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.

Another Brick In The Corporate Wall

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It seems to me that my new-found path in life never fails to leave people with endless questions, mostly with a regard to my mental health and whether I have lost the plot. Take for instance a repeated conversation with my brother.

‘So what are you going to do with your life?’

‘I’m going to teach English as a foreign language and travel the world….’

‘Yes but…..What are you going to do with your life?’

This seems to be the reaction from most people. A mixture of envy with a dash of cynicism topped off with a large dollop of disappointment. I get it. For years after my first TEFL contract in China I swore I would never dip my toe into the world of teaching again. Fuelled by the various comments bashing English teachers as ‘avoiding responsibility’, ‘unaccepted by their own country’ and ‘wasters and hippies with no ambition’ I gave up on teaching altogether. My 20-year-old mind had been firmly polluted by the endless jibes that come hand in hand with TEFL. Instead, after completing my degree, I pushed myself into the corporate world with dreams of a flash wardrobe and an even flashier car. And this is where I lost ‘myself’.

Hired and jumping up and down in my parents kitchen I thought my new-found success would pave the way to management heaven. Having received my contract and welcome letter as a new employee of a global IT company I could not conceal my excitement and satisfaction. The girl from the bleak council estate was well and truly on her way to success. I began my role with the enthusiasm of a new puppy, all wide-eyed and bushy-tailed but still shaking in my boots at the thought of using Excel and numbers as they certainly weren’t my personal strengths. I got to work an hour early, always first to arrive and usually last to leave. Lunch times would be spent at the desk trying desperately to hide another Excel formula fuck up as I watched the days pass in a blur of pivot tables and numbers, adding and subtracting. Sometimes I would bound out the door, satisfied that my day was full of small successes. Other days I would cry at the thought of messing up another report. A report that barely anyone ever read.

You see after a few months in the role I realised that no one cared. Reports and new websites that I fawned over and spent countless hours trying to perfect were pretty much irrelevant. I realised that I had become part of the furniture, another brick in the wall of a massive corporation and that no amount of trying was going to get me anywhere. Hushed discussions with other disgruntled employees furthered my suspicion that I was going nowhere fast and the only way up was to leave and reapply for the desired new role. When I was a fresh newbie I listened as my trainer spoke about a woman on another floor who hide all her ‘to do work’ under her desk. This woman did sweet f.a for 6 months before she was caught out from the growing mounds of paperwork forming under her desk, trying to escape. At the time I was horrified. How lazy and inconsiderate. Now I realise that no one gave a shit, and for her laziness (or cleverness) to go unnoticed for that amount of time must have meant that she was both invisible and irrelevant. Something I was to become familiar with.

Once the rose-tinted glasses had been removed and I was no longer breaking into a cold sweat on report days, I found myself slipping into a cubicle coma. For 8 hours a day I sat, clicking on the mouse creating documents that would be sent into the black hole of cyber space. I had mentally left the building. The silence would descend over the office as each of us punched in numbers and wrote out endless emails, while I tried desperately to find some sense of fulfilment in a job that I should not have been in. A job that I had no natural talent for. But that didn’t stop me from pushing and forcing myself to fit the mould, unaware that I was depleting my spirit with each day that passed.

After I ‘woke up’ and realised that I had no business being in IT, never mind an office, I slipped out unnoticed. No one saw me place my plant in my bag and forage around for my shoe collection that had been gathering under my desk. I cut my notice short and left, walking out into the grey sky and damp air without (so much as) a backward glance. Now I look back at all the years I spent chasing the money signs and all I see is someone wanting to conform. Someone desperate to have a desirable CV and endless Linkedin contacts. Someone who wanted to go to work in smart clothes, reeking of success. Someone who wanted a nice monthly wage, with an even nicer bonus and a mortgage to boot.

Now I’m no longer that somebody, but it took me years to wake up from wanting that dream. I now wait to begin my English teaching role in Bangkok where I can go back to the hustle and bustle of the uncomfortably humid streets. Where the various smells of the street stalls attack my senses and where everyone seems to be on ‘Thai’ time, walking at snail pace and coming to classes late. And as for people who question my dreams and ambitions I say simple to mind your own. My dreams, wherever they may lead, are none of your concern. Let me enjoy the fact that at nearly 29 years old I may have found my calling and thank fuck for that as it has taken me to hell and back trying to find it.

