Monday, August 29, 2011

What Makes a Teacher

The requirements for becoming a teacher vary by country, by state, by school; and they are always changing.
Some countries have illegal teachers.
Some countries have underqualified teachers.
Some countries give ‘emergency teacher’s licenses.’
Some places have IB teachers, International School teachers.
Most places have unemployed teachers.
Some places pay teachers differently based on nationality or skin color.
Some places women cannot be teachers or students.

Really, who is a teacher?
When you get up in front of a class and take the title, you are a teacher.

It doesn’t matter whether you have an education degree.
It doesn’t matter whether your license has lapsed, or whether you’re teaching your own subject area. (Which can be frustrating for someone that has studied to teach that subject to witness.)
It doesn’t matter whether you are a backpacker that ran out of money or a career teacher.

You are a teacher when you have students.
You are a teacher when you show someone how to do a simple task.
You are a teacher when you have the means to communicate information.
Sometimes you are a teacher when all you can do is jump up and down and play charades in the hopes of getting through.

You are a teacher when your students don’t get it.
You are a teacher when your students do, finally get it.
You are a teacher when you’ve done little more than give an assignment that the students rose to complete with very little guidance.

You are a teacher when class is cancelled.
You are a teacher when your students spot you at the mall.
You are a teacher when your students see you at the gym.
You are a teacher when your students see you buying groceries.
You are still a teacher long after your last class has finished.

When you are sitting at your desk, staring at a stack of unmarked papers but not correcting them, and feeling you’re not being a good teacher, that you’re teaching the wrong things, that you’re out of your element, you’re still a teacher.

We want so badly to legislate our education woes away.
We shame teachers, we tear them down.
Teacher’s aren’t perfect.
But just like students coming into their own, teachers need support and guidance to grow.
I hope we can see through this vitriol, which is not just American, and move forward.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Why don't you...?

In my time in Bangkok so far, there have been a lot of mishaps. As such, I’ve heard the following questions many times:

Why don’t you move?
Why don’t you change schools?
Is there anything GOOD about Thailand?
Why don’t you go home?

In light of these questions, and having vaguely addressed the fourth question in a nostalgic wishy-washy fashion last week, I thought I would impart some of the reasons for not leaving, moving or otherwise throwing in the towel.

Why don’t you move?
1. My landlady saves my laundry from the rain. Every time.
2. Ming. The alley cat.
3. When I’m running late to school, one of two moto taxi drivers on my soi usually sees me and drives down the soi to get me and take me to work, for 1 USD; and they take me elsewhere in the city without ripping me off.
4. Two massage parlors, and all of the workers in them on my street know me by name; they knew me before I ever walked in the door. One of the owners let me take a three-hour nap in one of her chairs when the monsoon was awful. The other owner wanted to make sure I knew about Buddhism in these troubled times, sadly I don’t read Thai as of yet, he had a book to give me and didn’t in light of the language barrier.
5. The old lady that smiles and waves to me every morning as I walk past.
6. Café corner’s banana ginger smoothie and spaghetti pesto.
7. The characters I meet at Café Corner. Besides the occasional sexpat.
8. Availability of western food in general in my area.
9. The dog lady.
10. Bus route accessibility.
11. Not too far from the khlong boat start, either.
12. I’m perfectly situated between my school and Khao Sarn Rd. Which, while sometimes difficult to deal with, is the go to place for many things.
13. The food variety on/near Khao Sarn Rd.
14. The amazing tailor situated just inside the entrance to the wat at the end of Khao Sarn Rd. Seven articles of clothing altered for 10 USD? Yes. Fix my backpack? Less than 1 USD. Awesome.
15. I have air-conditioning, and a skylight.

Why don’t you change schools?
1. Changing schools in Thailand may be as common and easy as changing your outfit. Back home, it’s not that simple, and jumping around a bunch doesn’t look so good on your resume.
2. Even for other places in Thailand, or other countries in Asia, jumping around doesn’t look so good if you’re aiming higher than a cram school. It’s about perseverance here!
3. According to my colleagues, everywhere else they’ve taught in Thailand has been a worse experience. The chaos, and beginning paperwork trouble is typical of Thai culture.
4. Most of my students are very good at English, which is a rare blessing in Thailand.
5. None of my classes have more than 35 students. Some schools have class sizes between 40 and 60 kids.
6. Once my pay, visa and work permit were finally sorted, the majority of the problem was solved. Switching reopens this Pandora’s box.
7. I got out of teaching computers. Long story, but I was in over my head.
8. I get to lead art club as of this semester.
9. I FINALLY have Thai social health insurance. Also linked to my employment.
10. My school has direct links to my home state.
11. The longer I’m at this school, the better rapport I have with my students and the better I can control each of their classes. And the more of their names I actually learn.
12. I’m no longer the newest teacher.
13. I have received a desk and a teacher’s desktop computer (getting a teacher’s computer is a rarity here indeed).
14. I’m back on the parents’ good side (no more computers), and get along with the head of the PTA.
15. The school secretary and I are tight. We’re gonna take over the world someday. Ok maybe not really. You just wait and see.

