So over the last two days I have been lucky enough to accompany the Teaching volunteers here in Surin and those of you who know me pretty well know that I am definitely less of a children person and more of a animal person; dogs and elephants specifically. Kids are cute and everything but I always get the feeling that they know something that I don’t and I know that they aren’t going to tell me, which rather unsettles me. Plus whenever I think of children I think of that creepy kid from the Ring movie, you know the little Asian one? Pretty sure all children do that whole ‘standing creepily over you’ thing whenever I close my eyes.
But, despite my apparent fear of children I can honestly say that I have never had so many warm fuzzy feelings in such a short space of time like when I was hanging out with the school kids. I wasn’t even teaching the class, I was observing and seeing how lessons run and what we can do to really boost these children’s language skills. The children were still so desperate to try and involve me or at the very least, stare at me as I wasn’t just another white person, I was a white person with tattoos, one of which is written in Thai, snake bite piercings and a stretcher in my ear; something which isn’t the norm here in Thailand. So needless to say I was the object of so many lingering stares.
Do you remember your language lessons at school and how little you would pay attention until it was your turn to stand up and read a passage from a book? Well kids here in Thailand aren’t like that. They are so enthralled by learning English and they will spend hours copying down English in their neatest hand writing and getting the volunteers to mark their work. I can never remember ever seeing a child in an English school being so desperate to see if their work was right. That just shows me how much these children care and are interested to learn another language; but not only that, it shows me how much effort the volunteers are putting into each class to keep students interested and engaged; having taught English myself before I know how difficult this can be.
English classes in Thailand start out the same way no matter where you are in the country, at the beginning of every language class every student recites the ‘Hello teacher’ greeting which, even though I have heard it about a thousand times, still makes me smile as it is so wonderful to see such a level of respect that is promted by the students themselves and not the teachers.
Respect and very good behaviour is something you get by the bucket load in Thai schools, unlike the Western counterparts, and I think that this level of respect is something that makes each teacher that Starfish brings in, feel like they are actually a teacher and have a presence of authority as opposed to some foreigner teaching their first language. Having these children look at you as a teacher obviously brings about a feeling of pressure but we always have one of our Thai members of staff in the classes with our teachers to aid in translating any of the children’s issues and to explain another game that the children can add to their overflowing knowledge 😀
Children in the Starfish schools are so encapsulated with learning that they will use their English on anyone that they think might even speak the smallest bit of English. I was sat in the back of a class observing Taryn’s (one of our Teaching volunteers) lesson and two girls from one of the oldest class came up to me to ask what my name was and to try and find out where I came from, where I lived, what my favourite colour was and why on earth I had the word ‘elephant’ tattooed on my arm. Now I always make a point of not answering students in the generic ‘My name is Wendy. My favourite colour is green. I like horses’ way because I don’t think that it helps the students comprehension levels so I will always answer in flowing sentences and ask them questions back. Yes, sometimes it takes a little more time to get an answer or for them to understand, but there is no mistaking that little smug smile of satisfaction when they know they have the right answer.
They really want to see the board huh? – Principle Wendy
Students here actually want to learn; and they want you to teach them. They are like sponges, as cliched as that sounds, but it’s true. A better reference I think is you know when you have a pair of really nice jeans on or a particularly soft jumper and a cat comes and sits on you and just makes you look like Chewbacca? Well the students in these classes are the nice jeans or the particularly soft jumper, and you? You are that pesky cat that leaves your mark for far longer than even you could comprehend.
Understandably these children do meet a lot of volunteers so there are lots of cat hairs on their nice pairs of jeans but I think knowing that you are part of that hairy pair of jeans is actually quite a nice thought. To know that I helped build on what a previous volunteer taught and that the next volunteer will use that as a building block to even more understanding for the students makes me feel, and I know it makes the current volunteers feel, as though they are actually teaching English and not just providing entertainment for a few hours a week.
