Reflections on the First Semester & Longboat Races

Reflecting on the first semester came out as a large wall of text, so if you just want to see some of my favorite pictures from the semester just scroll to the bottom.

My first semester ever of being a teacher is almost over, with only one week left. It has been frustrating, overwhelming, trying, and disheartening but it has also been hilarious, stimulating, and rewarding. The highs have been high, while the lows have been very low. In short, it has been quite an experience. I don’t know exactly what my expectations of teaching here were prior to this semester but I think I have had moments of both usefulness and uselessness as a teacher. One of the toughest things about teaching middle school students is that during this transitional period of their lives, many of my students do not have the maturity to understand things or the tenacity to commit themselves to things the way that older students might. During numerous periods of frustration, I have had to tell myself that many of the problems I have had with the students are not actually the fault of the students (at least completely). The many problems I have faced have largely been the byproduct of a flawed educational system, and in my periods of frustration during class, I usually remind myself that when the students are acting out or not listening, it is not because they are bad students but is because they don’t have the proper resources and support to help them succeed (especially in my English classes). Many of my students cannot read, speak or understand any English, so how can I expect them to want to listen or pay attention when I am giving any lessons? I can thus sympathize with the students even as I am frustrated with them for talking to their friends, or not listening in class. However, many of the problems would be much more manageable if I had the help and support from a competent Thai co-teacher, which I am supposed to have.

To address this Ben and I told the other Thai English teachers in a meeting a few weeks ago ways in which we thought they could help us so that we in turn could be better teachers for the students. In large part, we told the other teachers that if they just showed up to classes and tried to help us translate when the students don’t understand, we could teach much more effectively than without their help. However, my expectations of their helpfulness aren’t that high, as many of them seem not to care much about teaching and almost all of them are so inept at English that I can’t rely on them to translate anything. Still, having them come to class could help control and calm the students somewhat, as they at least have an older figure that they can relate their confusion to. But alas, I am not trying to fret endlessly, as there were plenty of positives this semester as well as negatives, I just see simple ways to make next semester better for me and the students, so I hope that the Thai teachers can see that too.

On the positive side, as I have gotten to know the students better each week, I have felt more respected inside and outside of class, and there are a few classes of students that I genuinely enjoy seeing and teaching. Seventh graders universally seem to be great kids. They are all very friendly, respectful, and happy at all times. Their only downside is that they can get crazily hyper, and devolve into periods of immaturity that are cringe worthy. Still, they are awesome as a whole, and I wouldn’t mind teaching seventh graders in future years (if I still am a teacher). Eighth graders on the other hand… not the most enjoyable students, to put it mildly. I’ll admit, eighth grade was probably the period in which I was the most obnoxious and rebellious of my young teenage life, so it doesn’t surprise me that eighth graders can be demons from hell. It seems to be an age of incredible angst, anger at everything, obnoxious desires to always be the center of attention, and the dismissal of everything as not worth the effort of engagement. Don’t get me wrong, individually, outside of class, most of the eighth graders are nice enough kids, but in class, surrounded by their classmates they seem to almost all get possessed with an incredible urge to be the most obnoxious, the most petulant or the most defiant person in the room. Two of my classes of eighth graders (I teach seven), are actually good students, but the other five classes seem to have a competition every week of who can be the most excruciating and painful to teach.

Nonetheless, the semester is pretty much over, and I am definitely glad that I will be teaching again next semester. While there have been plenty of trying moments, the experience has been very interesting as a whole, and this semester passed by fairly quickly. I also remind myself that I am here not just to teach, but also to experience a new culture, to travel and to try as many new things as possible and I still feel that there are plenty of things here that I have yet to experience.

During the beginning of this month, there were longboat races all over the province. Longboat races are a tradition in Nan, and the symbol of Muang Nan (Nan city) is also a longboat. For a ten day period, many different merchants and food vendors set up stands on a field by the river, turning the empty field into a state-fairesque event. Merchants sold everything from clothes and pet birds to furniture and electronics while food vendors sold plenty of sweet snacks, noodles, and insects (crickets and some larva type things). There were also some carnival activities like a small ferris wheel and shooting games for prizes. The fair brought a lot more people into Tha Wang Pha, and made the town seem a lot livelier for a brief period.

On one of the weekends of the fair, Ben and I went down to the river to watch the longboat races. Having heard about the longboat races for a long while as the main attraction of Tha Wang Pha, I anticipated the races to be the most exciting and interesting attraction during the year. After about thirty minutes of watching the boat races by the river, burning in the blistering hot sun, I was very nonplussed and unmoved by the event. While it had been interesting to watch the groups of roughly forty to fifty men training by paddling their long canoes up and down the river, the actual races were pretty unexciting and unimpressive. Before the races, I had expected the longboats to race down the river for quite a ways before finishing, but in actuality the boats only raced several hundred meters down the river, so that each race ended in under a minute. Also, when we were watching the race, there was a long delay between each race so that it would be something like thirty to forty minutes between races while we waited aimlessly on the banks of the river, only to see a race that lasted less than a minute.  Finally, the races themselves were hard to be invested in, as one boat would pull into the lead and then hold the lead until the end of the race, so the action was not too gripping or exciting. Still, it was an interesting diversion while it lasted, and it was nice to see the town more lively and busy.