Is there anything GOOD about Thailand?
1. Cheap, accessible produce, including amazing fruit, some varieties you can’t get back home. 1 kilo of mangosteens for less than 1 USD? Yes, please.
2. I can afford to get a back massage. Frequently. 200 baht (6.57 USD).
3. I can ride a motorbike to school for 1 USD.
4. Public transportation. I don’t need to own a car; in fact it would be counterproductive.
5. I can have a smart phone AND a pay as you go plan. And switching cell phone carriers is a matter of walking into 7/11 and buying a different SIM card for something like 3 USD.
6. Green tea flavored everything. Though careful, they add milk to a lot of beverages here, you have to ask every time.
7. I can afford to go to the hospital without fretting about co-pays and going bankrupt, even if they double charge me (which they won’t any more, Thai social!).
8. If you know what you need, the pharmacy will sell it to you. Without a prescription. Doctor’s supervision only matters as far as the doctor actually does anything besides scribble out a piece of paper and charge more than the pharmacy for the same drug. I’m not being reckless, just saying.
9. Everyone tells me I’m beautiful. And I ‘look like baby.’ Can’t win them all.
10. 7/11 sells cold beer. And they open it for you. And you can drink while walking down the street.
11. Beverages are still made with real sugar and not the synthetic stuff, besides what is clearly labeled diet.
12. Most people that find out I’m a teacher immediately ratchet their level of respect up 1-5 notches. Sometimes prices are lowered for me with this information.
13. I can ride a boat to the mall for 30 cents US.
14. If I’m craving something from the west, most things I can get, for the right price.
15. Despite my trouble with it, going out to eat is cheaper than cooking, there is a lot of delicious food here, and the longer I’m here the more I figure out which things I can and cannot get away with eating. If we truly became what we eat, some days I would definitely be a bananasteen. That’s banana + mangosteen, if you didn’t catch that.

And perhaps the most important reasons not to leave:
1. I know I’m not done here.
2. I’m finally on the all downhill from here side of culture shock.
3. Now that I’ve got the hang of things, it’s actually time to do some exploring around the rest of the country, and continent! (Class, this is what we call foreshadowing).
4. I feel like I make a difference with (most of) my students, and the moments I see my students shine, in whatever country, are some of the times I am happiest.
5. I’m finally learning more about my DSLR camera, and I’ve got some of the most beautiful sites in the world to capture.
6. I’m finally closing in on getting my artist’s groove back. Almost.
7. I have time to read.
8. I have time to train for a half-marathon. There, I put it out there. Pressure’s on, lazy pants. Ugh. Grad class has been eating into this time…
9. Being this far away, I have no obligation, and really no ability to come running when anyone cries wolf. I only have to look out for myself. Sorry, see this? Yeah that’s the Pacific Ocean. I never really liked swimming that much.
10. Breathing room. I can finally work on healing at my own pace. Some may say I ran away. I say I dove in headfirst. Holding on to the past with both hands and continuing to wait for the other shoe to drop; that would be worrisome.

I’m 25. I’ve got things to do, places to see, and my own shoes to fill. Preferably green or purple shoes, but I’m flexible. Still waiting for my midget dragon sidekick though.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Sense of Place

What is home, exactly?
For 18 years, the city of Indianapolis was home.
For 5 years, West Lafayette was home.
And right now Bangkok is home.

But what really makes any place home?
People keep asking me “will I be excited to come home?”
And I don’t know how to answer that question honestly without offending people.
The answer is supposed to be “yes! I can’t wait to come home!”
But that’s not how I feel.

What exactly do you mean by come home?
Bangkok is home now.
It may not be a permanent home, but it’s more home than any place in Indiana.

How much of a connection do you have to have with a place to call it home?
Or at least a place you care about deeply?

I’ve only spent 10 days in China. But it made enough of an impact on me to care about what’s happening in the city of my hosts. I care about the people I encountered.

