by Mike Rogers
I am not a morning person. When my alarm clock goes off at 7 my first thought is inevitably of the snooze button. This gives me 5 more minutes until the clock rudely interrupt whatever path of thoughts I have gone down, which most of the time is figuring out exactly when the next time I can get back to bed for a longer sleep is. In the states what got me out of bed was the knowledge that a hot cup of coffee and a shower were only a few minutes away. Here those to things have been unceremoniously replaced with a bucket shower, and iced coffee which is approximately one half instant coffee, a quarter creamer, and a quarter sugar (This actually isn’t so bad, bucket showers are surprisingly refreshing and more effective than I would have expected). The alarm clock time is the darkest part of my day. I tell you this, not to scare away other morning people, but rather because from this point on the day tends to improve pretty consistently.
My day begins at New Thida, the home for Anubans (kindergarten), and Ps 1 and 2. The students range from age 5 to 7, this means that these kids represent some of the highest concentration of cute in the world. I usually roll into the parking lot around 8:00 with some breakfast in hand (usually sticky rice with sweet shredded pork on it from a roadside stand on my street) and the fore mentioned iced coffee. I settle in to my seat, take a breath and begin to eat and drink, only to have my revelry disturbed when Tristan, the highly experienced teacher across from me, abruptly stands up at attention. The King’s song has begun playing. I leap out of my chair and spin into position facing the flag and the hundreds of children gathered in the center of the school. The song itself was written by the King (or so I am told. Apparently he is an extremely talented jazz musician), and is a catchy, short song that all of the children sing in that spectacularly off key way that only a few hundred 5-7 year old children can achieve. It is endearing to say the least. The flag is raised during this, and if you are particularly lucky, than it is Exercise Wednesday, and once the song has been sung upbeat music is played and the Thai teachers lead the children in a bizarre calisthenics routine. Many of teachers are about as involved as a high school senior a week after they have been accepted into college, half raising their arms, and looking as though they are mentally closer to my home than the school. A few though are really into it, pumping their arms exaggerating their leg kicks and generally rocking out in a way that seems to elevate the involvement of the children around them. This makes for quite a spectacle, and usually does an excellent job of driving away the last remnants of the alarm clock hangover. Soon the calm down music is played and the kids line up and find their way to their respective classrooms, which means I need to finish eating and get myself to class.
I am the Clark Kent of super teachers, I teach the “regular” classes, meaning that rather than seeing kids on a daily basis, I see my classes once a week for one hour. At fifty kids a class and twenty classes a week I see roughly a thousand children every week. No two days of the week are the same, I have mix of grades that I see, and a definitely a mix of kids. It’s a great way of being kept on your toes, walking to every class you are trying to remember whether this is the class where by minute 40 only one kid is paying attention (the same kid every week) or whether it’s the one where the Thai teacher has managed to corral them sufficiently that you can actually accomplish a full lesson plan. Lesson planning is easier as a regular teacher, I have wide spread of classes, P1, P2, P3, P5 and P6, but really I only need one lesson plan for each of these levels. There a couple classes that have distinguished themselves as either spectacular and needing a more challenging plan, or, shall we say, less advanced and in need of a more basic plan. But for the most part, only one plan is needed for each grade level.
Entering the class room is bizarre experience, about half way between the door and the desk on the far side of the classroom the kids will notice you have arrived and one small voice will belt out, “SA-TAND UUUP, PLEEEASE” and the entire class stands, “Gooood morning, TEAAcher”, to which the proper reply is, “Good morning class, how are you?”, and they will say “We are HAPPY, YAAAY, and you?” and you tell them you are fine and that they may sit down. If you “forget” to tell them to sit and just start teaching than in a few minutes you will be surprised to find them all still on their feet. Whoops. A fifty minute class is short enough so that you only need 2-3 sections, less if there are extended games, so planning for the classes does not present any significant challenge. The difficulty comes in holding their attention for more than 5 minutes at a time. This challenge varies significantly based on two factors, the class, and the Thai teacher. A good class can be good independent of the teacher, but these are exceedingly rare. A good Thai teacher means that the class will at the very least be minimally disruptive if not focused. I have some teachers whose presence is enough to silence the most rambunctious classes, and others that actually contribute to the problem by plopping down in the back of the class and either doing their own work or even actually talking to kids while you try to teach. Sometimes all you can do is find the 5 kids who are interested and teach to them.
