Tantrums and biscuits – The beginnings of an EFL Teacher

The sweat is trickling down my forehead as I make the five-minute walk to the building where I will be spending the majority of my time teaching. The air is wet, not from recent rain fall but from the sheer humidity lingering in the air. I can feel it sticking to my pale skin and I immediately feel uncomfortable. I have also become a walking buffet for the many mosquitos hovering around and it seems that the leggy insects can’t get enough of me. My hair immediately senses the droplets in the air which are invisible to the naked eye and decides to increase in size. Not one increase in size will suffice and a dramatic new ‘Do’ is created in the short few minutes of my walk. I try to pat down the escaping tendrils that have now joined forces in a bid to escape my scalp but give up when I feel the sweat that has accumulated on my forehead. Along with the sweat, my body has decided to viciously hold on to the water in my body, making me unable to glide into the classroom with an air of grace and determination. I have no choice but to wobble in, clumsily.

I reach my destination and try to swallow my fear which has been choking me since I drank my first cup of coffee this morning. Grade 1. I gather my strength and wipe my face of any sign of terror as I make my way in. First I give them a warm smile, quickly followed by a look of horror when they start screaming. One after the other, as if they had been waiting for my very arrival to show me their glorious tonsils. For a split second I panic. Oh my god they are never going to stop screaming. Never. I pull myself together and reach down into the pit of my belly to find my booming, authoritative voice which had been dormant, gathering dust. “Grade 1, sit in a circle. QUIETLY”. Little arms and legs flap around frantically. A few of the little urchins are still screaming, whilst others are wide-eyed, studying the new figure in front of them. Once the flapping and flailing has ceased, I am left with a shape that most resembles a squashed tomato. Some of the class are facing me. Others have their backs to me. Some haven’t even got it in them to sit up. “Circle!!” I bellow. Still, it is a fruitless instruction and I am still left with a heap of children, all looking inquisitively up at me. One child has his finger so far up his nose that I am worried that he is permanently damaging himself. Another child has taken to studying my feet and seeing the scabs from walking around Bangkok in new shoes, his eyes light up in delight. He swoops in and starts picking. My protests telling him to stop fall on deaf ears and he practically salivates at the state of my feet and the many fleshy wounds he has to pick at. Three others sense that they are missing out and start to join in before, exasperated, I put my shoes back on. All four of them recoil in disappointment.

Story time gives me a moment to breathe, albeit temporarily. The silence falls upon the class as I act out the story, putting my drama lessons into great practice. They are all watching me with intrigue and I’ll be damned if I am losing them now. I act out various voices that would put a split personality to shame. My arms are flapping wildly and even my legs get involved, even though my butt is planted firmly on the floor. With my hair now sticking to my face in matted sweaty knots, I look crazed and demented. I make the mistake of moving towards the interactive white board to show the story visually. I firmly tell them to be quiet and start tampering with the wires and USB cables and whatever else that could be tugged at. I hear the noise behind me start with a low hum before literally seconds later I turn round to see full chaos unfold. Finally after what seemed like five hours of torture, I get the images up onto the board and the screams and whimpering’s come to a delicious halt.

Craft activity finally comes into full swing. Now is my chance to complete the register and learn 25 Thai names. Little hands tug at my skirt demanding more coloured pencils, pencil sharpeners and glue. One child starts sniffing the Pritt Stick whilst another starts practicing his Kung Pho moves on the carpet. I repeat myself constantly. “Sit down, colour in, beautiful picture, stop that, do not put glue on the desk, sit down, right that’s it!” I gravitate towards the ‘points’ system that is carefully displayed on the board, constantly. Holding my marker pen threateningly to the board, I loudly run through the team colours. “Red!! All sitting down? Good five points”. I delight in the effect it has. The children cross their arms and hold themselves up with a strange determination now that I am threatening to remove their beloved points. I can’t help but giggle and have to turn my face away to ensure that they see I mean business. You can hear a pin drop.

The lesson comes to an end and I swallow my dry throat and gather my belongings. Making the walk back to the staff room, I feel that I have aged slightly. The blood has drained from my face and I am almost translucent by the time I reach my desk and finally breathe. “How were they?” My colleagues ask, looking expectantly at me, wondering whether the new teacher will crack and fall to pieces. “Oh they were delightful, really delightful”. They smirk with a knowing in their eyes before handing me the biscuit tin. Welcome to the world of primary teaching in Bangkok.

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The moment I ‘weally’ knew

When I think about it, I know I should have done it sooner. It was always meant to be but something I shied away from for a long time. Reason for this is I always thought I would never be any good at it, with my past experience leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. I believed that I would not be able to make any difference, however small.

At 20, I made my escape from the UK to the smog filled Beijing. I was running not from home but mostly myself, not wise enough to realise that wherever you go there you are. I was riddled with loneliness and culture shock that gradually became worse with each day that passed. My days were filled with DVD’s in a bid to escape my reality and I slowly but surely lost my mind. I was also a terrible teacher. So completely absorbed in my own pain and misery that I could barely fathom a smile, never mind provide entertainment at a school that relished an all singing and dancing foreign English teacher. The grey sky and the sun – which was barely traceable through the polluted air – added to my constant state of melancholy. I tried desperately to ‘stick it out’. Ashamed to admit defeat and have family view me as some sort of disappointment, I continued to go through the motions, teaching a few short hours a day and rushing back home to climb back into an unmade bed. As one of the only foreigners in the entire area, having any social interaction was difficult and as the days went by, the urge to meet people diminished. I finally cracked and went back to the UK – tail between my legs – promising myself that I would never go into teaching again as I was awful and no student should have to suffer having a teacher like me.

Fast forward eight years and I am sitting in the ‘farangs’ Temple living room area. The table we sit at is made of solid wood, carved with various elephant figures wandering the Thai jungle. The seats that we sit on are so heavy to move that usually I don’t bother, and merely slide myself between the table and chair. They are solid and are also carved into elephant heads, each detail finely perfected. It is bitterly cold and we are both wrapped up in our scarves and woolly hats. I – with my great suitcase planning and bringing mostly summer wear – am wearing every layer, including my pyjamas under my 8 precept whites. Nursing my coffee to counteract the cold we begin our lesson. It’s all about grammar and today is all about the should, shouldn’t and couldn’t. I had managed to scrape together some sort of lesson from the paperwork I had lugged from Bangkok to Fang. Using this we sat, starting with general conversation before getting into the nitty-gritty.

My lovely student – a 41-year-old Chinese woman who has lived in Fang all her life – is able to hold a conversation at elementary level and has no idea how to use these words – should, shouldn’t and couldn’t – in a sentence, never mind their meaning. We get to work, with this being the opportune time to put my CELTA training to work. We sit side by side in the cold. Two Temple dogs sit, nibbling their flees at our feet and looking up at us expectantly with their big brown eyes. I hear the other ‘farangs’ chatting away under hushed breath. The sweeping of the hand-made broom echoes through corridor into the meeting area. With each completed task my student looks up at me, needing reassurance. I tell her that she is indeed correct. ‘Weally?’ she asks, eyes widening in disbelief and a glimmer of hope. ‘Yes. Really’. And in that moment something happens. I begin to fill with a warmth that starts from my head and runs right through my toes. I have never felt so good. Better than any night on the town with the promise of more alcohol. Not the dancing or flirting with random guys. Not the belly aching laughter of a night with friends. Not grabbing the last ‘must have’ item in the sale. No, nothing compared to this feeling of knowing that my student was ‘getting it’. Feeling her hopeful energy that lingered in the air. We both looked at each other – glowing – and in that moment I knew that this was what I was meant to do. I am meant to teach.