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.

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.

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.