Despite all the awful things that happened to me at the worst school I ever taught at, one incident in particular affected me more than any other. What made it all the more unpleasant was that it involved one of the nicest and most intelligent young schoolgirls I had ever met, and she wasn’t even one of my students.
I first met the student in question as I was sitting on my bus travelling to the school one morning. I hadn’t noticed her sitting next to me when she said good morning and that she knew I was a teacher at her school. We had an excellent conversation, she telling me that she was in Muttayom 1 and that she was enrolled in the ‘English Program’. She wanted to become a doctor and hoped to study in America in the future.
It was so nice to have a Thai student break the shackles of communicating with a foreigner in English and it was such a delight to meet one who was so competent at such a young age. It really made me feel good and made me realise that despite the antiquated system that I had been exposed to, some students were able to rise above it and actually progress as learners.
She would regularly come into my office to see her Thai ‘home teacher’ and to deliver notebooks to other teachers from her other classes. She would always come and say hello to me and we’d always have a little conversation before she rushed off somewhere else. She was almost like my little friend.
One day she approached me at my desk and asked if I could help her with one of her ‘English Program’ textbooks. She said she didn’t understand the text for a reading exercise and, after I had read it, I agreed that it was not only confusing but also at a level far too high for Muttayom 1 students. She said she still wanted to know what it was about, and so I explained it to her but also told her that she should be asking her ‘English Program’ teacher about it, a very nice South African chap. She was happy enough with my explanation, however, and left. I felt good again, knowing that she appreciated me enough to approach and ask for help.
She came to see me more often with questions from her book and when I quizzed her about asking her South African teacher she replied that she had, but didn’t understand his explanation. I was happy to help her, but still annoyed that such a book was used in her class, and together we worked through the answers as I challenged her to think and reason, rather than simply supply her with the answers. Despite the level of the course book, she did really well.
On this occasion she left and I decided that I needed to go to the toilet, so I exited the office a few minutes after she did. Upon opening the door I saw her and a group of five other girls sitting on the ground in a circle with the course book that we had just been working on open in the middle. The other five girls were busily copying all the answers that my friend and I had worked on together while she sat with her back to me.
“What are you doing, May?” I asked her. She immediately snatched up her course book and replied, “Nothing, nothing.” I squatted down next to her and asked her why she was letting the other girls copy her answers. “I wasn’t”, she told me. I told her that I saw them all copying from her book but she refused to admit it. It was pointless going on about it, so I continued on and went to the toilet. On my return they were still sitting outside the office copying and this time May looked at me, ignored me, and just sat watching her friends.
I returned to my desk feeling totally betrayed. I knew all about the practice of Thai students allowing their friends to copy from them but it was May’s barefaced lies that hurt me the most. I thought that we had developed some form of relationship but I realised that to her I was nothing more than a resource that she could use instead of her usual teacher. That’s how I felt: totally used.
I never spoke to her after that and she would ignore me whenever she came into the office, which was as regular as ever. I’m sure she was upset with me for challenging her in front of her friends, but it affected me for many days afterwards. I know all ‘good’ and interested students are not like her but it made me question my role as an English teacher in Thailand even more.