This Is What Teaching In A Foreign Country Has Taught Me


Teaching is 70% performance, at least that’s how it feels when I stand in front of each of my 35 to 50 student classes everyday. I do not have a degree, or any real prior experience, and no frame of reference except for my own years as a student. Sometimes, no, all of the time, I am completely bewildered as to why anyone thought it wise to entrust me with the minds of 950 Thai teenagers.

It has been a week since I began working at Saohai High School. Day one can only be described as a cacophonous mass of noise, energy, sweat, marker stains, hand signals, laughter, and misunderstanding. I walked into my first class with the modest plan to introduce myself, learn each of my students’ names, make name tags, and offer them a choice of an American nickname.

Upon entering my first class, I found no desks, no dry erase markers with ink, and 50 12 to 13 year-old students, yelling “GOOD MORNING TEEAACHA” as I walked across the class. I thought that this initial burst of excitement would temper in a few moments, but instead they capitalized and thrived, building upon and diving into each other’s shrieks, and yells, and giggles, and playful jabs. Never for a second did a single student stop moving, which meant that I couldn’t either.

I decided that without any markers or desks, all I could do was motion my 50 students into a large circle. I found myself in the middle, submerged in their excitement and hormone addled energy. All I could manage to accomplish was calling each student to the middle, trying my best to decipher their nicknames, and write them down in an attempt to remember each one. 50 minutes passed by in what seemed like two, and as quickly as they arrived, my students poured out of the room and down the hall. This exchange happened three more times that day, and I moved through the school, from classroom to classroom, in a blind frenzy of heat and noise.

If I’m being completely real with myself, I felt nothing like a teacher by the middle of my first day. I felt like a fraud.

I felt like I was stuck in one of those stress dreams where you’re desperately trying to decipher what’s going on around you, but you can’t find your wallet, or your keys, and suddenly you’re completely naked. I fell asleep at 7:30 that night.

Since then, I’ve found solace in my Thai, Japanese, and Ugandan co-workers whose boundless generosity, kindness, and empathy continue to leave me surprised, amazed, and deeply grateful. Whether it be teaching me new activities, games, or strategies to implement in the classroom, to helping me purchase a reliable motorbike, they are all emotional and intellectual pillars.

For the rest of this week until Wednesday, I am teaching my students about countable and uncountable nouns. And last Thursday was the first day that I felt like I taught my students something new. Some of them, at least, seemed to leave class with a better understanding of the proper uses of “how many” and “how much” than they did when they sat down on the tiled classroom floor sans desks.

Later that day, along with four other Thai teachers and my two American co-workers, I stood at the back entrance of the school to wai (bowing in respect) each student as they left campus. As many of my students from earlier that day passed by, we would wai each other, and then they would wave, smile, and jubilantly say “Goodbye Teacha Isabel!” Several girls from my younger classes gave me small paper stars that they made out of shiny colorful paper.

These connections, however fleeting, were reaffirming and made me feel whole again after an initial week of drowning in raw teenage energy.

After an initial week of speaking to 950 different students and receiving blank stares and bullet quick Thai responses in return. After a week of turning around to write something on the board and hearing my classroom erupt in rippling laughter and sharp comments that I can’t yet understand. “Goodbye Teacha Isabel!” and four paper stars became precious tokens. An indication that my students, however rambunctious and inherently teenage, appreciate and trust my presence at the front of their classroom. Maybe this isn’t true for every single one of my students, but it is for a group of six 13-year-old girls, and for now that is enough.