessly.
This year marks my second year in Thailand. Up till now, I still don’t have a bed or a TV. I have to hand-wash my clothes and cook my own meals every day, yet I feel content with how simple my life is; I feel empowered and useful as an individual that I’m slowly picking up some important life skills which I didn’t get a chance to learn while in Malaysia.
My salary is much lesser than what I used to get when working as a lecturer in Malaysia, yet I feel blessed because I had never experienced “poorness” for the past 30 years of my life and I’m now experiencing what it’s like having to make double or triple the effort to save some money for the rainy days. It makes me appreciate all the little things I’ve been blessed with in life.
I could have gone back to Malaysia to teach in the university and live a more comfortable life, but I feel my job in Thailand isn’t done yet. If I were to take on a task, I might as well do it well and wait until I’ve seen some results before I move on.
Since the last school term, I’ve begun going into most classes alone, without much assistance from local teachers. I wanted to explore other alternatives and achieve a breakthrough in my teaching. The vigorous translation in the class is like a walking stick that would head both the students and myself into the comfort zone in the long run. The way to improve the situation would be to let go of it.
Lately, I’ve realised it actually works. My students seem to be able to slowly get used to my English, while at the same time, I get to pick up some basic Thai words and commands, which I could occasionally use to re-enforce my teaching and student understanding.
Sometimes it makes me think, that it doesn’t really matter whether I’m teaching in a school or a university. It’s as long as I am happy doing what I’m doing, and can bring about some good changes in my teaching and those I teach. I don’t need to change each and every one of my students; to be able to inspire even one of them in each class is good enough.
Today is my 623rd day in Thailand. It’s been almost two years since I started teaching in Thailand. Will my adventure in Thailand as a foreign teacher continue into the coming years? My heart says to stay, but what will the reality turn out to be?
No one knows. It’s only sensible to be patient, as I wait and see.
Have a Merry Christmas.