Teaching English in Thailand: The Quirky Life of a Thai Public School Teacher

Thailand is a country pulsating with thrills and excitement: from elephant safari’s and spiritual sanctuaries to the (not-so-spiritual) go-go bars and party islands; the country holds something for everyone. Nothing in Thailand, however, is as adventurous as the life of a public school teacher. Teaching EFL at a Thai public school offers “farangs” an instant, deep immersion into the country’s complex culture, while at the same time guaranteeing to perplex them and allowing them to discover the true meaning of the term “sabai sabai”…

Here’s a small peek inside my life as a Thai public school teacher, at Thailand’s University Elementary School…

Table of Contents

“Living and Working in Thailand”, a little peak inside my life as a teacher in Thailand (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Rituals, Rituals, Rituals

My alarm goes off early in the morning. It’s not even 6:00 AM and I’m already out of bed. I have gate duty today, which means that from 6:45 AM until 7:45 AM, I will be standing at the front gate of our school greeting every single man, woman, child, dog, and lizard that walks through the gate… as well as every single one of them that walks out again.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, gate duty is when (foreign) teachers are told to stand in front of the school building before and after school starts to look good, smile, be friendly and make sure that every parent will happily continue to contribute their salaries to the fine educational institution you work for. At my school, gate duty is carried out by approximately five teachers every day. Carefully planned, there are always one or two “farang ajarns” (foreign teachers) in the mix, and at least one of those is white. Today, the white one is me.

Gate Duty at Thai School
At the first day of the schoolyear, everybody is present for gate duty (Credit: Chrismel Jorolan Photography)

The sun has already risen and with every “sawadee kra(p)” the temperature on the schoolyard rises. Three well-dressed, uniformed Thai teachers form a line next to me. My Filipinocolleague who is also on gate duty today hasn’t arrived yet. I carefully try to position the old, screechy fan that is supposed to keep all of us cool in a way that we each get a whiff of fresh air every two minutes or so.

Though I still have a full day’s work to look forward to, my engine is already overheating. Five minutes before the end of our gate duty, my Filipino colleague walks through the gate, quickly joins the simmering ranks of our little welcoming party, greets the vice-principal upon her arrival, and then dives into the teacher’s room to have his breakfast. Well done, sir.

After a quick eat-while-you-run breakfast the second ritual of the day starts: the school’s Morning Flag Ceremony. All students are lined up on the now blistering hot schoolyard, perfectly aligned by grade, class, and student number. We, the homeroom teachers, stand next to our respective homeroom classes to (literally) keep them in line – and to keep them from falling asleep.

The ritual starts with a schoolwide chant of the national anthem, followed by the anthem of the school and the anthem for the King. During the latter, something magical happens: everyone in the whole school – students, teachers, and even those parents who hastily come to drop off their children – suddenly freezes in their tracks, as if an unforeseen blizzard instantly froze over the entire building. It’s a sign of respect: whenever you hear the King’s song being played in Thailand – whether it is at the local cinema or at the metropolitan Victory Monument – every Thai person stops to salute their ruler for as long as the song lasts. (Think about this if you want to get rid of someone in Thailand: just play the song and run off! Keep in mind though that you might be arrested and trialed for disrespecting the King if you do…)

A speech follows and two children are selected to raise the Thai flag. After the songs and speech, the children, already aching to break the line and run away, are told to sit down and meditate to some calming music. Meanwhile we, the teachers, make sure this doesn’t result in any ruffles, such as a kid trying to pick his nose with his own feet, or another playing a quick game of Minecraft on his smartphone.

The Morning Flag Ceremony at a Thai School
Attending the Morning Flag Ceremony (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

After the mandatory meditation session, a pop song rings through the school evoking the concept of “morning exercise”. Now, the children are expected to dance away their energy. One of my cheekier kids moves her arms in a silly manner. Her classmates giggle. Finally, one of the school’s most respected employees ends the ceremony by giving a lengthy speech on student behavior. Then one by one, class by class, each sweating group of youngsters is dismissed and deemed “ready to learn”.

Yellow for the King, Light Blue for the Queen

I welcome my kids to our homeroom and get ready to start the day. Like always, the kids are dressed in their colorful uniforms, matching the school’s emblem. The way they dress is strictly regulated by the Thai government. Everything from the length of their hair to the color of their socks and hairpins is regulated; nothing is left to chance. Nobody is allowed to stand out: in Thai public schools, everyone is equal.

