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?"

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.

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  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.