Here and There- Teaching in the US vs Teaching in Thailand
For the last two weeks I've been working as a substitute teaching assistant in a special needs classroom at an elementary school in Kansas. The ten days I've spent assisting the six students at this elementary school has been my first exposure to the US education system. It is a very different experience from my teaching career in Thailand and it's not just the fact that I speak the same first language as my students. For this post I thought, I would talk about some of contrasts I've seen between the Thai and American schools I've taught in. Disclaimer: I don't think either system is perfect.That said, I'll start with some aspects of my US experience that I think are better before I detail some aspects of American education that I don't think are very positive.
Going from thirty eight first graders in Thailand to six in the US is amazing. Granted, the kids I help teach now all have similar temperaments to the seven or eight naughty students I would inevitably find in each of my Thai classes. When you have at least one student each day getting into a brawl or throwing a temper tantrum, it can be exhausting. However, the plus side to the US school is that I no longer have to worry about another thirty six or seven kids losing focus while I deal with two boys breaking each others faces over a batman figure. I can focus all my energies on the one student throwing his fit, in a classroom where he doesn't distract other kids.
Students with Learning Disabilities
This brings me to the next big difference. The fact that at my Thai school, there were no programs for children with severe disabilities. They were thrown into the mix with everyone else and there was no clear method to integrate them into the classroom or develop specific activities that would cater to their strengths. This makes my current experience in a classroom designed specifically for learning disabled children all the more remedying. It's comforting to see kids who struggle in this way get special attention and devotion.
Periods and Days
With little children, less is always more. That's a firm belief after two years of watching Thai first graders struggle to make it through eight or nine hour days filled with fifty minute periods. Children have short attention spans. The younger they are, the faster you'll lose them. At the school I'm working at now, each first grade class only goes for twenty five minutes. Their days are only seven hours long, including two recesses, lunch and PE. This make the students' lives and mine a lot easier. In Thailand when 3:00 came we'd still have two more hours to go and we teachers would be struggling tooth and nail to hold onto our students, whose energies were spent.
Freedom of the Students
In Thailand, students were given a lot of personal freedom around campus. Even my first graders were expected to move on their own if they had a class in a separate building. This often meant it took them fifteen or twenty minutes to walk thirty feet, especially when they found cool things like bugs to distract them. Students were also expected to come back on their own from recess and break. Not surprisingly, you'd find a few boys lingering outside or wandering around the backside of the buildings during the next few periods. In the States, students need teacher's to walk them around the corner of the hall to go to lunch. Teacher's need to watch the students get picked up and go home. Bottom line, here in the US there's a feeling young children need to be watched and supervised when they move around the school. If they aren't, this is seen as endangering the children and a liability for the school.
Security and Level of Paranoia
The US is a very paranoid country, in my opinion. It seems like we worry about everything trying to kill us, especially if you watch the latest local news story about how cottage cheese could give you cancer. Americans are also scared of some calamity befalling their children. It's only natural to be concerned for children and to want to protect them. Mass shootings and child abduction are real dangers. However, I think Americans spend an unusual amount of time thinking about security and how they can die, especially since they live in a country that doesn't have to deal with issues like active civil wars, regular bombings, or pandemic diseases. A lot of this fear, I think, is due to US media which is a topic for another day. I got a glimpse of this fear at work at Eudora when there a low level lock-down do to gunshots being fired nearby. It might sound alarming but the school is in a very rural area where hunters track turkeys. Regardless, some of my co-teachers were alarmed and visibly tense in spite of this knowledge.
No matter where you are in the world, little children crave physical attention. In Thailand, giving one of your students a friendly hug, a high-five, or a tap on the shoulder isn't necessarily taboo. For me, I found occasionally giving a student a bit of physical attention refocused them. In the States though, teacher's and students maintain a significant bit of personal space between each other. No physical contact of any kind should be made unless it's an emergency. There are legitimate concerns in this area. I definitely understand that. But, once again I feel as if people in the US go too far in their safety concerns. One student I teach now in the special ed class, is highly affectionate. Much like my students in Thailand his instinct is to greet me with a hug. However, because this isn't Thailand I have to tell him to mind his personal space. The principle told me minding his personal space was an issue he struggles with. That's a truly sad state of affairs when giving too many hugs is regarded as a problem.
Filling the Time
In Thailand, I wouldn't really feel obliged to have something to do during free periods. It's nice to have a break when you've been standing in front of the mob for an hour or two. My jobs in certain developing countries have been similar. You don't have to be 100% productive 100% of the time. In the States though, even when you don't have things to do you're expected to be busy in some way, or at least appear to be so. If you're not constantly doing something, than something's wrong. I almost wonder if Americans are afraid of silence and stillness. I had a fellow teaching assistant comment the other day during a twenty minute break between classes that she felt awful when she wasn't doing something. I think the US could learn something from embracing the Thai notion of 'sabai' (letting things go).