Before I begin this post, I would like to point out that I realise that there are many excellent schools in Thailand and I am not suggesting nor implying that they are all bad. I taught at five different government schools during my time in the country and this post is about the worst of those five.
I was in a bit of a pickle when I was offered the job at this school. I was all set to continue for another year at my current school, but the authorities there decided to change agencies (which seems to be the ‘in thing’ for schools to do these days) and I wasn’t impressed with the replacement agency (for reasons I best not go into). I asked my ‘old’ agency if they had any jobs going and they told me that the nearest they had to me was in the Bangkok suburb of Nonthaburi and, as the start of the new school year quickly approached, I didn’t have much choice but to accept it. I had to go for an interview first, of course.
I was driven to the school by the driver of the agency and was told to sit down in the English department while he chatted with two elderly women who later turned out to be the head of the department and a retired former head, who was enticed back to help the new head. I was then summoned to speak to the retired lady, who preferred to flick through the report about me that had been prepared by my agency (listing all my details and experience) rather than look at me. I told her about my experience, both in Thailand and overseas, the various levels I had taught, what I had taught, my knowledge of the Thai language and anything else I could think of. Her only reply was to ask me if I had any university transcripts with me. I thought that was a bit odd and I told her that I didn’t bring any with me and she seemed not to care. She then asked me how old I thought one of the other Thai teachers was and I gave her a number well below what I thought her age to be and then I had to do the same for her and the head of the department. This was again strange, but I thought I had made a good enough impression for her to joke a little with me and sure enough I was told by my agency later that day that I had been granted the job.
I turned up for my first day of teaching the following week and entered the English department office. There were no classes and no students and the whole place was very quiet and as I entered the room the two elderly ladies, who I had met the previous week, both looked up at me and then completely ignored me. I wondered if they had forgotten who I was, so I walked up to the formerly retired one and said hello to her (in Thai) and she told me to go and sit down with the other teachers. No hello, no welcome, nothing. I thought maybe she was having an ‘off’ day and I sat down with the other ‘farang’ teachers there, both of whom were American.
The female American, Lenore, was new and the male, Gibbs, had been at the school for several years and he took it upon himself to show us both around, which was very nice of him. It was the biggest school I had been at and it was a typical mix of buildings and old, worn out classrooms, some of which actually had bars on the windows and no glass. Some of the classrooms had wooden floors and ceiling fans caked with dirt that didn’t work. There was not a blade of grass in the whole place but the main administration building was quite impressive and obviously very old. Gibbs showed us where to go for all out printing needs and also where to get copies of our class lists.
Back in the office I was expecting to be spoken to by a Thai staff member to tell me who I was expected to teach, what I was expected to teach them, etc. Nothing. The three of us just sat there doing nothing but I met some of the other teachers there, many Filipino teachers and one charming Cameroonian maths teacher. At lunchtime I was feeling restless and hungry and was about to ask about lunch when we were told that we could all go home, so we did. Not a single Thai person had spoken to me all day.
The exact same thing happened for the next two days. Went to school, sat in the office, did nothing, was told nothing, and left at midday. I hadn’t been allocated a desk and so I didn’t bring any of my own materials and I still had no idea what I was expected to do. My feeling was to just wait until someone thought it would be good to get me to do something and I was far from impressed. The Thai staff, naturally, were all busy preparing and printing and photocopying, laughing, talking, gossiping, eating, all fully aware of what was happening. We all just sat there looking at our watches.
The next week we heard a rumour that classes would be starting and naturally I was told who I was teaching on the same day that the classes started, which meant that I could not prepare anything beforehand. I could have spent all of the previous week devising something special and effective to use but no, I was just expected to sit and do nothing. I was not left with much of a feeling of confidence for my new employers but I shrugged it off and made the necessary effort to teach my students. I was told that I would be teaching Muttayom 5 students, consisting of 15 different groups, as well as three ‘English Program’ classes in the subject of Social Studies. I had been told about the social studies by my agency, so it came as no surprise but when I was given a course description that said I should cover Buddhist teaching I decided that it would be nothing but a farce, and I was right. I naturally told me agency that I had no experience teaching social studies but the attitude was that it didn’t matter and so I never took these classes seriously. If the school was truly serious, they would have made more of an effort to find suitably qualified teachers but they assigned the classes to me.
Lenore, the lovely American lass, was in a more desperate situation than I was. She had arrived in Thailand the day before I met her and she was very keen to begin her teaching career, only to be ordered to also teach Chemistry on the day that classes commenced! She understandably protested (very courteously) that she had no Chemistry training and hadn’t even studied it at school, but it was no use. She was ordered to just ‘teach from the book’ and I remember watching her looking through the textbook with a totally puzzled look on her face. She told me that she came to Thailand to teach English and was very concerned that she would fail as a chemistry teacher. I tried to console her and advise her to not worry too much about being effective because all of her students would pass chemistry anyway, but she was not easily convinced. As with most new teachers, she was keen to make a difference in Thailand but the authorities aren’t interested in that at all.
Part 2: What happened when I had the temerity to ask my students what they wanted me to teach them