Dirty Little Secrets of the Thai Educational System

I walked into my teaching position completely blind. I didn’t know much about what to expect or how tough it would be. I was told that all I had to do was show up and teach (by speaking in English with irreverence towards actual comprehension).  I’d read a few stories on the popular English Teacher in Thailand website, Ajarn, about how horrible the teaching conditions were in Thailand (and that if you had a choice, teach anywhere but Thailand). Ploy, being ever the optimist, claimed it was probably just those schools that were a problem. She had no idea what I was in for either. Aside from the many outright lies I was told, there were a lot of other illogical things happening. For instance, foreign teachers (who don’t understand any Thai) were obligated to stay in 2 – 4 hours meetings in Thai, without any translation whatsoever. It didn’t matter if we didn’t know what was going on we just had to be there.

After being told that I could leave campus if I wasn’t teaching, I was informed that I wasn’t allowed to leave after all (I didn’t listen to that bit. A school with 2,000 screaming children warrants a bit of quiet time away.).  After being told I could teach any grade I wanted the following semester, I was automatically assigned a grade without any consultation. I found out on a Friday that I’d be teaching 6th grade on Monday. That Monday, I walked up to the 6th grade floor and after asking 4 Thai teachers, nobody knew where I was supposed to be or what I was supposed to be doing. The cruelest thing was how the lower-ranking teachers and teaching assistants were treated. Often, they would do all the grading, cleaning, and sometimes teaching while higher-ranking teachers chit-chatted on the side (or just left the class all together). There were a lot of little things that started added up. Systemic IllsPloy explained a couple of reasons why the system was so strange. First, she told me, a generation or so ago, only those with low scores on university entrance exams chose the teaching profession because they didn’t score high enough to go into any other career. Look at that statement again. Basically, only the dumbest people became teachers in Thailand. So, you have an entire educational system comprised of the people who are worst qualified to teach. Second, she said, once you become a government teacher, you’re set for life.

You’d have to kill someone before you got fired for anything. So you could just sit on your arse all day, not do any work, and still get paid. So many teachers at government schools know they’re practically untouchable and act accordingly (don’t get me wrong, many of the Thai teachers I interacted with were absolute sweethearts. They offered to feed me nearly every day!).  All it takes is one government teacher acting high and mighty to make life miserable for everyone. Third, and this is something I doubt many farang teachers know, is that a few years ago the Thai government passed a law that teachers had to go back to where they were from. A massive relocation program followed.  The intent, for the most part, was to quell the violence directed specifically at teachers in the separatist, Muslim, south. The Thai government reasoned that if the teachers teaching were actually from the area and known in the community, they’d be less likely to get killed. In order to make the relocation program fair, they applied it to the entire country. Teachers are separated from their family (spouses, children, extended family.  This is a big blow to a culture where your life revolves around family.). So, on top of having government teachers acting high and mighty, you now have an entire country full of teachers that are likely resentful for being moved.Cultural Influences One of the farang teachers at Bansankhong broke it down beautifully for me. “All Thai things must be 4 things. They must be: suay (beautiful/look good), sabai (easy/relaxing), saduak (convenient), and most importantly sanuk (fun).” They told me this after I’d been teaching nearly 2 months. Suddenly, a whole lot of things made sense. I found it odd that the school emphasized coloring (every single worksheet must be colored and of course, most compliments go to the best colored sheet) and all the kids loved this activity. I also found it odd that some teachers thought it was okay to finish the student’s work for them. When asked to do the same, I resolutely refused. If I assigned the students more than 5 problems or gave them more than 5 sentences, it was considered too much work (not sabai, saduak, or sanuk). They went on to say that most of their students (in 3rd grade) still didn’t understand a word of English, but they all knew what coloring was and it was the only task she could successfully get them to finish.  Perhaps it is because of this casual attitude that students cannot be failed or held back a grade. Even if a student spends an entire year without doing their work, they’ll be sent on to the next grade with forged scores. Oh yes, teachers are openly encouraged to change scores for their students so that the school looks good on paper (for more on this aspect of Thai culture, read Jennifer Hill’s “Paper Politics.” She’s spot on.). If a score is too low it won’t look good for the school (they’ll lose face), so every single teacher changes scores. There’s no real point in keeping track of student progress during the semester. Just make up a number at the end of it all and turn it in. It’s that sabai!

Wait, There’s More.Thai culture has a caste system that’s built into the language. The way you address someone in a service position (maid, waiter, cashier, etc.) is different from the way you refer to a wealthy person (the royal family has its own language and reference titles). The second part of that system is known as kreng jai, where you respect your elders at all times. You’re expected to do everything to please them and do your best not to upset them. This is part of the reason why new teachers get stuck with most of the work while older teachers sit back and relax. Things get sticky when these older teacher expect kreng jai to cross cultural boundaries. They equally expect a younger farang teacher to always obey their commands. If you do refuse them, you’re supposed to do it privately, and not in front of other people. Mix this expectation up with a culture that expects you to always speak your mind and you’ve got yourself quite a bit of a kerfuffle. So when that older Thai teacher who thinks she’s your boss and barely speaks English tells you in front of 2 older foreigner teachers, “You have to edit the school newspaper.” You shouldn’t say, “No. None of the other foreign teachers want to do it. Why do I have to?” Further, when she tries to hide her anger through uncomfortable forced laughter and goes on, “You have to do everything we say. It’s in your contract.”You should never unabashedly laugh and respond with, “You know I can always leave, right?” Not only will it piss that teacher off, she’ll go on to say you can’t teach only because you said no to her (even when you introduced the concept of syllables and phonetics to her). Also, many of these schools are used to empty threats from teachers claiming they’ll leave (Another systemic issue: most teachers don’t have the luxury of leaving. If they do, they’ll have to start from the bottom rung again. Transfers to another school are hard to come by). So when you hold true to your word, it freaks them out (and they’ll semi-stalk you for a month or so trying to figure out if they can get you into coming back).

Where Schools Fall Further

Since Thai does revolve quite a bit around looking good (you don’t have to actually be good to look good), many schools pull a couple of very sly moves (on top of grade falsification). Thai schools compete a lot with each other. The higher a school places, the more students get enrolled by their parents the following year. Obviously, every parent wants their kid in the top ranking school. Schools are aware of this, so it’s common practice to cherry-pick a handful of students and give them “special classes” during lunch or after school. These lucky kids get to study the hardest and memorize particular subjects just in time for the contest. The key word here is “memorize.” Thai children are not taught critical thinking skills. Rote memorization is the rule. The school can then charge more for students to attend (and though theoretically corruption isn’t supposed to happen, odds are it does. Particularly since I was once handed nearly a month’s salary in cash without a pay slip by someone who wasn’t the bookkeeper.). My school once went even further to sell itself. Foreign teachers were told to stand outside the main gate in the afternoons when parents came to pick up their kids. This was done merely to show off the school’s foreign teachers (because the more foreign teachers around, the better the school.). Conclusion If you’re debating about whether or not to teach in Thailand, think long and hard about what you’re willing to put up with and what you’re here for. There’s the romantic notion that you’ll be changing kid’s lives. Odds are, you won’t because the system itself is so broken (Good news: The Thai government does recognize the issue and is working to remedy it but the fix is decades away.). If you can swing it, try for a small school where paper politics aren’t as critical, a pilot school, or an international school. You’ll walk away less disgusted.


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