Monday, December 24, 2012

All I Want for Christmas


Today is Monday, December 24, 2012.  We are sitting in our new apartment in Chatterat, a tiny town north of the Issan city of Korat.  Nee will start work here in another week and I am here to help her move.  We are also going to look for a job for me as I will be moving down here in March, once my semester is over.  Since this is a Buddhist country, Christmas is more of a party day rather than a holiday thus I am going to apply for work at some of the schools here.

Last Christmas was spent packing to move to Thailand and having a dinner and video night with friends.  We had no idea what our future would hold.  My future feels that way now once again.  Christmas is becoming my time of moving rather than celebrating.  Still, we hope to celebrate in some way, though we don’t know what that will be.

Planning never seems to work as planned.  We thought we would be in Chaiyaphum by Thursday leaving me Friday to apply for work and the weekend to find an apartment.  Our car broke down on the way losing us one day.   I also needed to renew my visa as Thailand requires me to check in to immigration every 90 days when I am here for the purpose of working.  I could have done my check in at the office in Fang, two blocks from my school but we wanted to be able to use as many of my 90 days as possible.  We decided to check in at the town of Nakhon Sawan on the way down, giving me an extra few days.  That was the plan.

We spent the night there and found it to be an old city with lots of narrow alleys filled with zooming motorcycles and huge trucks.  Nee had heard of a restaurant “near” our hotel and we decided to walk.  We got lost at first, were overwhelmed by the pace and confusion of the traffic but managed to push on and finally found the place.  On the way we also found a few establishments offering hourly services to lonely men, motorcycle bars, and other uninviting establishments.  The dinner was delicious even though the waitress completely ignored us throughout our stay leaving her with no tip. 

The next day, we ate food from our ice chest and went out to find immigration.  It was easy to find though we were too early.  We had some chicken and rice at a street vendor and then found coffee at another while we waited.  The office had no line which made us happy after our all day adventure three months earlier in Chiang Mai.  Then we found out life wasn’t so easy. 

Apparently, I needed to check in where I live or at least have proof of our home via a government registration form.  My option was to catch a bus back to Chiang Mai or move on and we chose the latter.  Along the way, our car broke down and Nee spent the time calling friends to see if we could get a connection along the way.  If she couldn’t do that, we were going to have to go down to Bangkok and use Nee’s house registration.  Her best friend grew up in our destination town Korat and she arranged to have her brother meet us at the immigration office.  

On our way out of town, our car broke down.  Ironically, our Chevy managed to find trouble in front of the only Chevy dealer for miles.  We stuck there for most of the day and had to stop at Lopburi for the night, a town famous for its monkeys.  As we drove into town, we past a temple with monkeys crawling everywhere.  Our hotel had statues of monkeys throughout.  We spent the evening in our room listening to music across the street that sounded a bit like someone torturing a cat though I was told it was karaoke.  

A little monkey time for Roy
We were still a long drive from Korat causing us to drive as fast as possible to get there.  Her brother needed to be somewhere at 1 and we still had a 4 hour drive to get there.   We arrived at 11:30 and I began to worry the officers would disappear at noon for lunch.  I took a number and waited.  At 11:45 they called my number and the brother and I went to the desk.  I handed over my paperwork and we both sat quietly waiting to hear her ask if I really lived in Korat.  She never said anything.  She stamped my forms, stapled a paper into my passport and wished me a good day.  The brother and I looked at each other relieved.

For Christmas, I would have liked to have either spent it in Fang with my new friends or maybe even be with my sons and brother in America.  This year, though, we are going to spend it looking for work and enjoying my Christmas present of being allowed to stay in Thailand another 90 days.  As we have had no major mishaps this year, I am thankful for that as well as having made many new friends.  I have also discovered that I both enjoy teaching and am good at it.  Thus, my Christmas present this year was to discover something new about myself and my ability to persevere. 

I hope, as you are reading this, you will have a pleasant and uneventful Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Teacher Roy

Monday, December 17, 2012

Teacher Roy Starts the Long Good-bye

I will be leaving Fang when my semester ends the first week of March.  I hadn't planned to leave so soon, but my wife took a job in a town 15 hours south from here and I will join her as soon as I can.  We will be in the province of Chaiyaphum, a part of the Issan area in Thailand.  I will talk more about that in later posts.  For now, I will reflect on my last six months.

When I was growing up, one of the first television shows I ever watched was The Andy Griffith Show.  One of the stars was my age so I felt an affinity to him and his situation.  The show took place in the mythical town of Mayberry, a small town in North Carolina with one street down the middle, a few stop lights, a barber, a school, and Sheriff Andy.  Mayberry was the sort of town where most everyone knew each other and strangers were easy to point out.  You felt safe and confident that tomorrow would be as good as today.  Fang is my Mayberry.

I arrived here an inexperienced teacher, thinking this place was too isolated for me and that I needed something bigger; perhaps Chiang Mai to the south instead.  My first weeks I was here alone, as Nee hadn't arrived yet, so I had to fend for myself.  No one knew me, as I would expect. I knew enough Thai to order a meal, and that was about it.  Yet, I persisted.  I attended classes each day, came in with a smile to each class and was greeted with the same.  I struggled to understand what I could do to help my students and how I could fit in to such an alien world.  The few American teachers that were here retreated into their own world.   Then I was put into the office with the ninth grade teachers and I had the opportunity to sit next to Malee.  She is a Thai English teacher with a sincere smile and a warm heart and she did all she could to help me survive.  She brought me snacks in the morning, let me complain about my problems with classes, and gave me ideas about what to do.  We became friends.

Over time, students have come to trust me and even come to me for help.  When I go shopping, they  come up to me to say hello, and even give me assistance, if I needed it.  My desire to run to Chiang Mai began to diminish.  My bike arrived and I have been able to get out into the country, to see the real Thailand.

If you are considering dropping everything and moving to Thailand to "experience" a foreign culture, here is my recommendation.  Stay out of the cities, the Starbucks and anything with an English menu.  Learn to help yourself and help others.  Smile at everyone as they will always smile back.  Be sincere.  Be prepared to see things you never imagined in your home country.  Drop your western ideals and accept that things here are never going to be like home.  I have been able to drop most of the material things I always considered critical for existence and managed to still be comfortable.  When I wanted something to eat that wasn't Thai, I figured out how to make it myself.  Find out what you truly need versus what you want.

I have come to enjoy the mundane views of cows in the field, workers hand-planting corn and the sight of flying lanterns.  I have found patience I never knew I had and I have found success I never thought possible. Living here isn't for everyone, of course.  Perhaps I will someday move back to the US, should my finances allow it.  On the other hand, few things are more beautiful than a room full of students singing off-key and mispronouncing lyrics.


Monday, December 3, 2012

The Auditor Goes North

When I started teaching here, I was given a list of classrooms, a tour of the campus, shown the canteen and told to start the next day.  I wasn't told that I had so many classes and that the upper grades were organized by their grades, their interests and their social skills.  I was told to teach them conversation and sent on my way.

Since that time, I have struggled to figure out how to teach someone conversation.  I went from class to class trying different things to teach including speeches, interviews, songs and quizzes.  What I had not done, though, was what my auditing had taught me years before.  Know your subject first.  I realized that after six months, I really didn't know who my best speakers were and who couldn't understand me at all.  I had been meeting with students face-to-face occasionally to have them repeat some words to me, but I had never actually interviewed them.  I found the task too overwhelming so I avoided it.  At least until November rolled around.

