"Wai Kru, 2554" (the Thai year) - the students made these gorgeous flower arrangements themselves... and skipped my class to do it!
This past Thursday was Wan Wai Kru, meaning Teacher Appreciation Day. Across the country, no classes were held – students and teachers assembled in their most neatly pressed outfits, first to offer alms and receive blessings from monks, and then to pay respect to their teachers past and present. As a kru, albeit foreign and confused, I got to participate in the festivities and see for myself how deeply teaching is valued here.
Teachers offering food to the monks, most of which is rice, soymilk, and instant noodles. The lucky ones get oreos and chocolate milk.
All the offered food was tossed into this truck. Quite a haul!
Students poured all the bags of rice onto the floor, sorting and bagging the goodies to sell right back to teachers who originally bought them, for a discount. The raised revenue will go to the temple and the school.
Before I arrived last October, I had an idea that Thai students respected their teachers more than their American counterparts did, but let’s face it, I had a lot of ideas back then and almost none of them have stood their ground unbent. I thought that my students would be obedient cherubs, shy to speak up in class and loathe to break a rule. While some fit this image, a good chunk of them have proven louder, more hyperactive, and more mischievous than any son of a Yankee. My notion that I could ignore classroom management was nothing but naïve. The toughest moments for me are not when I’m quieting students down in an overly exciting game of bingo, or when I’m trying to get them not to shout out the Jeopardy answers before their turn. It’s dealing with the students who come in 20 minutes late or not at all, the students who don’t take their pens out of their bags unless to copy answers from a friend, and the students who roll their eyes with that you-don’t-understand-me-and-you-never-will sneer. I’ve had to realize that they’re teenagers after all, many coping with stressful circumstances I can’t possibly understand. The Thai teachers are better than me at instilling discipline, but they also grapple with chronic absenteeism and disengagement.
Students having a dance party in the courtyard before the formal ceremonies start. Reminds me of Berkeley High.
This wild mob reminds me a lot of BHS, plus uniforms and petrified 7th graders.
The skeptic in me has wondered if students’ outward shows of respect to teachers – wai-ing (Thai-style bowing) teachers as they pass by, frantically tucking in school uniforms, bringing teachers ice water and photocopies on request – only go deep enough to save face. Do Thai students really respect their teachers? Or are they just following the cultural norms and trying to not get whacked by a bamboo pole?
Sitting through Teacher Appreciation Day, even though I was dripping sweat from my chin and knees, was actually quite touching. It affirmed for me that students do value their education and that Thailand places an enormous importance on the role of teachers in society (even though teacher salaries, like in America, are abysmal). At one point, every student came up to the stage and knelt before a teacher, bowing down and offering a bundle of flowers – “needle” flowers to represent the sharpening of the mind, eggplant flowers to represent a teacher’s kindness and gentleness, wild grasses to represent the learning that takes place everywhere and anytime, and a candle and incense stick to pay homage to Buddha. Each teacher took the flowers, patted the student’s head, and whispered solemn words of advice. I have never touched so many student heads in all my days here – head touching is one of those cultural taboos on par with pointing your feet and badmouthing the king. Quite a thrill!
Everything in Thailand comes wrapped in a banana leaf, and these teacher flowers are no exception.
After the ceremony, I was sitting with one of my host teachers P’Nai when a handful of 11th grade girls approached her, got on their knees, and bowed their heads in respect. She knelt by them and held their prayer-clasped hands, telling them what wonderful students they were and giving them blessings for their futures. They were in her advisory class last year and came, totally of their own will, to tell their old teacher how much she meant to them. They had tears in their eyes. I almost started tearing up myself. It hammered home to me that this was not just an empty ceremony; Thai people have an almost sacred respect for teachers. Whenever I tell people that I’m a “kru” here, there are ohs and ahs of acknowledgement – I get a better discount on the skirt I’m haggling over, or a complementary bag of mangos, or maybe even a job offer.
P'Nai and her adoring student.
And no, this respect is not a panacea for truancy, nor a guarantor of critical thinking, and it’s not going to make the boys’ bathrooms stop smelling like piss and cigarettes. But my impression is that here in Thailand, teachers are not just trainers of the intellect, but also role models in a moral and spiritual sense. Of course I consider many of my own former teachers role models, but there has always been a tricky line there – American teachers are warned not to overstep the role of the parent, not to preach politics or ethics, and to never EVER bring religion into the classroom. Here that line is fuzzy at best – the original teachers were monks after all, and the original schools were temples. Thailand triumphs interdependence and loyalty where America fights for independence and personal freedoms. Am I saying that the Bill of Rights has condemned the status of American teachers? Who knows – these are half-baked thoughts that the internet should probably censor and you should definitely not take to heart. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about as I head into Thailand month 9 (!) and get closer and closer to becoming a teacher in America. There are many things I’m looking forward to about that: teaching fewer than 700 students with class sizes under 40, being able to actually communicate with them, oh and the joys of the ablative and dative… But will I miss having students wai me at the market and tell me “thank you, teacher!” after every class? If only I could cut and paste aspects of our two cultures together, I would bring durian to America and goat cheese to Thailand, so to speak. Ah, the stink of cultural exchange!