31 January, 2018

Changes in Classroom Culture

Matthew Jones is a 2017-2018 Fulbright ETA placed at Watbot School in Phitsanulok,
Thailand, where he teaches prathom students. Matthew is from Salisbury, Maryland, and completed his B.S. at Salisbury University in Elementary Education with a minor in English for Students of Other Languages (ESOL). In his free time, Matthew can be found traveling around Thailand with other ETA’s, laughing with his students, or riding his bike all over town while sweating profusely. After the completion of his Fulbright grant, Matthew plans to return to the United States to teach primary school students, and eventually  pursue his graduate degree to receive his administration certification.

As I boarded the plane on that early September morning, nerves controlled my body. I was anxious for the unknown of what my new life in northern Thailand had in store for me. I had a million question racing through my head that simply could not be answered. As I found my seat on the plane and begin talking with another ETA who was on my flight, my nervousness quickly changed to excitement. Kaela and I quickly began discussing how we thought the next year would unfold. It was settling exchanging thoughts with another person who was in the exact same situation with you knowing they had the same worries and questions. After twenty four hours of traveling, we finally made it to Bangkok.

The month long orientation that all ETA’s had to go through was such a breath of fresh air. Myself, alongside the other twenty teachers, sat through hours of Thai language classes, Thai culture classes, and listening to the stories of the previous ETA’s who had just completed their year long journey in Thailand. All of this information was greatly appreciated and interesting to hear, but a part of me was still nervous about being halfway around the world trying to teach students who have no English speaking proficiency. No matter how many questions we would ask in those information sessions or to previous ETA’s, the answer given always ended with, “but everyone’s experience is so different so it may not be the exact same at your school.” After being in the province and teaching for three months now, I completely understand why they added that extra blurb to the end of their answers. 

The first few days in Phitsanulok I took my time to try to acclimate myself to everything and everyone around me. I just wanted to fit in and not be seen as a “farang” to everyone around town, but I have come to accept that I will always be called “farang” or “teacher”. At first, “farang” was very unsettling to hear; since calling someone a name in American based off their culture is very disrespectful. Now, I have come to actually not mind it one bit! I now always know if someone is trying to talk to me or get my attention. These two words are now heart warming because I now hear them and know, instead of an insult, they are an attempt to reach out and practice English. I see it as an opportunity to smile and wave or start conversations with those who are complete strangers.

I have learned a lot. I came to Thailand to gain a very different aspect into how a classroom can be managed. I have seen things I want to incorporate into my classroom, and hopefully shown the teachers of my school some techniques they can incorporate into theirs. Overall, I have learned that teaching is teaching no matter where you are or who the students in front of you, are. As an educator, my goal is to make learning fun for my students and to instill a drive of learning so that it never ends. Even though my time here in Thailand is short, I have so far found much joy in teaching in a different setting where things may seem odd or the children do not understand what you are saying. By being their teacher, my job is to teach them something, and by seeing me not giving up, I hope all my students learn never to give up as well.

As I began my very first school week in the province, I was still unsure of how I could effectively teach and manage a classroom full of little children who could not speak English. Thoughts flooded my mind of what strategies I had learned in my four years of college that might work here in Thailand.

The daily view of morning assembly from the main school building

As time passed, each class seemed to get easier and easier. I wanted from day one to set a routine within the classroom so that the students knew what was expected of them each day as we ran through the lesson. This routine consisted of an American slang word, reviewing different emotions, a welcoming song, a phonics song, a small review game, then introducing the new vocabulary or lesson we would be doing. By incorporating a routine that was repeated class after class, the students knew what was happening next, until the lesson for the day was introduced. I have found that by having this routine set in stone with all nine of my classes, we start the class off on the right foot each and every day. I also kept in place the students routine of standing to greet the teacher when I enter the classroom. I felt as by instilling the greeting within our routine, I am keeping a habit of theirs so that class is not something completely foreign to them. Also, by starting and ending class with, “Good morning teacher” or “Thank you Teacher”, a smile sweeps over my face to make for a great day.

