I am currently a student on the Primary Ba(Hons) 4 year Teaching Degree. The course required me to organise an experiential placement; an opportunity to gain experience in a completely new environment, separate from my placements on teaching practice. I wanted a chance to try and make a difference and I wanted to choose to spend my time doing something out of my comfort zone and an experience that was completely unique to previous placements.
A volunteer organisation was recommended to me. I did more research into why some schools in Thailand needed volunteers to go and teach them English and why the company, Original Volunteers, felt it was important enough to organise the voluntary support and send volunteers over. This information lead me to my decision; it was time to leap out of my comfort zone, travel half way around the world and offer my teaching skills to a deprived part of the country. I knew this would be a costly trip, so I applied for funding through the Eleanor Peel Trust to help me and I am very grateful that this application was successful.
How Did I Benefit From this Experience?
My time in Thailand has given me a deeper insight into the difference in education systems and this has been beneficial to me as I am studying on a teaching degree and have only had experience with the Primary National Curriculum in England. It has benefited me by allowing me to compare the extreme differences, such as lack of resources available in Thailand in comparison to the range of resources available in England. I have benefited by immersing myself into Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) which is an area I have not yet covered. I found the methods used for TEFL were very repetitive and visual which is a different teaching approach to methods I would normally use teaching in England.
During the school week I was placed within a town called Khok Kloy. This enabled me to see the Thai culture from a different perspective, as a local. In comparison to my luxurious lifestyle in England this was challenging. I do however feel this was beneficial to my overall experience; I was able to gain a better insight into their lifestyle. It has definitely made me more aware of how lucky I am as a student to have access to so many opportunities, especially through a free education system where English tuition is completely free!
How Did People I Worked With Benefit?
Ken and Sunny were based in khao Lak and they organised all placements. They benefited by having me as a volunteer; I was hardworking, reliable and committed. This meant they received good feedback from school and they did not have to waste time chasing me up as I had completed my planning on the Thursday evening when I returned from school. Preparing the teaching packs were my priority, so I wanted to ensure I had these ready for school the following week and then had the weekend to myself. Ken and Sunny also benefited greatly due to the fact that the whole point of organising volunteers to travel to Thailand and train them is because they care enough about these poorer Thai children and their future. Therefore if people like myself did not volunteer their time to go and support this cause, Ken and Sunny would not be able to deliver all the English lessons themselves to all of the schools involved. This would mean that the quantity of children receiving extra support would be significantly low.
The school I was placed in was called Ban Paa Yang. It was a poor area of Thailand where the families could not afford to send them to a school with an English speaking teacher. The national exams which allow students to access higher education in Thailand are in English. consequently without adequate English teaching, students from these poorer schools will never be able to achieve their dreams of a better future. This would mean that the cycle will reoccur where they will be in an unfortunate situation like their parents, earning as little as £1 per day and being unable to afford good English for their children, giving no hope to their future. Therefore the children benefited greatly by having support from the volunteer organisation to receive free English tuition which will help towards a better future. The school staff also benefited due to having a fluent English speaker in for a significant number of weeks. On occasions the staff would be present in the lessons so that they could try to learn some of the English. The Thai teachers were not taught English so it was vital that they involved themselves as much as possible when they were able to so that they could increase their knowledge and vocabulary along with their students.
Difference in Cultures and How You Adapted to Your New Environment
Experiencing the Thai culture on the weekends as a tourist and as a local during the week was a unique experience. I was based in Khao Lak on the weekends where there were a choice of restaurants and activities. This was great as I have never been to Thailand before so this gave me opportunity to do activities that they offer to tourists such as visiting the temples, waterfalls and Elephant Trekking. However on a Sunday afternoon, volunteers would pack up and collect our teaching boxes that we had prepared and planned and then set off on our journey via Tuk-Tuk to a very different town called Khok Kloy. We were surprised upon arrival to learn that we had a private accommodation block for all the volunteers. We had running water and flushable toilets. However once we visited the local town about half a mile away, we soon realised that despite having ants in the bed and a sewage smell from the drainage system, these apartments were a luxury in comparison to the lives of the local people. Their houses were made mainly of wood and were on wooden stilts which I was quite shocked to see, especially since I live in England where every house is built with bricks. It had occurred to me that if there was a really bad storm their house could fall apart, or if there was a fire their houses would disintegrate completely!
They would also travel around by moped but with no protective clothing or helmet on, which is completely different to in England where it would be an offence.