I lived in Firenze for one month. And it felt more like home than any place had for the previous three years.

I’ve lived in Bangkok for 9 months. And I feel like I live in limbo. But as soon as a taxi or motosai turns down my home soi, I know I’m home free. I get to put down my backpack, turn on the aircon and sit in my own space.

I spent 3 nights on the island of Koh Chang. But the sense of peace on that pier staring up at the stars felt like home, for a little while.

Some people say home is where the heart is. Or where your family is, or pumpkin pie or Thanksgiving or the State Fair or whatever else conjures up images of comfort.

It really struck me how shaken I was by the tragedy at the Indiana State Fair and by the protests in Dalian, China this weekend. These events are so much smaller than the show-stopping headlines 2011 has brought us. But these smaller events are in places that have provided a sense of home to me at some time, however briefly. It’s harder to remain detached from it.

Home is a sense of safety and peace.
A space, however small, that is your own for a period of time.

The places that have been home are always a part of who you are.
Some people have one home their entire lives.
But not me.
I don’t know where home is.
I don’t know if home needs a location.

Unlike some of the more adventurous nomads out there, I don’t seek to be location independent. I don’t seek to rid myself of all material possession except one backpack, though I strive to accumulate less.
I’d still like a true home base somewhere, someday.

But I’m a rolling stone.
Home is where I lay my head at night.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

This is (Almost) The Future

For some reason, you’ve decided to take an online graduate level course from another continent. We have the internet! Anything is possible!

Before you get too excited, here are some tips for surviving this endeavor:

1. Check the online course software two weeks before the start of the class.

2. Email your instructors well in advance and explain the situation.

3. Find out about any textbooks at least one month ahead of time if possible.

4. Determine how well the online course software loads in your country of residence.

5. Scope out at least half a dozen internet café alternatives to your usual haunts. The internet will go down. Everywhere.

6. Resist the temptation to have a hissy fit on social media when none of this works properly. Do as I say, not as I do.

In depth explanations and problems you might encounter:

1. Checking the online course software 1-2 months in advance is too soon. Checking the night before is too late.

2. You are not typical. Your instructor probably does not expect someone to take a class at an American, Midwest University from somewhere in Asia, online or not. So far I know of one program specifically designed for this purpose. But it still requires a much more stable internet presence (and a LOT more tuition dollars).

3. Online class does not mean 100% online material just yet, apparently. Silly me. See, almost the future. International textbook shipping is tricky, expensive, and sometimes not even possible.

4. University course websites are labor intensive for slower internet connections. Likewise, online textbook rental (this was not Amazon, nor was that an option) is copyright hyperactive, in beta testing, and extremely buggy. Also, apparently illegal for utilization outside North America, because you know, China might want to steal our ideas about No Child Left Behind or something. I wouldn’t recommend the CourseSmart software at the present time if another option is available. See International Shipping above.

5. Dry season internet is not monsoon season internet. The internet will die just because it’s raining. They will completely redo the wiring at school rendering it impossible to access for a week. Various Thai internet companies will proclaim for the millionth time they really are upgrading to 3G this time. The Thai censorship connection slow down. Your favorite internet café will lose signal. Starbucks in Thailand will charge an arm and a leg for you to use the internet regardless of whether you buy a beverage. Your internet SIM card will be corrupt and require replacement. And when you’ve finally fought through to your material, can you focus on the coursework?

6. Self-explanatory.

Besides the basic tech specifications, it should also be noted that while a foreign teacher in Thailand has a lighter teaching load than an American teacher in the states or an International school, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got that much more energy left for maintaining a compact summer course while teaching. Especially when you end up taking motosai (motorcycle) taxis all over town in search of the internet. It’s kind of exhausting. Though, an American at an International school or higher up the expat food chain would likely have access to more stable internet.

All that said, you’d think my summary would be never do this, right? Wrong. In fact, just to prove my sheer insanity, I’m starting another online graduate class shortly! Why am I doing this to myself? Some combination of renewing my teacher’s license in the long run and sheer masochism. Not the least of which, because neither my home state nor my current country of residence can pin down what on earth it is they want and expect from teachers in order to be ‘legal.’ And I’m rather partial to being legal(ish).

I will say that as far as textbook reading goes, I probably did a better job with this course than in any class throughout high school and undergrad. Progress in relation to attention span and information absorption? Maybe.

Believe you me, I’ve thought about walking down Khao Sarn Road and purchasing myself a Ph.D. in Horribleness and calling it a day.