My P1/2 class celebrating after we got a message all the way around the circle
without any mistakes during the Telephone game!

Throughout the weeks at school, we were learning all different sorts of English from phonics, to our body parts, to colors and days of the week. While it all may seem like sunshine and rainbows, some days are way tougher than others. For instance, one day I was walking to class with my backpack filled, papers in hand, ready to start teaching about our bodies. I was about five minutes early so I peaked in to see if they were ready, but the students were having class with a monk so I quickly stepped out to be respectful and allowed him to have his full time with the students. About five minutes went by and the monk came out of the class smiling and I sincerely smiled back. As soon as I stepped into the classroom, the shrieking sound of crying children flooded my ears. My first thought to myself was, “What in the world! Did the monk tell them English class was going to be horrible today?” As I scanned the classroom just to take in thirty students sobbing their eyes out, I tried to think of any tool for managing a class that had thirty students all crying at once. Standing there confused, I quickly learned that this was what all my professors meant when they said somethings we just can’t teach you, you just have to figure out how to solve them on your own.

Teacher!!! Scary??

Within a few short seconds of standing in this classroom, I knew I had to respond quickly to get these students to calm down so that my class could still happen. I scanned my classroom for my little “classroom warrior” to see if I could go to him to ask if everything was okay. “Classroom warriors” were explained to us during orientation, and are basically the students who have your back when class is simply not going the way it should. Of course, on this day for this class my little warrior was not there to help. I started by trying to get the class to just take a deep breath and calm down; that did not work. I then started going up to each of them, patting them on their backs and telling them it was going to be okay; that still did not work. In this moment, I had never felt more stuck and failed in a Thai classroom. I felt like I could not control the students or settle them down. It was in this moment that I felt like I was not making a difference in these children’s English capabilities.

Sometimes you just have to stop class for a quick selfie

This ten minute moment of utter chaos all settled down when a Thai teacher walked by, stuck her head in the classroom, told the students to go wash their face and settle down (well I think that is what she said, it was in Thai!) and to come back to class. After that class, I sat in my office and just reflected on the past hour of my life. What a crazy experience I just had that will more than likely stick with me forever. Then I thought to myself, what would I had done if that Thai teacher never came in the room? I quickly realized that in the teaching world it is necessary to find those teachers who can be your mentor. They are there to lean on when you need that extra help and share ideas with one another when you think an awesome lesson could be taught. Teaching is a collaborative profession where sharing ideas makes for a lesson or unit go from good to great. I find it very challenging sometimes to reach out to others teachers here in Thailand, as well as in America, to ask for help just because I am afraid that it makes me look weak. Now, after my experience here in Thailand, I know that by leaning on others to help you out when you honestly have no other ideas of what to do is okay!

Myself with my two wonderful host teachers that have helped me
endlessly make Watbot my home away from home

After reflecting on my time here in Thailand, and thinking about the reason I came here, I can say that I have learned a lot. I came to Thailand to gain a very different aspect into how a classroom can be managed. I have seen things I want to incorporate into my classroom, and hopefully shown the teachers of my school some techniques they can incorporate into theirs. Overall, I have learned that teaching is teaching no matter where you are or who the students in front of you, are. As an educator, my goal is to make learning fun for my students and to instill a drive of learning so that it never ends. Even though my time here in Thailand is short, I have so far found much joy in teaching in a different setting where things may seem odd or the children do not understand what you are saying. By being their teacher, my job is to teach them something, and by seeing me not giving up, I hope all my students learn never to give up as well.

