24 February, 2016

A Year in a Thai Classroom

Daniel Chen was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. His Alma Mater is American University in Washington, D.C. where he received a B.A. degree in International Studies with a focus on US-East Asia relations. Daniel is a 2015- 2016 Fulbright-AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant at Triam Udom Suksa School of the North in Phitsanulok Province, Thailand. Daniel loves exploring the province and traveling to other parts of Thailand. He always tries to engage in as many cultural Thai experiences as possible. In the future, Daniel hopes to work in the field of international diplomacy either within an American Embassy or through the private sector.


My first trip to Thailand was in the summer of 2014. I was going through a difficult time in my life and I felt that I needed to be somewhere completely different, so I headed on a two month-long volunteer, teaching trip to rural Phichit, Thailand. Being a teacher was incredibly challenging both inside and outside of the classroom. I taught first grade all the way up to ninth grade. Each class had varying dynamics and learning styles, which required constant attention. Each day, I had to quickly change my teaching style to accommodate each class. And after exhausting myself in my classes, I had to create lesson plans for the following day. Luckily, I lived with a homestay who never ceased to make me smile. They immediately treated me like a family member who got amnesia and forgot how to speak Thai. Although I initially approached the country with no expectations, I can safely say that it was the fastest internal growth that I have ever had in my life. This narrative reflection is solely from my personal experience. These disadvantages have also been exacerbated my lack of Thai proficiency.

My Thai family

I have never been to a place with a culture as frustratingly and beautifully complicated, with people as warm and helpful, and with food as spicy as Thailand. Thailand instilled in me a newfound love for my fellow man as well as optimism in my own ability to help others. After returning to America for my last semester in university, I set two prioritys: the first was to teach and the second was to be in Thailand. My acceptance into the Fulbright ETA program was one of the happiest days in 2015. I felt like I was going back home.


Based on my past experiences, Fulbright placed in Phitsanulok. Phitsanulok is not a popular tourist destination, but the city is lively and filled with history. The supposedly most beautiful depiction of the Buddha is in the center of the city at Wat Yai. It attracts a constant stream of tourist coming for a rest stop as they are traveling from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

Wat Yai Temple

Many locals I have talked to consider Phitsanulok a typical, traditional Thai city. Nearly all people here are devout Buddhists who hold immense love and respect for the king. The society has a stiff hierarchy that manifests into a variety of formal interactions with two people from different places in society. Older Thais are particularly quick on correcting nuances in your communication, including from how you wai (introductory bow) to how you structure your sentences. This is prevalent in many levels of formal society, especially in schools. However, the new generation of young adults are much more modern. Their tastes are materialized in the city’s countless hip cafes, chic restaurants, live music bars, and scandalous fashion of those indulging in the Phitsanulok nightlife. These generational differences make Phitsanulok a diverse and interesting city.


I love teaching in Thailand. The majority of Thai students immediately treated me with respect and seemed genuinely excited to learn English. The students were forgiving while I was testing out teaching techniques and gauging their proficiency levels. They tend to be shy, so it has been a fun challenge to making them more comfortable with English and speaking with me on a more personal level.

One of my favorite and least favorite aspects about my specific school is the lack of curriculum guidelines. I can basically teach anything I want that relates remotely to conversational English. This gives me an almost nerve-racking amount of freedom to decide what is important and not important for my students to learn. I started off with teaching basics, such as emotions, asking for the time, asking for directions, etc. However, the initial excitement I garnered started to taper off. I started to feel self-conscious about my teaching and questioning everything about my ability to help my students.

My students are all in 11th or 12th grade, so they are 16 to 19 years old. Like any older teenager, my students have low attention spans. Therefore, the first impression at the beginning of each class is critical. If I peak their interest at the beginning, the class runs much more smoothly because the students are more inclined to listened. The opposite is true with a disorganized beginning where students subconsciously decide that the class is irrelevant and start to look for other ways to entertain themselves, such as their cellphones. The lack of engagement is stressful, so I have to constantly remind myself that I would probably considered a bad student when I was in high school. I have this realization every time I get angry with any of my students, which is several times a week.

