Teaching English in Bangkok
By Jason A. Jellison
It was 4:30 AM on a warm Bangkok morning and I had just stepped out into what would soon be the working world. For those of you reading this who have never lived extensively in ‘the Big Mango,’ 4:30 in the morning is a very interesting time in Bangkok. Inside, most of the city is still sound asleep, but outside, the streets (we call them ‘sois’) are eerily quiet at this hour. Stepping out of Soi Ngam Duphli and into an archaic back alley, shopkeepers were throwing open their shutters and revealing the ghosts of a Bangkok long since gone. Sitting there, beneath tiny Thai spirit houses, I could practically see the late Sir John Bowring awaiting his morning tea as well as an entourage of the bygone Thai journeymen who built this old soi into its glory years.
The air was filled with the enchanting aroma imparted by charcoal fires that vendors had just lit for grilling signature Thai food.
Errant spices wafted through this old, woebegone soi and one could connect with a bygone Bangkok of yesteryear thanks to the morning quiet… Bangkok, as we once were.
But then, car headlights came rounding the corner and, in the split of an instant, this old soi was suddenly thrust back into the modern age. And in that moment, all of Bangkok’s wandering spirits vanished. (I guess Sir John and I would have to share our morning bowl of Tom Yum Khung another day?) However, as I needed to get all the way to Chinatown, I hailed the very cab that had so rudely interrupted my morning ritual. As the taxi stopped, I got in and plopped down my heavy bags… I quickly noticed that this was not a normal Bangkok taxicab; the taxi was spotlessly clean and the driver understood some English. A meaningful conversation ensued but what happened next was all the more surprising for a taxi ride in Bangkok.
Clearly, someone had been teaching this taxi driver some English later in life and it turned out that his son was responsible. Yarowat (Young King) Road slowly cut through the heart of Bangkok’s ancient Chinatown; its exotic signage and scents slowly invaded the senses, as we spoke in something of our own ‘inter-language.’ My story was that I was a retiree from a long career in the States who had gone into teaching after going back to school to get that ever- illusive college degree. These days, I had the distinct honor of teaching at one of Thailand’s most prestigious schools. His story was that his son went to a competing private school not too far away from where he was taking me. This famous school was expensive but, unlike most of his son’s peers, this family was not rich. These days, he was working a great many extra hours and dedicating nearly every penny of his 15,000 baht salary to pay for his son’s English-immersion schooling. As we pulled up to my school, he asked if I might be able to tutor his son someday. I said ‘certainly,’ and we exchanged numbers.
Having parted with sweet sorrow, it was only as he slowly rode off over the Chao Phrya River and into the Asian sunrise that I realized and felt something extremely important; I had just rediscovered why ESL teachers teach and it was critical that I hung onto this glorious feeling that was surging through me… ‘the teacher feeling.’ You see, Thailand suffers from rampant wealth, inequality and corruption. Worse, Thailand also has a ‘no fail’ policy which says that all students must ultimately pass a course. In practice, this means that you cannot rely on test data to be definitive and reliable. It also means that most things get handed to the privileged few at the expense of the common poor and, in the classroom, it can be very difficult being a foreign teacher in a landscape where everything is suspect.Many older ESL teachers in Thailand don’t like the way this feels and so they become cynical. It is, after all, a shock absorber that protects a person from emotional harm,but it commonly does so at a very steep long-term cost. Cynicism insulates us from getting hurt by training our minds to only expect the worst in things and to expect a bad outcome on a routine basis.
In other words, we protect ourselves from the emotional pain of disappointment by becoming less willing to anticipate a positive outcome.
Down the road, this lack of willingness eventually metastasizes into a lack of a desire or into a lack of an ability to anticipate in a positive outcome. Put more plainly, this is when we just can’t find or express any joy anymore… and this describes a lot of ESL teachers who have long tenures in Thailand. When we lose our ability to express joy, then a negative result becomes the quintessential reality. We only see what we want to see and, simply because we are too unwilling to risk getting our feelings hurt by a potentially painful loss, we talk ourselves into seeing Thailand as a place where only the corrupt can get ahead and only the rich can get into the great schools. And, it becomes a fait accompli because there is some truth in it. Often, it is true that the corrupt do get ahead in Thailand… for a while. And often, it is true that mainly the rich go to Thailand’s best schools… but this is not necessarily always so.
What an interesting place is life, hmm? How fascinating it is that truth can occasionally be found in a simple cup of morning coffee, in an errant conversation or, in my case, through a picturesque morning taxi ride that was taken through the heart and soul of Bangkok’s old quarter; just like schoolmates on the Bangkok Trams & rickshaws of yesteryear.I was driven in luxury to my prestigious job by a man who dedicates every last shilling that he has to a son who worked hard enough to get into Assumption School; one of the more elite private schools in Thailand. These were not rich people, but hard-working people like me… and probably a lot like you too.
And so, that morning I learned something. I learned why it is that ESL teachers do this… or why most of us started to do this… or why we should do this. We do it not for us, but for the kids. And no scoundrel in any country, no corrupt system, nor any wealth inequity that there ever has been none of it can get in the way of me ever forgetting that we’re here because somehow, somewhere, some way & someday, someone wants to learn… something. It’s our job to find those disadvantaged learners and give them everything that we have. Kill the cynicism.