Helmets and Markets

I am absolutely exhausted after finally venturing away from the one street in Bangkok that I frequent daily. With the intense studying, written assignments and lesson planning I have not had an opportunity to explore, until today. I say explore but my aim was to get a bus ticket to Fang district for the 8th of December, which I managed to do. Just. I have however managed to recruit another adventurous soul who is joining me on the trip up North so as least I will have someone to keep me company on the 10 hour journey. We were meant to pick up the tickets together but E was feeling slightly worse for wear with some unknown Bangkok bug so I told him to go home which I’m thankful I did as it was no easy trek.

I decided to get off at Mo Chit BTS and realised that actually it’s quite a walk to the North Terminal bus station. Also being a Saturday was probably not the best time to decide to buy tickets as it took me an hour to navigate through Chatuchak market due to the ridiculous amount of people shopping for bargains. I was temporarily distracted from my bus ticket mission a few times, particularly when I caught sight of the gorgeous carvings of elephants and crocodiles that were bigger than me. Finally I got to the other side of the market where I had no idea where I was or where to go.

Walking up the main road a guy on his moped stops to ask me where I’m going, which is the norm here. I told him I was heading to Mo Chit bus station which immediately got him stating his price of 50 baht. I told him no, I didn’t have it. Not because I didn’t have it but because I was in two minds of even getting on the back of that moped. It seems like a game of Russian roulette if you ask me. I watch passengers effortlessly throw their legs over the bikes with not a care in the world and it baffles me. One look at the chaotic drivers weaving in and out of the lanes is enough for me to break into a cold sweat. And for all my promises to never get on the back of one, what do I do? I gave him 20 baht and hopped on. Poor guy, he was driving on the pavement before I frantically told him to stop after seeing pot holes and uneven pavement which made me panic. ‘No, its ok, you go’ I told him jumping off the back of the bike with lightning speed. ‘Why? Why you go?’ He asked ‘I’m too scared, I may fall off (cue lots of miming of me falling and cracking my head open) ‘Ahhhh, here’ With that he gives me the helmet and I jump back on with him giggling uncontrollable ‘go really slow…….REALLY slow’. It was only 2 minutes from where I was (50 baht indeed!!) and it was pavement all the way, which was definitely for the best as if he had gone onto the road I would have had a meltdown. Once I was off the bike and waving goodbye to my Thai driver (who was now chuckling to a friend and probably telling him how hilarious it was that I clung onto him for dear life) I walked over the bridge to collect my ticket. Ticket in hand I walked back towards the BTS line (another hour walk through the park) high fiving and shaking hands with locals as I went. One went further and wanted a cuddle which I was happy to oblige, much to the amusement of his friends.

Arriving back in Silom I made my way to my usual destination – Tops market. Such a creature of habit. I have been here for 3 weeks and have already built up a routine that leaves me just a little less culture shocked. Simply picking up my mango and sticky rice leaves me feeling like I’ve accomplished something with my day. I am already starting to panic about leaving the ‘nest’ I’ve built and the daily routine that I have become used to. I am wondering how I am going to be able to cope being eaten alive by mosquitoes in Fang, knowing that I cannot kill even one of the little suckers as that is certainly not the Buddhist way. After Fang I shall head back down south to meet friends and as far as teaching goes, well I have no idea. One week left of the course and then I’m booted out of the Celta nest. I’m already panicking about it coming to an end as I am enjoying it, even the paper work and lesson planning (I didn’t really just admit to that). I constantly feel on my toes in the lessons where the tutors dump their knowledge onto us. Certainly no place for slackers or ‘away with the fairies’ types (me) as your tutor is on to you. They can tell when you are not listening, particularly when you get that glazed look in your eyes and they know that your mind has gone to the Irish bar next door. Oh yes they know and they will use this moment to CCQ (concept check question) you in front of everyone. You and your mind goes nowhere, so don’t even try it. Still, I have actually learnt something from being here and that is more than I can say about my time at University.

Let me be surprised

I am currently sat on the floor of my living room apartment watching the tiny (and I mean tiny) black ants that are scurrying around, seemingly full of purpose. I am not disgusted by this tiny army of company, as I have heard from fellow students that they are battling cockroaches on steroids. In this case, I think I have the better deal.

My days have been a blur of lesson plans, written assignments, coconut juice, paper hand-outs, syrup style Red Bull, banana pancakes, sweat, confused faces, mangos and sticky rice. Today was my opportunity to deliver a grammar skills lesson. Needless to say I was feeling hot under the collar, with the sinking suspicion that my students were much more knowledgeable on the subject. Another stern talking to was needed in the bathroom. Its 45 minutes, for gods sake pull yourself together. You have exercised longer than that and that’s saying something!  I made my way through the lesson, clutching at my lesson plan as if it were my life line and smiled all the way through. Fake it till you make it.

