Tired of Hawaii schools? Try teaching in Thailand
HOWARD Shek, a senior at Moanalua High School, wrote in his April 6 "Student Union" column
that "sometimes the teacher is the one who fails." His story brought back memories of my time teaching in Thailand.
Twenty-three years old, single and traveling the world alone on a shoestring budget, I arrived in Bangkok in January 1969 with only $90 in my wallet. I got a cheap room at the YWCA and started looking for work. My friend from Hawaii was leaving Bangkok so she suggested I apply for her job. She introduced me to the director of the linguistics department at Thammasat University, who was a British woman married to a Thai. The director hired me to replace my friend as teacher. I had absolutely no experience or training as an English teacher, and the only requirement for the job was a college degree.
I taught two large classes in oral and written English. Using a microphone and standing on a raised platform, I strove to be heard over the roar of motor boats speeding up and down the Chao Phya River. Some of the idioms and vocabulary were different because the curriculum was British.
In the oral English class, I held debates so that students could practice their English. Some of the topics included the pros and cons of wearing miniskirts and the pros and cons of the American military presence in Thailand. After each lively debate, the rest of the class voted for the team they considered was the better one. Because the debates were a novelty, they attracted students from other classes who sneaked into my class.
Another way I encouraged students to practice their English was through music. Those who had a difficult time speaking English often had an easier time singing English pop songs, so I called on some of them to sing for the class.
When I walked the corridors at the university, students would crouch and bring two hands together under their chin as a sign of respect. When they approached my desk, they always stooped to keep their heads lower than mine. Thais considered the head as the most sacred part of the body, and the feet as the least respectable part. At 23, I was only a year or two older than these students, but they showed me great respect. On the other hand, I wasn't permitted to pat their heads or point my foot in their direction while crossing my legs, for doing so would have been impolite.
My second teaching job was at AUA (American University Alumni) Language Center, which was staffed by Americans. Students included physicians and postdoctoral students who were headed for American universities, and young bar girls who catered to American servicemen. Several students said that I was easier to understand than teachers from the mainland -- probably because of my slow Hawaiian accent.
Voice of America was the third to hire me. I taught Thai radio technicians English composition so that they would make fewer grammatical mistakes on radio logs. This job was very lucrative because I was paid American wages.
In addition to these three jobs, I had many private students, ranging from shopkeepers to post office employees to college students, but not all of them were Thai. One student was a Japanese housewife, and another was a Korean businessman.
As a novice teacher in Thailand, I was relieved I could teach without being interrupted by unruly students. It made my job much easier. But would I want to be a Thai student in Thailand? I don't think so. The American in me rebels against crouching or stooping to keep my head lower than that of my teacher. Being respectful is one thing but being obsequious is quite another! It just goes to show that Americans believe in freedom and equality -- even in teacher-student relationships.
Howard Shek would do well to try teaching in a foreign country. Observing the relationship between students and their teachers in foreign universities can provide some of the most valuable insights into other cultures.
Glenda Chung Hinchey is the author of "Love, Life, and Publishing: A Second Memoir." She lives in Honolulu.