The sun is just barely rising outside the bus windows as I start this post. I’m on the back of a cross-country bus in Thailand, traveling from Bangkok back to my teaching site in northern Thailand. Nine months ago I would never have believed how comfortable I would be with all of this.
As a WorldTeach volunteer in Thailand, I have been living, teaching, and learning for the better part of a year in That Phanom, a small, rural town in Nakhon Phanom province, within the Isaan region (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isan). Each week I teach English to 130 students between the ages of 11 and 18. Many of my students live with their grandparents or other relatives, while their parents work in Bangkok to support their families. As a result, it is rare for our students to get any reinforcement in English (or other subjects) at home. Thailand has one of the lowest English proficiencies in Asia (http://www.ef.edu/epi/), and an alphabet and tonal language totally unlike my own; this fact alone forced me to get over my fear of awkward social interactions and miscommunication. When you’re lost at a busy bus station in a developing country (for example), the only thing you can do is ask for help. The internet can’t help you here.
Chief among my goals for the year was to develop confidence in my ability to navigate confusing, unclear situations. I can think of few places better to work on that than rural Thailand. For example, people here often refer to “Thai time”, the idea that, though there may be a scheduled time, the real time may be later, earlier, or a different day entirely. To be clear, this isn’t a facet of the expected miscommunication between Thai and English speakers; even among Thai speakers, the only people with any certainty anything are usually wrong.
Case in point, on Monday of this week we were told that there would be no class in the afternoon on Tuesday and Wednesday, and no class all day on Thursday. When Tuesday morning arrived, that changed to class all day Tuesday, and no class all day Wednesday and Thursday, and even that message was communicated with a note of “wait and see”. By Wednesday, the only thing we were sure of was that there were no classes on Wednesday. The administration at my school doesn’t know when semesters will begin or end, let alone when exams will be and what days we’ll have off for holidays. But somehow everyone goes with the flow and everything works out. “Sabai sabai.”
My biggest challenge when it comes to teaching is, by far, lesson planning. I teach 18 50-minute class periods per week, made up of 10 unique classes of students. Each of these classes has a different group dynamic and range of abilities. What works with my Mattayom 3s (equivalent to 9th grade) may crash and burn with my Mattayom 2s (8th grade), simply because they are a lot higher energy. Our school doesn’t give us a curriculum, and the books they want us to use are almost comically above their level (much like the O-NET, the standardized test whose results school funding is based off of), so I spend hours upon hours planning lessons.
It’s been a month since I came back from summer break during which I traveled, and while I’m settled again, it did remind me of some of the comforts I miss from home. Western food, especially: fresh vegetables, salads, and smoothies; hummus; chips and salsa; peanut butter-banana smoothies. Showers that have a separate floor from the toilet. A soft bed.
Even still, there are many things I will miss when I leave here in a few months. Somtam, nam clook, and all the delicious fried chicken. Buddy and Money, my neighborhood dogs. Bike rides to Tesco for ice cream at Dairy Queen, and running laps around the school. Students yelling “Hi, Teachaa” at school and around town. The sound of the rain on our roof when the sky opens up at night. All Cha Payom runs to get cha yen (iced Thai tea), cha khiaow (iced green tea), cha cocoa yen (iced cocoa tea), and “coffee in love”.
It’s pouring rain outside my bedroom window as I finish this post. Thailand’s rainy season is here, and with it, life has become even more unpredictable. Every day there is a small chance I will be caught in a downpour on my way back from the night market or on my walk between classes. However, it has tempered the scorching heat of April-early May and for that I am thankful. I do not know where I will be six months from now. Less than a year ago, I didn’t know where I would be today. But I’ve learned how to be open to possibility and adventure, and I plan to take that home with me.
Check out Will’s blog and his other entries here: https://willjobs.com/blog/new-semester-perspective/