Life In A Thai School

Most schools throughout Thailand are much the same. Even though they may be public or private, they all have the same guidelines under which they have to operate. The average day in these schools is also much the same. At Sriwittayapaknam School in Samut Prakan, the students start to arrive as early as 5.45 a.m. If their parents are working in Bangkok then they might drop them off early. At this time it is still dark. The students are not allowed to go up to the classrooms but have to wait for their classroom teacher to arrive. The teachers have to take turns to be on duty once a week. This means that they have to come to school before the first students and also to be the last to leave. This often means a 12 hour day for them.

Most students don’t arrive until about 7.15 a.m. They come to school alone by school bus or on foot or with their parents by car or public taxi. In Thailand, we have different forms of local taxis which are very cheap. For example the three wheeled motorized rickshaw called a “tuk tuk” and the pedal version called a “samlor”. In Thai this means simply “three wheels”. The name “tuk tuk” comes from the sound that the motor makes. Another form of local taxi is the motorcycle taxi. These guys wear coloured numbered jackets and wait for people at the top of lanes. Other students come by “songtaew” which means “two rows”. This is basically two rows of seats on a converted pick-up truck.

When the students arrive at the school, they will often first pay respects to their parents. They do this by making a “wai” which is a prayer like gesture made by bringing their hands together at chest level and then bowing their head down to their hands. They do this as a way to say “thank you” to their parents for bringing them to school but also to say “goodbye”. They would also do this if their parents gave them some pocket money to spend in the snack shop at school. Some parents are stricter than others. You will sometimes see them holding onto the money until the child remembers to “wai” them as a “thank you”. Other students don’t seem to “wai” their parents even though they are taught to do this at school. However, they must “wai” the duty teacher otherwise they will get told off.

As they come into the school they pass a number of different shrines: a spirit house, a Brahman shrine and a Buddha shrine. The students are taught by their parents and teachers to always be respectful of these images other wise there might be consequences. The students and teachers often stop to give a “wai” on their arrival. Some do this to pay respect while others do it to gain some form of good luck for the day. Maybe they have an exam that day so they may make a wish to have good grades. If their wish later comes true, then they need to return to the shrine to make an offering. For example, some fruit or drinks. The school owners make an offering to the guardian spirit of the land daily in order to appease the spirits and to beg them not to cause mischief at the school.

Students are not allowed to wear shoes in the buildings. So, when they arrive at the steps they have to pause to take them off and then carry them up to their classroom. If they pass a teacher on the way up, they should stop to let the teacher pass first. As they are carrying shoes, they should first put these down and then give the teacher a “wai”. In Thai culture, it is impolite to point your feet at anyone. The feet and lower parts of the body are considered unclean. While the head is seen as being almost sacred. It would be considered very rude to give a “wai” while still holding your shoes. However, some students do this by mistake and we have to correct them. Teachers never initiate a “wai” to a student. This is considered by many as bringing them bad luck. Most teachers do not return the “wai” but will smile and nod instead. However, they could give the “receiving wai” which is where you hold your hands at chest level and do not bow down to them.

On arrival in the classroom, the students will put their shoes on the shoe rack and then make their way to their desk. If their classroom teacher is there, then they need to pay respect to them first. If their teacher is not so strict, then they will probably chat with their friends or read a cartoon book. However, if the students are more diligent, then they might read a school book or revise for an exam. The school bell rings at 7.45 a.m. which means that they should all go down to the playground for assembly. They leave their bags in the classroom, pick up their shoes and head downstairs. Strictly speaking, students should always walk on the righthand side of the stairs. You sometimes see adults doing this at a shopping mall. They have been trained well at school.

In the playground they will line up in rows according to their class and grade. They also do one row for boys and one row for girls with the tallest at the front. Everyone faces towards the flagpole and the Buddhist shrine at one end of the playground. At exactly 8 a.m., the school band starts playing the national anthem. Everyone quickly stops what they are doing, stands to attention and then sings the anthem. Students who might still be arriving also have to stop and stand still. If there is any parent sitting in the waiting area reading a newspaper, they should also stop what they are doing and stand to attention. All of the radio and television stations broadcast the national anthem at this time. They also play it on loudspeakers outside police stations, at hospitals and also places like train stations.