Other than the races, one of the students at school died several weeks ago unexpectedly. She apparently had some sort of immune system deficiency, and after getting sick fell into a coma from which she never recovered. While she was not one of my students, it was still incredibly sad that someone so young died (she was a ninth grader).

Ben and I went with some of the other teachers to the funeral to pay our respects. The funeral was at the girl’s house, and was more of a memorial than a funeral. Her mother and immediate family were inside the house, where a small display had been put together, with pictures of the student and flower arrangements. Outside of the house, several hundred chairs were set up for the guests and refreshments such as tea and cookies were passed out. After the memorial started, all of the teachers were invited to pay our respects inside the house and so as a group, we all went inside and gave our condolences to the girl’s family. It really showed how important the school is to the community here, as the majority of the guests were teachers from the school or students. After others paid their respects, a few monks went inside and led the gathering in prayers. All in all, while it was incredibly sad that the student had died, the memorial was not as somber as funerals in the United States. Thai people do not really show their emotions openly the way that Americans do, so other than the immediate family (who were visibly distraught), not many people appeared too disturbed or depressed. I don’t mean that as a criticism, I am sure that most everybody felt moved in some way by the student’s death, emotions are just displayed much differently here and I am still not used to the ‘saving face’ aspect of the Thai culture in which they have a hard time revealing what they are feeling.

Back on the teaching note, the semester has been quite an experience and I am happy that I will have another semester here to experience more and learn more about Thailand. There certainly have been unpleasant moments, but I feel that the worst is behind me in that I understand much more about teaching, and the Thai culture than I did at the beginning of the semester, and I am more prepared for the challenges that lay ahead. Another positive of the next semester is that I will not be teaching the class that I had the most issues with this semester, and will be teaching a class of ninth graders instead (the top class of ninth graders, so hopefully good students). I intend to keep trying to learn Thai, and I hope to be able to read Thai at least somewhat by the end of next semester.

Also, I am very excited to be traveling to Japan in a little over a week. I will be flying and staying in Osaka, where I will be meeting friends I met at the International House in Davis. I plan on seeing Osaka, as well as Kyoto and Nara. Osaka is supposed to be the culinary capital of Japan, so I am excited to eat some great food, as well as see the sights of the area. It will be a nice respite from teaching, and I am really thankful that I have the opportunity to see different parts of Asia that I didn’t imagine seeing a year ago when I was living in Davis. Already I have felt like I can check several things off the bucket list so to speak, such as trying authentic Thai food, becoming scuba certified, riding an elephant, getting a Thai massage, living in a place with very little Western influence, and managing the challenges of a very foreign culture, and I’m sure there are plenty more to come.

To end this post, I’m including some of my favorite pictures from the semester. My next entry will be about my hopefully awesome trip to Japan!

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Royal Palace, Bangkok
Royal Palace, Bangkok
Royal Palace, Bangkok
River Kwai
River Kwai, Kanchanaburi
On the River Kwai
On the River Kwai
River Kwai
River Kwai
Sunset on the River Kwai
Sunset on the River Kwai
Around Pua (near Tha Wang Pha)
Around Pua (near Tha Wang Pha)
Me with some M 1/1 students
Me with some M 1/1 students
With M 1/1 Students
With M 1/1 Students
With M 1/1 Students
With M 1/1 Students
Around Tha Wang Pha
Around Tha Wang Pha
Around Tha Wang Pha
Around Tha Wang Pha
Cake my M 1/1 students got me for my birthday
Cake my M 1/1 students got me for my birthday
With some M 1/1 students, the girls must have been feeling shy
With some M 1/1 students, the girls must have been feeling shy
Wat Phumin, in Muang Nan
Wat Phumin, in Muang Nan
Wat Kao Noi, Muang Nan
Wat Kao Noi, Muang Nan
Tard Luang Waterfall
Tard Luang Waterfall
With M 1/2 students
With M 1/2 students
Flower arrangements for Wai Kru Day
Flower arrangements for Wai Kru Day
M 1/1 students presenting their animal project
M 1/1 students presenting their animal project
Tokay gecko compared to normal one in the stairwell of my apartment
Tokay gecko compared to normal one in the stairwell of my apartment
Students during a candle parade for Buddhist Lent
Students during a candle parade for Buddhist Lent
Candle parade for Buddhist Lent
Candle parade for Buddhist Lent
Sukhothai
Sukhothai
Wat Sri Chum, Sukhothai
Wat Sri Chum, Sukhothai
Night Bazaar, Chiang Mai
Night Bazaar, Chiang Mai
Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai
Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai
Graffiti, Chiang Mai
Graffiti, Chiang Mai
Graffiti, Chiang Mai
Graffiti, Chiang Mai
Koh Lanta National Park, Krabi
Koh Lanta National Park, Krabi
Monitor Lizard, Koh Lanta, Krabi
Monitor Lizard, Koh Lanta, Krabi
My favorite coffee shop in Tha Wang Pha. On the Nan River.
My favorite coffee shop in Tha Wang Pha. On the Nan River.
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