Friday, March 29, 2013

On November 4th I walked into the classroom that was to be mine for the next five months. It wasn't a classroom as much as it was a nursery. There was a play area, a book corner, tons of tiny chairs seated at tiny desks, a miniature sized bathroom with the smallest toilets I've ever seen, a cubby wall, a snack/kitchen corner and a big empty space for nap time. It was a nursery oasis. And rather than being filled with students, it was filled with tiny children who were just a bit bigger than babies. Some of them still in diapers, and many of them needing help getting their pants on and off, so that they could use the bathroom. A room full of children between the ages of two and four. Twenty-three of them to be exact.

(Our classroom)

Fuck. What had I gotten myself into?

When I moved to Surat Thani, my agency had lured me down with the offer of a kindergarten job in a private school.  I'd worked with that age before and it was what I preferred, as most of the learning is still centered on play, but they are able to communicate and follow directions. When I arrived and met with my boss, I was informed that I would now be a nursery teacher, or a preschool teacher as we call it in the States.

I remember standing in the nursery at the front of their half moon shaped desk arrangement, and staring at them in wonder as twenty-three pairs of giant brown eyes stared back at me. "What on earth am I supposed to teach three year olds?" I asked myself. By the time I was done contemplating what to do, already some of them were up and running around, jumping off of the tables, repeatedly running themselves into the padded walls, falling out of their chairs, pulling on my skirt, crying because they were "homesick", hitting or kicking the person next to them, or  playing and talking with their friends. In only seconds I had lost their attention.

(no need for chairs)

The first week was, hands down, the hardest week of work I have ever had. I had no idea what was going on. I had never managed a large group of little kids, and especially ones that did not speak English. I felt like I was there to play English speaking baby sitter, which I did not get a college degree to do. Everyday I would come home frustrated and exhausted, and I started to regret leaving my previous job, as a kindergarten teacher in Nothern Thailand.

For the first month my lessons were scattered, inconsistent, and really hit or miss, as I tried to figure out what material was appropriate and what lessons would hold their attention. I will be the first to admit that I was probably a shitty teacher, and I needed constant guidance from the Thai preschool teacher. She was always having to step in and take over the lesson, or explain everything I just said in Thai, so that the kids knew what was going on.

And then there was the guilt, which only made matters worse. The Thai preschool teacher, Aommy, was one year older than me, had already gone to graduate school and had her degree in early education. She was the head teacher for the preschool class, which was part of a private English program, in a highly respected school. The parents paid a pricy tuition to have their children in the classroom, and she was obviously a very quialified person to handle the job. She was patient, kind, and very very hard working, and this was her first year in this particular position.

And then here I came.

When I entered the classroom, the madness began. The utter chaos, excitement, and energy that seemed to ignite the minute I arrived. The kids went crazy whenever it was my time to teach, and all hopes of having organization went out the window.

(The kid I had the hardest time working with)

An American with a college degree in Modern literature, I had left my life of privilege back home to live in Thailand so that I could travel while making some money in what I assumed would be a "chill"  job. While I had worked hard in university, I will also be the first to admit that I partied just as hard, and spend almost all of my time studying in giant fields or grassy knolls, surrounded by friends, music, and often beer. Midterm and final papers were almost always written the night before they were due, and it still amazes me that I graduated with the highest marks. I paid for almost nothing back home, and while I have always worked hard at the jobs I've been given, I've been pretty fortunate with my employment history. I had no formal education in regards to working with children, and now here I was, her team teacher for the year, who just showed up and suddenly had a job doing what she had worked so hard to do.

As much as I love the fact that speaking English has granted me the privilege to teach abroad, I also see why natives find it unfair. Westerners who want to travel in South East Asia show up with no previous teaching experience, no experience working with children, and no idea how to teach English, and wha-la, they are automatically given jobs where the salary is beyond what any of the Thai teachers make. It creates animosity, jealousy and often results in bad relatioships between foriegn staff and Thai staff.

But that's where Aommy was different. She was as patient with me as she was with the children, and by observing her I started to learn how to teach and what to teach. Granted, I still had no classroom management skills, but things started to get easier. As it turned out, some of the kids could speak a little english, and as the semester progressed they began to speak more and more.

I started to form relationships with most of the kids, and naturally, I grew closer to some than to others. After about a month of working with them I was no longer going home and dreading waking up the next day to go to work in the preschool. Rather, I was going home, and while I would have people over to hang out at my apartment, I was also planing art projects and having friends help me prepare activities. I started to think about the kids in the nursery non-stop, and my job really began to define the time I was spending in Thailand. I remember one afternoon I spent hours reading preschool blogs, watching educational youtube videos, and watching "Yo Gabba Gabba" in order to plan for the rest of the semester. When I had imagined moving to Thailand, that certainly not what came to mind.

I worked with a team of three other foreigners, and we all shared a small office together. Two of them were math teachers and one was a science teacher. They all had text books to work from, and none of them worked with the preschool. I was the only one to teach preschool, and the other two hours of the school day I was with kindergarten. I was rarely ever with students who could fully communicate with me, or who were capable of much other than simple basic learning. In the beginning I was jealous of my coworkers' jobs, because they seemed easier than mine. They had a set curriculum to follow, and they could at least talk to their students and be understood. But as I got more involved with my own position, and stopped worrying about theirs, I realized I was the lucky one. I had the best job at the school.

I fell in love with my preschool and kindergarten classes and would have never traded them for the world. I had no set curriculum to work from, which allowed me full creative power in how I wanted to teach and what I wanted to teach.

