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Making a Difference

To be honest, I’ve been moping around for the past two weeks, telling you all that I’m tired of teaching, that I’m ready to just be traveling. The reason, I said, was because I didn’t feel like I was doing any good here, and my students are not benefiting from my efforts.

But today I had a change of heart. It was as if something lifted the patches from my eyes, allowing me to see the truth in clear sight: I am making a difference, just by being present.

Over a spicy fish lunch, Mrs. Pussadee and Mrs. Pidow explained their gratitude to me. They told me how their own English has improved dramatically just from talking to me each day, and that this increased confidence has allowed them to carry that knowledge into their own classrooms.

“Maybe my first year as a teacher, I spoke English in class,” Pussadee admitted, “and then I started only speaking Thai.”

“Me too,” Pidow chimed in. “But now we teach most of our lessons in English.”

For two professionals who have been teaching for nearly 26 and 30 years, respectively, this says a lot. I had no idea I was impacting the teachers this much, and it opened my eyes to how much I’m helping the students as well – however miniscule the results might be.

Last weekend I spoke to my friend Kati who teaches at a high school in Sisaket, a small city about two hours from Suwannaphum. She began talking about the debates her students are currently doing, and explained her shock when some of the essays she received in response to the question, “What would you change about the government school system in Thailand” were better than she could have written herself.

When I finally figured out how to pick my jaw up off the floor, I muttered: “You’re kidding, right? Your students understand what a debate is? They can write papers in English?”

“Yeah, but…”

“I’m teaching my kids to say ‘bird,’” I said, “and many of them answered wrong to the midterm question, ‘what is your name.’”

I pondered the differences between our schools for a while, and at first I didn’t see any. Sisaket is also in Isaan (Northeastern Thailand), and is far off the beaten traveler path. It probably sees a few more foreigners than Suwannaphum, but not enough to create the crater of a difference between our two schools. Sisaket is also equally as far from Bangkok (which holds the largest population of English speakers in Thailand), and many of Kati’s students are probably destined for similar futures as mine are (either in the rice fields or food stands). Also, both schools lack an updated computer lab with reliable Internet that’s available to students (arguably, a key learning tool).

In fact, I can only conclude one major difference between the two: Sisaket Wittayalai (Kati’s school) has been fortunate enough to employ several foreign teachers for more than ten years. This year marks the first of many (hopefully) for my school. I’d say this is pretty good evidence that being on campus, simply giving the teachers and students a reason to say “Good morning” and “How are you?” each day is beneficial. Why else would they have a reason to speak even that much in English?

Already I’m noticing my own students are becoming less shy, less afraid to speak. More and more of them come up to me outside of class, even if it’s just to say “Hello Teacher,”  though some will attempt a conversation or tell me they missed me over the weekend. Many more have opened up in the classroom, using hand gestures to describe things, or actually asking for my dictionary to help explain something (they don’t have their own). Each speaking assignment I give them becomes less of a struggle to wrestle words out of their mouths, and they’ve begun surprising me by lining up to speak – a far cry from several weeks ago when I had to drag students by the arm from the back of the room.

I think I needed to hear that from Pussadee and Pidow today, to make me see the light. I’m too hard on myself, I know, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded that the small steps often count just as much as the big ones; that it’s impossible for my students to go from saying hello to debating political issues in just five short months; and that I am laying a positive trail, even if it’s not readily visible.

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