Teaching in Bangkok: Year Two


I decided to stay a second year in Bangkok. I’d initially intended only to stay a year in Bangkok and then move on, probably to Vietnam. I decided to stay a second year mainly because I’d made friends in Thailand, wanted to continue with Muay Thai, and had finally come to enjoy my school and students. I also truly and deeply liked my neighborhood in Bangkok and didn’t want to leave it just yet.

The friends, the Muay Thai and the neighborhood remained the same: they still brought me a lot of joy and comfort and made me happy that I’d decided to stay a second year. The school and work situation had changed dramatically, however, and I’ll admit, there were times when I cursed the decision to stay and wish I’d left Bangkok. These moments, thankfully, were limited to my work situation and fleeting, though more frequent than I would like.

Whereas my first school Satri Sri Suriyothai (SSS) was a girls’ school, the new one, SuthiWararam (SW), was a boys’ school, though they were both government schools. That they were government schools, as opposed to private or international schools, is significant; it typically means that the students may be from comparetively poorer families but also that far, far less is expected of them, regardless of family income. This was especially evident at SW.

While at SSS I taught only two groups, one of twelve students around the ages of 11 or 12 and one of sixteen students between the ages of 13 and 14, for a total of 28 students, at SW I taught nine separate groups, most of them numbering between 28 and 34 students, for a total close to 300 students. (By the time I’d finished both terms, I estimate I’d taught over 500 students.) About half the groups were around 14 or 15 while the rest were 16 to 17 years old. This, I have found, made a huge difference. I much preferred teaching the older students.

Overall, the level of ability was a tad higher, but this may be a false impression given that only the students with a higher ability participate in any way, shape or form, while the others just fade into the background (if I’m lucky). There are students whose abilities remain a complete mystery to me as they don’t engage at all and so I have nothing to judge them on. See, I had most of these groups only once a week, whereas I saw three groups twice a week and a single group every day.

That last group proved the bane of my professional existence at that time.

In some groups I routinely taught only four or five students. Meanwhile, the other 25 or so busied themselves with their phones or Thai homework. This, obviously, was not ideal, but there wasn’t much I could do and at least they were being quiet. The problem with my daily class (M5/4) was that, out of a total of 33 students, maybe 8 paid attention and did the work, another 10 ignored me and quietly busied themselves, but the remaining dozen ignored me and essentially threw a party. They were the loudest, most unruly bunch I had ever encountered. Having a discussion with them was impossible. Even giving a lesson was occasionally out of the question; I simply wrote instructions on the board for those who cared and then hoped they called me over to their desks if they had questions (where I still had to shout to be heard).

The most frustrating thing was that they were actually one of my most capable groups. We could have had truly interesting discussions if they would simply have listened for a few minutes, but that’s just wasn’t going to happen. At one point we even had a reading to do about extras in movies; I tried to tell them that I had been an extra in a Hollywood movie, figuring maybe that would engage them…they didn’t hear a word I said.

One kid is particularly confounding. At one point I lost it, told them that if they didn’t quiet down I would take their phones away, as is done with the little kids. This one dude looks up and, in nearly flawless English, says, “What are you talking about, I wasn’t using my phone. I’m doing engineering stuff,” and holds up a bundle of wires connecting two unidentifiable hunks of electronics. This kid has the letters W – H – Y – ? tattooed on his knuckles. His workbook was blank and his grade in my class stood at around 2 out of 30.

So, mainly I just went through the book with them, exercise by exercise and class by class. Trying to do fun activities or games or whatever was, unfortunately, a fool’s errand. Believe me, I’m venting here, not looking for solutions. There were none with this particular group.

Thankfully, my other groups weren’t as difficult to handle. They could all be noisy or disengaged at times, but they could usually be brought back on track or at least kept quiet. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I didn’t have that M5/4 class every damn day, though.

Anyway, what I’d come to understand is that in Thailand, and much if not all of Southeast Asia, the difference between government schools and private schools is enormous, usually due to funding, but also the attitude to education (for example, Thailand has a no fail policy, so no matter how poorly a student performs—or behaves—the consequences are limited). So, though I loved living and traveling in Southeast Asia, my experience in Bangkok had taught me that teaching there long term maybe wasn’t a great fit for me.

So, the plan (for the time being) was to alternate between teaching in countries like Taiwan and/or South Korea, where salaries were higher and the approach to teaching generally more structured, with traveling, working and volunteering in developing countries. It was little more than an idea, but I figured it might suit me: teaching in Taiwan or Korea I should be able to save anywhere from 10 to 20K, which I could then use to travel and volunteer for 6 to 12 months or use to supplement a contract in a country offering lower salaries.

Until then, I did my best to keep my head down and power through the next few months. I’d begun counting down the weeks (and days, and sometimes hours) until October, when I planned a return trip to Borneo and when my parents would be visiting. Together, my parents and I intended to visit Hanoi and Siem Reap. Then I’d just plow through November and December, at which point my sister, Marika, would be here for her second visit and we’d be checking out Ho Chi Min City. Then I’d just have a few weeks left before my contract was up and I planned to some more exploring.

I do have to admit that this second year wasn’t as exciting in large part because I hadn’t been traveling as much, so it felt as though I was only working, without much relief. So, the planned trips would help. But it does feel as though one year teaching in Bangkok may have been enough, something I would have to keep in mind next time I considered staying in one spot longer than I’d initially intended.