Many people have heard of Bangkok, some have heard of Chiang Mai, but less have heard about Phitsanulok. This is interesting to me because it’s a pretty major throughway for travel between Chiang Mai in the north and Bankok farther south. Yet, perhaps this is why it remains so unheard of… it’s a throughway, which means you get here but then you keep going.
This is not to say there are no tourists here; there are. People come to Phitsanulok to view the beautiful waterfalls and national parks; there is wonderful plant life here as well, and the city has historical significance as it is where the famous King Naresuan is from. King Naresuan is best known for fierce opposition against Burmese takeover.
Two Universities, Naresuan University (names after King Naresuan) and Rajabhat University are in Phitsanulok. There is also a Royal Thai Army base in the City.
Phitsanulok is a growing urban environment that still has splashes of rural lifestyle and thought. Like many places in Thailand, Phitsanulok has sewage problems due to severe flooding during certain times of the year. Government agencies have been working on many techniques to help the country. In a way Phitsanulok reminds me of Pittsburgh with splashes of Rankin and Braddok, thrown into the middle of Dutch-Amish country.
Some of the landscape on the outskirts of Phitsanulok.
Phitsanulok lies off of major highway routes.
Buildings fill the city as outdoor shops line the streets.
Outdoor markets are prevalent.
Local and internationally recognized franchises are all throughout Thailand. There is a lot of different foods at KFC than what we might be used to in the States; rice is common with just about each meal and “egg tarts”, found throughout areas of the country, are well-liked snacks (well, not by me… I don’t like em, but others do).
7-11′s are a huge franchise in Thailand specifically and Asia as a whole. People LOVE their local 7-11!
As with any city, traffic jams are daily occurrences.
Local police officers try to make some order of the congested streets (unfortunately not always helping matters). Driving throughout the country is quite aggressive, and drivers (of cars or motor bikes) often drive as though safety is not the first priority. I have come to conclude that those yellow or white lines in the middle of the road are “road art” meant to be driven over.
While a river does not run through Phitsanulok… so does a major railway.
This is but a glimpse of Phitsanulok, but gives an idea of the city itself. So I am here working at Padoongrasdra (“Pah-doong-rat”) School.
Padoongrasdra School signs and crest
The Director of Padoongrasdra School: Parinya Tawino.
A fairly large K-12 school, Padoongrasdra has around 3,000/4,000 students. This school one of the private Church of Christ in Thailand schools and so it has a Christian base, and the director is firm on sharing Jesus with students and staff. As if a microcosm of the wider country, Padoongrasdra is primarily not Christian in its student and staff population. Most, as Thailand is, are Buddhist. So the school is ripe ground for witnessing. Thailand has a huge shortage of male role models who are Christian, so being on this campus and showing young men (and women) how a real, godly man should act is a serious responsibility. One of the biggest things is just letting students know you care. Many do not get that message so sharing it through the love of God is key.
The elementary level is called Prathom (“Pra-tome”) and the high school level is Mathayom (“Mah-tay-ome”). Both the Prathom (P) and Matayom (M) structure have levels that range from 1-6. So, for example, P.1/1, P. 1/2… P.2/1, P.2/2…, all the way to P. 6/6. Likewise, M.1/1, 1/2… M. 2/1, M. 2/2… all the way to M. 6/6. Each level designates a specific age and grade.
Prathom students at a special event on campus.
A Mathayom class working on menu’s for a restaurant role-play in English.
I have a total of 16 classes that range from elementary (Prathom) to beginner high school (Mathayom). Having 16 classes per week is not actually that much. My fellow international English teachers have at least 24 classes per week. (The class in this pic is M. 2/6.) I am here to teach English on more of a conversational level. Thus, I do not always deal too much with the grammar but try to begin conversation among students, staff, teachers, etc. (I don’t know what I was saying in this pic… I think I was ATTEMPTING to pronounce a name.)
One of the biggest challenges to education here is the class size. Government run schools (which are the equivalent to public school education in the States) have no less than 50 students to a class. Private schools here generally have fewer students per class because they are allowed to set a cap on student enrollment. While Padoongrasdra is a private institution, it has no such cap, so, class sizes are just as big as in Government schools. This makes the learning process very challenging as one 50 students are very difficult to manage for one teacher. Add to this that the level of English throughout Thailand as a whole is very poor, so foreign teachers of English and students are not able to communicate very well, especially as it pertains to class discipline.
