Sunday, November 6, 2011

School Daze

For the past few days, Tuy has been giving me a two minute ride to school on her motorbike.  As she starts up and I get on, she always asks, “Are you sure?”  I think she means to say, “Are you ready?”, but I like the associations of security and assurance in addition to the connotations of confidence.  It’s a great way to start the work day to say, “Yes, I am sure.”
With the first week completed, school is settling into a routine.  I arrive at around 7:00 and head to my classroom in the cool of the day. Shortly after, either Ubon or one of the other kindergarten teachers comes in to start the PA system, which broadcasts cheery and cheesy music as the Anuban (preschool and kindergarten) teachers sweep the courtyard of last night’s leaves and the sweet smelling long flowered blossoms from the “peep”  tree.   No one knows the English name for this tree, but the blossoms are fragrant.

When the school arrivals reaches the right crescendo, I move over the Prattayom (primary grades 1-5) and Mattayom (grades 6-8) student morning assembly.   Arranged in orderly rows, the assistant principal Diyo addresses the students with general announcements.  The flag is raised while the anthem is played.  Afterwards, students pray to the Buddha and recite the  five Buddhist precepts:  refrain from harming another living thing,  do not take what is not yours, don’t engage in sexual misconduct (not sure how this is addressed for the Prattyom students), do not lie and refrain from alcohol and drugs.   Then, the students formally address the teachers standing in front of them with a Wai and the word Sawadee (the general greeting), and then formally address each other.

By this time, the anuban have finished their  mini flag raising and prayers and it’s time to do a little singing, handclapping and general simple movements to the songs.  As the new teacher, I am able to bring a new energy to the moves.  The kids go wild and the teachers appear supportive.    At some convenient point, I retreat to my classroom and let the other teachers take over for the rest of their gathering.

Thai teachers are extraordinarily hard working.  Each day, they act as campus greeters to orchestrate student comings and goings (complete with the announcements for students to come to the front gate for a pickup) ,  purveyors of breakfast and lunch snacks, cleaners of their classrooms, and supervisors at the canteen.  At lunch today, one teacher had students showing her their plates as lunch finished up.  For the one student who couldn’t eat their chicken, it was shared between a couple of  teachers who couldn’t let the protein go to waste.  Incidentally, lunch is included with my job and typically includes white rice and curry, vegetables and a small bit of protein.  Students use tokens to purchase extra sausages, buns, eggrolls, beautiful little white cakes and ice cream.   Thai teachers have about 35 students in their classrooms and are generally on campus until after 5pm.

English language is a mandatory part of Thai education, and Supsathit Wittayakarn (my school) uses the Express English textbook for levels 1-3.  These texts are filled with many internal work-at-the desk activities which the students seem to love in the safe and familiar way that we all gravitate to the known.   Students wish me a good morning all day and all levels of students recite the  now familiar conversational routine.  If I deviate from the script, profuse giggling and hands covering the mouth generally follow.  Their  English is word bubbles and  memorized scripts, but I can relate.  If someone goes off my script of basic words and phrases, I am befuddled, smiling and nodding.

My first week is punctuated by surprises:    A teaching schedule that changed within days,  groups that showed up unexpectedly or never showed up at all and  classes that are wildly motivated and receptive, others that exhibit the notorious Thai elementary school student naughtiness.

I have a fabulous group of second graders that is very excited about the letter P lesson plan.  The  P song sung to the tune of John, Jacob, Jingleheimer Schmidt  that  I miraculously found on the internet is punctuated by visual cue cards I made depicting princess P and her pink pumpkin.  After about ten solo renditions in the first class, the next day the kids are all over it.  They take turns holding the cue cards and raising them when their character is mentioned.  They are all singing along enthusiastically.   Then they sit quietly for an English reading of a story of Pigs packing a picnic of peaches, pickles, pumpkins, pears and plums. “So awesome!”, I both think to myself and tell them.  The teacher’s aide that was assigned to my classroom looks a little bored.

Later in the week, another class of kindergartners shows up unexpectedly without an adult to help me.  I hindsight, I wished that I’d mustered the authoritative command in the universal language of teachers and sent them back to their Thai classroom.  But in the spirit of always providing a welcome environment, I bring them in.    The K.2 group appears completely underwhelmed by the butterfly song.  In an attempt to get them moving around and singing the song I just taught, a few start fake tripping and falling from their socks on the tile.  I have visions of bleeding heads which dissipates when half the group floats off to play with the abacus while the others are pitiful with a beseeching look for either some new action.   In a slacker version of panic, I google the online video of the butterfly song  on my computer and set the forlorn  group to watch  that while making an effort to corral the miscreants who are now trying to pull the bookcase away from the wall in an effort to rescue the marble that’s fallen out of the run.  Just in time, my supervisor Kim appears at the door looking  pristine in her beautiful  size 2 suit.   She makes a quick call to their teacher who was still operating on the first schedule, not the second one I just got.  After all this, I vow to have lesson plans galore, activities that can fill more than every second of a 50 minute  hour class and a standby of old favorites that the kids know and love.

The following day, the K.2 students  showed up on time and ready and each wearing uniform shirts in green, yellow, red and blue. The butterfly song goes much better this time. Shortly after our lesson,  they all got up to leave.   I’m a bit confused but figure they know something I don’t.  A few minutes later I heard some unusual commotion around the school yard and  walked to the sports field in  a beautiful colorful spectacle.  It was primary color day and the classes were facing off on a tug of war competition.   There was terrific cheering and all sorts of good natured effort.   Before the kindergartners went home for the day, they lined up to get their faces powdered and looking fresh for their bus ride home.

On Friday, there was an especially long assembly that required additional time.  As the day borne onto 9am, the teachers began moving the students to the shade.   The Director addressed the group, academic achievement certificates were awarded  and the head teacher and new friend Tua talked to the group about hygiene, exercise and making an effort in school.  This assembly cut into class time for the English Club, which ended early for the mattayom meditation practice before lunch. 

On this brilliantly sunny and steamy late Saturday  afternoon and amidst the drone of fans and the occasional bird song, my 24 year old  roommate  Tuy is diligently grading 52 workbooks from her sixth grade classes.  Through the trials of the first week, I’ve been tested.  I have also heard some of the internal whispers of my work ethic and my western career coming to visit me in some moments of uncertainty.  What lessons of my past work in effective group process can I bring to 20 kindergartners?

This next two years will involve many lessons on many fronts.  I have to let go of my western career ethic, slow down and focus on the keys for opening the doors and joining this community.  Fundamentally, I know I must approach all problems with an open and cool heart and keep the patience to allow information to be revealed at the right time.  My work, both for the students and myself, is clear:
  • Build an environment for creating confidence and trying new tasks,
  • make a diligent effort to learn new vocabulary with a strong  focus on speaking and listening, and,
  • continue my effort to sing new songs with a sure voice and a strong sense of สนุกสนาน (fun).

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