Upon arriving at Isara, I was anything but sure that I wanted to head out to a government school, though the idea had been suggested to me in emails with Anita. With no teaching experience, and no grasp of the Thai language, I was a little apprehensive about it to say the least. However, after spending a few days at Isara, observing how some of the more experienced volunteers taught English, I decided to go for it. As Kirk reassured me "whats the worst that could happen?!".
Hopefully this blog over the next few weeks will give other volunteers in a simple position an idea of what to expect of a visit to a government school from the perspective of a non-Thai speaking newbie teacher! Though sad to leave Nong Khai just as I was becoming settled and comfortable at Isara, when the time finally came to head out to a government school, it was with great excitement and a few nerves that we set off for Nasawan. When I say we, I refer to Alan and I, as due to a series of event we have ended up coming here as a duo. This put me at ease slightly as Alan can speak a little Thai, however like me, he was coming with no previous experience of being a teacher.
Setting out from Nong Khai to Beung Kan (a town about 150km east) by bus on Monday afternoon, we were greeted at the other end by two teachers from the school, one of whom was Matthew, half of the schools english teaching department and our chief chaperone. We were then treated to a feast for dinner, before being whisked away to Tesco Lotus to stock up on items for breakfast, and essentials that we would need over the next month. For Alan and I this was quite hilarious as Matthew dragged us around, agonising over which iron and ironing board we must have in order to look "polite" for school, before insisting that we buy a whole host of other stuff from pegs, to towels, and even some fresh shampoo to make sure we would be clean for school!
If anything, as the school had never welcomed volunteers before, I think they, more so than us, didn't really know how to act with us. However at all times we were treated like guests of honour, and repeatedly told that if we wanted or needed anything, we only had to ask and Matthew would sort it. After having completed these errands, we were then to be taken back to the school and shown to our accommodation. As it turned out, this was a little building only 10 metres from the main school block, that until recently was the school medical centre (!), but for the next month would be our home. Complete with 4 beds, 2 toilets and little else, it was rather basic, but after unloading our recent purchases from Tesco, it was certainly habitable.
After being taken to meet some more of the school teachers at their accommodation elsewhere on campus (the majority of teachers live on site as they come from towns many miles away, and thus only go home at weekends or monthly), we were finally left to settle in and get some rest, with instructions to be ready and looking smart for 8am as this was when the school day began.
The school we had ended up at, Nasawan Pittayakom school, is a school of around 600 students (which is actually a lot smaller than it sounds), in the village of Nasawan, Beung Kan province. Each school day begins at 8am with students gathering on the school flat, singing the national anthem, saying some prayers, and teachers giving any notices necessary.
On tuesday, our first morning at the school, we were each invited to say a few words, which were greeted with a large amount of giggling by the students. Attempting to say the odd word in Thai has become a sure fire way to get an easy laugh out of the students at any opportunity.
After this, Alan was taken off by the other half of the schools English teaching department, a lady named Pam, and I was to accompany Matthew on his timetable. Despite having explained our lack of teaching experience, this didn't seem to count for anything upon entering the classroom. Thrown straight in there and told to just speak, in reality this meant teach them something! If you'd told me before coming to Thailand that I would be able to stand in front of a class of 30 kids, and take a lesson spontaneously like this, I would honestly have laughed. However, having watched a range of different lessons over the course of a week at Isara, it was relatively easy to replicate parts of those classes, and if nothing else, at least entertain the student for an hour with some games and speaking practice. So after having done the first class, and ridding myself of some of my anxiety, I was less worried when we entered the second class, and told again to "just teach them something!".
The rest of the day followed a similar theme, with an hour interlude for lunch with the director of the school and a few other teachers (specially brought in from an outside restaurant!). The school day then ended with another rendition of the national anthem, a few more prayers, and then home by 4pm. After school, we spent some time with Matthew going through his and Pam's timetable and dividing up the classes so that we would have a set schedule to teach. This would then allow us to plan accordingly each day, knowing what we were in for the next day. Although planning lessons is not something either of us are familiar with, with a few textbooks that the school has, and inspiration from the internet (there is really no excuse for ever being stuck for an idea with the amount of resources available on the Internet) it became relatively straightforward to choose a topic (we encouraged to base our lessons around speaking and listening rather than grammar and vocab etc. as apparently these were already being taught, though evidence of this has been hard to uncover thus far!), come up with some vocabulary, create an exercise and then attempt to make it fun.
The general level of english is basic, incomparable to some of the students at Isara. However, the hardest parts of the whole teaching role for me personally so far have been a) walking into a class and having no idea of the level of the students ability (and since students often tend to feign understanding rather than ask you again, this can be rather difficult to ascertain), and b) coping with vastly different levels of ability in the same class. For this, I have found when planning a lesson, I always have a task to mind that will really stretch those that are finding the lesson easy, so that I can effectively split a class leaving some to work alone for a while, whilst trying to bring others up to a sufficient level of understanding. However, despite being few and far between, the moments when a boy at the the back of the class who has said nothing all lesson, eventually murmurs the right answer completely unexpectedly, or when someone who has been mute for the whole week finally finds the ability to speak, and gets the answer right, can't fail to put a huge smile on your face.
Of the funnier things that have happened this week, after one class, one of the girls asked me to sign her work. Since there isn't such a high demand for my autograph back in the UK, I was fairly happy to oblige, even if I thought the request was rather strange. However upon signing this one girls book, I then heard a rush of chairs sliding and and students jumping over tables as 30 more notebooks were literally thrown down on my desk to sign also!
Some of the teachers here are also real characters, with one of the 'larger' ladies among the teaching staff, avidly telling us over dinner one night (we tend to eat with the teachers up at their accommodation) how when she was younger she looked just like Jennifer Lopez, and ever since has insisted that we call her "teacher Jennifer Lopez" around school!
Life here at the moment is definitely an adventure, with neither of us really sure of what to expect one day to the next. But to a large extent that is also the greatest source of fun. Evidence of this came when on Thursday night we were asked if we would like to go on a school trip to somewhere near Bangkok, to see some kind of temple (details were very sketchy). As the reality was somewhat more substantial than this brief descriptor would suggest, I will hopefully write up another blog about this trip sometime soon. Jack