Through trial and error, I came up with my way to evaluate a student's ability to speak English.  I knew most of them could read and their writing was beautiful, though it was mostly rote and didn't involve any new ideas.  My job is to teach conversation and I decided to focus on just that.

I got a list of students for each class and had them come up to my desk in the front of the room and then asked them one question.  What do you want to do when you finish high school?  I never stopped there, of course.  Based on their first answer, I would ask another and then another question.  From there I came up with a scoring method.


0 – Mai kaew jai (I don't understand)
1 – Can understand English but cannot answer
2 – Can give short answers with help from friends
3 – Can give short answers with little or no help from friends
4 – Can give short answers without help from friends
5 – Can answer in full sentences and participate in a conversation, poor pronunciation, small vocabulary
6 – Can participate in a conversation, larger vocabulary, better pronunciation, cannot always follow native speaker
7 – Can follow native speaker with occasional difficulty, larger vocabulary, better pronunciation
8 – No difficulty, needs to work on pronunciation and larger vocabulary
9 – Speaks with an accent
10 – Native speaker

I wrote this on the board and then started my work.  My answers ranged from, "I plan to go to Chiang Mai University to become a doctor," to "I go by bus."  I was surprised when students scoring 1 and 2 want to be guides, airline hostesses and even English teachers.  I wished them luck and suggested they work harder on their English.

This week, I have started telling classes their overall scores.  Some did well while others did not.  No matter what class I spoke to, though, they gave me far more attention than I had received before.  I said that if they were serious about their career choices, they would need to raise their scores to 5 or better.  Eyes got very big when I said that.

Not to leave them without hope, I told them how they can improve their English, starting with actually showing up for class.  "If you aren't here, you can't learn," I said.  I suggested they watch movies in English with the English subtitles turned on, to practice with other English students and to start reading more.  

I wish I had done my testing at the beginning of the first semester so I plan to do so next time around.  In the meantime, some classes are working their way through "Charlotte's Web" while others I will give opportunities to speak to each other in English.  

Each day I learn something new about my newly chosen profession.  I wonder who is the teacher and who is the student.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Loy Krathong for Teacher Roy

Thailand has a number of big holidays including Loy Krathong in November.  Loy means "to float" and krathong is a small boat made of banana leaves and flowers.  Paper lanterns are also lit and sent floating off into the sky.  In the evening, people set their boats afloat on a river as a symbol of letting go of any negative feelings they may have including anger and guilt.  Thus it is a happy day.  My school made it a very happy day.


My first time I came to Thailand was to become engaged to Nee.  We celebrated by going to a beautiful garden called Nongnooch Garden in Pattaya.  We were there New Year's Eve so we got to join the celebration.  Toward midnight, I saw lanterns flying into the sky one after the other and I was mesmerized.  I wanted to know more.  But it would be 8 years until that happened.

The lanterns are called Kongming or komloy lanterns and are quite simple.  They are paper bags hung upside down with a small piece of wax-soaked fiber, probably banana.  You stretch out the lantern, hold it over your head to light it and then set it back on the ground to let the air inside heat up.  There is a metal ring at the base that holds the flame and gives you something to hold for the next step.

I was walking home from the grocery store the night of Loy Kratong and had been enjoying the random fireworks and lanterns going up all around me.  I kept wondering what it was like to set one off.  Next to my apartment is a small noodle shop owned by a nice young couple whose daughter is in one of my classes.  I saw the daughter and a few of her friends out front playing with lanterns and they called, "Teacher Roy!  Do you want to light some?"  They couldn't speak much English and I couldn't speak much Thai but with the help of her dad, little and big brother and the three girls, we were able to set several lanterns off into the sky.

We had to take the lantern up by the ring from the ground and raise and lower it several times.  One managed to catch fire and went up in a small blaze of flame.  Others we were able to give them a little push up.  They would rise maybe just a few feet over our heads, hesitate, and then rise far up into the heavens.  A few got caught in the telephone wires overhead but they rolled along in the breeze until they could free themselves and off the went as well.

I felt like a small boy playing with fire.  The girls laughed each time we sent another up and kept trying to talk to me.  Oh, that I could understand.  And then it was over.  One of the girls said they had to go and so I headed back home.  This time, though, I was happy to have done something so unique to this American in the wilderness.

I see I have been writing this blog for a year now.  I read my first entry and reminded myself of where I came from and thought about where I am now.  Each day has been filled with both challenge and joy.  Since arriving in Thailand I have gotten sick several times, taken antibiotics at least three times now, tried to ride a motorcycle, figured out how to ride a songtaew, eaten food that sets my body on fire, learned how to teach English, discover I enjoy teaching and, most of all, I have made more friends then I have had since I was a child.  Each day my doubts about Thailand become smaller like watching the lantern shrink into the sky.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Giving Thanks

I started this blog several times and then deleted it.  Celebrating an American holiday in a foreign country can be a lonely day and I expected this one to turn out depressingly dull.  That was my mistake.

The school day came to an end on Thursday what would, in 14 hours, be Thanksgiving day in the US.  As I was getting ready to leave, one of the teachers asked if I would join her for dinner at a grilled pork restaurant in Mai Ai, a town about 20 kilometers from here.  I accepted and Nee and I waited for her to pick us up.  The evening was warm though the air was beginning to cool, making it quite comfortable.  My friend, Ganda, drove up a bit late with a car filled with two more teachers and their two daughters.  We had a pleasant drive  to Mai Ai until we came to a steak restaurant.  That wasn't our destination, though.  We turned right into the parking lot of a large place already filled with people.  Restaurants in the upcountry, as this area is referred to, are usually open-air affairs as was this one.  Tables were like American picnic tables only these were covered with tile.  Then I saw it.  An open buffet of raw seafood, pork, chicken, beef and more.

I was given the tray below and I went about filling it with all I could find.  Nee had her own and she added shrimp, squid and even a few vegetables.  Imagine that.  Our table had two clay pots filled with hot coals and a tin hat on top.  The center was for meats and the reservoir around the base was for boiling vegetables.  If something was too big, like the river shrimp, there was a larger grill in back.  One of the ladies came back with a tray filled with grilled shrimp.







Sorry for the poor photos.  I only brought my cell phone and the light was poor.

I spent the evening boiling, grilling, peeling (shrimp) and mostly eating.  The ladies spoke mainly Thai so I was in my own little world of meats and fish and shrimp.  I told them the story of Thanksgiving and thought of my friends and family in the US would soon be sitting down to turkey and such.  None of the American staples were here, other than jello, an Asian favorite, too, and I didn't really care.  The purpose of Thanksgiving is just that.  To give thanks for all we have and enjoy the company of friends and family.  I skipped the jello, by the way.

Last Thanksgiving, I was still living in Washington State, unemployed though training to do taxes.  I had lost count of the number of places I had applied to and of the number of agencies who interviewed me.  My career was supposed to be recession-proof and that turned out to not be true.  I hadn't worked since I had been laid off at the end of June and Nee and I were giving serious thought to moving to Thailand.  We had only been in Washington for a little over a year and had just moved to a nicer rental house the month before the layoff.  In June, life was a different picture.  We were active at the Thai temple, I was learning to ready Thai, and we were making friends.  Then everything changed.  Once Thanksgiving rolled around, I wasn't sure what there was to be thankful for.  What we were thankful for were friends.