School assembly has the same formula every day. It usually lasts about 15-20 minutes. Our playground isn’t quite big enough for all 1,700 students, so the kindergarten students line up outside their classrooms for assembly. This is what the rest of the students also do on rainy days. After the national anthem has finished and the Thai flag has been raised to the top, the students next do Buddhist chanting. The majority of the students are Buddhists, though we do have a handful of Muslims and Christians. Although they have to be in the assembly, they don’t need to chant. This only lasts a few minutes. Next comes the reciting of the student oath, the school creed and finally the school motto. Once these formalities are over then one of the duty teachers goes to the front of the assembly to give a small speech on ethics. Sometimes students will also take turns to read something from a newspaper.

Before the first lesson starts, the students will have a homeroom period with their classroom teachers. She might also give them an ethics talk or she will prepare them for an exam by getting them all to read aloud from their school book. We mainly have primary students so they stay in the same classroom for much of the day. However, at High schools, the students will often move from class to class during the day. Our junior students are taught for most of the day by their classroom teacher. However, the older students have specialist teachers who take turns to come to their classroom. The only time the students have to move class is for subjects like Computer and P.E.

When the teacher arrives in a classroom to teach, there is always a small routine that the students have to perform. This starts by the class captain calling out “students stand to attention”. The students then greet their teacher by saying “sawatdee”, which is Thai for “hello”, and giving them a “wai”. The teacher will then say “sawatdee” in reply and then tells the students to sit down. The students then chorus “thank you”. For their English lessons, they do all of this in English. It goes something like this: “Please stand up. Good morning teacher.” We then reply “Good morning, how are you?”. They reply “I am fine thank you and you?”. We reply “I am fine, thank you. Please sit down.” They then say “thank you” and sit down.

We don’t take attendance for each lesson. The classroom teacher has already done this at the start of the day. Outside of each classroom there is a statistics board. It tells you how many boys and girls are normally in this class and also how many are present today. Our classes have an average of 45 students. We then have about four classes for each grade. At some high schools they might have ten classes or so per grade and up to 60 students in a class. This may sound very overwhelming but luckily for us, the students are usually very disciplined. The seats are often in rows and many teachers will traditionally teach by rote. This usually involves them standing at the front of the class reading from a book or getting the students to read aloud together from their books. Using this tried and tested method makes it easier for us to control the classroom. The students are not encouraged to raise their hand or to contradict or question something the teacher did.

Some years ago, the government asked all the schools to stop teaching by rote and to take a more Westernized version of teaching where the classes are more child centered. Obviously, this has some merits as we were now asking the students to think for themselves rather than being told what to think. The tables in the classroom were often pushed together so that the students could do group work. However, I think the government soon realized that you couldn’t change the way of teaching overnight. Not only did the students not know how to do project work, but the teachers were puzzled how to teach. However, a number of years have now passed and we are now seeing more child-centered classrooms. I guess the only teachers still teaching by rote are the older ones who have the opinion that if it isn’t broken then it shouldn’t be mended.

Although I think it is great for the country that we are now teaching students to think for themselves, it has also seen at the same time a watering down in the classroom of discipline and respect for the teacher. Some teachers still have the illusion that all students must have automatic respect for them. The same goes for society as a whole where children are taught to be respectful to their elders and to never question their authority or knowledge. However, by allowing free thinking in the classroom we started to see students wanting to know why something was done in a particular way. It didn’t change overnight of course, but we now see more two-way interaction in the classroom and lateral thinking. However, grandparents not used to their grandchildren questioning their decisions and orders, just saw them as naughty children.

I think some lessons have been learned here. You cannot just bring in a practice used in the West as it might not work here. You have to adapt it for local culture and customs. Although are teachers say that our students are naughtier these days, they are still a lot better than most students in say America and Europe. Visiting foreign teachers always commented on this. If a student wants to leave a class they will have to ask permission first. On their return, they have to wait at the doorway for permission to enter. If they come to the teacher’s desk during the lesson they have to kneel on the floor. This is because it is disrespectful to stand higher than a teacher who might be seated. At the end of each lesson, I always find it amusing how the students stand up and chorus a “thank you” to the teacher for teaching them. It doesn’t matter if you had just given them a particularly hard test or told them off for not doing their work properly.

