Sometimes headlines tell you something you already know: “Thai Students Drop In World Study.” The Thai newspaper, “The Nation,” reports “While Thai teachers had ‘more’ degrees, most were not ready in terms of doing lesson plans and were not confident teachers. (only 50 percent of math teachers planned lessons, while only 47 percent were confident in their teaching).” and “The amount of time students spend studying was the main cause of poor performances.”
Welcome to my world. Raising the confidence of Thai English teachers and encouraging them to lesson plan is central to my role here as a Peace Corps volunteer. However, as you will see it is an uphill battle and a fight against a system which does not encourage consistency or regularity in classroom learning.
For those of you who like stats, here is a prime example. In November I was scheduled to teach a total of 17 days. I ended up only teaching about 5 days! A disclaimer, I did spend four of the 17 days helping out two other volunteers with their English camps, but the remaining 8 days went missing due to scouts’ activities, sports day, cleaning the school, preparing for holidays, and co-teacher absences due to mandatory conferences. Though this month was extreme in its absences, unfortunately the little time in the classroom is a real barrier to student learning and a big frustration for northeast go-getters. However, after almost 9 months in Thai schools, I’ve learned a little more about why this happens. Of course the answer is the hard and yet obvious one, a very different culture and value system around education.
To give some context, I’ve put together a list of the most common reasons why the students are not in the classroom. Note, this does not count holidays, of which there are 16 a year.
- The school is dirty. This can be declared at any time by the principal and involves using class time to have the students pick up trash around the school. I can’t count how many times this has happened at my school, sometimes in the middle of my lesson. As it is important not to break face or cause conflict, I can’t vocally or emotionally express my displeasure at this. The Thai value at play here is a strong value of cleanliness and pride in one’s school.
- The students need to meditate and drink milk. After lunch every day, my fourth grade students line up to drink milk and to meditate. As you can see religion is integrated into education and this doesn’t pose much of a problem as 95% of Thais are Buddhist. Like in the US, the Thai government tries to give the students a nutritious diet (note: at my school students get lunch for free). This is all well and nice, but as the time isn’t budgeted for, this 4th grade class gets 20 less minutes of English every time.
- Teachers are at conferences or a teacher training. The driver for this is obviously teacher development, but most times these ‘trainings’ seem to be a bust or a boondoggle. I have gone to some. Some teachers sign-in and leave or else they are in a large room listening all day to info they will probably not use and techniques they will never implement. My biggest issue with these is that they occur very frequently. As Thai schools have no paid substitute teachers, the absent teachers classes fall to another teacher, who may or may not choose to teach.
- Scout day (usually half day or all day)
- Teaching traditional culture and customs, like muay thai and Thai dance.
- Preparing for a “riap roy” contest. Students once spent half a day practicing wai’ing (paying respect by folding your hands together and bowing slightly) teachers and walking nicely and showing that they could dress cleanly. This was in preparation for the following day, where students were going to be judged on how riap roy (culturally appropriate) they were. Personal appearance is extremely important in Thai culture.
- Preparing for a festival or competition
- Sports days
The competitions for English always involve memorizing long, complex prose or a skit in a very short time.
Below are two brief anecdotes highlighting scouts and sports day at my school.
Scouts Despite how adorable the students look in their scout uniforms this is not one of my favorite interruptions. This year we have had at least two scout days. They go something like is…
7:45 — I show up ready for morning announcements and to teach.
8:00 — I get told there will be no teaching in the morning (and maybe not in the afternoon, no one seems to know) because of scout training.
8:30 — The morning announcements start (thirty minutes late). Teachers and students are dressed in their scout uniforms. A lead teacher yells out commands and students have to obey by saluting and standing correctly. [Think of the military lining up for drills] It is 90 degrees already and the students range from pre-school to sixth grade. When students don’t obey or get caught talking to their friends they get pinched, scolded, hit with a bamboo stick, or bopped on the head. One student faints. A young teacher who looks like a giant girl scout runs to pick him up and bring him inside. They give him smelling salts. No one gives him water. Another faints. And then another and another. Total we have four fainters. I suspect the last two or three were copycats (who can blame them for trying) and one of the head teachers seems to catch on as well. Hence, he yells out to the students that it will now be a 20 baht fine (80 cents) for any boy who faints and ten baht for girls. Girls are lighter?
10:00 — The drill part is over. The students are given trash bags and told to walk around the surrounding neighborhoods to pick up trash.
Kids picking up trash.
Here are the kids taking a break eating ice cream. I had to scold many of them for immediately trashing the wrappers on the ground, not in the nearby recycled rubber trash bin (lots of rubber production in thailand). The goal of the walk clearly hadn’t had its intended effect.
Here is a teacher playing ping ping with the kids. A new table had just arrived in preparation for the week long sports day in December and no one seemed to be in a hurry to teach after the morning trash pick-up.
This was one of the only interruptions to teaching that I like. However, it usually requires a whole week. I like this event because it brings together teamwork, school pride, and exercise. For a Thursday/Friday sports event, the students will practice sports all day for the preceding Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. As Thai schools typically don’t have after-school sports, most kids don’t practice on a regular basis, at least not in the village schools.
The events: chair ball (see picture below), jump roping, soccer (boys only) degraw (boys only), track, and volleyball (girls only).
Some brief observations:
- Thai kids don’t run enough or drink enough water. We had many kids pass out after doing only 100 and 200 meter dashes.
- Sports are are gender based here. Girls play volleyball, boys play soccer, etc.
- In track, Thais use the index and middle finger to hold themselves up
- Thai kids have no problem eating meat on a stick or soda before competing.
- Thai teachers reward sports winners by handing them cash.
- Many parents and relatives showed up in the middle of the day to watch.
- It is not uncommon for some teachers to drink a beer or wine cooler while watching.
Many things that are kept out of the realm of public schools in the states, such as religion, boy/girl scouts, and corporal punishment, are integrated in Thai society. One way to understand this is to understand that the Thai word for teacher, kruu, has an additional meaning of “parent.” Though, corporal punishment is technically illegal now in Thailand, it previously had a blessing of sorts from most Thai parents as they considered Thai teachers as the parents in school. Historically, Thai teachers have been greatly respected, but this, along with the punishment techniques, is rapidly changing. Thai society is in flux and the schools are a great place to see it.
From what I can see Thai schools produce great Thai citizens and Buddhists, but not well-educated adults able to compete in the global world, especially in the new ASEAN world. ASEAN stands for Association of Southeast Asian Nations and will go into effect in 2015. Think of it as an Asian EU. The common language will be English. My tenth grade students have a hard time answering the question “how are you?” despite the fact that their English teachers have religiously asked them this at the start of every English lesson since first grade! How much does this matter? If most of the students will never leave the village and we are the only English speaker “farangs” here, is it really necessary to be proficient at English and have the knowledge to be an engineer or scientist (two professions we don’t have here)? Personally, I believe yes. However, it’s understandable then why it is hard to encourage the difficult study of a foreign language when there seems to be little incentive.
The use of class time for trash pickup also still bothers me. A friend tried to rationalize it noting its positive discouragement of “entitlement,” unlike in the US where American schoolchildren sometimes think of janitors as the designated people to “pick up our messes.” However, seeing the dirty schoolyard and seeing the below mess from a recent camping trip of environmental studies majors, it is clear that the lesson has not sunk in. It seems to me that a school system that trains its students to NOT think for themselves, either needs to have teachers around 24/7 to give orders, or else not be surprised when all that is left is a mess.