About a month ago, I had a big realization about my job and Thai culture. It’s interesting because I wrote my senior thesis about how people who spend a long time abroad go through all these phases of challenges, resentment, attachment and revelations but at that point, I had not spent more than 10 weeks in a foreign country and had yet to experience what that meant.
There were two children in my Pre-K class who were very attached to the Thai teacher and wouldn’t join the English lessons, instead sitting with her by her desk. They would cry relentlessly when she left the classroom. They both also had a couple toilet accidents a day, which she would clean up after. I kept telling the Thai teacher to stop babying them and help me convince them to join the class. She was babying them so much, it was really getting to me; their “accidents” didn’t seem like accidents it seemed they just wanted to be showered, powdered, and changed which is the standard procedure for such situations (I’ll talk about this later).
The students are 2 ½ and one brought several bottles to school everyday, which we don’t technically allow, but she would hold him like a baby and feed them to him. To me, this child clearly didn’t need the bottles nor did he need to be coddled like that. I would try to drag the two children to their desks and they would just cling to her and were starting to be scared of me. The Thai teacher wouldn’t help me, she would just let them stay with her.
I really tried to discuss this with her and finally, in her limited English, she was able to explain to me that her behavior was the Thai way. They were scared of me because I never “took care” of them, which in my opinion was babying them.
I hug and kiss my students and I love them but I was culturally raised to treat children as mature as possible and foster independence. Thai culture is not individualistic like that however; they are collectivists meaning they do things together to feel like a team, even if it can be accomplished alone. I realized that my own culture may seem cold to them. At our preschools, teachers are discouraged from picking up the children and smother them with kisses but here, it’s almost offensive not to.
When discussing this with another teacher, she pointed out that we always see parents literally hand feeding their elementary age students around school. To us, this seems ridiculous since they are able to feed themselves but I suppose that’s not what its about. Sure, the kid can hold a cup and drink milk if he wants but if the mother does it for him, he may feel a stronger, warmer attachment to her. Its about the bonding I suppose and I must say that families in this country are extremely close and take care of each other their whole lives. How dare I assume my way was better?
I realized I was subconsciously waiting for the Thai teacher to conform to my way because I firmly felt that I was right. By the end of my discussion with her, I was so shocked with myself, I couldn’t believe that I had been here 9 months and was only just realizing that I was not right. There was no “right”; I needed to change my thinking and behavior though. I felt rather ashamed of myself and actually cried right then and there and I think that was a breakthrough for my relationship with the Thai teacher. I think she knew what I had just discovered and what I was feeling and she felt understood; she could tell that I cared and hadn’t meant to impose my ways, and that was just what I knew. I explained to her that at home, we generally try to have children do things for themselves as soon as they can and give them a bit of tough love sometimes.
As if on cue, one of the students peed on the floor right then and she just looked at me like, here’s you chance to get him to like you (by taking care of him in his distress). I cleaned him up and changed him and he magically was no longer scared of me. Now don’t get me wrong, I help all the children with accidents but for some reason I had been ignoring these two students with their issues because they didn’t seem to be “accidents” and it just felt like they were the Thai teacher’s job.
I was also a bit frustrated with the general procedure for kids who wet themselves. At home, you grab a baby wipe and change their pants AND the 3 year old is in a pre-school facility that has time to do this. Here, they treat the kids academically like they are older because they want so much for them to get a head start on a great education. So, you have 2 and 3 year olds sitting in chairs having lessons all day like big kids but these kids are, naturally, not fully toilet trained. So somehow you are expected to be teaching formally yet also have time to give a kids a full shower and change their entire outfit when they pee. It is a Thai thing to have everything looking beautiful all the time. If you change their pants but they still have their uniform on the top, that doesn’t match—not beautiful. If they spill chocolate milk down their shirt—not beautiful. They must be wearing clean outfits at all times. Parents have complained—why is my child wearing dirty clothes? So different from home! Not wrong I know—different. At Montessori school, we let the children wear their clothes backwards inside out as long as they did it themselves. Here we are expected to have them looking perfect when their parents arrive, no matter how many outfit changes or hair combings it takes. I try my best to do it their way now but sometimes there just isn’t time!
A lot of the struggles I was facing seemed to be present only in Pre-K, as the children are so young. In K1 classrooms, there is no shower, and that one year of age makes a huge difference with kids. A couple weeks ago a K1 position opened up and I excitedly took it. I was very torn in the decision to do so because I had already developed a close relationship with my Pre-K students as well as their parents and didn’t want to let them down. I also felt that I was really running the class smoothly. But I knew I wanted the opportunity to teach older kids (which also involves teaching more periods per week) and this particular class had a lot of my Pre-K students from last term to whom I was very attached.
I cannot believe what a difference there is between Pre-K and K1 students. Of course they are all equally precious but these kids know how to use glue and color creatively! Some of them are even able to do simple favors for the teacher because they are mature and understand enough English. One of my students even impressed me by translating what a new student was saying to me. That is very advanced because most bilingual 3 year olds don’t understand the concept of translating, only that they use this word with this teacher and that word with that teacher. There are four K1 classes so the other teachers and I get together to write lesson plans. I like being part of this team because the synergy of our ideas is a great. There is only one Pre-K class so I was a bit in my own world.
I am settled in now to my new position and enjoying it very much. My new classroom is next door to the Pre-K room so I still see the kids and parents all the time. However, I am not magically free of all cultural frustration just by leaving Pre-K. Now the curriculum I am expected to teach is much more strict and the topics are very advanced. It’s hard not to constantly think how kids at home don’t even go to school until they are 5 and these 3 year olds get yelled at for not tracing lines perfectly. And at home, pre-school and primary kids get plenty of scheduled recess everyday and these kids get one scheduled Sport class per week. But I did not go across the world to teach at home now did I?! So I am going to do what is required of me as a teacher here and do what I can to squeeze in some fun for the kids after they have traced all their letters perfectly and completed their exams. These challenges and differences are my learning experience; they have expanded my thinking.
Sharing a class of students with a Thai teacher creates a strong relationship between the two teachers. Especially in kindergarten, there needs to be some form of communication between them. Some Thai teachers speak no English, like my current one, some speak enough to communicate ideas through the few words they know, like my Thai teacher in Pre-K, but either way, you both have a relationship with the same students and somehow manage to empathize with each other. Empathy is really a universal language.