Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Teacher Appreciation vs Teacher Support

Last week, our school celebrated Wai Kru Day. Essentially the Thai version of Teacher Appreciation Day, it's a time where students in this country are meant to show defference and gratitude to their teachers. At our school, teachers dress in traditional Thai garb and take part in a ceremony where our students present us with homemade bouqeuts of local flowers wrapped in banana leaves.

 The ceremony goes something like this: Students and teachers walk to a predetermined location (for first grade that's the school chapel). The students and teachers sit down in said location and listen to someone speak about the importance of honoring teachers. Or at least that's what we can gather. I only pickup tidits from the speech and, because of their attention spans, I think most of my first grade students only comprehend around 10% of what's being told to them. Six and seven years old is not too young for bloated gatherings in the Thai school system.

 When the speaker is finished, the teachers descend to a row of chairs and take a seat in front of several large woven alters. Then the children, with a lot of direction by other staff, present their bouqeuts to the teachers. If all goes according to plan the students should wai (bow while pressing their palms together) to their teachers, hand their bouquet over and then wai once more after the teacher puts the flowers on the alter. But, as with most everything else in first grade, nothing goes in a straight sequence. Some of the children miss their ques. Some don't bow in sequence with the others or they linger too long around the alters. Traffic jams ensue. And of course there's the noise, always the noise. It follows any large group of six and seven year olds. And three hundred of them together in a single four walled building will make a few sounds, even if they behave as well as they can. Kids chattering with eachother in the seats and lines, kids touching or playing eachother, kids getting into fights -the chapel with it's high ceiling is filled with the echoes of this commotion. Finally, when the alters are overflowing with flowers the teachers rise, a prayer is said and the students and teachers leave. As we depart, we see custodial staff entering the chapel with large garbage bags to dispose of the three hundred or so bouquets left near the front.

 All in all, it's a touching and sentimental ceremony, especially with little kids. Yet as I passed by the soon to be filled bags, I couldn't help but feel as if there were other ways that students and others could make teachers feel supported as well as appreciated.

 As a foreigner in Thailand, teaching at the well funded private school I am at, I have a number of priveleges which I'm grateful for. I'll be the first to admit that some of these priveleges are more merited than others. Even so, teaching is a draining, exhausting, time consuming and extremely underappreciated profession in so many corners of the world. In many countries, teachers suffer from astronomical class sizes, scarce funding and resources, administrative red tape from the government, unmotivated students and unbelievebly long work days with very few vacations or benifits.

 On that day, walking back to the first grade building, I joked (half seriously) with another teacher that a better use of Wai Kru day would be to give teachers a day off and a cheque to spend on whatever they wanted.

 For as nice as Wai Kru and other days for appreciating teachers are with their ceremonies and gestures, ultimately they are just a pat on the back or a handshake. And across the board, teachers need so so much more. And, they do little if anything to make the difficult realities of the profession any easier. 

 At our school, when the flowers were scooped up and thrown away when the teachers had made it back to their offices and the students to their homerooms our day went about as usual. Our students were still just as they were before they gave us their flowers. Still wild, still energentic, still hard to control at times, still all too ready to drift away and lose interest in a millisecond. The good students were still attentive, the lazy students still lazy, the kids with ADD and other learning disabilities still couldn't pay attention no matter how hard they might try.

 For many, the deference they'd been coached to show in the chapel faded as soon as they left. And as teachers, we still had to work with the same convoluted curriculum and enormous teaching load we always have to cope with.

 A bouquet of flowers is nice, especially when it's given with a smile by a student you know and love. It feels good to be appreciated a day out of the year, but I feel as if many teachers around the globe, especially for those in thankless schools and positions, would feel better if everyday of the year was regarded as teacher support day instead.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Children Are Not Innocent...Just Themselves

Children are not innocent. I love the little ones I teach. I love their spirit, I love their zeal for living but honestly they aren't innocent creatures. At least not in the idealized way people sometimes think they are. They are naïve. They are largely unaware of how convoluted and dark the world they've entered is. They are highly-impressionable. But innocent? No, not innocent.

 I've taught first grade students in Thailand for over a year now. Out of three hundred and sixty five days in 2013 I spent about eighty-percent of them interacting with six and seven year old boys and girls. I am by no means an expert on child psychology. Yet I think I can say with a great deal of certainty that children don't fit the dictionary definition of innocent. That definition, just FYI, is 'free from moral wrong.'

 What have I seen to bring me to this conclusion? Well, just about everyday I see a child crying because someone hit them, or because someone took a treat or toy from them, or because someone called them a name. I hear kids lie to me when they say they don't have a notebook only to find that it's in their cubby-hole and they never bothered to look for it. I see kids cheat on tests by looking at their neighbors sheets when it's been explicitly explained you don't do it. I see kids be vindictive, petty, mean for no clear reason other to inflict pain on others for their own enjoyment. These children have a concept of right and wrong, primitive as it may be, yet they disregard it on a regular basis.

 I also know, children are not innocent because interacting with my first graders has pushed me to look back at my own foggy memories of grade school. I realized I too, I wasn't innocent at their age either or any other part of my youth. For the truth is, we've all been bullies at one point in our lives. True, I doubt most of us have been the kids who thrived in the world of thuggery. Most of us didn't demand other kids' lunch money...but at some point in our schooling we instigated or participated in the marginalization and abuse of one of our peers who was a bit different. Maybe it was with a rude comment or a bit of name-calling maybe it was actually physical maybe it was teasing. But we were all mean to someone without reason to be.

 Now, please, when you read this don't think to yourself 'What a cynic! Does he really dislike his job so much?' Well, like everyone I do loath my day job at times, but it's rarely because of the children. As I stated before, I love the buggers. What I love most about them though is that they are themselves, unabashedly unashamedly themselves.

 I think this is what many people truly mean when they talk fondly of the innocence of children. They are innocent, not because they don't know the difference between moral wrongs and rights but because they are innocent of social constrictions. More than anything else, I feel we adults wish we could be more of ourselves. We yearn to be true to ourselves in a world  where circumstance and the sweat of making a so called living more often than not get in our way.

 We also yearn, to not feel the pressure to appear a certain way at a certain time. We sometimes wish we could truly and freely express our fears about the unknown, express our ignorance of so many aspects of life. The stiff-upper lip the nose to the grindstone. It would be nice if it could vanish from time to time. We all wish at points we didn't have to appear invincible, competent and composed. We wish we didn't have to appear a certain way to others just because it's expected. Children, small children, have few pretenses. Few grand deceptions in their lives. They are the only people I know, who can truly live moment by moment. They are so caught up in the moment that their pain evaporates just as quickly as their joy. The slights I mentioned before are almost always forgotten in a short span of time.

 The children I teach are exactly themselves at exactly that moment and every moment after. They allow themselves to be happy when they are happy, they allow themselves to be sad when they are sad, they allow themselves to be vindictive and mean spirited when that is what they feel. They are not innocent. They simply have not been taught to hide and in some cases fear aspects of themselves as far too many adults have. Society has not taught them to conform to repress to excuse who they may be or what they may be for the sake of unity, harmony or the benefit of society.

 Don't misinterpret me here either. Society is necessary and finding the right balance between a true self and a healthy concern for the well-being of our fellow man or woman is something generations of thinkers and leaders have meditated on for generations with limited success.

 I do think though that learning how to better preserve the inhibition of the small ones, which we so admire in them, would go a long way towards making sure grown ups can recapture some of the zeal and contentment they had in days gone by.