Welcome to Thai education, where the chaos is somehow organized; the clocks disappear; and the only rule is there are no rules. Show up to class twenty minutes late. Let them leave ten minutes early. You feel sick? Lie on one of the beds. Don’t have class? Go home.
Nobody is in a hurry to get anywhere or do anything. Unusual for me, I arrived 15 minutes early the first week, attempting to make a good impression, but ended up having to wait thirty minutes before anybody else showed up. I learned my lesson and have had no problem adjusting to showing up late!
But even though they’re carefree, there is a fair amount of order. The students all know their place in the hierarchy of director-teacher-student, and they will part ways and stop in their tracks for a teacher to walk through. They must all enter the building through a specific gate, and walk the same path to the flag raising ceremony where they sit in perfect rows, cross-legged, before standing and facing the front in unison. They all have the same haircut, and they proudly wear their school uniforms.
And Thais never forget their manners. The wai is a formal greeting, in which you place your palms together, raise them to your nose, and bow. It’s required to wai teachers and other highly respected figures of society, but there are rules. The more you bend your knees, the more respect you show. For teachers, the younger of the two must wai first, showing respect to his/her elders, and a return wai is performed. But if a student wais a teacher, it’s forbidden to return the gesture. Doing so is said to wish death on the child; it’s just one of the many Buddhist superstitions.
After the band plays, the director speaks and the flag is raised, the neatly formed rows become scattered groups, and whether or not to attend class becomes an option. They might show up at the beginning to get their attendance checked, and then it’s completely acceptable for them to run out of class. We’re told to turn a blind eye, and the local teachers do the same. In Thailand, there are priorities more important than school.
Knowing none of this before actually stepping foot in the classroom, I was surprised at how well behaved the students were. The majority of students (those who actually decide to attend class, even if it’s just to get a look at the foreigner) are polite and quiet. But after a few questions with silent responses, I discovered what the silence meant – they understand next to nothing.
The lack of English makes complete sense when you have a word with the head English teacher. She doesn’t speak more than, “Hello. How are you?” and many of the other teachers speak at the same level.
High school consists of 7th-12th grades, and I teach eighth grade and sophomores. I have 21 different classes, each with an average of 50 names on the roster. I teach in a variety of buildings, from abandoned barns turned into English halls, to old maintenance buildings and wooden sheds with no air conditioner and no electronics. There’s simply scattered desks (many with holes in the surface) and a white board (often so tattered and stained the students can’t read what I write on it).
My first day, I was handed a blue marker and told to do introductions. We practiced, “What is your name,” “How are you,” and “It’s nice to meet you.” They all knew the first two, but the last phrase was completely foreign. Thai’s are shy, so speaking in front of the class is difficult for them, and many are terrified to try new things. They couldn’t even say it in class, however, I now know why teachers continue teaching even the most difficult of classes. After my first week, students would approach me, wai, and say, “Teacher, it’s nice to meet you.”
It made me feel like I made a tiny difference. Maybe they are listening, even if it is only a few.
Structure & Mayhem in Thailand’s Schools