Our friends invited us over for a potluck Thanksgiving feast.  I made turkey and stuffing, they made Vietnamese food as she is from there.  We ate and talked and ate some more and then finished the evening watching some Pixar films.  All in all, we had a wonderful time.

So I come back to Thailand now and think of future holidays and how they will be spent.  Perhaps someone from the US will venture out this way some time and I can treat them to a Thai Thanksgiving.

Next holiday...Christmas.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Grammar of Joy

When I moved to Thailand last January, I knew I was giving up what I had at home.  I sold my cars, sold or gave away my furniture and cancelled what lifestyle I had.  I didn't know how challenging Thailand would be and how much it would teach me, despite my resistance to change.  Everyone told me that I would be having so much fun when I got here.  Considering I have rarely been comfortable with having fun, I found such comments quite unlikely.

If Buddhists were to teach English, it would only be in the present tense.  The past tense is filled with guilt for sins committed and sorrow for losses. Future tense causes us to worry, lose sleep, get angry and even cry about things that haven't happened yet and probably never will.  The present tense is here and now and the most brief.  After all, now only lasts for this moment, and then it is past.  The one time I have always had difficulty with is the present.  Yet Buddhism tells us to live in the present.  After all, what can we really do about the past or future other than feel guilt and worry.  Living in the present tense does thing the other two won't do.  The present tense lets you have fun.  Thailand is a Buddhist country and I am beginning to understand what that really means.

Two weeks ago, we were told that the teachers were to come in on Friday for Sport Day or some such thing.  I had no idea what that meant.  The day turned out to be a day off for the students and an all day party for the teachers from our school as well as a dozen other schools in the area.  Even though it was a day off for the students, they still showed up in school uniform, ready to see the teachers be themselves.  The day started with a parade down the main street of Chaiprakarn, about 20 km from Fang.  I drove my car with another teacher so we could make an appointment later.  The parade took about an hour, walking in the hot sun and I felt myself melting.
Rangsee Teacher band

A few of my students

The band does a dance


More of my students
The party continued on to the evening with drinking and dancing, but, being the party pooper that I am, I left after lunch along with the other American teachers.  As much fun as everyone was having, I couldn't figure where I would fit.

The next week I was told that for the month of November, every day would be a short day to allow the high school students to play games with the elementary school students in preparation for a final Student Sport Day at the end of the month.  At first, I was annoyed to have to shorten all my classes by ten minutes and to expect an even lower attention span from the students, but gradually I started to get it.

My western mind keeps worrying about what they are missing by not being in school, yet I am missing the point.  This is why they are in school.  Many of the students have dysfunctional homes just like American families.  When they are at school, though, they are among friends.  You see them wandering from class to class, sometimes arm-in-arm, smiling and laughing.  The photos above are not poses.  That is how they always look.

The British accused their own of "going native" if they started to dress and act like the locals.  Since I have been here, I have had my first opportunity to sing in front of a live audience, I bought my first ukulele, and am enjoying the students..at least most days.  Maybe, just maybe, if I stay here much longer, I might finally ignore past and future and finally get to enjoying the present.  Perhaps I will go native, as well.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Living in a Two-Light Town

I have been in Fang for about three months now, survived my first time teaching and am beginning to enjoy it.    Fang is a two-stoplight town north of Chiang Mai in the hill country.  The town itself is in a valley surrounded by mountains and each clear morning I enjoy the view of them.  Driving into town from the south, a turn in either direction will end up in rice fields.  I have walked in them and they are very peaceful and relaxing.


If you are the sort of person looking for an exciting night life, then you would be better off staying in Bangkok or Chiang Mai.  Fang is more like a small town in Iowa or Nebraska or Texas.  When you get up high, you see green for miles and miles.

The people of Fang are a combination of farm workers, wealthy land owners and merchants.  My students come from all three, as far as I know.  Students come to school each day laughing and smiling, chatting with their friends as they would a beloved sibling.  They show up in uniform in the morning and continue to wear them when they go home.  I see them at the stores on weekends in uniform.

Friday we had Sport Day where all the local schools send their teachers to one school to play competitive games.  We foreign teachers went along to find ourselves in the middle of a parade.  Though the day was a holiday for the students, many showed up in their uniforms to cheer us on, take photos and be together.








When I teach, I put my western values in my head and realize I have to just throw them away.  These students already live in what they think is the best possible world.  Maybe they are right.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Back in the Saddle

We had a fun time in Bangkok, despite the constant traffic.  Bangkok is like a child's toy chest that has been filled with new toys every year, leaving all the old toys on the bottom.  Turn up one street and you find some of the largest shopping centers in Asia and just in back you find people living in tin shacks.  Bangkok is a town with everything you could want if you know where to look.  Every time I go to Bangkok, it seems my two biggest concerns are where to find what I want and how to get there.  The streets are a constant flow of cars and trucks and motorcycles along with buses, both with and without air conditioning, tuktuks, taxis and so on.   If you can't read Thai, you take a taxi or a sky train and pay the price.  With Nee along, we managed to take cheaper transportation, though lacking in such creature comforts such as a soft seat or cool air.  There is no real center of town, unless you think a shopping mall in the middle.  Every turn takes you to another place that seems as central as the last.  Getting around can take hours to go inches.  At least it feels like to me.

When I first came to Thailand, I found Bangkok exciting and full of energy.  However having been there multiple times now, it is more like being in with a room full of energetic dogs.  After a while, I just get tired of it all.  Chiang Mai, 10 hours north by bus, is about a quarter the size of Bangkok, or perhaps even smaller.  The center of town surrounded by a square mote.  Inside are temples, hotels, and endless back alleys filled with bookstores, restaurants, massage and markets.  It is the old part of town so getting around is for the brave.  The easiest way is by motorcycle though I prefer to leave the driving to songtauws.  Outside the square, the town is surrounded by three outer ring highways that are filling in with new homes and malls.  The pace is slower than Bangkok and much easier to get around.  When I am in Bangkok, the roads and buildings all look so similar that I never know where I am until I reach my destination.  In Chiang Mai you have the mote and the view of the surrounding mountains.

Our friends took us to the coast of the Sea of Thailand for a day to lie on a beach.  I told them that my goal was to eat seafood and they brought us to two different restaurants.  I had fresh fish from the sea as well as crab and squid.  We walked along the soft white beach to feel the sand in our toes, one of the best massages in Thailand.

We spent some time in Chiang Mai at both ends of our trip, visiting friends in one of the outer suburbs.  They are a family of vegetarian chefs who cook for local temples as well as families who order food from them.  They have a lovely home surrounded by rice fields and each time I go there, I feel my stress flow from me.

We enjoyed being out of Fang for a time, especially our one-room apartment.  We got to cook in Bangkok and visit friends at both ends.  Now, back in Fang, I have taught the first two weeks of the new semester with my eyes out for a larger home.  I hope to do some tutoring on the side and doing it here in the apartment is impossible.  Bringing guests home is also not possible.  Thus, the adventure continues.


On the Road Again

I wrote this four weeks ago before I left for vacation and then forgot to publish it.