My P2/2 students working in small groups to complete their life size drawings of the body

A group of P3/3 students showing off their amazing skills

11 January, 2018

A Beautiful Beginning

Breanne McNitt is a 2017-18 Fulbright-AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant (ETA) placed at Chiang Saen Wittayakom School where she teaches Mattayom students. Bre is originally from St. Joseph, Michigan and graduated from Arizona State University with a B.A.E. in Secondary Math Education and a minor in Parks and Protected Area Management. When she is not laughing and learning with students, you can find Bre exploring Northern Thailand landscapes with her camera around her neck, riding her bike into the middle of rice fields, or listening to podcasts on an eighties-style green bus.

I boarded the plane to Thailand filled with energy. Not the energy you get from being nervous, surprisingly I wasn’t nervous, but the energy you get from embarking on a long awaited adventure. After over a year filled with essay writing and lots of waiting, my dream of being a Fulbright ETA in Thailand was finally beginning. It was not an easy road to get here. The application process forced me to stick to who I was and believe in myself despite the noise from outsiders. So when I received the email notifying me of my acceptance to be a 2017-18 Fulbright ETA in Thailand, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. Working towards a big dream and having it pan out just as hoped is a surreal feeling.

During my 24-hour travel day to reach my new home, I just kept thinking about all that was in store for me. I was about to be thrown into a culture I had never experienced before and be surrounded by a language I did not speak at all. But as mentioned, I wasn’t nervous; I was excited for the challenge. A challenge that I knew was going to shape the rest of my life, and allow me to form incredible connections with others despite a language barrier. 

And now I find myself three months into this experience, and loving every moment.

My new home, Chiang Saen, is a beautiful, serene town. The “c-shaped” wall around the town connects to the MeKong River and holds in the town’s peacefulness. Trees grow in the cracks of the brick wall, and ruins are scattered around Chiang Sean. From the banks of the river, one can watch the sunrise over Laos in the morning, and at night enjoy a meal from one of the vendors (low tables are set up to eat off of as you sit on the ground).

Sunrise from the banks of the MeKong River, looking from Chiang Saen across the river to Laos

The atmosphere of Chiang Saen’s structure is only enhanced by the people who inhabit it. I have received nothing but smiles and helping hands since my arrival three months ago. On every bike ride to the market, the locals around me send warm smiles my way, and the occasional “Hello” is shouted in my direction as I peddle by. Little kids point at me and shout “farang,” (the Thai word for a westerner) to which I respond with “Hi” accompanied by a wave. I feel like a celebrity, but one who only receives positive attention. And although the attention is optimistic, being constantly noticed has been quite the adjustment for me--usually I try to avoid being the center of attention. 

Markets seem to be the heart of Chiang Saen. The Thursday Night, Saturday Night, and Sunday Morning Markets bring together a majority of the town. The food stalls are endless and the clothing and other knickknacks are abundant. Luckily, my minimal Thai language abilities allow me to navigate my way through the markets--a good skill to have when my diet now mainly consists of as many different tropical fruits as I can stuff myself with. The conversations are a bit confusing though, because as I am trying to practice my Thai the locals see me and want to practice their English. But we both get enjoyment out of this, so the exchange continues in its choppy rhythm. 

But for me, the true gem in this wall-surrounded town, is Chiang Saen Wittayakom School. Maybe I’m biased because in addition to teaching there I also live on the school’s campus—come visit and I think you’ll agree though. My two-story house is way too big for one person, but I am so grateful to have it as my beautiful home for the next year. A home I share with many different insects and reptiles. At first the Tokay geckos, snails, frogs, and scorpion were all very startling to me, but I’ve come to embrace them (well not the scorpion, I brushed him out of my living room the night I found him and he hasn’t returned yet). These unintentional pets add a little bit more life to my otherwise still, silent house. And they haven’t found their way to the second floor so I don’t need to worry about being crawled on while I sleep.


