Something different. That’s what I felt like doing when I went for a holiday to Koh Samui, Thailand, with my family recently.
While others opted to go kayaking, jet-skiing, snorkeling or taking photographs of the island’s famous Grandpa and Grandma rocks, I decided to visit a local school.
Dutruedee, a 28-year-old receptionist at the hotel we were staying at, told me that there was a primary school located a short drive away from the hotel.
She spoke better English than most of the Thai personnel I had met. Talking to her, I discovered that her educational background had included the standard “6 + 3 + 3” formula (six years primary, three years lower secondary and three years upper) before she embarked on a four-year course at the King Mongkut Institute of Ladkrabang in Bangkok where she had majored in Japanese.
Having also minored in English, it was easy to talk to Dutruedee who informed me that her higher education had been funded by her parents who had forked out some 450,000 Baht (RM45,000) for her studies.
The local taxi driver I hailed charged me 40 Baht (RM4) to drop me off at the nearest point to the school but this would be along the main road in the Chaweng Beach area. Was I prepared to walk the rest of the way? I nodded my head.
When he heard that I taught, he told me that his wife was herself a teacher. Within minutes he took it upon himself to show me a photo on his cell phone of her and his two small kids taken on the scooter she used to take them all to school.
“Yes,” he told me, “skoon is free. But, I pay for book, shoe and uniform. Also food.”
(“Skoon” means “school”. The locals I met can’t seem to pronounce the “ch” and “l” sounds.)
Sothon, as he was called, told me that his wife earned 12,000 Baht (RM1,200) a month while he could make anything between 8000 Baht (RM800) to 75000 Baht (RM7,500) a month, depending on the season.
I asked him whether he liked his job.
“My wife like, I no like,” he said with a laugh. “I like army. Good money. 15,000 Baht. But, my mother? She no like the gun. She say stop so I taxi driver now.”
When he let me down, he showed me the path I should take to walk to the school. I paid up and thanked him.
Frankly, I didn’t mind the walk but I certainly felt the sweltering heat.
On the day before, Neng, the guide we had for our half-day island tour had informed us that while Koh Samui, protected by the Gulf of Thailand was currently enjoying temperatures in the 33°C region, Phuket, on the other side of the isthmus, was being buffeted by strong winds and rain. We were therefore fortunate to have the sun and the breeze.
The first thing I saw when I finally spotted the school after a 200m walk was a massive grey water buffalo standing just outside its gate. Its cold, baleful stare stopped me in my tracks!
Upon discovering that it was safely tethered to a coconut tree, I entered to find the school buildings situated at the far end of a huge bare landscape of sand. It was bordered by lovely palms, flame of the forest and frangipani trees.
Walking across, I instinctively knew this must be the assembly ground for it had, on one side, a huge picture of HM The King of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, and beside it, a tall altar with a statue of Buddha in it.
I was immensely relieved to get out of the sun. As for the subsequent warmth and hospitality that greeted me, I can only describe it as disarmingly Thai.
With greetings of “sawasdeeka” ringing in my ears, I was introduced to Sawnoi, an English teacher, who immediately told me how glad she was that I had chosen to visit her school.
She smiled and said “I see no much … foreign teachers ….but happy to meet you …”
Fortunately for me, she was having a free period then. We chatted in the classroom where she had been sitting, filling student data into her laptop computer. Yes, she is also the school’s data teacher and like every Malaysian teacher I know, lamented readily about the amount of paperwork a teacher has to do! We laughed about that.
I noticed that the wooden walls around us were covered with a number of teaching aid posters. However, all of them were in Thai script since that is the main language of instruction.
In the distance, I could see that the brick walls separating the school from its neighbor had been painted, as it is wont here too, with bright murals done by students.
Sawnoi is in her thirties, has eight years teaching experience, and earns about 10,000 Baht a month (RM1,000).
The government provides her free housing, electricity and water. She reports to school by 7.30am and returns to her teachers’ quarters by 5.30pm. For the students, school starts at 8.30am and they are done by 4.30pm.
They are taught in 50-minute lessons and are given an hour’s break from their studies at 11.30 am to 12.30 pm to have their lunch.
Sawnoi then introduced me to Pongsak Pulsawat, a 10-year-old Grade Five pupil. Despite being the tallest and biggest boy in his class, he was extremely shy and hesitant in front of me.
I was struck by how brown his eyes were. His hair, like most of the boy students, was shaven to an inch of his scalp. I could easily imagine how he would look as a young monk if his white shirt and brown shorts were to be replaced by saffron robes.
When I noticed that he wore only brown socks, I was told by Sawnoi that Thai students are not allowed to wear shoes in the classroom. They run hither and thither in their socks and their shoes – brown for boys and black for girls – can be found, nicely arranged on the wooden shoe shelves provided outside the classroom door.
