Last Friday, my first year as a elementary ESL teacher at the Prince Royal's College in Thailand came to
an end. As I've been decompressing from one of the most hectic and
exhausting times in my life, I've also been reflecting on these ten
When I first moved back to Chiang Mai
to start this job in April, I was coming in with very little teaching
experience. I earned a TESOL certificate about four months before I
arrived. I had done one practicum and apart from a few days in
high-school looking after a troop of tots during a summer camp, I had
never worked with little kids before.
I wasn't sure what to expect, even
after arriving on campus and meeting my co-teachers. I didn't feel
nervous about this. I was glad to be back in Chiang Mai after seven
years. I was also happy (in a time of high unemployment for
twenty-somethings) to have a new job and a fresh start after some
good but tumultuous years in Egypt.
I did wonder in the days leading up to
my first term though, if I was perhaps too naïve and unprepared when
it came to teaching five classes filled with forty first grade
At the end of my first day of teaching,
I realized just how accurate those doubts were. The beginning of
school was horrific. I watched students chase each other around
desks, leap off tables and ride each other around like horses. I
witnessed time and time again classes tuning out every command I
threw at them. Often, I felt helpless and utterly flabbergasted. All
the advice and techniques my Thai co-teachers offered in the lead up
to the lessons fell flat on the floor to be trampled by my first
graders' tiny feet.
That night, I returned home to my small
apartment by the school and vegged. I lay in my bed for several hours
staring up despondently at the ceiling. I would spend many nights
over the next month or two feeling shell shocked, numbed and in some
cases depressed as I tried often unsuccessfully to manage the
extravagant energy of my students.
Teaching six and seven year-olds, in a
language they don't understand very well, is exhausting and often
very hard on the soul. Phrases I had heard off and on from teachers
and parents my whole life ('These kids drive me crazy.' 'I could
kill someone, I'm so stressed.') sank in and became tangible for
the first time.
The pressures that come from a society
that values saving face further convoluted enforcing classroom
discipline. Contacting parents of troubled or difficult school
children over behavioral issues can be complicated by the 'need' to
avoid shaming the parents or child.
In the midst of all this, I questioned
if I would make it. I wondered if the school would come to regard me
as a bad teacher and send me away. Occasionally, I wished they would.
As some other Native English Teachers began to leave early in the
term, I wondered if perhaps I should just cut my losses and leave.
In the end though, I decided to keep
going and even though I can't say I became a great or incredible
teacher, I learned more about who my students were. I at last began
to understand what they responded and didn't respond too. I also
discovered the limitations of Thai education, and how kids with
severe learning disabilities often share the same classroom with kids
who are bright brilliant and eager to study. I realized how important
it was to move quickly and flawlessly between elements of a lesson. I
learned which resources were good for my age level and which would
lose my student's very limited attention spans.
Comprehending all these vital lessons
hasn't always automatically translated into my classroom. Teachers,
like students, need time to grow and apply the lessons they've
learned. Even into the second term I sometimes struggled to make my
Along with classroom pressures, there's
was work miscommunications, a long list of extracurricular
activities, after-school classes, field trips and camps etc.
All of these pressures made my year
tough and grueling.
There were many aspects of teaching
primary students at a school I disliked.
Yet amongst all the moments of
bureaucratic bs and student behavioral issues there were many, many
times that brought me joy and made all the exhaustion and
In all honesty, it's the good that
stands out to me the most as I think back.
I remember the thrill that came from
finally coming up with a lesson that students enjoyed and the sense
of accomplishment when a student could answer a question or remember
a word off the top of their head.
There was the time when we cut pumpkins
with 1/7 and the lesson where I got to see students draw their
favorite animals. I can never forget the first time some boys in 1/8
decided to start calling me teacher handsome. I cherish the visits a
girl with severe ADD in 1/10 would make to my office so I could quiz
her on English vocabulary. I recall fondly when, at the end of some
of very long days, a student would tag along with me as we left the
1st grade building on campus. I grin when I think of the
countless times a student came up and gave me an uninhibited hug or
raised their hand up for a high five or fist pump.
The bad moments were plentiful, crying
times, angry times, times of being fed up and pooped out for both
teacher and student alike.
Yet even in some of these awkward
difficult trials there were moments of brightness and bonding. The
sadness I would feel when a child in a class would cry could
sometimes go away with a few silly faces or kind gestures. A student
even returned the favor once, when she saw me sulking in the hallway
after a bad lesson and told me with a gesture we had learned in class
that I should be 'happy'.
As ready as I was for the year and all
the pressure to be over with, I know I will miss my students.
Last Friday, I made the rounds through
all my classes as they broke out juice and cookies and celebrated the
end of the year. I was toasted with grape juice in one class by my
students, who had put their desks together to form two long tables
reminiscent of a viking feast. In another, I was swarmed by two dozen
grinning faces all urging me to try one of the snacks they had gotten
from their homeroom teacher. And in another, I got to hear one of my
brightest students tell me in a soft whisper 'Teacher Sean, I love
I don't think I will ever win a teacher
of the year award. I seriously doubt many of my kids this year will
remember me as some fountain of wisdom in their lives. I know many
will not have drastically improved their English. Yet to have been
able to share these children's lives for a short time and know that I
gained their fondness, love and affection fills me with pride and
makes me appreciate how even with all the frustrations we humans face
in the world, there is also great, and genuine joy.