The day after returning from my scuba diving course, I went to the Volunteer Teacher Thailand office for orientation. There I met Ken Hyde, the organisation’s founder, and his assistant Sunny, as well as my teaching partners for the next two weeks, Barbara and Mark from San Francisco. Recently retired and enjoying some travels before deciding exactly what to do next, they really took me under their wing and were interesting and entertaining companions.
The Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 prompted volunteers from all over the world to travel to Khao Lak, among other places, and help with the clean-up programme. Once the essentials like shelter, food and water were reestablished, volunteer leaders looked to the local community to find out what else they needed, and the request they got was English teaching. Many of the Thai people killed in the tsunami worked in the tourist industry, and as the hotels and restaurants reopened, the supply of English speakers was being stretched. For this reason, Ken set up Volunteer Teacher Thailand and for the last ten years it has been supplying local schools with English speakers to teach, speak and generally create enthusiasm for English.
As the area has recovered, the project has developed a second motivation; to try to level the socioeconomic playing field for schoolchildren from poor backgrounds. The most common jobs in this part of Thailand are in the rubber processing and fishing industries, and in order to go to University or to get a well-paid job in the tourism industry, children must have a good level of English. However, the Thai teaching system is what some might see as old-fashioned, with a lot of talking from the teacher and a lot of quiet and writing from the students. This makes it difficult for struggling students to stay engaged, and many switch off completely and do not progress. Unlike better off parents, poorer people in the area cannot pay for after school tutors, or send their children to fee-paying schools who can employ specialist English teachers, which is where Volunteer Teacher Thailand comes in. Volunteers are sent to primary schools in rural and deprived areas to teach interactive lessons in line with the curriculum, to get everyone involved and hopefully foster an enthusiasm for learning English.
I was very interested to hear about all of this, but I left the orientation feeling pretty doubtful that I’d be a particularly good teacher – I wouldn’t say instilling enthusiasm in others is one of my natural skills – but I was looking forward to trying. I needn’t have worried though; on arriving at Wat Sriratanaram School on Monday morning it became clear very quickly that enthusiasm levels were not a problem; all of the children seemed very excited to see us. Mark, Barbara and I had agreed to teach one age group each with the other two supporting, and my P1/P2 class (aged around 6 to 8) was up first. I was teaching body parts and luckily I’d thought of doing ‘heads, shoulder, knees and toes’, which they already knew and absolutely loved. They were an energetic bunch who struggled to sit still and be quiet, but as long as the lessons were interactive, with lots of songs, actions and quizzing, we managed to keep their attention for most part.
The older groups, Barbara’s P3/P4 class (aged 8 to 10) and Mark’s P5/P6 class (aged 10 to 12) were a bit more studious and able to keep quiet, but they still enjoyed games and silliness; I got the impression that our lessons were ‘fun’ ones, where they were able to be more active and exuberant than they usually were, which was satisfying for us.
All the kids were good-natured and generally well-behaved, but I think my favourites were the nursery school class, who we had for an hour each morning. We didn’t have any lesson plans for this class and were told instead to just entertain them as best we could, which for us turned out to be singing songs, practicing the alphabet, doing colouring and, as we began to run out of ideas in the second week, playing Youtube videos on Barbara’s iPad. I was surprised how much I enjoyed these classes, as I’m not typically a huge fan of pre-school age children (or any children to be honest), but they were very cute, especially how they couldn’t quite get their heads around the fact that we couldn’t speak or understand Thai. And I was amazed how many songs came back to me once I started thinking about it, from ‘Incy Wincy Spider’ to ‘Round and Round the Garden’.
The teachers were very kind to us as well, particularly the P5/P6 teacher, Chi-At who spoke very good English. We were given a delicious lunch (and ice-cream!) every day, including a lunchtime trip to the local Buddhist monastery on our second day, and on our last day we had a little presentation and were given gifts by the headteacher. On our final evening in Khok Kloi we went out for dinner with Chi-At and his wife, a keen English speaker, and it was fascinating hearing their perspectives and stories.
So what did I make of my first experience of teaching? After the first day or two I felt that, although I was enjoying it, I wasn’t naturally comfortable standing at the front of a class; I thought that I wasn’t patient or charismatic or imaginative enough to hold the students’ attention, and I did find it quite draining (especially on the second Monday when I missed out on my morning coffee…). But by the end of the second week I had certainly grown in confidence and was much happier leading my class, and I was surprised how patient I could be. On the other hand, it would’ve been spectacularly hard work on my own, or even with one other teacher, and I was very glad to have Mark and Barbara’s support and good humour. I don’t have the natural temperament of a primary school teacher; even working our short days, from 8:30am to 1:30pm, I found it pretty draining and would’ve like more time to myself at lunchtime instead of being pestered by energetic children all the time. But I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would, and while I wouldn’t choose it as a career, I’d certainly volunteer again in the future.