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.