Halfway through the semester, I changed my lessons from individual lessons to a unit lesson. I decided to start teaching something that every high school student is interested in, dating. Suddenly, I had classes where basically every student was engaged and actively trying to participate in the lessons. Here is a sample of the dialogue I used for asking out strangers:

A: "Hi. My name is (Daniel). You have (beautiful eyes). What is your name?"

B: "Thank you. My name is (Fah)."
A: "Would you like to (go to the movies) with me?"

When I asked for volunteers to demonstrate the dialogue, the entire class would yell names of students who were widely believed to like each other. Of course, I picked whomever they yelled to present. There were very cute and some very inappropriate compliments from the students. I ended my dating unit with break ups. Here is a sample:

A: "I think we should break up. I don’t want to see you anymore."
B: "No! I don’t want to break up. I love you."
A: "I want to break up because (you don’t spend time with me)."
B: "I can change. (I will make more time for you)."

The break-up performances were even more outrageous. Some gave Oscar worthy performances, crawling on the floor and on the verge of tears, begging to not break up. People were gasping, laughing, crying, and screaming. Some even in English! Students asked me about my own dating life and they were more than happy to share theirs. Certain classes were the some of the best minutes of my professional life.

Nevertheless, there are a number of disadvantages of my role as a foreign teacher.

1. Surprise holidays and cancelled classes

On multiple occasions, school was cancelled and I would only be told one or two days before. One time, an entire week of class was cancelled because of a gigantic music competition being held at my school. I didn’t see two of my classes until the second month of the semester because Friday classes were cancelled consecutively for weeks.

2. Missing students and grades

The semester ends in three weeks and I have not seen several of my students. They never come to class and I have not been given the opportunity to ask why because they never come. Sometimes, I see students outside during the time that they are suppose to be in my class. When I asked why they are not coming to class, they make an excuse in Thai and hurry off. Students are constantly coming to class late. At the beginning, I would ask why and they always had excuses. My Thai is not proficient enough to confirm if it is true or not. Moreover, my school has an incredible number of events and extracurriculars, so any student can have a legitimate excuse at any time. But, some students are obviously taking advantage of the fact that I am a foreign teacher who has not very limited ability to tell them to come to class.

Because my class is primarily for conversation, I made conversation half of their grade. Based on this rubric, a significant percentage of my students would fail solely because of absences. However, the goal of my class is to empower my students to speak English. Failing them can only do the exact opposite.


Regardless of the daily frustrations, my love for Thailand has not changed. Like my previous Thai experience, I have meet incredibly kind-hearted people and have learned to appreciate Thai culture more everyday. One of my co-teachers, P’ Mao, embodies every positive quality that I could hope to find in another human being. She brings me breakfast and lunch almost on a daily basis. If I show any sign of distress, P’ Mao races to ask me if I am okay and if she can do anything to help me. I feel like I could tell her anything and ask for help on any type of issue. P’ Mao has become a mother to me more than anything else. 

Even the disadvantages I mentioned have a redeeming quality. Because of the extra holidays, I have extra time to travel through the diverse landscapes in Thailand. I have been on numerous weekend trips and witnessed something breathtakingly beautiful. On the week off, I went scuba diving in the premier diving location in Thailand, Koh Tao. With the missing students, my class sizes are much smaller and easier to manage. The students who actually want to learn come on a regular basis. My small classes are always more engaging, we cover more material, and it is less stressful for everyone. Some of my favorite classes have been with half of my class missing.

I never thought I would be as comfortable as quickly in a country as different from America as Thailand. Needless to say, coming to Thailand has been one of the best decisions of my life.

Thailand's Phukradueng in Loei Province
Koh Tao Island

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