School here isn’t exactly the way I remember it back in the States (no surprises there).
The differences become apparent even within the first few moments of the day, during which we are obliged to attend “morning assembly.” Students gather outside their classrooms and in the open-aired amphitheater on the ground floor of each respective building to participate in this daily ritual.
The morning assembly is mainly conducted through song.
The students sing the national anthem, and then they sing a [seemingly random] song that changes depending on the day of the week. There is one in English (“Puff the Magic Dragon”) but the others are in Thai. The students seem to genuinely enjoy this part of the day. (I would love singing at school too!)
After the songs, the students are instructed to sit down for meditation. A meditation song is played over the loudspeaker: “I’m breathing in, I’m breathing out as flowers bloom…”
I am continually amazed to witness the sincerity and stillness with which they sit cross-legged, hands in their laps with palms up and eyes closed during these few moments.
When it’s over, they are kids again. They disperse, off to their classes for the first period of the day.
Unlike the American system, the Thai education system is not big on assignments, projects, and quizzes for grades. These things can happen should the individual teacher see fit, but, at least as a foreign teacher, there is no guarantee the students will actually do them.
School sometimes feels more like camp. I see students running around, ice cream in hand, chasing each other. The older kids will sit around in a circle and play guitar (how they have the free time to do this, I don’t know). Sometimes I will show up to class and my students simply won’t be there. Maybe they’re off swimming in one of the three pools we have here on campus?
Sometimes I wonder how these students learn anything, since they rarely have homework or assignments or quizzes (besides a midterm and a final test) that count for a grade. They automatically pass anything graded anyways; there is an unspoken rule that all students must move on to the next grade level no matter what. There have been countless articles detailing the failures of the Thai education system so I’m not going to go into any more detail here, suffice it to say, it’s definitely a unique approach to education.
Neatness and “politeness” in physical appearance are important within Thai culture. As a result, uniforms are popularly instituted, both within school and within workplace settings. Most people walking the streets on weekdays are outfitted in some sort of uniform. Even university students wear uniforms to class. (Could you imagine having to wear uniforms at UGA? Wait, nevermind. Most people wear the same thing to class anyways: Greek life T-shirt and Nike shorts. Right. Cool.) At our school, any teacher or administrator that has been employed for longer than a year must get custom matching uniforms made (for a hefty price!).
The students at my school have three different sets of uniforms, each with the student’s personal “number” embroidered onto the chest pocket: they have a light blue/dark blue variation, a pink shirt/light grey sweatpants version that they wear on days they have PE, and, on Fridays, a boyscout uniform.
I’m not saying this because the outfits look like boy scout uniforms; they quite literally are boy scout uniforms. I asked a coworker about this strange phenomenon; apparently every school in Thailand has a day of the week reserved for “scouting.” What “scouting” entails remains a mystery, but should my students ever need to pose as boy- and girl-scouts on Fridays, they would most certainly pass the test.
The last idiosyncrasy of the Thai education system that I would like to discuss may come as no surprise if you have encountered Eastern cultures before: students and teachers attend class shoeless. As a foreign teacher, I’m not upheld to the same shoeless standards. I’m supposed to wear professional-looking flats with my uber-profesh black-and-white ensemble but I’ve discovered that Thais don’t take the work shoe thing too seriously. On days when it’s raining, I throw on my black Chaco sandles (hardly appropriate work shoes, I might add) and head out the door. The Thai teachers seem to have 2 pairs of shoes on hand at all times: they come to school in heels then change into rubber flats (flip flops or sandals. Shoes Americans would deem “beachwear”) during the school day. So no one notices me in my black Chaco sandals.
My coworker, Annie, noted, “You fake them out with those shoes. But, see, if you wore those to work in the States, they would be like, ‘what mountain are you hiking up today?”
I guess teaching can feel like hiking up a mountain sometimes. Yeah – not a bad metaphor.