Last week, the school was giving students their final exams for the semester.  Nee and I are heading to Bangkok during the three week break starting Wednesday.  Before I go, I will be a judge once again at a speech competition at my school.  Once again I will get the chance to meet other native English speaking teachers as well as students from all around the valley.  As school came to a close, Nee and I had a busy social life.

Thursday night we were invited to dinner by our Singaporean friend who is staying at a place owned by one of the local hilltribes.  Tek Hoi came here as a missionary from Singapore and made a lasting connection with the Lahu tribe.  Months ago, he took me and another teacher on a tour of their hotel where we ate dinner last night.  The tribe is based on a nearby mountain named after the grandfather of the group feeding us.  The museum has photos of the gentleman with the King agreeing to start raising food crops rather than opium.  Thailand, especially northern Thailand is filled with a rich history of challenges and intrigue.  This family has been running a tribe-owned hotel which gives its profits to the tribe.  We were treated to a meal of fried fish, boiled fish, black chicken, a Chinese delicacy, various vegetables and fruits and brown rice.  All came from the Lahu lands.  Throughout the meal we drank tea from the same mountain where Nee and I had visited a few weeks earlier.

Last night we were invited to join a cooking class offered by one of the teachers.  She is responsible for teaching Thai culture to the students, including cooking and dancing.  She is a traditional Thai teacher who loves the students and the students respect her.  We arrived at the house with another teacher, my partner at work, to see several students from my Matthayom 4 class.  "Hi, Teacher Roy," greeted me.  I spent the evening talking to a young man in my 404 class who wants to improve his English.  Nee occasionally had to assist though mostly he was able to hold his own.  I told him I would continue to help him throughout the year.

In the short time since we moved here, Nee and I have found ourselves with a bigger social life then ever before.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

As Time Goes By

A year ago, we were living in Washington State, walking in the rain and praying to find work.  I trained to be an office manager with a tax service but I was only getting a few hours a month.  I wanted it to work as I had no real dreams of moving out of the country.  Still, I saw our savings going out and little to nothing coming in. The jobs I was applying for were the same jobs that had been available a year prior and were still unfilled.  As I write this, those same jobs are still open.  Companies advertise, take resumes by the thousands and then let them die.  I was dying..financially.

At first I resisted taking unemployment.  After all, I thought, I have always been able to get a job.  This is just going to be a vacation.  Month after month I applied, interviewed and was rejected.  My severance pay was gone so I applied for unemployment.  It was going to give me six months so long as I kept looking for work and I did.  At the unemployment office, I met men and women my age who had been in similar work; some had even been managers and directors are various companies around the state.  And then they got laid off for whatever reason and they had to start the long journey back to work.  They showed up at each class dressed for work in suit and tie or skirt and blouse.  Some of them had lost their jobs a year prior, others had been searching for several years.  They had all spent their retirement money and had only the dream of social security waiting for them at some distant time.  None were old enough to start collecting.

I couldn't sleep.  Even though the taxes were keeping my mind busy, I started to wake up at night thinking about where we were going to end up.  People were living in their cars, in housing for the homeless or on the streets.  I had never been unemployed for so long and I could see that this time things were different.  The economy was a mess.  I had already lost my condo to being underwater in debt and now I had no work to even pay for my rental.  My pride was melting away.  I had no desire to take welfare as I knew there were many requirements to get it and, frankly, I was too proud to take food stamps or any other assistance.  After all, I had a college education and 25 years experience.  I was very employable.
Waiting at the Seattle airport to go to Thailand

We started talking about just giving in and going to Thailand.  I could always teach, we said.  I just needed to get my certificate there and jobs were everywhere.  Then we took action.  After selling or giving away all our furniture, cars and most other possessions, we moved to Thailand.  I could see the handwriting on the wall and knew I had to either stay with the great chance of further humiliation, or I could just leave.

Since then I have taught English to 700 high school students and discovered, for the first time in my life, I could actually love going to work.  I never felt that way.  I liked the money and travel in my my past jobs but never the work.  Now I earn about a tenth of what I did in the US and live in a studio apartment across the street from my school.  Every morning I am greeted by hundreds of smiling faces and, "Good morning, teacher," as I walk to my office.  I am weighted down by my computer and books and occasionally even a guitar.  Teaching has given me the chance to be both creative and a leader.  The students have come to respect me and I respect them.  I see them as I did my own children at this age.  They just need a bit of guidance to find, as the school puts it, the better life.

Fang is a farming community, three hours north of Chiang Mai with little in between but farms, mountains, jungles, orchids and breathtaking vistas.  From my front door I can see clouds gather on the mountains that surround the town, watch the lightning of a coming storm and listen to the rain as it falls on the tin roofs all around.  In this time I have gotten students to come out of their shells and start to talk to me in the English they have been learning since nursery school but never used more than a greeting.  I have helped a couple students win a speech contest and have had lunch with the vice principal.  My best friends in town are my fellow teachers, something I didn't have back home.

The only question now is, should I stay or go back home?  I miss my sons, my brother and his wife and my friends.  I miss being able to step out into a street and knowing cars will stop for me and not try to run me over.  I miss ice cream, cheese, and many more things.  At the moment, though, I don't have a home to go back to.  I love the US and miss the rights and privileges I had there, but I have started to make a life for myself here.
One of the students who won the speech contest


Friday, September 14, 2012

Have Mouth, Will Talk

Next week will be the end of my first semester as a teacher.  It has been filled with challenges, frustrations and joys.  My contract says that I am to teach English conversation to the Mattayom 3 and 4 students; Thailand's way of saying ninth and tenth graders.  At the time, I was given no curriculum, had never taught high school before and couldn't understand most of the people I work with and for.  As frustrating as that may seem, I decided to dive into teaching as far as I could to see where it would take me.  I have been on a journey I never considered possible in my life.

As logical as it may seem to have a plan, I went through the beginning of the year with little plan from day to day.  I researched lesson plans of other teachers on various ESL web sites, took their worksheets and printed them out and then tried them on my classes.  On rare occasion a worksheet or other plan worked, but more often I would be given blank looks by my class.  As they started to see that I wasn't getting through to them, they started to be noisier and noisier.  A few times a class would get the better of me and I found myself angry with them.  I didn't scream or swear but they could tell I was upset and, what was even more aggravating, it seemed they liked seeing me upset.  At least that was my thinking at the time.  The reason I had no plan was because I had no idea what they could and couldn't do.  It was like someone had handed me 700 blank canvasses and I was told to paint masterpieces even though I can't even draw.

I kept looking for ways to reach them.  I figured teaching is my last opportunity and I refused to give up.  A few times I connected.  I taught them songs and, as I can sing and play guitar, they seemed to appreciate me a bit more.  I also did all I could to control myself in front of them to not let them know I was having a bad day.  Frankly, many of the classes were quite wonderful.  They responded to my questions, repeated after me, did their in-class work and even did their homework.  Other classes just got smaller and smaller as students disappeared before I arrived.

The school wanted me to rate each student individually.  I was given class lists in Thai which I cannot read and pointed to my rooms.  After a month, I got my wife to translate the names to English.  That is when I realized that there are few duplicate names in any class.  I didn't touch the lists for a while and kept on plowing into whatever lesson I could do.  Then a couple of weeks ago, I realized that through most of the semester, I hadn't gotten any of them to speak, at least not in any gradable fashion.  That is when I went back to my own school days and came up with an idea.