Other than teaching and fumbling my way through assignments, I have steadily become more aware of my survival skills. As a Brit stepping out of the rigidly controlled traffic system in the UK, I find myself in a place where you really wouldn’t want to play ‘chicken’. Pedestrian crossings are just for decorative purposes. Yes I know they look exactly like the ones back home but seriously this is a whole different ball game. Always follow the herd, is my advice. Make sure there is a gaggle of you when you cross so that the driver thinks twice about wiping out his front bumper. Also just because you are not crossing the road doesn’t mean for a second that you will be safe from the pot holes, random cats, mopeds, (free to drive on pavement and road by the looks of it) food carts being pushed to their next destination and over 14 million people who are either purposely rushing to their next destination or casually stopping to look at every single market stall, while you do some step dance in frustration behind them.

I forget where I am most of the time as I am so busy dodging sweaty bodies and vehicles that I rarely pause to catch my breath.  It’s a place where you could completely lose yourself and strangely find yourself at the same time. A place that is so chaotic, the bubble I have been living in has burst. Everyone is making their way through this life, all with various thoughts and feelings. All with their own dreams and purpose. I have been thinking of my next step after the course. I emailed a Temple in the north of Thailand and asked if I could teach English there for a few weeks. I am delighted to say they accepted my offer. Six weeks ago I was sat in the corner of an office knowing that I would be making my way to Bangkok. At the beginning of September I had no plans to move away or do any course relating to teaching. I was actually forcing myself to apply for roles within the company. Roles that would give my life no meaning but lots of money and gold stars for my CV. I sat at my desk going through a ‘plan’ of how I would be able to succeed at the desired role. I calculated my monthly income and how much I could save and spend. I went over my CV with a fine tooth comb, every little detail re-drafted, to ensure that I was the ‘ideal candidate’. I hated it. I don’t even say this lightly. I hated how it made me feel. Lost, unfulfilled and mostly exhausted. I was completely drained and not from my work responsibilities being overwhelming but from spending 9 hours, Mon to Friday, doing a job that left me feeling numb and increasingly invisible.

How quickly it can all change. Here, the work is hard. When they say the CELTA is a beast of a course, they really mean it. I feel like I’m ‘flying by the seat of my pants’ the majority of the time. I dream of delivering my lessons with various outcomes. My brain is bursting with information and despite all this I finally feel alive. I am bubbling over with energy and cannot sleep, finding myself frequently up until 2 or 3am with ideas and most importantly, hope.

I sometimes wander down the path of planning for the future. When I finish the course what shall I do? I could teach for a year…..But what about an MA, should I still do Art therapy? What about Education? What about….. I then have to stop myself as I have made myself sick with worry in the past, desperately trying to plan each and every aspect of my life. Nothing can be gained from this apart from your experiences being tainted or all together ruined as you don’t see the opportunities that are blossoming right in front of you. For now, I will let things run their natural course. As Charlie sings in ‘All dogs go to heaven’, let me be surprised! 

Let Me Be Surprised

I need Brazil, the throb, the thrill
I’ve never been there, but someday I will
Adventure and danger, love from a stranger
Let me be surprised
Today the sun, they said there’d be snow
When all said and done, it’s fun not to know
What keeps my heart humming is guessing what’s coming
Let me be surprised

Ostracise me

Look at the paper, whatever you do just keep looking at the paper. Do not, I repeat, do not make contact with the tutor at this point. Oh my God I’m going to be asked for the answer. Shhhh, you wont if you just keep staring at your notebook. For heavens sake don’t write anything. Any sudden movements may attract unwanted attention. Stay perfectly still. If you can’t see the tutor then they can’t possible see you. Slouch if it helps, this may add to the low visibility you’re aiming for. That’s right, bury that head of yours. If all else fails and you feel that even for a second that you are about to be asked anything, quickly look at the student in front. If the tutor had happened to glance your way, the attention will now be averted as they will want to know what you are looking at. All focus is now on the unsuspecting victim…I mean student. Now you can breathe and go back to fumbling your way through the grammar work sheet.

Grammar. The subject as a whole has me breaking into a cold sweat just thinking about it. My exasperation is overwhelming and I find myself frantically trying to find the class mates who feel the same way. Funnily enough its pretty much 90% of us. The other 10% are the grammar gurus of the class who would probably flinch if they knew of my lack of knowledge on the subject. I did manage to congregate with a few like-minded grammarless souls where we sympathised with each others woes. “I know what I’m talking about….I just can’t describe it”. “Totally, I mean I have no idea what most of the rules are when constructing a sentence…I just do it”. We all nod our heads in defeat. We make sure that we mentally beat ourselves up to pre-empt any future failings.