Encouraged by the friends who kept peeking in on us, he told me he enjoyed school simply because it was a place where he could be with his friends.
Truth be told, he could not answer any of my simple questions in English.
But, I didn’t hold it against him. In my experience, rural students who have no English speaking background can rarely do so – they may be able to get some answers right in written exams but due to lack of exposure, familiarity and experience, they struggle to manage a conversation in English.
Noticing that Sawnoi was a little let down by Pongsak’s inability to answer me, I assured her that it was not a reflection of her teaching. In the Thai cultural and upbringing context, one can only imagine how difficult it must be for a rural boy to be interested, what more, to be able to speak in a language totally “farang” (foreign) to him!
Anyway, with Sawnoi translating in rapid Thai, I discovered that Pongsak’s ambition is to be a footballer with MU – not Manchester United but “Maungtong United” – the Thai football team!
Understandably, a passionate teacher like Sawnoi is worried about how she can improve English learning in her school. Except for the times she meets some teachers from the International School in Koh Samui, she herself has little or no interaction with any English-speaking people.
Currently she employs a bilingual approach when teaching students like Pongsak – she will tell them, for instance, “this is a ruler, no *****” (the Thai word for ruler).
Among the Thai people I met on my holiday, I couldn’t help noticing that they tend to use the word “no” in places that they should be saying “not”. They also have difficulty pronouncing the “s” sound.
In the street market, Thai peddlers would call out to me, “You buy, very nai” when they actually mean “very nice” and they will say “cloed” when they mean “closed”.
Although I didn’t ask for them, Sawnoi showed me her lesson plans and the workbooks her students use in the class for English. Everything is well-placed for her students to learn English from her.
But my guess is two hours a week of English lessons are simply not enough for them to master the language.
I am sure Sawnoi’s job is also not made easier by the fact that many Thai students do not see any reason why they should have to study a language so alien to them.
Later that night, I met Phriya, a Thai waitress at the seafood restaurant we had our dinner in.
She told me that as a young child, not only was she guilty of openly skipping school, she also paid scant attention to her English lessons.
But, when she joined the job market, she realised that knowing English was a huge advantage. Motivated by necessity, she worked hard to improve her English, and did so by picking it up from tourists and also by using a Thai-English dictionary which she scrutinised fervently every night.
The phrases in the dictionary had a three-pronged approach – the first sentence would be in English, the second gave its meaning in Thai script and the last, the phonetic version in Thai of the first sentence.
She told me with a flash in her eyes, “I swear to you, that’s how I pick English.”
Her English was quite remarkable. But, in typically Thai fashion, she told me that she has been working for “10 year,” when she actually meant to say “10 years”.
In contrast, Sawnoi struggled to explain herself to me. When she told me that she had earned her Bachelor’s Degree from a university in Bangkok, I couldn’t understand her at first because she had pronounced “bachelor” as “bakelor” (the ‘ch’ sound in words such as “chair” seem to get pronounced as ‘k’ here.)
Sawnoi is an only child and comes from Chumporn, a village that can only be reached by crossing a river and then taking a bus journey which lasts 2 hours. But, she is happy where she is and has a good group of teacher friends with whom she cooks and shares her dinner with.
“Every day,” she said softly, “I meet Thai people only. No teacher like you. So my English no so good.”
We talked a little more and when a group of students filed into the classroom for their lesson with her, I thanked her and took my leave.
“You send me picture, okay?” she reminded me as I stood by the door to slip on my sandals.
My last image of her? She is standing in front of her class and the students are all looking up to her. For all intents and purposes, she is their only English teacher and they trust her to do her best for them.
Respect for teachers
Kheru Khek with his former IPBA KPLI students November 2008
In the annual Wai Kru ceremony, held in every Thai school, Sawnoi’s students will bow low in obeisance towards her and present her with flowers. As they do so, they will make sure that their head is lower than hers. They will go down onto the floor and do a “krab” – a gesture of prostration to show their respect for their teacher.
In fact, “Wai Kru” actually means “pay respect to the teacher” in Thai. The ceremony will be held on a Thursday because Thursday is a special day for teachers in Thailand.
Each of Sawnoi’s students or their representative will come to school with their own bunch of flowers. The flowers used in the arrangement are symbolic.
Eggplant flower (Dok Ma Khue)
Bermuda grass (Ya Praek)
Popped rice (Khao Tok)
Khao Tok (popped rice) stands for discipline because the rice is placed in a pan together and heated up to become popped rice.
The Dok Kem has the same name as the Thai word for needle. So it means the student will be sharp-witted and brainy.
And, even if the sun beats hotly on their head, students like Pongsak told me that they do not complain because they have been taught from young that teachers are very important people in their lives.
TEACHER TALK By NITHYA SIDHHU
Source: The STAR Home Education Sunday July 10, 2011