I have been teaching at Hang Dong Rathrathupatham School for just over a month now, and that month has been mostly dedicated to me making my way through the learning curves of teaching abroad. Of course I expected it wouldn’t come easy. Of course I expected there would be things that I would only be able to learn once I entered a classroom. But there’s just no way to prepare yourself for the unique experience of teaching a classroom full of students that barely speak your language. I’m teaching secondary students that are generally between the ages of about 14 and 18. Learning curve number one came with simply learning how high schoolers operate in a classroom. I’m sure all of my high school teacher friends will be nodding their heads as they read this next part. I guess when I came to Thailand I expected so many things to be different that I wasn’t prepared for the similarities I would find in my high school classrooms. For example, cell phones. Yes, my friends, the cell phone craze has reached Southeast Asia as well. I hadn’t planned on being a disciplinarian, but when I saw half the class on their cell phones while I was teaching, I knew something needed to change. They clearly hadn’t had much discipline from the other foreign teachers up until then, so it wasn’t completely their fault that they thought they could get away with it in my class. They’re kids. Of course they’re going to test boundaries. Of course they’re going to try to get away with it. But Teacher Jen wasn’t going to let it slide. I started deducting points, writing names on the board, and even taking cell phones away on occasion, and within a week, the cell phone problem had diminished considerably. With more discipline in the classroom, I can now focus more on having fun with the students and helping them learn as opposed to using every spare minute to sniff out cell phones. Since I’ve been able to do that, my students and I have started warming up to each other, and I often begin and end class with simple small talk that has helped us learn about each other and begin to connect not only as teacher and students, but as friends.
In general, high schoolers are very eager to be anywhere except a classroom. Yes, they’re similar to American high schoolers in that way as well. This leads to learning curve number two. Holding my students’ attention for 50 minutes is quite a feat. They don’t speak English, and they get frustrated listening to me talk because they don’t understand half of what I’m saying. I completely understand this frustration because I often feel it, being surrounded by people who speak English only as a second language and often don’t speak it well. So lecturing in my classes just doesn’t do the job. If I don’t prepare some kind of activity or game for each class, I lose my students. But at the same time, I have to integrate activities that also enhance learning. The first week I tried an activity that the students really enjoyed, but when the test came the next week, I saw that the activity clearly hadn’t had the desired effect. Of course the students who hadn’t come to class didn’t do very well (tardiness and absences are currently a big problem), but many of the students who had been in class didn’t do well either. I realized that I had to change my approach. Even though the students are in high school, they speak very little English. Just giving them basic instructions often takes several tries, and I often have to enlist the help of some of the more advanced students to help me translate. I learned that my classes need to be simpler, and that maybe I need to learn a bit of Thai in order to be fully effective in my classroom.
In my school, I see eighteen different groups of students once a week. This doesn’t amount to much teaching on my part or learning on their part. The lessons are only 50 minutes long, and the students don’t have a passing period, so by the time all the students get there and I take attendance, I’m usually left with about 40 minutes of class time. It makes it difficult for the students to learn much. My school also has a plethora of activities going on almost every week, which means that classes often get cancelled. There goes more class and learning time for the students. I’m still in the process of learning how to navigate this problem. With my time to teach the students English being so limited, how do I help them improve their English in any significant way? One of the most distressing reality checks of my time in Thailand so far has been that maybe I don’t. Maybe I’m not able to help them as much as I had hoped I would be able to. Maybe their English isn’t going to improve drastically. Between a lack of motivation on the students’ part (some, definitely not all), a lack of experience and available teaching time on my part, and the lack of a set curriculum and organization on the school’s part, getting the students to learn English will not be an easy task, and ultimately it may not be entirely possible. I only hope that they leave my class having learned something, or I at least hope they have a positive experience while learning the little English that I will be able to teach them so that they go forward in life with an open mind about learning the language that may soon make all the difference in their future possibilities.
Another learning curve came as a result of this being the first time I’ve ever worked a full time job. Yes, college was like a full time job, and I put just as much time, if not more, into school than I have into this job, but it’s different. I have different responsibilities, a different schedule, and different time constraints, and I’m having to learn a new kind of personal discipline and time management as a result. In the US, I had organized my life so that I always made time for myself, no matter how busy I was. But between moving halfway around the world, creating a new social life, and starting this full time job, that organization disappeared, and I have only recently started to get it back. Now that I’ve fully settled into my school and my new apartment, I finally have the opportunity to create a routine for myself. I have friends that I see regularly, an awesome little market where I usually go to get some delicious Thai food for dinner, a nearby yoga studio where I plan to start taking classes, a stadium where I play tennis almost every Sunday, and a workout park with a track where I’ve started exercising on the weekends and some available evenings. When I need to talk to my family, I get up a little earlier than usual. When I need to relax, I go get a Thai massage in the city. When I need groceries, I go to the Big C down the street. When I need an adventure, I head to the countryside on my motorbike. Life here is busy, and my Jen time is often limited. But it’s still there if I choose to seek it out. It may just be five or ten minutes of meditation, fifteen minutes of stretching, twenty minutes of scrolling through the world news while eating banana chips, or half an hour of reading or watching Netflix, but it’s something, and it’s helping me adjust to my new, independent life here.
Christmas will be the three month anniversary of my arrival in Thailand, and these three months have been incredible. Yes, they’ve been challenging. Yes, there has been homesickness and frustration. But those things have made up just a small part of this experience. The vast majority of my time here has been beautiful and inspiring and has brought me into a life that is offering me more happiness than I could have hoped for. Teaching here has thrown me into many learning curves that I didn’t expect, but those learning curves are forcing me to develop as a person, and the process has brought me into classrooms full of fun-loving, unique students that will likely teach me more than I will teach them. As Christmas approaches, I will enter the season with a full sense of gratitude for my job, my students, and my life here in Thailand.