I do not recall ever being taught grammar in secondary school. There may have been a sprinkle here and there but it is certainly something that had not been imbedded in my wee teenage brain. You can certainly forget about primary school. I was far too interested in whether Anne Smith was going to wear her flowered leggings to school and hoping she wouldn’t as the boys would certainly be chasing her more in ‘kiss chase’. I cannot recall what most of the rules are, except for the basics and that terrifies me enough. It is part of my lesson for tomorrows observed class and for the short amount of time it has allocated, it really is making me sweat.

To take my mind away from the inevitable, I wandered through the streets of Bangkok. The air had become thick and humid with the recent rain fall, leaving a musky summer smell. I am overwhelmed with the choice of Tea. Green tea with mango, Green tea with blueberry, pearl tea, coconut tea, wheatgrass tea. Pick a flavour, any flavour and they have it. I feel my mind and stomach doing ‘flip, flops’ with excitement with the sheer volume of what I can stuff into my belly. Everywhere I look there is something new that needs to be eaten. Something delicious that needs to be drunk. I really need the novelty to wear off or else my future students will need to roll me up to the front of the class room. It seems I have been here for years. I remind myself that I arrived a mere 4 days ago. There is something that calms me about the madness of Bangkok. I find the herds of people something of a comfort. Maybe its the reassurance of being surrounded by other souls that leaves you feeling a little less lonely. That you are part of a much bigger picture. A picture that is truly astounding and full of sheer beauty and innocence. Everyone’s heart beating to the same rhythm as each of you scuttle around purposefully. Yes Bangkok, I could potentially fall for your vibrant, gritty charm like a first love. Lets just hope you will be able to give me a huge embrace when your delicious cuisine finally rests itself on my growing belly.

Sweet Eggs

My senses have been assaulted.

Completely and utterly smothered by the lights, the traffic, the people, the cats that roam, the food and the thick, sticky heat. Mostly though it is the smell. I don’t know whether its delicious or intoxicatingly disgusting. One minute its something sweet and ripe – a combination of succulent fruit,  awakening my senses to a tropical paradise – then I take a few steps and I am hit with the smell of deep-fried chicken, followed swiftly by a lingering smell of urine, sweat and fish. Each step sends my stomach into a dance of love and hate. I don’t know where to look next with another stall popping up, a person stepping on my feet or the intimidating buildings with their bright lights shinning down, reminding me of the tiny being that I am. I have arrived in Bangkok.

My journey was all together hassle free and my only annoyance was being sat next to a woman who proceeded to burp loudly throughout the 8 hour flight from Heathrow to Delhi. It seemed that she had no control over it and I spent the entire journey sat counting down the seconds before she would inevitably make a loud roar of a burp which had me covering my mouth with my scarf and stretching my body into the aisle to escape the smell of yesterdays curry mixed with stomach acid and fart. A small price to pay though, as the rest of the trip went comfortably. Delhi to Bangkok was the last stretch, taking 4 hours.

Although a smooth journey, it was not without its nagging doubts. As I left my family to board a train to London where I was to catch the shuttle to Heathrow, I was consumed with all the reasons why I shouldn’t go. You are wasting your time and money, you can turn around right now, just get off at Cardiff. Failing that you can stay a night in London and go back home in the morning. Why the hell are you going to Bangkok and the most consistent and troubling questions was what are you looking for? I proceeded to dodge my irritatingly persistent ego until I got on the plane and I could relax into my panic with the realisation that it was too late to change my mind. I am now sat in my hotel apartment feeling mentally drained after my first day of CELTA, but also exhilarated. My mind and soul seem to be awakening with a yawn after so much time spent clock watching and slinking around the office. I am also feeling the strain after spending 2 hours frantically looking for my hotel after school. I must have walked in circles a few times before asking an unsuspecting Thai gentleman to point me in the right direction. Although my legs have been exercised more in the last two hours than they have for months, it did give me the opportunity to sample the renowned banana pancake which was still delicious after 2 hours sweating in a plastic bag.

pancake

I also managed to pick up a pack of ripe papaya, cut into big juicy chunks and a pack of mini bean cakes which look appetising but I failed to read the recipe that they contain egg yolk. Don’t know how to feel when I bite into the cake and taste sweetness but see the orange yolk staring back at me. Just may have to eat a few more before I can make a decision.

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