During the school week, I make the two-minute walking commute to my office. The students are all arriving at this time too, so as I pass them I’m greeted with “Good Morning, Teacher.” and “Hello, Teacher.” These warm welcomes knock the morning tiredness right out of me, and get me excited for another day. My office is a desk in a large room that the Language Department has claimed. I share this space with the other ten foreign language teachers--all of whom have showed me nothing but warmth since my arrival. The school has both Chinese and English language classes, and besides me and the two Chinese student teachers, everyone else in the department (and the school as a whole) is Thai. From my office it is also a very short commute to any of the classrooms I teach in. I switch between 4 different rooms, and they are on the same level as my office or just up one flight of stairs, but all in the same building. 

With students in my Matthayom 4/1 class on the first day together. This class only has 9 students in it, and is a nice mid-week break from the usual classes of 30+ students

My students range from matthayom one to matthayom six, which is equivalent to seventh through twelfth grade in the states. With just over four hundred students split up into the sixteen class that I teach each week, I get to interact with close to half of the students at the school. This is very rewarding, but also a challenge trying to cover topics when I only see them once a week. However, this lack of time has motivated me to make the most out of every class. And with no curriculum laid out for me, I get to pick and choose what I want to cover with my students. This is a fun, creative challenge for me. Every class has their own personality and generally has around thirty students, but I get a break from this chaos with my one class mid week that only has nine students in it (pictured above minus the one boy who wasn’t there that day).

The school day ends at 4:30pm, and I walk back home. Evenings are filled with a bike ride to the market, yoga, reading, ukulele, Netflix, and planning future adventures. 

Sunrise at Phu Chi Fa

Landscapes in Northern Thailand are like nothing I’ve experience before. So I am spending my weekends attempting to be a public transportation weekend warrior in order to interact with as many off these lush mountainsides and roaring waterfalls as I can. And luckily, Thailand has a lot of public transportation options; it’s just rarely posted online. But after asking around and a few failed attempts, the system starts to make sense. Northern Thailand is a special place. Many people come to Thailand envisioning the beaches of the south, and never see the magic (and cooler temperatures) that graces the north. My weekends have been spent falling in love with these landscapes of my new home. In Phu Chi Fa, I got to see one of the most breath-taking sunrises of my life as the sky filled with color and low fog covered the valley below. In Mae Salong, I explored hill tribe villages and tea fields that create life in the overgrown, green mountainsides. In the area surrounding my town, I’ve ridden my bike past the sky reflecting in the calm waters of Chiang Saen Lake and found myself a little lost in endless expanses of rice fields.

No matter where I find myself on the weekends, it is reassuring to know at the end of them I get to return to a town that I feel at home in--a town full of so many kind people who will go out of their way to help me. Like the unfortunate time I returned to Chiang Saen after a long day of travel, only to discover my bike was no longer where I’d locked it. I was flustered and shocked to discover someone had stolen my bike while I was away. After walking home, I messaged my host teachers and Alex quickly responded to tell me we’d go to the police station in a few minutes. In the US, police rarely blink and eye when you tell them your bike has been stolen. Often times you either have to fend for yourself or just give up and buy a new bike. With this preexisting assumption, I just figured my bike was gone for good and no one could do much to help. But Thailand is much different--at least a small town in Thailand is. We got to the police station and they were very engaged in all the details and I felt more at ease instantly. Alex helped translate everything I needed to tell the police, and the following day we met up with them at the “scene of the crime” to give more details. The police investigators noted the street cameras and said they’d check those and give us a call once they got more information. Even if my bike isn’t found, this at first horrible situation has turned into a very eye opening one. From Alex helping me through the initial frustration, to the police giving the search their best effort, to P’Tommy who is now letting me borrow his bike, I was overwhelmed by the kindness of everyone. And it reminded me of how lucky I am to be living in Chiang Saen.

Workers at the rice fields in Chiang Mai that we saw as we were wandering around the bamboo bridges

Weekdays are spent engaging with the beauty of locals and their lifestyle, and weekends are spent absorbing the beauty of the landscapes that cover Thailand. Life here is simple and beautiful, and I love every step of this journey as I discover my place in my new home.