Thai school is different to English schools in a thousand ways. This is the first of three blog posts I will write about each of the schools I am in.
Matteyum is the equivalent of secondary school. The matteyum I am based in is small. Only 150 students across 3 year groups, ranging from 12 to 15 years old. Most are ethnic minorities, Karen or Luwah. Some are Thai.
Just a few years ago the government passed a law requiring all students aged 6 – 15 to attend school. It seems this is not strictly enforced, especially in the remote mountain areas. And it is common for those who do attend to miss large chunks of school throughout the year. Often they might return home for months at a time to help their families with the harvest or rice planting.
KHT have funded several dormitories at the school so that Karen children from further afield can attend the Matteyum. 80 of the 150 students that attend school and over half of the teachers live here. The kids are mostly from very remote villages and rarely, if ever visit their families, it being too far and too expensive to do so.
Next academic year my school will extend and accept students from M4 to M6, 16 to 18 year olds. This weekend will be the grand opening of the new building. After that students who wish to extend their studies past M3 will no longer have to travel any further from home. Having said this, I understand most students do not continue their studies, school becoming too expensive unless they have sponsorship or a scholarship.
School starts at 8am every morning with assembly outside on the school yard. It lasts for half an hour in which the Thai flag is raised, the national anthem sung and an entertaining workout to the Max Muay Thai soundtrack is done. Somewhat disappointingly, the teachers do not take part.
Lessons start straight after at half past 8 but rarely begin on time. This is true for all the lessons throughout the day. Though they are supposed to be an hour long, in reality they are more like 40 minutes. It is completely normal for students to turn up 20 minutes late. They are never asked to explain themselves and unlike in the UK, it is the students who initiate the beginning of the lesson, not the teacher.
A nominated classmate will say ‘Stand Up Please’ and all the students will do as they are asked. In sync they will say ‘Good Morning Teacher’ and ask how you are. In English lessons it is spoken in English, but the same is spoken in Thai across the other lessons. If I try to begin the lesson before this has happened I am stopped and told to wait for the absent students. At the end of each lesson a similar ritual is repeated thanking the teacher. The students are often flustered by anything they are not used to and it has taken me some time to get used to these unfamiliar things.
Thai society highly values respect and in school teachers are given a lot of it. Students will stop and press themselves against the wall or banister to allow you to walk past, even though there is ample space in both the corridors and the stairs for you to pass by. They will open car doors for us when we return to school after lunch (which for the teachers is always delicious meals from one of the local noodle places) and carry your bags to wherever you are going.
Students will fetch water, tea or coffee for you if you are teaching and it is not uncommon to see students in the staff room at lunch, or even during lesson time, giving teachers head, back and shoulder massages.
Though the teachers are in charge it is the students who run the school. They all have duties to do ensuring the school is tidy and clean. They make regular rounds of the staff room collecting dirty crockery to be washed up in the outside sink and they sweep the yards and classrooms daily. Cleanliness is important in Thai culture and both at home and school all shoes are removed before entering a room. Shoes live throughout the day in neatly stacked racks beside the stairs. I am always amazed no-one loses their shoes, especially when to my untrained eyes the shoes all look identical, but it seems this simply doesn’t happen.
Every week on Scout Day (Wednesday) they do general maintenance as part of their school curriculum, as well as other Scout activities such as learning knots, marching and so on. School curriculum is varied here and as much emphasis is placed on learning to cook and clean, and on song and dance as on more traditional subjects.
Being a teacher here also seems to me to be a vastly varied role. Many of the teachers spend whole days doing everything except teach. Lessons are regularly cancelled by staff and students and it is also usual to have only half a class, the others away at a competition or entertaining important visitors to the school. I have yet to see the Head of English step into the English room, her time instead taken up with school competitions and events.
School is without doubt a more relaxed affair here and it is as much about having fun as learning. The teachers may be given more respect than I ever saw in a British school but equally the kids and teachers hang out more like friends outside of school hours. I suppose it is not altogether surprising given that many of them live together in the dormitory blocks (although teachers do get their own rooms).
At first I found the secondary school here could be highly frustrating. I never knew what was happening or when, planned lessons that didn’t happen whilst being thrown into others that I hadn’t planned for. However a few weeks in and I have adjusted well enough, enjoying the laidback nature of school here, worrying less about what English I teach them and more about getting to know them. This is more fun for everyone.