When I was in fifth grade, my teacher, a strict older German man, though his most important job was to teach us discipline.  He had a daily rating system of stars ranging from gold to red and for the worst offenders, he gave a black dot.  The boys, of course, did all they could to get black dots as they were a badge of honor.  To keep track, he walked around with a small wire-bound notepad always at the ready to mark anyone's evil deed.  I hated that system and still do.  Then I thought there must be a positive way to use it.  I bought a notepad and brought it to class, holding it up for all to see.  "Whenever anyone answers my questions or speaks to me conversationally in English, I will give you a point for the day."  Then a boy in the back asked me to explain the system again.  "What is your number?" I asked, as each student has a number and it is far easier to keep track of.  I wrote it down and said to the class, "See?  That is all I need from you."  After that I gave them an in-class assignment to give me directions on a map I handed out.  The students almost knocked me over to get to speak to me.  For each, I noted their numbers.  I also told them that I will give them points if they talk to me outside class.  Since then I have been surrounded by students wherever I go.  It feels great.

I did also tell them that 70 percent of their grade with me next semester will require them to speak to me to add some incentive.  I don't know if this will work in the long term and I have to make it more challenging over time, but I think they are starting to understand why I am there and how they can succeed with me and English.

Monday, September 3, 2012

How Do I Get To......?

The rooms I teach in have only a white board or black board and a dusty old TV in the corner.  I have no overhead projector, no computer projector, not even a screen to use if I had either of the former.  The rooms are so full of students that to gain their attention and to have them hear me, I have to use a microphone.  Most often the mike doesn't work because so many teachers have pulled at the wires.  I know, because I pulled one out the other day, breaking the plug.  I like to walk around the room as I teach and that has caused me to trip on occasion on the wire, as well.  I bought a box that lets me connect my computer to the TV that has allowed me to use videos on occasion, but the screen is so small, the students in the rear can't see subtitles.  I know because I stood in back while showing something.

Each day, I go to class with my backpack filled with my laptop, copies of songs and other necessary items.  I have also taken to carrying a separate bag with my props for my stories and any papers I may have graded.  Sometimes, I may also have a guitar in hand.  There are no breaks between classes and on some days, I have to get across the campus with all that in tow and with the heat and humidity, I can arrive in class covered in sweat, muscles sore from my burden.  Thus when I enter a class, I am not always in the finest of spirits.  I find myself getting frustrated with the lack of support the teachers get and that can carry over to how I feel when I enter the classroom.

But then a small miracle happens.  As soon as I enter the room, the lead student yells, "everyone stand up!" which they do.  "Good morning, teacher," they say in unison.
"Good morning, class.  How are you today?"  I went several weeks before I realized that was the response they were looking for.  I would look out into the room and see all the young smiling faces at me, the girls in their red skirts and ponytails and boys in the blue shorts.  The freshmen girls all have two ribbons in their hair, one on each side of their head.  The sophomore girls have a single ribbon, red, at the back of their head.  As I walk to class in the morning, I see girls and sometimes boys, braiding other girls' hair, getting them ready for the day.  Each time I am addressed by my class, all my frustration melts away and I feel fantastic.
"We are fine and you?" they respond.  I tell them how happy I am to see them and then ask them to sit down which they do.  After that the class may or may not go as I plan, but I am beginning to not worry about that so much.

I have been looking for ways to teach conversation.  The more research I did online and in books, the more frustrated I got.  Much of the material I have seen focuses mostly on grammar which is great if they want to write clearly, but it can get in the way of conversation.  One suggestion was to write conversation starters on pieces of paper and pass them out to teams of students.  Thais like working in teams, so I thought that might work.  I was able to get a few quick answers, but overall, the idea bombed.

Games are often suggested, too.  The trouble with me, though, is that I am not much of a game player.  I saw a video of a teacher using idioms as an exercise, so I gave that a try.  I mentioned my animal idiom presentation but then I wanted to hear from them.  I asked them to give me directions to the cafeteria.  No matter which class I asked, I got nothing but blank stares.  I then wrote both the question and the answer on the board.  I had them write it down and read it back to me.  We finally walked out the class and followed the directions to see if they were accurate.  They were.  This week they have to tell me how to get to their house.

I have much to learn about being an effective teacher.  Each week, each day, is a challenge for me as I figure out how each class will react to whatever I am teaching.  For the first time in many years, though, I believe I am where I belong.  And it was nice to be called a fox, too.

Monday, August 27, 2012

From Idiom to Avocado

I spent the last half of the week teaching my classes animal idiom.  I listed off animals like cat, dog, bull and fox and told them what it means to be called one of these.  The girls seemed to appreciate being called a fox though I got one boy to lower his head when I called him a dog.  He was smiling when he did it, fortunately.  A few classes came up with a few more animals than I could think of and we managed to have fun with it.  I also talked about body part idiom such as keeping an eye on you, over my head and being nosy.  They got it.

A friend of mine, a Singaporean who teaches English at my school, wanted to show us a church school he is associated with in a village north of here.  We agreed to drive up with him Saturday.  We didn't realize it was going to be two hours before we left.  Nor did we know that the road is quite steep and curvy in places.  Despite that, Nee managed to make the drive without concern.  The village is a combination of hilltribe people and Taiwanese.  The latter arrived several generations ago when so many Chinese left for Taiwan and other parts of the world during the Communist diaspora.  In the village, the hilltribe are mostly laborers and the Chinese run tea businesses.  We arrived to find a mixture of traditional Thai and Chinese homes.  Thais generally build their houses above the ground where the Chinese like them at ground level.



Our friend introduced us to the pastor of the little Baptist Church which is responsible for the school.  He was a middle-aged energetic fellow who greeted us with a smile and fruit and avocados he had picked from his garden.  As I sat there observing the conversation I realized that my friend could speak English and Chinese, the minister spoke Chinese and Thai and Nee spoke Thai and English.  I happily ate the avocado as the conversation revolved around the table.


We were given a tour of the garden around the church.  There were avocado trees with fruit larger than softballs and as creamy as a Haas avocado back home.  We saw dragon fruit, bananas, and various greens.  Some greens had the flavor of nuts while others were spicy, a bit like the nasturtium flowers I used to eat in California.  Next door we saw tea.  He gave me a flower to eat which was a bit bitter though flavorful.  What always amazes me about Thailand is that it can grow just about anything you can imagine.

On our way home, we stopped at some tea shops and enjoyed hot tea as the rain fell like cats and dogs, to use an idiom.  I drove back as I love driving mountain roads and we finished the day with a delicious dinner of fish and pickled pork.  Though I miss being in my home country, there are many pleasures to be found here, from the complex and noisy of Bangkok, to the peaceful of the high country. 



Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Actions Do Speak Louder

And so another day ends in the never ending adventures of Teacher Roy.  This morning, having recovered from my cold of the weekend, I went to class prepared to give them a great experience.  I was going to teach them Yellow Submarine and then move on to Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  My bag was filled with story props and my backpack with my computer and notebooks.  And then it happened.  I went to my first class.

My first class started out noisy and never stopped.  My microphone kept dying whenever I said two words, so I tried talking loudly.  I walked around the room to remind them that teacher was working and talking but students turned their back on me to talk to their friends.  This went on for about ten minutes when I felt my temper beginning to rise.  I told them several times to be quiet and to let me talk to no avail.