Aside from wearing professional clothing at all times, teachers are to adhere to a similar set of rules. When it comes to clothing, color means everything in Thailand. Depending on which day or which month it is, teachers are expected to wear clothes matching the events taking place in that period. Here at my school – and I imagine it to be the same in every other school – the most important color is yellow.

For most of December, we are required to wear primarily yellow shirts due to the birthday of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. His successor, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, receives the same treatment in July. In August we switch to (light) blue for (former) Queen Sirikit’s birthday, in April it’s purple Princess-month, Friday means wearing “traditional Thai clothes”, New Year means wearing “Hawaii-shirts”, sports day means wearing “orange shirts”, and so on… It takes a large wardrobe to be a teacher in Thailand and it is important to make sure you always wear the right outfit, to make sure you don’t lose face. For me, finding out I could wear my breezy Northern-Thai shirts on Fridays was a true blessing!

The King's Birthday
On the December 5th, everybody celebrates (late) King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday wearing yellow (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

The Face of the School

Today a ceremony is held at our school. As always, we were duly informed of this less than half a day in advance. The whole school is buzzing with energy and it’s difficult to keep the students in their seats. I dismiss my homeroom and make my way to my first class, where I’ll be teaching Phonics. The ceremony will not begin until after lunch at 1:00 PM, which means during the morning classes will continue as planned. Yet somehow, I find the classroom empty…

In these situations, we are ordered to stay inside our classroom and “continue doing our jobs, unless being told otherwise” – kids, or no kids. I decide to wait a bit before walking to the teachers office to enquire what’s going on. After a few minutes, I’m surprised by the sound of deafening music blasting through the air. I look outside the classroom window and see half of my class dancing on the grass, while an unfamiliar Thai teacher directs them with the grace of a debarred conductor. I watch perplexed as the little kids’ dance routine results in an imitation of Miley Cyrus’ choreographer’s wet dream.

Stuffed Animal at School
Kids or no kids, the show must go on! (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

With no explanation to be found, I dutifully move on to my second class, Prathom 5. Luckily, everyone there is present. Today we have a difficult lesson ahead of us: we’re tackling a new grammar structure ahead of this month’s test. I take out my teaching materials and get going. Halfway the lesson, someone rudely starts banging on the door. Before I can open it, the vice-principal barges in, silencing the room with her screams. Not a word of English is spoken; she directs only the kids and disappears. One minute later my classroom is empty and I’m left explaining the meaning of the word “graceful” all to myself… sabai sabai!

After 15 minutes or so, news finally arrives from the Gods – those teachers who had worked at the school the longest, got promoted, and were handed the keys to the castle, whether they knew what to do with it or not. One of my Pilipino colleagues knocks on my door to convey a message from the Almighty Ones: “The ceremony is happening right now, we have to come and stand in the schoolyard.” “Any idea why?” I inquire. She laughs, “I don’t know. They changed things, I guess.”

We gather with the other farang teachers on the schoolyard. While a Thai woman rattles on in a microphone on the school stage, our kids run around the schoolyard, seemingly taking some time off from their studies. “What are we supposed to do here?” one of my farang colleagues asks, looking quite puzzled. None of us holds the answer.

Three hours later, the ceremony ends. A multitude of pictures was taken, many of them featuring us – the “farang ajarns”. Meanwhile, our phones are constantly ringing due to all the pictures being shared in our respective classroom’s LINE-groups, which are used to inform the kids’ parents of what we are doing at school. Despite having asked plenty of questions, our roles on the schoolyard, the mysterious dance practice, and even the meaning of the ceremony itself, remains unexplained…

Thai Bureaucracy

After the ceremony, we return to our regular teaching schedules. Of course, since the afternoon classes were originally cancelled, I hadn’t prepared for these. I quickly improvise and initiate what was supposed to be tomorrow’s class. Again: sabai sabai. Don’t worry about it…

No day at school ever came and went without a similar show of force from the Gods. Sometimes classes were cancelled due to dance practice; sometimes classes were cancelled due to a man handing out cold drinks; sometimes classes were cancelled due to classes being cancelled. It was a constant surprise to see what the Thai public school rollercoaster ride would bring us next!

