It’s a Monday. I wake up at 6:20—a little earlier than usual because I have gate duty this morning. I take a shower, make breakfast, call my family while I’m eating, blow dry my hair, and head out the door. I live right next to the school, and it’s a short three minute walk to the gate. It’s between 7:30 and 7:40 when I arrive. I sign in at the office downstairs and go to the gate where some of the other teachers are already standing, greeting the students as they meander through. I spend about 20 minutes here, returning the wais of the students and welcoming them with “Good morning” or “Sa wat dee kha.” Maybe I didn’t wake up this morning wanting to come to work, but the smiles of the students are already making me remember why I enjoy my job here. Around 7:50, the school music starts to play, warning the students to hurry, school’s about to start. Around 7:55, the stragglers are running through the gate to join their peers on the field in front of the school as the crossing guard yells ‘Reauw!’ (‘Fast!’), and I leave the gate and head up to my office. Most of the teachers that have arrived at the school are down on the field, keeping an eye on the students, but I’m not required to be down there, and I like to use the thirty minutes before classes start to get organized and take a few deep breaths. At 8 am, the king’s song plays. Everyone stands still. The king’s song plays every morning, and everyone is expected to stop what they’re doing and turn toward the flag pole as the flag is raised. This is done at every school in the country. People pause mid-step on the stairs, or mid-stride during their morning run, or mid-spoonful while eating breakfast. The song takes about a minute, and as it ends, everyone bows, people return to walking up the stairs, running, or eating, the students at Rathrathupathum sit on the field to listen to the morning announcements, and I go back to my morning preparations. Classes start at 8:30. There are nine periods during the day, and today is nice because I only have two classes. It’s a light day. My busiest days are Wednesday and Friday, but Friday is the worst. I teach seven of the nine periods that day, and the week usually ends with me collapsing on my bed. It’s not a bad day, just an exhausting one. But today it’s Monday morning, and I don’t have class until noon, so I spend the morning preparing lesson plans, grading assignments, getting materials ready for my private students, or responding to e-mails that family and friends have sent me from America. If I need a break from working, I go next door to the bigger section of the Foreign Language Department office and chat with my coworkers or make some tea. Sometimes one of the teachers has brought a snack to share, and sometimes we are lucky enough to enjoy a fresh papaya from a teacher’s garden. At 11:50 I go to my first class. The students stand as I enter the room. “Good morning, teacher,” they say in unison. “Good morning, students. You can sit down,” I respond. “Thank you, teacher.” This took some getting used to when I first arrived. The students show a great amount of respect to adults here, a level of respect that Americans are generally unfamiliar with. I’m still not entirely comfortable with this ritual, but the students are expected to do it, and I don’t stop them. I came here to experience and learn from the culture, not undermine it.
My classes usually consist of a presentation of the new material, a worksheet, and some kind of activity or game. Today I have Mattayom 6, which means my students are about 17 or 18 years old. They’ll graduate in March and head off to university or seek out a job, much like the process that takes place for American high school seniors. Mattayom 6 is a fun group. They generally behave in class and, like most Thai students, they love to laugh and have fun. I have to be silly with them. I have to entertain. I’ve been forced to loosen up here, to develop a level of comfort with potential embarrassment, and the reward has been that I get to have more fun with my students, and they enjoy my class more. During the presentation part of the lesson, we practice pronunciation of whatever new words or sentences I’m teaching them. This usually results in some hilarity as they mispronounce many sounds. They’re not good with final consonant sounds because the Thai language doesn’t have them. They also don’t do well with the ‘th’ sound. In Thailand, ‘l’ and ‘r’ are the same sound, so I often hear things such as ‘tark’ instead of ‘talk’ or ‘pray’ instead of ‘play’ (one of my favorites); they favor the ‘r’ sound. During the presentation I try to help them correct these errors, and we have a good time laughing at the continuous mispronunciations. The worksheet is a quiet, boring part of class, but it helps them practice, and it also helps with their pronunciation as we go over the answers. They love games, so I usually try to follow the worksheet with one and end the class on a fun note. Maybe today I have a beach ball with various verbs written on it. We’re practicing the past tense, so when they catch the ball they have to say the past tense form of the verb or, for the more advanced classes, make a sentence. When class is over, I tell the students they can go. Some of the students don’t understand me, so I emphasize the point by indicating they can stand up with a hand motion. One student says, “Stand up, please.” All the students stand and, in unison once again, say “Thank you, teacher. Goodbye.” The more advanced classes will add, “See you again next time.” I usually respond with something like, “Thank you, students. See you next week. Very good job today.” At 4 pm my day is over. I stand as the king’s song is played once again, pack up my bag, say goodbye to my coworkers, head out the gate alongside my students, and try to avoid getting run over by the motorbikes that are buzzing down the streets, carrying students anxious to get home or anywhere away from school.
I don’t wake up every morning wanting to go to work, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love my job. Yes, sometimes I would rather sleep in and spend my day wandering through a market or reading a book. But even when I wake up and wish I didn’t have to go to school, the majority of my students ensure that I have a good day, or at least a unique one. No two days are the same when you’re a teacher. Each day the students test you in new ways, find new ways to make you laugh, and make sure you earn the right to call yourself a teacher. So many of my classes are full of playful, motivated, smiling students, but they aren’t all that way. Sometimes I leave class frustrated because only four of thirty students showed up. Sometimes I leave exhausted because the students wouldn’t calm down. Sometimes I leave angry because half of my students tried to cheat on a test. But they’re high schoolers, and I remind myself every day that compassion is one of the greatest virtues in a teacher. My students each have their own personalities, their own problems, and their own challenges to face on a daily basis, just as I do. Most of my students are great, some are troublesome, but they all deserve the opportunity to learn, and they deserve all the effort I’m able to give them.