I was standing in front of 2500 high school students in the sun with sweat pouring off my face. A girl adjusted the microphone in front of me. This impromptu speech was what I came to call a Thai surprise, the first of many, where teachers would spring uncomfortable events on me at the last minute.
Why did I go to Thailand to teach English when my holiday could have involved a hammock, a beach and some sort of coconut drink? Well, for people with a full time job, short term volunteering is a great opportunity to help a community and experience the local culture. In Thailand, English is compulsory at school and necessary if students wish to attend university. While the big cities like Bangkok need teachers, it is often the country schools that have more opportunities. The schools are always enthusiastic to have a native English speaker, even if just for a short period of time.
I’d had some crazy notion about giving back to a developing community and helping students in need. But at Chalermkwansatree School in the city of Phitsanulok, in northern Thailand, the students were dressed in clean uniforms reminiscent of my own private school education. Instead of bamboo shacks and unsafe drinking water, there were extensive resource rooms, computer facilities and even a karaoke room. This school certainly defied expectations.
After a flower giving ceremony I stumbled off the stage, slightly dazed, into the cool shade of the trees. My co- teacher, Jib, took my hand. In my sensible flat shoes and check shirt, I cut a modest figure next to Jib, who wore pink lip-gloss and 10 inch patent leather heels.
“Come with me,” she beckoned, and before I knew it I was standing in front of my first class. Thai surprise number two. Jib looked on as I stood with my mouth wide open trying to think of things to say. The students giggled when I told them I was married. We played a game for 10 minutes, but then I ran out of ideas and wondered if I could give them an early mark. The minutes slowly passed as I tried to keep talking until the lunch bell rang.
The following day Jib left me alone with the students. Some teachers at the school viewed volunteers as providers of a chance to take a break, leaving hapless rookie educators in charge of classes with no more than a “see you later”. While Jib was not one of those, she was bashful when I asked to watch her teach; she believed as a native English speaker I could do no wrong. In Thailand a good teacher is measured by how much fun the students have. If they’re laughing, then you’re a good teacher.
My next class did not go well. The classroom was littered with obstacles and a group of girls texted friends underneath their desks. They were shocked when I confiscated their mobiles. Another girl fell asleep in class. Now I knew how my high school teachers felt.
The textbook material was dry and boring, so I created a reading lesson on Justin Bieber. At the mention of their tween idol the class dissolved into squeals of laughter, except for two boys who pulled vomit faces. But they did the reading task without complaining and I suspected they might have actually enjoyed English class.
As the week went on, the amount of phones, magazines and science homework I confiscated gradually reduced. The teenagers waved to me outside class with a chorus of “Hello teacher”. At the end of the two weeks, I finally felt accepted by the students.
While time passed slowly at the school, I regretted having to leave. Walking up the steps to my last class, I was greeted by three girls. “Surprise, surprise,” they said and made me cover my eyes, leading me to the classroom. Inside, the whiteboard was covered in pictures. “Goodbye teacher Kat” was written across the board. There was a drawing of me, portraying me as several sizes slimmer than I really am. A thousand mobile phone cameras came out and I posed with each student, feeling like a celebrity.
“How long do you stay here?” asked a tall, shy girl. “I’m sorry, I go back to Australia on Saturday.” Disappointed, her face turned into a frown. “Oh no teacher, I wish you stay forever.” I was so touched by her words that some part of me wished I could stay on. It’s the sad thing about short term volunteering; the relationships you build are so brief. As the bell rang, the students said the same words they recited after every class. “Thank you teacher, see you later,” and collapsed in a pile of giggles, waving as I walked out of the classroom for the last time.