One of my favorite weeks had been quickly dubbed “Mind Mapping Week”. It all started one Wednesday evening, while my partner (slash colleague) and I were watching a movie in the comfort of our home. Our phones rang, bringing a message from our boss: next Tuesday an important delegation of representatives from the ASEAN community would visit our school to observe our teaching methods. In their own respective schools and countries, they used mind mapping as a tool for education. Now, the vice-principal had decided to show the visitors how wonderful we had adapted the same concept in our school. Of course, in order to prove this, these mind maps first had to be made…

The events that occurred in the next few days were a tour-de-force of Thai public school policy: “fake it ’till you make it”. Or better yet: “fake it ’till it looks like you made it!” Like a thunderstorm, teachers desperately swept through their classes, hour after hour, instructing each class in every single subject to draw a mind map. English class? Make a mind map about your hobbies – in English! PE? Make a mind map about the types of sports you know! Science? Make a mind map about how to make mind maps! In the third period, I stepped into my next classroom, proclaiming to the pupils: “Good morning students, today we will not work on our Writing assignments. Instead, we are going to-” One of the students interrupted with a loud, deep sight: “…make mind maps!”

Things I can do well
“Things I do well”, a mind map made by a student from Prathom 5; only one of the hundreds of mind maps (Credit: Mai)

The mind mapping circus ended with a humongous pile of mind maps being slapped on the vice-principal’s desk, all neatly tied together per subject, per class. Once the delegation of representatives arrived everybody was at their best behavior and classes were taught to ultimate perfection, each teacher pulling a bag of magic tricks out of their pockets. It was as if the entire school had been lifted off the ground and was transported to an alternate universe. The mind maps themselves disappeared into nothingness right after… and so did the magic tricks. Most importantly, though, the visitors were impressed, and many pictures were taken. Sabai sabai!

Things I can do badly
“Things I do badly” (Credit: Mai)

Good Teachers and Bad Teachers

Nobody likes a bad teacher. However, what a bad teacher is, is up for discussion. The definition of a good teacher is very different in Thai public schools from other schools. A teacher who teaches “lessons appropriate to the students level and age, in a way that helps them to develop into skilled and knowledgeable individuals” might be let go at the end of the year, while a teacher who mostly takes pictures, plays with his phone during teaching hours and lets students run around the classroom might get a bonus for being a very likable teacher. It’s all a matter of what is important to who, and who notices what. At the base of this lies the concept of the hierarchical pyramid.

The Hierarchical Pyramid

At my school, the top level of the hierarchical pyramid is occupied by the Gods. Everything they say and do is the law. If they say dance practice is more important than test preparation, it simply is, no questions asked. The school’s vice-principle is their greatest tool: a glorified assistant to the Gods, who never smiles and believes herself to be the true Queen of the Gods. She exercises her power left and right on a daily basis, just to make sure she can still make her reluctant votaries dance.

One of the school’s Deities’ most flabbergasting decisions was related to a school project. The Thai government had laudably implemented the Project-Based Learning-system in each of their public schools. The PBL-system involves a dynamic classroom approach in which it is believed that students “acquire a deeper knowledge through active exploration of real-world challenges and problems”. For us, that meant tackling a yearlong multi-faceted project with our respective homeroom classes. Even though for months in a row, the Gods kept changing their minds as to what the content of our projects should be, I enjoyed it very much. I was the only teacher who had actually used the PBL-system at the university level and was very happy to guide my students throughout their projects.

After 22 weeks of hard work – collecting information, preparing presentations, creating brochures, posters, and the parents designing and tailoring special clothes for the children to wear on the day of the presentation – our boss casually passed on a message from the Almighty Ones: all projects were now canceled, “because, duh“.

Cyanide & Happiness (Thought Process)
The thought process behind most school policy decisions.* (*In accordance with Thai government regulation, no alcohol was consumed during this process) (Credit: Cyanide & Happiness / Explosm)

Second to the Gods is our own boss – a friendly Western man who started a business recruiting farang teachers for Thai schools in the region. The school I worked at was his biggest client and his office was situated inside the school grounds. After years of experience with the Thai educational system, he knew when to let things go and when to stand his ground. Through him, I was taught to just respond to the Gods’ curiosities by adapting the “sabai sabai” anthem.

The third-party of interest consists of the teachers themselves. Each teacher at our school has his or her own agenda: some focus on providing the kids with the best education possible, some focus merely on looking good in the eyes of the Gods and our boss and some try to do the impossible by managing both.

During my tenure as a teacher within the public school system, I learned to just let things be as they were, without trying to swim against the Gods’ merciless currents. However, one thing I never let go of: my devotion to actually educate my classes – something that was often oddly obstructed by the Gods in favor of taking cute pictures and pleasing the outside world.

A Parent’s Love

This eventually led me to success. I learned how to bypass the currents by reaching the hearts and minds of those most powerful within the school. Those who could – and would – oppose the Almighty Ones, and win. Those forces of nature were the student’s parents… Crunching down the system of the Thai public school to its very core, it all comes down to one thing: money. And that money comes from the parents… Win over the parents, and you win over the school itself.