Now I know a lot of people immediately throw out the idea of teaching English abroad as they assume it isn’t for them, now this may well be true for some people; I know I wouldn’t want the Marquis de Sade as my teacher, but if you aren’t a prolific French ‘playa’ from the 1700’s then you might want to reconsider your decision. The most common reason I hear for not choosing to teach is down to the volunteers accent or their own use of English, now in my opinion, this is far and beyond underestimating the ability of these students. The class I observed for a large portion of the day was being taught by a South African born Australian who spent her childhood growing up in Hong Kong, now you can’t tell me that that is the typical ‘Queens English’ accent can you? And did the students have trouble understanding Taryns accent? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . NO! Thailand has accents as well so these kids aren’t oblivious to the fact that there are different ways to talk depending on where you live.
I would say that having an accent only helps these children more as it exposes them to several different new ways of saying a word or a sentence and knowing that just because they don’t talk like the Queen of England doesn’t mean that they won’t be understood. The Thai language has many sounds that English doesn’t, which makes it very hard for English people to pronounce Thai words, but it also works both ways and makes it hard for Thais to pronounce certain English sounds. Students, for example, understand that ‘L’ sounds like the ‘L’ in lemon but they way they have been taught to talk, naturally makes their ‘L’s sound like ‘R’s like it does in many Asian languages, and to constantly be asked to repeat it because it isn’t as quaint as the way the Queen might say it can be very demoralising. If students are shown that there are several ways to pronounce the same sound and be understood makes them far more comfortable and confident to use their English skills, not only in front of a class, but in general life as well; this is something that only comes about when teachers with different accents are present. And after all if these children are going to be using English in their jobs or their own life they may well not even come across someone that speaks like the Queen, they might come into contact with a Geordie or a Scouser and if they have never been exposed to that accent before, how are they supposed to understand?
As long as you are kind, helpful and want to have a ridiculous amount of fun teaching students who are genuinely interested in learning then this is the right volunteering experience for you. When you see how desperate the students are to learn and how much love they will give you for teaching them you will wonder why it took you so long to volunteer in the first place.
Even a 5 minute conversation will bring the biggest smile to these childrens faces and they will go out of their way to show you how thankful they are, a good example of this is when I was asked by one girl in an afternoon class, what my favourtie sport was. I answered that it was horse riding and then motioned the obvious, well to me it was obvious, sign for horse riding which is looking like your hands are holding reigns. This was greeted by gasps and smiles and the very distinct word that is ‘Gangnam’, now if you don’t know what Gangnam is you should be ashamed quite frankly! The children were so hyped up by singing Gangnam that we used it as a reward for finishing work and then proceded to dance to Gangnam with a group of students who could not stop laughing, giggling and joining in. At the end of the day one of the boys that had raced to finish his work in order to listen to that particularly catchy Korean song came up to me and gave me a piece of paper which you can see below.
I had literally spent 5 minutes talking to that one boy who then took it upon himself to write me an I Love You note! You can in no way tell me your heart doesn’t melt a teeny bit at that???
There are literally no words to describe just how happy, funny, charming and willing these children are, you just need to come out here and see it for yourself! Come and see the smiles that made Taryn teary when she was saying goodbye for the last time. Come and see the children who visibly become more confident in themselves because they are speaking English and they are also understanding it as well.
I won’t lie though, teaching isn’t easy. There are times where you will get frustrated because the kid you have been trying to help for 10 minutes still doesn’t quite grasp plural and singles but you have to remember that they are only primary school age and they are learning a whole new language; it isn’t the easiest thing in the world for them. But when they get it, and they always do, even if it takes some of them a little longer than others, it will be because of you, these children only get what you put into their lessons so if you give it your all then so will they and they will continuously astound you with their ability and their want to learn. It is also pretty cool to be that awesome and cool teacher at school, everyone remembers the super cool teacher at school. Mine was called Mr Offord and he would make my English language and literature lessons so much fun that I would dread hearing the bell as it would mean I had to go to all of my other naff lessons. You get to be Mr Offord, or Mrs, or Miss Offord, or whatever your favourite teacher was called.
By now you should all know what to do……. You need to go to the Starfish – Volunteer Thailand Facebook page and sign up to the Starfish newsletter. You can also check out the Starfish Tumblr page and our very own
#starfishvolunteers Instagram or even my own Instagram which I am always updating with pictures of my goings on #wendyreece
Now if you need any more convincing about how rewarding teaching is here are the pictures of Taryn saying goodbye to her students, who were very sad to see her leave and made her an incredible amount of pictures and notes saying how much they loved her.
Build. Protect.Teach. Care. – The Starfish Motto