When I was in high school, I learned seven or eight different subjects each semester: the four core subjects, Spanish, health, gym, band, and either another elective or a study hall. I attended classes between 7:30 in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon. Within these seven hours, there was a break for lunch, a few minutes to stop by my locker on the way to the next classroom between periods and hopefully a free period.
At the time, I thought the daily schedule was exhausting. My brain had to shift gears from calculus to humanities to biology then back to English…all before lunchtime! Being stuck in school for that long felt like torture.
Flash forward six years when I began teaching in a Thailand high school. Here, most students have approximately 13 subjects to focus on each semester. The school day starts around 7:30 in the morning and ends at 4:00 in the afternoon. Study halls and free periods aren’t built into the schedule and students aren’t allotted any time to switch classes. For example, period 1 ends at 9:20 and period 2 starts at 9:20.
And that’s only one of three big facts I learned while teaching in a Thailand high school.
1) THAI SCHOOLS RUN ON THAI TIME
Before moving here, I hadn’t heard of “Thai time” but now it’s a fact of life. I would compare this concept to “island time” in that tardiness is fairly normal and every schedule is, metaphorically, just penciled in.
The lack of passing time between classes means your students will be late all the time. It’s difficult to know when you should actually start teaching. I usually wait for all of the students arrive before I begin my lessons because I’ll have to repeat the information for them anyway.
Another aspect of Thai time is how quickly schedules change. On several occasions, Thai teachers have poked their heads into my classroom, spoken a sentence or two in Thai and motioned for the students to leave. One of the more fluent kids would tell me that the students are supposed to be at some kind of ceremony or meeting or event as he hurried out the door. Classes are suddenly cancelled quite often, so it’s imperative that you can learn to go with the flow.
2) SO MANY CLASSES
As I mentioned before, some Thai students take twice as many subjects as Americans in a semester. One of my Matthyam 5 (11th grade) students who has a math and science-based curriculum, Mann, is currently studying basic math, additional math, physics, biology, chemistry, Thai, basic English, additional English, home economics, geography, gym, health, social studies and a computer class.
While American public schools don’t typically make students take advanced science and math courses until high school, my Matthyam 2 (8th grade) students are enrolled in classes like physics, algebra II and chemistry simultaneously–a course load that is typically broken up across multiple years of school in America. Similarly, students who focus more on language arts skills study three foreign languages at the same time: English, Chinese and Japanese.
Once the regular school day ends, many students head to extra tutoring sessions or cram schools. They spend more time studying whichever subjects are most difficult for them or courses they want to excel in. One of my Matthoyam 2 students goes to extra classes most days of the week, including weekends, because he isn’t great at math and science. Half of his sessions are live streams of classes in Bangkok and others are held in classrooms by teachers who tutor as a side job.
When all is said and done, there are Thai students who are expected to study for about 12 hours per day during the week, plus a few hours over the weekend.
3) DON’T COUNT ON HOMEWORK
Something you’ll quickly learn as you begin your teaching in Thailand adventure is that Thai students rarely do homework. It can be frustrating at first, especially if you were a Type A student like I was. If I didn’t have my homework completed before class, I was incredibly anxious. Thai kids don’t want to do homework at night which is sort of understandable when you consider their daily schedules.
I work in the English Program of my province’s top secondary school so I’m held to pretty strict standards when it comes to the curriculum and learning objectives. Many other teachers in Thailand have more freedom with their syllabi.
During my first few months, I tried my darndest to get my students to complete homework. I would only assign it if we didn’t finish a lesson during the class and I was worried about falling behind with the curriculum which seemed like a reasonable quantity to me. When only two out of 28 students showed me their homework the next day, I was stressed out and annoyed. I kept telling my classes that homework counts as part of their final grade and they were accumulating zeros but nothing changed.
It took me a while to accept that students wouldn’t do work for my class outside of the 45 minutes boxed off on their school schedules with my name and the classroom number. I was warned that the kids were going to blow off homework assignments but I didn’t believe it because I was such a diligent nerd when I was in their shoes.
Ultimately, I stopped assigning homework, except when giving students more opportunities to turn in work they had missed. While this decision sometimes slowed down our progress through the textbooks and learning objectives, it was less frustrating for me. At the end of the day, students are truly responsible for aspects of their education. I can’t change an entire country’s school system or culture, so I adapted and altered my expectations.
People always mention the culture shock you’ll experience when you move across the world, but knowing what to expect can help ease you into the lifestyle you’ll grow accustomed to. In addition to tolerating spicier food and sweatier clothes, you will learn a thing or two about learning itself.
Words by Christine Hayes.