Luckily, I was blessed with the most loving set of homeroom parents imaginable. Under the “leadership” of the one mother who spoke English, the parents formed an enthusiastic, loving community within my homeroom. It was easy to reach out to them and their friendly and helpful nature was a pleasure.

In part thanks to them, I have a meeting today with the vice-principal regarding the cancelled PBL-projects. We are the only class who finalized their projects at the time of cancellation and hopefully not everything was in vain. As an unavoidable tool of power, I carry the students’ amply filled project files to her office: “showing off” was the school’s main subject, and this time I could use it to fight back the currents. I knock on the door and step into her office to discuss the option of continuing our project. My bilingual colleague helps with the translation of my questions. The situation doesn’t look good: the vice-principal is in a bad mood. She just had a fight with another teacher and looks as impatient as ever. “Sabai sabai,” I think to myself.

Completely ignoring every snarky comment, every grunt, and every sign of impatience, I simply continue to explain the situation to her as if I’m talking to Buddha himself (herself). I convince her to take a look at our work and after hearing me out, she decides to allow us to hang our posters and present our work to the children’s parents, the other teachers, and the other classes!

Teaching Thai Elementary School Students
Student presenting his drawing of Dubrovnik, Croatia, as part of a project on traveling (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

I walk back to my classroom and sit down. With a deep sigh and a smile on my face, I make the announcement to our homeroom’s LINE-group that our presentations will be held! While I write my message, the vice-principal walks in. I look at her, perplexed: for the first time since I started working here, I see her smile. “Good work, teacher,” she says in broken English. I struggle to find my words for a second, having only known this woman to be described as the Gods’ [insert inappropriate term] before. “Thank you,” I smile back, “the kids and their parents will really appreciate this.”

Redemption

During the lost period, I teach my own homeroom class. Despite all of the currents ripping through the Thai educational system, one factor should never be ignored: the education, health, and wellbeing of the students themselves. Once this became my sole focus, rather than just trying not to drown in the Gods’ rip tides, I found a way to approach the system in the most effective way: by taking care of the parents, I could take care of their children.

I look around the classroom. The day has almost passed and because all the kids have finished their work, I allow them to play on the floor. Tong, a shy, slightly chubby boy is practicing a new form of meditation: he runs through the classroom, lets himself slide onto the floor, and comes to a halt in a perfect meditative position, eyes closed. Tiger, the class clown, is dancing in front of the whiteboard, clearly in a world of his own. The girls are grouped together in the reading corner where one of them takes great pleasure in playing “teacher” with the other girls. Some of the boys are playing videogames on their phones.

I look at the clock and see that we’ve got five minutes to go. Clapping my hands, I order the kids back to their seats. Together, we recite this week’s vocabulary list. I “wai” the students: “thank you, class.” In unison, the kids respond: “thank you, Teacher Pim”. Knowing this is their cue to go home, the students put their chairs on their tables and run out. One of the students runs back at me and gives me a generous hug. “See you tomorrow, Teacher Pim. I miss you!”

Thai Elementary School Students
Eventually, these kids make everything worthwhile (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

With a smile on my face, I erase the board. I managed to survive yet another day of the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the Thai public school system – a rollercoaster ride not even a night in Bangkok can match. For now, the day is over. Or is it..? A harrowing feeling creeps up and settles in my mind. I stop for a moment to look at the clock. Of course, there’s still the afternoon gate duty! No worries… it’s only 34 degrees outside, after all.

Sabai sabai!

Side Notes: A Thing or Two About Thai Public Schools

Thailand hosts a wide range of teaching jobs, offering aspiring teachers anything from jobs at primary schools to jobs at universities or night schools. Many ESL job openings in Thailand, however, are created by public schools. This is in part because many Thai public schools run a bilingual English Program (EP) as set by the Royal Thai Ministry of Education. The curriculum of EP schools requires several subjects to be taught in English at Prathom level (elementary school, ages 7-12), including English, mathematics, science, physical education, music, home economics, guidance counseling, and scouts.

Subjects taught may vary per school, but the basics are the same for every school. In Matthayom (secondary school, ages 13-18) students are taught in English in all subjects, with the exception of Thai and social science. Additional to the EP program, some schools run Intensive English Programs (IEP), which, as silly as it may sound, offer only a few classes in English as opposed to the more intensive (normal) English Program.

Either way, the message is clear: “foreign teachers wanted!”

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