Living locally during the school week was definitely a challenge. The food available in the evening was limited. There were food market stalls set up by the locals but unfortunately I did not want to risk my health due to poor sanitation; they would exchange money with customers and then touch the food without using hand wash or gloves, also the food was cooked open-air and there were always flies hovering on the food. Luckily there was a randomly placed Tesco shop which I was shocked to see. I bought crackers apples and bananas as my evening meal as I had no access to cooking facilities at the apartment. At school I was welcomed and as a thank-you from them they would provide my lunch every day. As I am a vegetarian, I mainly got given boiled rice with a sauce or noodles which was fine. I would fill up on rice knowing I would not have a substantial tea.
At school we moved from classroom to classroom and the children willingly carried the heavy teaching box to the next classroom and I learned that this was part of their culture to show respect to their teacher. They would also be expected to sweep up leaves outside during some of their break times and also children would take off their shoes before entering the classroom. At the start of each day there would be a whole school service in which the Thai flag is raised and they sing the national anthem. I felt this was a really important part of their culture and again is to show respect.
One of the first few days in school was ‘Anti-Malaria Day’ where the staff gave out a powder sachet to all children. The Head Teacher spoke very little English, but she managed to communicate to me that it was for the children to mix into their water at home to make it safe as mosquitoes lay their eggs in the water. She also stated that a man had died just two weeks prior due to malaria.
This emphasised a major difference between cultures as in England we have access to clean, safe, hot and cold running water, whereas in this deprived area safe, clean water is a luxury. This was a tough realisation for me; these children and families were poor and living in disadvantaged conditions at no fault of their own, a matter of life or death and all due to a lack of money. This made me increasingly aware of how crucial my role was; they need good English teaching to have a chance of a good job and earn a good salary to avoid living in such conditions.
As I walked to my next classroom, I was shocked to see that children were being taught by a Television (TV) and then were copying information and writing this into their books, with no teacher around due to not being able to afford extra staff. But as a trainee teacher myself, I have a strong passion and a well informed view of a good education. Being taught essentially by a TV is not supportive to the children’s development, if they are unsure about something they had no-one to help them or similarly they had no-one there to implement the scaffolding theory to develop learning further thus meaning development of each individual child’s potential could be hindered.
What I Learnt?
I have learnt more than I had hoped to learn during my time in Thailand. Learning about a different culture as a local has been a very insightful experience; to witness a very poor part of the country has really emphasised to me that it is not just a lack of money that means they are poor, but a lack of sanitation, clean, safe water, food and opportunity. The term ‘poor’ to these people can literally mean the difference between life and death! I am very fortunate to have the lifestyle I have and the opportunities I have had access to. Living in a country where education is free and luckily learning English as the main language that is the most dominant around the world has made a huge impact on my opportunities. I understand that money is not everything, but my time in Thailand has reinforced what a powerful resource it is!
What I Enjoyed and Challenges Faced?
I really enjoyed experiencing a new culture and living away from home for nearly 5 weeks was a great experience. One of the biggest challenges was the language barrier in school. After attempting to teach about family to the Year 1 pupils, it became apparent to me that the picture and word cards may not actually be very helpful to their learning. This was due to the fact the picture for ‘Mother’ was a female, however this did not necessarily mean the children would interpret the meaning of ‘Mother’, as it was not a picture of their family members so I did not feel it created much meaning to the children. I decided to use the Google Translate app on my phone to convert the English vocabulary into Thai vocabulary so that the children would hopefully be able to link the English words and create meaning. Whilst researching this information during the lunch hour, children would often crowd around and as I would listen to Google translate and practise saying the words the children would cheer if I pronounced it correctly which was nice . This interaction was really enjoyable as it allowed me to try and communicate with the children in their language, helping to break down the barrier.
Another challenge was that the office where volunteers plan and have access to computers is based at Khao Lak, so I did not have access to any resources during the week it was simply only what was in our teaching packs. So if a child was struggling or had completed work earlier than anticipated I was unable to alter the planning dramatically due to having no access to resources. This meant I had to think on my feet a lot of the time and create games to play using what was available in the classroom.
The money donated from the Eleanor Peel Trust Fund helped me towards an overall cost which included flights, accommodation and food etc… The experience is one that I will never forget especially as it is something I feel passionately about – Teaching! I am very grateful for the contribution as it has helped me to experience a very different placement in a diverse culture whilst giving me opportunity to Teach English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). I hope to have made a difference and wish for their future to be full of opportunity. A wealth of knowledge provided by a good education system is one of the most powerful gifts to a child, allowing them access to opportunities. This experience has definitely made me even more passionate about my future career as I aim to become an outstanding teacher.
Thank-You to the Eleanor Peel Trust Fund!