reflections, a testimonial

I was reorganizing my computer the other day and I found the 1 year teaching testimonial that I wrote for my boss and the company’s website (www.superenglishsurat.com).  Here is a glimpse of how I got to Thailand and how I felt after a year of teaching in Thailand:

Brittany’s Testimonial

Last May, I got an email from my dad, wondering where I was and what I was doing. I emailed him back to let him know that I was safe and that I had stopped traveling for a while to settle back down in Thailand, teaching English to 7thand 8th grade girls at a Catholic school in a town called Surat Thani. His response?

“That’s funny,” he wrote. “My first teaching job was teaching 7th and 8thgrade girls at a Catholic school in New Orleans.”

The way that I became a English teacher in Thailand is obviously drastically different from how my father became a science teacher in New Orleans, but the similarity is still uncanny to me. (I guess it’s finally time to admit that maybe I do take after him, after all).

These 7th and 8thgrade girls aren’t the easiest bunch to teach. I remember middle school being a difficult time in my own life, and apparently it’s not that much different here in Thailand. Just the mere span of a summer and some additional hormones can apparently change a classroom from one of eager participation to one of silence and eye-rolls. No longer do the students practically fall out of their chairs, vying to be the first ones to answer a question or to play a game. Gone are the days of it being funny to make a fool out of yourself and wanting to please the teachers. Now it’s about phones and mirrors and being cool. Being cool doesn’t usually involve raising your hand.

That being said, I feel like I’ve come a long way in the past 6 months to overcome the challenges of teaching Mattayom girls (equivalent to grades 7-12). There are about 55 students in each of my classes, and I see them 4 times a week. Though I teach in an Intensive English Program, their English speaking abilities are pretty varied and their textbooks are too complicated. Slowly but surely, though, I feel like I’m making some progress. Some of my M1 girls stop me in the hallway to ask me, “Where are you going?” and when I ask them back, they’ve started to speak more confidently. They all want to know if I have a boyfriend. “Brittany, you are lovely,” an M2 said to me yesterday after class. I told her she could also say “pretty” or “cute” or “cool.” She looked panicked. Baby steps.

There are some days where I feel like I have no business being an English teacher, where my lesson plans flop, and there’s no possible way to fix all of the things that need to be fixed. But then I remind myself that the point of me being here isn’t to distill perfect English grammar to these girls. They have Thai teachers to teach grammar. Grammar’s boring, anyways.

I’m here, on the other hand, to help with conversation and pronunciation. By virtue of being a native speaker, I’m actually an expert. But at the same time that I’m an expert, I’m nowhere near the center of their worlds. I can’t change the fact the students aren’t particularly used to thinking for themselves, that they are shy and don’t want to lose face, that they only see me for 4 times a week for 50 minutes. Teaching is my full-time job, but really I’m just a blip in their lives! A white, very confusing blip.

So those are the things that I can’t let get to me. What I can control, though, is how I show up to the classroom every hour and every day. And, according to my dad (who has been a teacher for many years, and teaches teachers), as long as I’m “blowing my lessons up” every day – looking for what worked and for what didn’t work – I’m probably doing just fine.

Would you be surprised if I wrote that I never expected to be a teacher? Or that I would like it? Or to even, maybe, be good at it? The thought of coming up with lesson plans and then executing them in front of a very full classroom of students was initially pretty terrifying to me. And this was even after I spent 5 months as a volunteer assistant English teacher in Thungsong, Thailand, from June to October 2010. Even though I had been in a Thai classroom, I was still sometimes doubtful of my ability break the cultural and knowledge barrier. I didn’t even know if I liked working with children that much, either, to be honest. Especially germy ones that I couldn’t communicate with.

These were the thoughts that were plaguing my mind in January 2011. I was sitting in a hostel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, when I realized that my traveling funds might come to an end soon, so it was time to look for a job. Teaching English somewhere in Thailand was the obvious answer, but where? And how was I supposed to pull off being a teacher when I really wasn’t actually one?

Originally, I searched for jobs near my host family in Nakhon Si Thammarat, but somehow my search criteria matched something else and I found myself reading the job posting for Super English. The fact that the school even had a website was encouraging to me. I started looking around the site and really got a good feeling from reading all the sincere testimonials and articles that were posted. I was especially reassured by the fact that there seemed like there’d be training and an extraordinary amount of support throughout the contract. Could this be what I was looking for? A sign, please, anyone?

