By Sally Stephenson
The rain fell with an almighty bang. It was monsoon season in Thailand, a typical season where rain falls like an elephant shower and if you’ve not found cover you’re basically screwed. Being English, we’re born with a second sense when it comes to telling when the weather is going to change. When a cloud is not quite as white as you’d like it to be or if there’s a change in the air, there’s a chance there’s going to be a downpour.
Monsoon storms seemed to coincide well with the start of the new school term. Flung from a business environment and suddenly into a educational one where the majority of my new ‘colleagues’ would be knee height and smiling up at you on the odd occasion that they were happy to see a teacher.
My first day presented challenges from the moment I woke – I had to figure out how to get to school. I was living on the outskirts of the city, just off a busy motorway where there were no traditional bus stops that I may have once been used to. I had to figure out how to flag down a tuk tuk or motorcycle taxi and tell them where I needed to go when I couldn’t even pronounce the name of my school (nor it turned out could many of the Thai’s!).
I attempted several times to flag down a tuk tuk only to find they were already taken, it was hard to tell if a motorcyclist was a taxi or just a commuter and pretty soon I was comparing my situation to that of a street walker who was trying to get business just to keep myself amused rather than fall apart in despair.
Thankfully I made it to school on time and was taken up to the office area where I inherited the English teacher’s desk. I had heard of stories of being required to perform Gate Duty, give a speech about yourself to the school, attend flag ceremony etc but none of it happened for me at the school. I wasn’t sure why, I didn’t ask and never found out but watched in curiosity from the shadows of the P1 English teacher wing.
Soon it was time to start teaching and my co-teacher did her best to raise my confidence but with no classroom experience and a TEFL that would prove less than helpful for me, I ventured off down the corridor to begin my new career path.
There’s a lot of debate over whether teaching you have to be an educator or an entertainer, it’s definitely a mixture of both and a fine line to dance along. With teaching the five to six year olds I found that they definitely responded to entertainment better than formal education.
I learnt through observation the harsh realities of classroom life for a Thai child, forced to learn in sub-adequate conditions, in rooms with no air conditioning and just a fan that is supposed to cool fifty kids and a teacher who was built for the cold over the heat, and learning a language that even native speakers from neighbourhoods your mother warned you about don’t grasp well, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them in away.
What was remarkable though was the amount of respect that was indoctrinated into the students. Every time they walked past my desk (in droves of forty or more) they would bow and ‘wai’ at me, I was always called ‘Teacher Sally’ and they were quick to help when they saw that they could.
My first day teaching in Thailand was rough and it wouldn’t get easier, but whenever I think of my brief time in South East Asia I think of those students in Prathom 1 (First grade to those who haven’t taught in Thailand) and smile.
Teaching can be a rewarding career which many will make a life out of, it takes a certain personality to be able to cope with everything the Thai way of life throws at you but with the right attitude any teacher can succeed but it’s okay to step away and say it’s not for you, which after a few weeks I found was what I needed to do.
Since 2007, Sally has lived in Australia, America, Thailand and New Zealand. She currently writes fiction and non-fiction while training for a career in Project Management. Her tales span the course of all of her travels and more information and blogs can be found at her personal site: http://www.sallystephenson.com/.