I am considered a “lucky” teacher because in my classes I am paired with a Thai teacher of English. This does indeed make life a lot easier as the Thai teachers are (generally) more able to control and discipline students. The other foreign English teachers do not have this luxury. The only reason I have this is because I am in a different program and am not a “regular” international teacher. Persons who apply for teaching positions in schools are considered just like any other teacher. I am here under a mission status and the agency I’m under has its own requirements for those in its service.
Regardless of having some different conditions from other teachers, we all have talked about the difficulty of student learning as it pertains to the English language. Thailand as a whole has struggled with English for some time; there are many factors that go into this. For starters this country was never colonized, thus people were never “made” to speak English. For a number of years English was not even allowed to be taught in the school system. When it finally was allowed to be taught it was done so through the means of grammar first, then conversational speaking. (Now, I am no expert on English as a Second/Foreign Language, but I do know that learning the grammar, reading and writing of a language first is not usually how to go about learning that language. It allows you to have a grasp on grammar, but then you are unsure of how to speak, which is essential.) Add to this the Association of South East Asia Nations (ASEAN), which is the “conglomerate”, if you will, working to help the 10 South East Asia nations work together and be more unified in economic approaches. The communicative language for ASEAN is English. Hence, if you don’t speak it you are, in a way, left behind. (I spoke of ASEAN in an earlier blog post as well.)
So, this is where Thailand is. There is the knowledge that learning this language is imperative, but many are having difficulty getting to this goal. It is a very challenging situation, but I can see/sense the great opportunities that exist as well. There is so much potential for people young and old. Thailand is, in my opinion, in a stage of transition; it currently lies in a place where the West was during the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. This is an era of great flux for the country with new levels of education and globalization mixed with economic and urban sprawl. As I mentioned above that Padoongrasdra School is a microcosm of Thailand in its religious affiliation, I would say that Phitsanulok is a microcosm of the rest of the country in terms of the flux happening.
Ok, back to Padoongrasdra school. As I mentioned, even though I am paired in the classroom with a Thai teacher, there are still the issues of language barriers, cultural differences, and the fact that since many students know they will get passed through the system, they don’t do any substantial work. However, working through these things is part of the task at hand, and in working through them connections with people are built. Relationships with people are extremely important here, and making those is the first step to helping anyone learn anything. You build relationships, you build trust, and then you maintain that trust with the love and compassion of Christ.
It can definitely be rewarding and, at times, fun teaching, but the powers that be understand that breaks in-between the teaching schedules of the year.
This is sports day. It’s like an “Olympics Day” where students compete against one another in various sports, such as track, relay races, dance, and even parade marches. It’s a fun difference from regular classes.
And of course, we have inter-office humor to help us along
Along with teaching Prathom and Mathayom classes, international teachers are also assigned to teach Thai teachers of English in order to help improve their proficiency levels as well. While student class size is typically gargantuan, these classes are not. Teacher class sizes can run up to about 20 or so. I have been tasked to teach the staff and school director himself, so my class size in this respect is smaller.
The staff English class. Part of class is conversation, the other part is Bible reading so that people gain an awareness of letter and word sounds. (Ajarn Parinya is seated left front.)
Also, God really will open doors for barriers to be broken down. As I share the following story I think of Ephesians 2:14, “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall….” (For all my Bible literalists and exegetes, I am aware that this piece of Scripture is in its context speaking of Jews and Gentiles. However, I also do believe that the Word of God is applicable to many different contexts. In this sense cultural and language differences can be great “dividing” walls, even of hostility. Breaking down these walls takes learning of one another, and the way to truly unite as one is in and through Jesus Christ.)
One of my students, a young girl about 5 or 6 years old, called me over to play a game with her and her friends. “Teacha Jame”, she called to me, not yet being able to fully say “Teacher James” (SN: Thai are not used to pronouncing ending sounds, so my name typically comes out as “Jame” until the correct pronunciation is practiced). She wanted to play monkey in the middle. This little girl, ball in hand, was motioning for me to stand in the middle of her and two of her other friends so I would be “it”. Well, I didn’t get this at first and she proceeded to make monkey gestures and sounds. I was taken aback for a second as my “American Black man” defensive side began to rise. Then, I realized what she was getting at – she wanted to play Monkey in the Middle. And so we did; I and three young children, each one no more than seven years old, transcended language barriers by playing a game and laughing. I was so glad I held in my preconceived notions of what was happening. It was a true learning experience.