Call it luck or serendipity or whatever, but when I clicked on the “Current Teachers” page, I saw the picture of a girl whom I had met 6 months prior, while I was a volunteer. I remember this girl, in particular, because her name is the same as mine, just spelled differently. Brittney and I had met at a local beach gathering in Khanom, and we had some mutual friends. I was able to find her and contact her on Facebook, and she had nothing but good things to say about working at Super English and living in Surat. To paraphrase her message: her co-workers were great, she loved her Prathom 2 (2nd grade) students, there was free housing, no 8-4 office hours, minimal paperwork, and lots of games and self-direction whenever she taught classes.

All of this confirmed the positive feelings I got from reading the articles on the website, and if you’re still reading this because you’re curious (congrats!), I’d like to continue to affirm that Super English does a great job with helping its teachers to the best of its ability. I learned a lot from my training and from my co-workers and bosses, all of whom are always there to help out with ideas for games or lesson plans. I really appreciate Peter’s teaching philosophy, in which the kids should be having fun first, then English learning can progress from there. I’ve tried to take this to heart and bring this to my classes, and like I said earlier, I think it’s working.

One place where I really get to enjoy the fruits of my labor is in my Super English classes. In addition to the Mattayom classes that I teach, I’m one of 4 teachers who does evening classes at the language school itself. In stark opposition to my main classes at Thida, Super English classes are small (I have between 8 and 15 students in one class).

At Super English, creativity really does reign supreme. I’m allowed to do whatever I think is best for the kids, and sometimes that involves letting them race to the center of the room to pick up a flashcard, then letting the winner throw a semi-inflated ball at the other kid after correctly answering my question (the “thwack” sound it makes is hilarious since the kid who lost has to stand still).

I teach high-beginners and intermediate students at Super English, so a lot of my kids are in grade school and absolutely love the fact that the SE classroom is not anything like their Thai classrooms. As soon as I stepped in to my first SE class, I could tell that the students were used to having a lot of fun, and that they had lots of caring teachers before me. One class even calls each other out for speaking Thai in the classroom, and now they’re even using the appropriate present continuous tense (“PEEM is speaking Thai!” Ploy will yell. I’m still working on trying to get them to argue back, “No, I’m not!” and “Yes, you are!”). We sing songs. We play games. I can pick them up, hug them, tickle them, pinch their cheeks, and swing them around. If I sit down next to one of my students, I find them leaning against me or giving me a hug. Turns out that I do like kids (well, the ones who like learning, anyways).

This past week, I signed on for another 6 months past my original year contract. Hopefully that tells you something about the quality of life here. Like a lot of other articles mention, Surat Thani is a very Thai town that’s probably unlike anything you’ve ever lived in before. For me, however, after living in Thungsong amidst practically no other foreigners, moving to Surat Thani has been incredible because there are coffee shops, tons of great places to eat, and most of all, great co-workers. I love the people I work with, half of whom are the people I live with, and we hang out constantly.

Moving to Surat Thani to teach English with SE has been a great learning experience for me. This second semester is already so much easier than the first. The other great thing about Super English while they give you support, but they also leave you alone enough to help you figure it out yourself. “The only pressure that there is in the classroom is the pressure you put on yourself,” Janet likes to say. And it’s true. Like anything, teaching takes practice. Practice involves making mistakes, and that’s how you get better at it. Also, you end up learning that some classes are just bad in general, and it’s not necessarily a reflection of you as a teacher.

This year has been a year where I’ve learned to be gentle with myself, professionally and personally. I think the fact that I’m allowed to be creative in the classroom, coupled with the freedom of not working 40 hours a week as well as being able to travel, has allowed me to be more creative in my personal life. I’m painting and drawing for the first time, I’m doing yoga and meditation, I’m taking time to wander and play.

You might also be able to tell that I’m writing and reflecting a whole lot. I read somewhere that people who are satisfied with their jobs cite creativity, autonomy, and meaningful work as reasons for their satisfaction. Though writing the notes for this testimonial, I realized that I had all three in this job with Super English. Throw in the other things that contribute to well-being — a close-knit community of friends, making more than enough money to live on, sunshine, and really amazingly awesome food – I can’t really ask for much else. What are you waiting for?

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