I made sure that art was part of every single lesson that I taught, and more often than not, I used different forms of art as the medium to teach English through. I started planning week long lessons based on Dr. Suess books, and my own childhood favorites, such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

I made all of my own worksheets and created different interactive lessons. One week we read the book, "Teddy Bear's Picnic," and the next day I had all of the kids bring their stuffed animals to school so that we could have our own teddy bear picnic. We sat in a circle and introduced our animals, talked about the things they like to eat on a picnic, and then we put on music and danced with them.

 The best teaching tool I had was a CD with 30+ songs on it, that I made sure was played everytime I was with my classes. I would have huge dance parties with the kids as we sung really silly lyrics at the top of our lungs.

I started to see my role in the position differetly than I had imagined. I originally had this notion that I was there to be a teacher. That I had to teach them English in a professional manner,  and that by the end of the year, they would  have to be capable of the same results that I would have expected from students in the West. I quickly came to realize that my role as their teacher was rather to expose them to English. I was there to make them comfortable with the language, and through games, art, and song, to make them feel that learning and speaking English was fun.

 The nursery became about play time, and I let go of the idea of having control over the classroom. Rather, when they wanted to play, we played. When they got bored of an activity, ok, activity over. I became much more flexible in lesson planning and structure, and realized I had to base everything off  of the attitude of the children.

I've been working with kids for as long as I can remember, and as much as I have had the privilege of working with some awesome children, I've never been as attached as I was to some of my students at Anuban Surat. My favorite part of the school day was coming back to the nursery after nap time, and helping to wake the kids up. They slept on tiny little beds, with little baby blue and pink blanks and pillows, covered in sweet prints of baby animals, cupcakes, or stars and clouds. They all had tiny pajamas that they slept in, and they looked so precious, bundled up, and lost in their dreams.

(sometimes they didn't sleep in their beds)

After we would gently wake them up from nap time, they would get up, wash their faces, and then rub baby power all over their face and neck, in order to "smell fresh," Aommy explained. After we put all the beds away, the kids would sit at their kidney bean shaped tables, and we would brush their hair and style it, as they ate snack and watched children's music videos or some type of cartoon. It was my favorite part of the day, because the kids were still mellow from nap, and it was a time that I could interact with them, without having to feel like a teacher.

(baby powder face)

(Sharing at snack time) 

(covered in baby powder)

(snack in thailand is a bowl of cake with cookies to dip in it)

As the end of the school year grew closer I began I get emotional over the idea of leaving my students. There was a particular afternoon, a week before school ended, that I was sitting in the office, and I began to get teary eyed as I talked about how much I was going to miss my kids. The two guys I work with stared at me like I was losing my mind. Maybe I was. Maybe I wasn't supposed to get so attached to my students. I never had any desire to be a teacher back home, and I had only become a teacher here so I could live abroad, so what was it about this job that I was holding on so tightly to?

The more I thought about my time spent with my students the more I realized why this job had become so important to me. I last wrote about a relationship I had been in, and how things just... hadn't been going well. As much as I can point finger at him, I also take most of the responsibility for why things were bad. After years of being a disengaged girlfriend, I was finally ready to change and put effort into my relationship. By the time I was ready, I think it was too late. The person I wanted to be with him was no longer possible, and that created a really big dilemma for me, as I was left feeling stranded.  When I started working in the nursery and with my kindergartners, I was able to channel a lot of the positive behavior into my relationship with the students. I was able to be a patient and loving person, and most of all I was able to put others first, instead of being self centered and selfish.

I stopped thinking so much about what I wanted, and started thinking about what would be best for my students and what they would enjoy. Working with my kids brought out a sweetness in me that I think had been gone for a while. I went from absolutely despising the idea of having children of my own, to holding someone else's kid in my arms, and wishing I could take them home with me.

I began to understand why people have kids, and the pleasure it must bring to your life to raise your own. I really cared about the kids that I worked with, and I spent a lot of time thinking about them, instead of my problems and the issues in my life. Looking back at the year, and how I grew with them, I wonder if they taught me more about myself, than I was able to teach them?

As I started to interview for jobs in Japan, each prospective employer asked me the same thing. "What has been the greatest part about teaching abroad?"

Of everything that I have loved in Thailand and loved about teaching little kids, the most rewarding aspect has been the communication. When i first started, many of the kids could hardly talk to me, or chose not to. If they could speak, it was just repeating vocabulary words or simple phrases like, "I am happy." By the end of the school year, there were a handful of students in the nursery who could answer me and understand me ad express how they were feeling or what they wanted.

(learning the alphabet through clay play)

 And as my bond with the students improved, so did our communication through play, art, and body language, rather than just English. Working with little kids involves the majority of learning to occur through play, and often you communicate with them in ways other than just speech.

Despite the fact that there was a huge language barrier, I still feel as if I knew certain students better than I've known english speaking kids I've worked with.

(My favorite student, Sainee)

After teaching in Thailand for the past 7 months, I feel that I am leaving a much more confident person than I arrived. It has been more than I could have hoped for, and I am so fortunate for the amazing job I was given.

The first week I arrived I called my agency, so frustrated and depleted, asking to be switched to another job. My boss told me to stick it out a little while, and give it some time. Looking back on those early weeks, I'm so glad I didn't quit or transfer to a new school. I can't even imagine what my time in Surat would have been like, had I been doing something else.

I think the biggest misconception that people have about teaching in abroad, is how time consuming it actually is. I don't think it occurred to me how much of my time would be spent in the classroom or thinking about work. My time in Thailand will not be defined by where I lived or where I traveled to, but rather, what I spent everyday doing. While I have loved my laid back carefree life in Southern Thailand, and loved my weekend adventures off to the beach or the islands, my students will remain the greatest part of my experience. I can only hope for the same as I prepare to move to Japan and start another adventure.

(kindergarten class)