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.


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.

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