Our school has three lessons in the morning. We don’t have enough room at the school for a canteen so the students eat their lunch in the classroom. As we also have many students, the lunch break is staggered during the morning. First to have “lunch” are the kindergarten students who stop to eat at 10.15 a.m. They then have a nap for two hours. Next come the junior school who stop for lunch at 11 a.m. Then the senior school at 11.30 a.m. School lunches are usually very good and there is a three week rotation of menus. The food is often served with either rice or noodles. The students don’t have a choice but as teachers, we can choose the menu from either the junior school or senior.

Once all of the students are seated in the classroom then they all chorus the lunchtime grace. The all know this off by heart as they have been doing it since they were in kindergarten. It basically gives thanks to the farmers and cooks for growing rice and cooking their food. It ends by reminding the students of the people in the world that don’t have enough to eat. It tells them not to waste food. Once the students finish eating, they put any waste food in a bucket, their plates in an enamel bowl and their spoon and fork in a plastic bucket. Then, the duty students have to take these down to the kitchen. The plates and bowls are washed by the kitchen staff but the duty students wash the utensils, which are then brought back up to the classroom. Each student has their own set.

Each day students have to take turns to do duty. This usually involves keeping the classroom clean. We have janitors at the school but they don’t enter the classrooms. So, the duty students are responsible to keep it clean. They will sweep the floor, mop it and also do other duties like empty the rubbish and take the recycle paper down to the recycle area. The duty students for that day also have to do other things like collecting homework and taking books to the teacher. The students clean the classroom at the start of the day and during the afternoon break. Each day, one class also has to take turns to sweep clean the playground after lunch break. This encourages them not to drop any litter.

The lunch break lasts until about 12.20 p.m. Many of the younger students go down to the playground to play games. Many of these are recognizable by students around the world. These include marbles, tag games and jump rope. Some of the older boys might play football or basketball. However, we don’t really have much space in the playground for all 1,200 students to play. But, it doesn’t really matter as it is so hot and many students choose to stay in their classrooms to chat with their friends or read school books. The school organizes lunchtime clubs and activities that the students can take part in sometimes.

The kindergarten students don’t come out for the lunchbreak. After they have finished eating, they then settle down to have a siesta. The teacher puts down mattresses on the floor for the students and each one also has a pillow and a blanket. The kindergarten classes are all air-conditioned so it can get chilly. Before they go to sleep they have a meditation session to calm them down and prepare them for sleeping. The students sleep for about two hours in the middle of the day. Unfortunately I am not a kindergarten teacher so I am not allowed to have a nap too!

At the end of lunch the school bell goes and all of the students have five minutes to quickly line up outside of their classrooms. Now the duty teacher will give some announcements. Sometimes she might remind students not to run in the corridors or not to be so noisy near the kindergarten classrooms. Every day students seem to lose something and if something is handed in – like a wallet with money – the duty teacher will make an announcement. They also mention the name of the student that handed in the lost property. Everyone then applauds that student.

The afternoon session has three lessons which are finished by 3.15 p.m. This is the short break where the duty students have to clean their classrooms. A number of schools let their students go home at this time. However, our school has a compulsory “homework lesson” which starts at 3.40 p.m. In theory, the teachers help the students complete their homework so that their parents don’t have to help them when they go home. However, in reality the teacher often teaches something new so it just becomes an extension of the school day. Lessons finally finish at 4.45 p.m. and the students can go home.

The kindergarten and junior primary students go home earlier in order to prevent traffic jams in the small lane outside of our school. You can imagine the chaos if all 1,700 students left at the same time. The students wait for their parents in their classrooms. Then from about 3 p.m. the school loudspeakers are turned on and names are called of the students whose parents have arrived to pick them up. If a parent comes to pick up a student they have to show the duty teacher the student’s i.d. card. Many of the older students walk home by themselves. However, they are not allowed to leave the school premises by themselves. They first have to line up at the school gates and then all leave in one long line. One of the teachers on duty will escort them through the town and help them cross a major intersection. After that they are on their own. Duty teachers have to stay at the school until the last student leaves by about 6 p.m. A long day for many people.

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