I come from a family of yellers, screamers and cursers and I have have my moments of acting in such a way.  Today, though, I decided to take a deep breath, step to the front of the room, cross my hands in front of me and say nothing.  The front row saw me and hushed, and then the next and the next.  My heart was racing and I could feel the sweat dripping down my back.  Finally only the back row of boys were talking until their classmates told them to shut up.  I stood for another minute and spoke.

"Today you have hurt my feelings.  I spend a lot of time preparing for your lessons and you have not given me a chance to teach you.  Today I am not going to teach anything as you are unwilling to listen."  They looked at me in silent horror and I remained silent.  I then packed up my things and stood in the corner of the  room near the door.  I asked them how many of them wanted to learn English and most of them raised their hands.  I said I was there to teach them but as they were being so rude, they were going to have to wait another week.  We sat together for a few more minutes and then I left.

A couple of the boys insisted on helping me with my bag and guitar I had brought for the class and I let them.  My next class was only two doors down.  I had another 20 minutes until my next class.  Two more boys came to apologize while other classmates stuck their heads out the door.  I spoke to them calmly and civilly and stayed where I was.

When the next class came open, boys rushed out to help me with my bags again and we went on.  That class went on splendidly but my mind was still on the earlier class.  Fortunately, I was able to sing my song and tell my story, but lacking energy, I did both quickly and then played videos for the rest of the class.  They seemed to not mind.

The rest of the day went well though I did manage to accidentally use a permanent marker in my third class and several boys rushed out to get alcohol to wash the wall.

Perhaps I should have stayed in the class and continued to teach.  However I didn't see that I was going to be successful and perhaps this was a lesson for them.  I heard later that they told my fellow teacher who had the class after me that they had hurt Teacher Roy's feelings.  She said she gave them a lecture about manners and went on with her class.

My last two classes were my more advanced classes and I was teaching them about proverbs like a stitch in time or, my favorite of the day, actions speak louder than words.  In both classes I wrote the proverb on the wall and then stood silently in front.  Both times the classes became quiet.  I then explained the proverb.  I think they got it.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Tell Me a Story

Teaching conversation to me is a bit like teaching someone to breathe.  I have done it all my life without much thought and coming up with new ideas each week is still a challenge to me.  A few weeks ago, Nee found a website for a US company called Effortless English, not that I am advertising the fellow but he does have some interesting ideas.  One is something he calls the Question and Answer story.  An example of it is here on Youtube.  My understanding is that if you have the vocabulary in your head and some basic grammar, the next step is learning to understand and answer questions to wake up your conversation brain cells.

Loaded with that, I attempted to tell a story.  The first time it bombed.  They didn't get the idea and I wasn't sure I did, either.  I tried to get them to respond in the same way I saw in the video.  When I made a statement, they were to say something like, "Oh Wow!" and when I asked a question they were to shout out the answer.  Trouble was my story was terrible and I wasn't sure where to take it.  Still, the technique was starting to get through so I persevered.  As I have 14 different classes, I get to try out my ideas again and again until I start to see some progress.  The school gives me no curriculum or plan to work from leaving me free to do as I please so long as I am able to keep the class relatively quiet and I have something to grade them on.

Talking to other teachers, I found that Thais don't know western fairy tales like the Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and so on.  I used to tell these stories to my sons and they enjoyed them as little guys, and Thai kids enjoy simple stories, which lead me to my next step.  I decided to present an interactive version the Three Little Pigs.  Teacher materials for such things don't exist.  I was going to have to improvise.  For several days, I pondered how I would use for props as I prefer something three dimensional than just my own voice.  Then I saw my landlord's son walking to school with a box in his hand.  My landlord is also a pharmacist and he seems to go through many boxes each week, though I have not seen the volume of customers to justify it.  I decided to get some boxes.

I cut them into pieces and wrote various words and pictures on them.  The idea was to hand out the signs and then call on the student holding the sign to stand up at the appropriate time.  My first attempt was in one of my more challenging classes.  I hadn't seen them for three weeks due to endless special occasions here at school and the last time I saw them, the drove me crazy.  I handed out the signs and gave the Big Bad Wolf to the kid who annoyed me the most.  He loved it.  I went through the story, asking questions, pointing to this sign and that and the class loved it.  As I started a bit late, I had to cut the story off early and they were actually disappointed.  Thus, I felt like I made a breakthrough.

I still have much work to get my storytelling down and incorporate questions and answers but this seems to be a good path. 



Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Conversations with Teacher Roy

Each morning starts the same.
Student - Good morning, Teacher Roy.
Teacher - Good morning.  How are you?
Student - I am fine and you?
Teacher - I am fine.  Where is the assembly today?
Student - Silence
Teacher - Where.....is.....the......assembly.......today?
Student, smiling - Yes.
Teacher - Where?
Student - Yes.

Many conversations seem to go that way. Otherwise, they giggle and run away.

Today we had an assembly.  Depending on which teacher I ask, I either had some or no classes today.  Though I was prepared, I also thought that my classes were tied up in an assembly learning all about AIDS.  I was also required to attend one hour of one only to sit in the back, listening to it all in Thai.  As I was leaving the assembly hall, I was told that I had a class to teach.  I was already 10 minutes late when I arrived.

With a class of 50 or so, you need to have a microphone.  I had forgotten mine and had to run down to the first floor from the third to get it.  When I got back, I plugged it in only to find that the plug was dead.  Often I have to twist the wire and mike base in varying directions to get it to work.  Sometimes I am successful though not today.  Yesterday, I was trying a technique I learned about where I make a statement and then have the students answer me, standing and yelling the answer.  The theory is that by giving simple statements and asking simple related questions, they will be able to improve their conversation skills.  My voice was already shot from yesterday where I had a mike.  Today, I had to do it alone...in my class of 50.

Some days I feel a bit like a Baptist preacher, walking up and down the aisles of the classroom, getting the audience excited and yelling.  It gets my heart beating and covered in sweat.  As it was a new technique, they were a bit shy at first.  Then I had a breakthrough and they seemed to get it.  I only spoke for a few minutes and then concluded to say I would continue the practice in all the future classes.  My goal is to teach them conversation skills.

In the meantime, during much of the day, a young lady in my freshmen class kept running up to me with her prepared speech for a contest she will be attending in Bangkok tomorrow.  I cleaned up her grammar and helped her with pronunciation.  The speech had, unfortunately, been written by another teacher who didn't have as good a command of English as my student and she was frustrated with it.  I said, "just speak from your heart.  You know the subject and you speak very well."

With that, she went off to practice for another hour and then came back to practice.  Later I saw her walking out to the parking lot, almost skipping, in her anticipation to go to Bangkok.

That is a typical day for me of communication.  My dream would be to get at least 10 % of the students to speak even half as well as my Freshman girl.  I just hope my voice can hold out.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Bad, The Good and the Stupid

Thailand requires that I have a particular type of visa in order to work here.  To get it, I have to leave the country for a day, drop off paperwork at a Thai embassy, spend a night out of the country and then pick up my visa the next day.  If I were a foreigner in the US, I could do all that inside the country but Thailand likes me to leave first.  From Chiang Mai, the nearest embassy is in Vientiane, Laos.  On a teacher's salary, flying is too expensive, thus making us decide to take the bus.  Unfortunately, there are no buses that go between the two cities and that is where my story begins.