After two classes there is a half hour break which is usually spent in half dazed conversation with a couple other teachers as you try to regain some of the energy that it takes to engage fifty, 7 year olds. The good news at this point is that there is only one more class before lunch. Lunch is free, and varies in quality, but usually provides something that is at least edible, if not enjoyable. This is a fun time of day, because many of the super teachers have this same time off for lunch, and all congregate at one table. It is time for a word about the structure of New Thida. It was built much like a Mario Kart64 battle stage, the so called “Donut”. On this stage there was a circular track on the outside where the players were safe, except from each other, but in the middle is a pit filled with lava. New Thida has 5 floors, each shaped much like this stage, a path surrounding the center of school, which is a vast open space. It is so vast and open that walking across it seems to initiate some long buried evolutionary instinct that makes you a little nervous. Its like you are at the bottom of a ravine with no hiding spaces for you, but plenty for your predators. During class it is like a ravine, after lunch, it is much more like the lava pit. The children are loose and going crazy from an influx of sugar and you are faced with a choice, the relative safety of the outer path, or the most direct route of walking straight across and being pinched, poked, high fived, aggressively hugged and pulled in every direction by hundreds of children ravenous for your attention. Personally, when the pit is filled I enjoy walking through it, it provides quick but fun interactions with many of the kids, and it’s relatively rare that one of them will either straight up kick you, or grab your butt. But make no mistake; the post lunch pit is no place for the meek.
For the lucky few that have no class in the next block they get to drift across the street and get an iced coffee or tea (for 15 baht, it is probably the best iced coffee bang for your baht in town). It’s a pleasant break from being in the schools and is generally very relaxing. Also, if you couldn’t eat the school lunch for some reason than they serve an excellent fried rice here as well. Typically there is at least some free time after lunch, whether you have a class or not, and at this time I am typically either scrambling to fix lesson plans that clearly weren’t working earlier in the day, or if I am lucky relaxing and checking the various sports scores that were happened while I was teaching that morning.
The break inevitably ends, and my next class is at Old Thida. If New Thida is like the “Donut” level of Mario Kart, than Old Thida is more comparable to the “Block World” one, where there are 4 different large platforms, each with three levels, and small tracks connecting them at the top. Each grade has its own hallway, and each hallway has its own floor, and each floor has at least 16 stair cases that, much like Hogwarts, take you to a completely different part of the school than you started in. Ok, maybe the stairways are exaggeration, but when you aren’t used to the school, or are going to a classroom you have never been to before than the layout seems like it was designed to keep grave robbers away from the Pharaoh’s tomb. All of the class rooms are very open on two sides; one wall is windows, and the opposite wall is fully open to the hallway. I’m told this design element is featured because of the crazy hot weather which happens most of the year, though it serves a duel purpose of allowing as much noise to enter the classroom as possible. In the worst situations the windows are facing the street and the doors the center of the school, so that many days you have traffic noise flowing in from one side, and the pleasant sounds of a school assembly, or a raucous gym class on the other. This leads to you have to speak at your loudest, or, if you will, scream in order to be heard. Classrooms like this however are the minority, even if they are the very loud minority. Most of them have reasonable acoustics and don’t leave you hoarse and tired.
Old Thida is also host to a very different age group, P3 all the way to M6’s, the seniors of the Thai school world. Thus it requires a very different kind of energy than New Thida. With these kids it helps to occasionally walk out into the rows of desks and put kids on the spot, with simple questions about what you were just going over. This has two benefits, first it gives you a decent idea of how many kids are actually understanding/ paying attention, and second nothing really pulls the focus of the rest of the class quite like the possibility that they could be called on next. Inevitably, about 10 minutes into any class the students will start raising their hands to say, or perhaps just shouting out, “Teacher, play game, play game!” To which I usually respond by having them repeat it, “Teacher, may we play a game please?” than considering it for a brief second before either saying, “no”, or telling them if they do well in class than we can play at the end. Their favorite game, by far, is 7-up; a game that I honestly believe they could play for a full school day with out getting bored. At the end of class it is often important to have them do some writing that deals with the lesson rather than having them play a game since they will not being seeing me, or likely thinking about what we learned that day for seven more days having it in their own writing is a good way to cement it in their heads.
By the time the last class ends, 3:30 at the latest, I am usually quite ready to dash for my bike and start pedaling. Most days I swing buy a stand on the way home where a very nice and sociable Thai woman named Nok makes various drinks, the best of which is a mixed fruit shake. No matter how stressful, frustrating, or delightful and surprising the classes were that day there is nothing quite like a fresh fruit smoothie for .60 cents to remind me of some of the most basic charms of living in Surat Thani.