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Paper Politics

Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, I know, but if all of my classes could be like my Matyam 2/1, they would all be my favorite. I call this my genius class, although that just means they listen intently to whatever it is I have to say.

The majority of my students have slowly separated like oil and water over the past seven weeks. The half who want to learn English sit in front while the other half entertain themselves in the back. Before I started, several people told me not to worry about the ones who don’t listen, to just focus on those who do.

I understand this now, but when the back half is busy beating each other with broom sticks and throwing paper balls at the front half while standing on top of desks and yelling profanities in Thai…it’s hard to forget they’re there. I’ve learned to let most of it slide and to continue with class, as long as the ones who want to hear me are able to. It’s when it comes to grading that the situation doesn’t roll off my back as easily as a wad of paper.

In Thailand, students don’t fail. Even if they spend the entire period playing just outside the classroom door or, like 45 of my students, they never show up to class and I never meet them, I’m required to give them a passing grade. It’s the politics of a public school, where all proof lies on paper.

The same goes for cancelling class. Thirty kids go to an English competition in a neighboring town. Why not cancel school for the other 1,470? It’s constitution day. Holiday anyone? There’s a blind woman on campus. Let’s hold a school-wide fundraiser for her cause. Just make sure to mark all the kids present. We must show 20 contact hours each semester. On paper.

It’s only my first term, so I have yet to turn in these highly cherished attendance/grade records, but I’ve been warned to expect issues when I do. I have 950 students (according to the books) but I can only remember the names of maybe ten. I have no way of knowing which students are sons and daughters of my co-workers, but if one happens to be in my class and I give them a meager grade (though they probably earned a failing one), I’ll be asked to change it. Teachers are highly respected, and their offspring are to be excellent students. On paper.

It’s impossible to be fired from a government teaching position, so it’s like a golden ticket for the entire family. This must be the reason I walk past four unmanned classrooms on the way to mine each day. It must also be the reason men drink whiskey in their office during school hours. And it has to be the reason nobody seems to care if a child learns nothing. As long as the school can show he did. On paper.

Speaking of paper, I have an entire profile that my agency, AYC, gave to the school before they hired me. This profile holds a top-notch resume in the art of teaching, which I did not create; a perfectly copied original diploma from a university I don’t know exists; reference letters from people whose names I can’t pronounce, and transcripts I did not send. I’m the perfect candidate for an English teacher. On paper.

It’s nothing my agency did shamelessly – this is common practice in Thailand. It’s true I lacked any teaching experience before coming here, but most schools don’t require it. I could have sent AYC an equally good profile and saved them a lot of work, but they didn’t ask.

It seems much of Thailand is run on the same theory I had as a child growing up: It’s easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission. There’s always an excuse for why a student isn’t in school – dance lessons, very tired, studying for another subject – and why shouldn’t there be when everything can be so easily fixed on paper?

I do as I’m told because I can’t change a structure that’s been in place for years. All I can do is my best with the students who are willing to try. In the end, a grade is just a meaningless number, and those who actually earn theirs will reap the benefits.

I’d like to have high hope for my genius class, but I’m fairly certain they simply haven’t learned the system yet. Next year, they’ll spend their days outside of the classroom, entertaining each other as they join the ranks of the older and wiser. And the government will be the only ones who believe it.


Jessica Hill
Suwannaphum, Roi Et, Thailand



Jessica Hill developed a love for travel at a young age. Her passion for writing came later. The opportunity to quit her job and write about traveling became possible when she accepted a teaching position in northeastern Thailand, having absolutely no prior experience. She’s currently living in small-town Suwannaphum, which coincidentally has similarities to the rural part of Oregon, U.S. she was raised in. There, she's learning how to teach English and live like a Thai. For her, every experience is writing material, for even the bad ones make great stories.

Follow her journey here:

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