This week was midterms week which means I had no classes.  I figured it was a perfect time to get my visa.  First I would have to figure out how to get there and back.

There are several bus companies and bus stations throughout most cities.  Ideally, you would want to take a bus from point A to point B and be at your destination.  However such an option is usually not the case.  First we had to take the three hour bus ride from Fang to Chiang Mai to the Chang Pueak station.  From there, we had to take a songtaew to the Arcade station, the other side of town, to catch the 12 hour, all-night bus to Udon Thani.  There is only one bus company we know has comfortable buses and that one only runs every third day.  This was not one of those days.  We loaded ourselves into the bus and quickly discovered the seats were less than comfortable.  The driver spent the night speeding up and braking, making me slide up and down in my chair.  The air conditioning kept me cold, the blanket was too small and the toilet behind us smelled like it hadn't been cleaned in years.  I probably got an hour sleep the entire night.  If we could make the connections right, I could have gotten to the Thai embassy on time to drop off my paperwork and go home the next day, but that was not to be.  The bus to Udon kept making random stops to pick up and drop off things, cigarette breaks and other stops I couldn't figure out.  Where were let off required us to take another 15 minute songtauw ride to the Udon bus station for a bus that went to Vientiane.  The embassy closed at noon and we were still in Udon at that time thus committing to two night in Laos.

Where we purchased our tickets to Laos we were warned that I needed to have a visa first or they wouldn't sell me a ticket.  I had an old visa from my last trip and that seemed to be enough to get me on board.  The bus got me out of Thailand, across the Mekong River but left me at the Lao border along with several other people waiting to get their visas.  We then took a songtaew to a hotel, after retrieving our bags which were still on the bus that left us.

The rest of the trip was similar.  Our first night at the hotel, the desk clerk neglected to mention that the bar adjacent to our room had a band that played every night until 1AM.  We were able to change to a quieter room the next night but had to endure rumbling floors and earplugs that first night.  To go home we decided to take a different route, taking a bus from Vientiane to Kohn Kaen and another 12 hour ride back to Chiang Mai.  That was also a sleepless night.
Still we managed to enjoy ourselves a bit.  We met another American fellow who teaches in the Isaan and he gave me ideas about what to teach as he has a similar situation at his school.  He has been doing it for seven years and was in the military thus he adds a bit more discipline to his class than I have been able to.  We also met a Korean family who will be living in Chiang Mai.  He is a pastor with the university associated to my school and we exchanged numbers on the last day as we all had coffee and rolls at the mall across from the bus.  Nee and I also got a chance to walk down along the Mekong River one morning and enjoyed visiting some temples and eating an eclair with coffee.  At the temple a young man bashfully came up to me to ask me if I would be willing to be interviewed for his school project.  I gave a similar assignment to some of my classes so there was no way I was going to turn him down.  I had been enjoying videos from my students last week and hope that his friend who recorded got as good a film as my kids got.

To end our trip, we took the three hour ride back to Fang, totally exhausted from our journey.  Between Tuesday and Saturday, we has spent almost 40 hours in buses and slept one of the four nights out.  We came back to rain and happy to see our apartment again, at least until we opened our fridge.  It turned out the landlord decided to shut off the electricity to save money only to ruin all the food we had.  The rain also made our tile stairs so slick I managed to slip and fall down five stairs until I could stop the fall.  I went to bed bruised and exhausted.

Thus, the bad was the endless bus rides and high prices of food in Laos.  The good was finding some foods we had never tried before and thoroughly enjoying them and helping a Lao student practice his English.  The stupid is to send thousands of people from your country to another to get a slip of paper attached to their passports, sending hotel, transportation and restaurant business to a foreign country.  Using non-slip tile on stairs is beyond stupid.  I dreamed of how rich I could get in the US if such a thing happened to me there.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Student Whisperer

A favorite show of mine back in the US was "The Dog Whisperer."  If you haven't had the chance to see it, I recommend it to anyone having difficulty with a pet or human.  The idea is that to be the leader, you must be the top dog in the pack.  We used to have our DVR record it ahead of time and we would spend Friday night seeing what problems he would solve.  With that in mind, I began to see that I was in the same position in my classes.  I needed to be the leader of the pack.


My teaching experience is now a month old and days are good and days are bad.  My education taught me to use a scientific methodical approach to gain understanding.  I used that in my years as an auditor and it  gave me the ability to see a bigger world than just the group I was reviewing.  Now I find myself each day seeing up to 200 faces with the goal to give them the ability to gain employment in a world that will be nothing like the one their parents grew up in.  My work in the past let me influence individuals and small groups but never in such a cacophony of noise and energy I get from my teenagers.  Sometimes I would leave class feeling totally deflated as the noise overcame anything I could teach them.  Then I remembered the dog whisperer.

Thai teachers can be a pretty tough lot.  They carry sticks to smack annoying students, use microphones to be heard over the din and few ever smile.  My smiling face was at first welcomed and then quickly ignored.  The back row was often the noisiest and I would have kids actually turn their back on me to continue talking to their friends.  This week, I made some changes.

First, I learned to say, "Taew lang ngyep!"  "Back row, shut-up!" When I first said this, the class was shocked to hear Thai from my mouth, then they laughed and repeated what I said.  I had gained some respect.  The back row quieted though they still needed an occasional reminder.  When that didn't work, I began to take individuals who seemed to be the gang leaders and brought them to the front of the class.  "Sit here," I would say as I pointed to a chair or the floor, whichever was available.  None argued with me and each sat quietly, looking a bit embarrassed.  I didn't make any further comments to them, letting them just sit and listen.  To my shock, these two little acts of authority brought a certain peace to the class and a few more smiles from the front and middle rows.

The class before my last of the week was usually a troublesome class, but another teacher gave me some word-search puzzles for them.  For the first time, there was total silence in the room.  I even turned on some music such as "Morning Has Broken"  and "Annie's Song."  They were all so focused on their assignment, I didn't have to do anything for the rest of the class.

Nothing is perfect, though, as my last class on Friday, my most difficult class, managed to gain the upper hand.  I did get them to complete my assignment for the day, but I was drained by the time I went home.   Thus I was humbled once again by my last class but haven't given up.  My successes make me know I am on the right path and I will continue there.  The last class hasn't seen the last of me.

This may be a new trick but even old dogs can learn a few new tricks.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Glimmer of Light

My teaching career has now gone on for almost a month.  When I started, I went into class with great dreams and goals, a planned out lesson and knew exactly what to say.  Then I was struck by reality.  The kids were polite, at least for the first class, but I quickly saw that I was already breaking one of the cardinal rules of teaching ESL.  I was talking too much.  When people don't understand you, speaking more doesn't necessarily help.  I kept think of the scene from the movie, Rush Hour, where the actor asks, "Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?"

video

Loud English is just as misunderstood as quiet, patient English. 

In the last few weeks I have tried a number of different approaches.  My first lesson I did what I was told.  Tell them all about me.  They politely listened and then I saw them gradually nod off to sleep. I was told to have them dictate words as I spoke them.  Unfortunately classrooms here are concrete and reciting words to be understood by my 50+ students is quite futile.  I run to the various ESL teacher websites for assistance, and occasionally find something that works, at least for a few classes.  Games seem to be a hit though even those can be an effort in futility.

One game I made up was to have kids compete to mark the syllables in words I write on the wall.  First I explained what a syllable was, gave them some words I marked and had them read them back to me aloud.  I explained the rules, as I understood them, formed teams and took "volunteers."  Actually I had to select kids but they generally came up willingly.  They were supposed to stand in back with their face turned to the wall until I wrote the word.  I would then write something on the wall, read out the word and have them come up to mark.  Usually the first group rarely got it but after that it became a real battle.  I would write the word and then stand back as they would run up and start marking the word as fast as possible.  Surprisingly, the little girls were often quite fast as pushing themselves up against the wall, pressing the bigger boys out and marking the words.  The competition went on for maybe 15 minutes and then the winning team was announced. 

What I discovered in explaining the game was that they had to learn vocabulary to just begin.  "Turn around and face the wall."  I would stand at the wall and turn around to blank stares.  I would then turn one kid around and the others were remain as they were.  I had to get them all to turn around before I could go to the next step.  I would go back and write a word and say, "OK, come up and mark the syllables."  The kids would remain facing the wall.  I went back and directed them to the front where the followed me and stared at the word.  One of them usually got it while the others watched. 

Fortunately, if other kids in the class got it, I started to hear Thai commands being yelled out.  A few classes never even got to yelling.  I would go through team after team to a completely tepid response.  Lesson plans are based on what you plan to do and how long you think it will take.  Getting an exact number is impossible, especially for a beginner.  But days where a game completely failed left me dumbfounded.  I do have 14 classes, though, and basically teach each about the same thing, so I got lots and lots of practice to hone my skills.  Ironically, whenever I thought I had mastered a game, I would go to a class who once again just didn't get it. 

As I saw that some days just weren't planned out enough, I started recording music onto my computer.  Most of my classes have heard, "We Will Rock You" and a number have gotten the chance to sing, "YMCA" with teacher, including the arm movements. 

At the end of the day I go back to my teacher cave and lick my wounds from the battles of the day and try to figure out what worked and what didn't.  As I have mixed success with activities I realize that certain factors, such as my ability to explain and an individual class' ability to understand, I try to not drop activities completely.  This week I also hit upon music.  I found the words and chords for John Denver songs, whom I always liked, and also a video of him singing.  I had the class listen to the video and then read the words aloud.  I usually got them to sing the chorus as I read the words.  We would then sing along with the video.  One class even had a guitar, so I picked it up and played and sang directly to them.  I did this in what I consider my most difficult class, 7th period on Friday, a class that starts at 3.  What could possibly be a worse time to teach?  I managed to get them to sing along, but felt like they still were too distracted.  I left for the day feeling a bit disheartened.  Then yesterday, many teachers and students were back at school to prepare for an upcoming inspection.  A group of boys from that last class walked by me and started singing, "Country Roads."  They said they were my fan club. 

Who knows?  Maybe I will figure this teaching gig out after all.

video


As Han Solo said to Luke, "Don't get cocky kid."

Monday, July 2, 2012

Can You Hear Me Now?

Gary Larson, writer of The Far Side, had a couple of cartoons that go through my head each day when I enter my classrooms.

This is my first 3 rows
This is the rest of the class
I teach 14 classes English conversation.  Before a month ago, I had never taught a class.  Some days I go in fully prepared only to discover that I have to spend most of my time getting the class quiet.  Other times, I fly through the material and have spare time.  I am supposed to play games with them, but I have never been a game player so I have to change that in myself.

One day I borrowed a guitar from one of the students and sang, "Let It Be Me" to them with the hope they would join in as I gave them the words.  They mostly just listened.  My music teaching needs work, too.  I found some videos of various American TV shows I would like them to watch and I have no audio/visual equipment, though I have seen a few computer projectors around the school.  Some days I feel more like the character from "The Great Escape" who was the scrounger, played by James Garner.  He was told to get whatever the future escapees needed and he was very good at it.  Simple things like notepads, textbooks, pens or a projector are all more a myth of my western upbringing than a reality here.  Yet, I see teachers are able to do their work.  Perhaps I have just become too addicted to technology.

I have a number of videos I would like them to watch to practice their English.  As I can't show them in class, I did the next best thing; I created a web site.  There are a number of free teacher web site programs out there and I came across www.classjump.com.  In a matter of minutes this technomoron was able to build something every class could access.  The trick will be to see if they actually visit it.  With 700 kids, I didn't want them all to register, though I may regret that decision.  Assigning it as homework may work.  We will see.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Downtown in the south
I was going to talk about my multiple bus rides, train rides and drives up and down Thailand from the deep south to the far north, but got bored.  In short, I took a job in the south, stuck in the middle of a rubber plantation, teaching at a school that made me feel more like a Peace Corps volunteer than a member of a staff, and living in a damp house filled with bugs, bats and anything else passing through.  In a few days, I was discouraged and frightened at the prospect of being stuck in such a foreign land that I packed and went back to Bangkok, considering going back to the US.  I spent over 50 hours riding in the dark, back and forth, screwing up my chances to survive here and wondering how I would get out.

The school I taught in was a government school that looked like it had been built 40 years ago and never touched again.  Toilets were filthy holes in the floor, boys had to pee on the outside back wall, and classrooms looked more like cattle pens than a place to learn.  Students spent as much time wandering around doing nothing as they did in class.  I couldn't figure out how I could even make a dent in a group of near-adult children who barely knew even basic skills, let alone English conversation.  My contractor also seemed hell-bent on giving me as little information as possible, forcing me to use all I could to even figure out where I was supposed to teach.  I kept thinking, "this is a job for Superman," and I am not Superman.
One of my classrooms in the south

Going home was considered.  Unfortunately, I don't really have a home to go back to.  The furniture, house and transportation are gone and I have little prospect for a job.  Thus, I decided to stay in Thailand.  My plan was to work in language schools in Bangkok and live in our place there.  Nee, however, still yearned for the north which lead me to applying once again for work in Chiang Mai.  Fortunately, I had another contractor there who had not given up on me.

The choices were a very rundown college in Lamphun, about 45 minutes south of Chiang Mai, and Fang.  The Lamphun college was offering me an apartment and three meals a day.  The apartment was uninhabitable for me.  The walls were bare boards, the toilet another hole in the floor, the shower unheated and the sink a concrete glob.  The teachers really wanted me to stay, but I couldn't.  That left me with Fang.

I had visited Fang a few months ago as my brother-in-law has family there.  The mountains are beautiful though you do have to drive 3 hours of winding road and driving rules in Thailand allow insanity to rule behind the wheel.  We took another bus up and met with the school.  I could see I was needed and that I needed it, as well.  The town had a Tesco Lotus, the Thai version of Walmart so at least I knew I would be able to eat.  Thus, I dropped my bag at an apartment across the street from the school and Nee went back to Bangkok to send things back up here to allow her to stay here, too.

Fang has been my home now for two weeks, taking up my time to blog.  I have discovered that I like teaching high school, enjoy a small town, and don't mind taking the occasional 2.5 hour bus ride south to Chiang Mai.  I am learning how to work with 14 classes of 50 kids each and accept that wherever I go in town, some young person is going to wai me and say, "Hello, teacher."  Things could be worse.