I never quite pictured my first day of teaching to be like it was. Sarah and I returned to Payap from our three day trip to Chiang Rai on Sunday night and worked on finishing our lecture far into the night. (We are teaching Introduction to Poetry and Drama at the International School of Payap University, a 300 level college course, for those of you that don’t know.) We got up at a ridiculous hour, trying to figure out how to look professional. Mostly we just wanted to look old enough. We arrived at the international campus at least an hour early and a kind janitor let us into our room, but the computer would not turn on. A nervous student wandered in after about twenty minutes, and while we frantically tried to locate our supervisor, got it to work somehow. He apologized profusely even as we tried to thank him, which quickly became confusing to all of us. Our PowerPoint would not load and Sarah sat down to figure it out. There was no one around to ask questions of…we were foreigners, or “farang,” in the middle of the Thai education system.
I then tried to locate a copy booth. As far as I can tell Thai culture does not observe copyright laws, meaning if you want a copy of a book, you take the entire thing to a little copy booth and they copy the whole thing for you in about a day. I only needed to copy a poem we were going over. I went to our department and they sent a student with me to help. The copy booth in the building is supposed to open at 8, but at 8:15 it was still closed. The student took me to one nearby; it was about ¼ a mile away. So I walked as quickly as possible, picturing Sarah standing before an expanse of students without a PowerPoint or anything to say. After making the copies, the student insisted on paying for them. I tried to explain that they were for our class and it was not at all necessary, but he shook his head firmly and insisted we were friends now. I hesitantly agreed. When we got back, around 8 students had arrived and the PowerPoint still was not working. We clicked on it a few more times, just to try, thinking we would probably just have to remember as much as we could and wing it, and it somehow worked. We started our class, complete with PowerPoint and copies only about 5 minutes late. It was only later that I learned back in the United States my parents and around 30 friends gathered at our house for a dinner were praying for us. Written out like this, the whole situation seems frustrating, but it was ridiculously funny to us at the time. Considering we were told we could teach whatever we wanted the week before and did not know where or what time our class would be until the last minute, it all came together very nicely.
Our students are from countries all over the world: China, England, Burma, Turkey, here in Thailand, and America to name a few. Naturally their English speaking abilities vary greatly, ranging from those who have trouble piecing together a sentence to native English speakers. One student in particular, a grad student from the US, seems to have quite a literary background. In our first class he referenced several literary figures I had not heard of, explained that he writes “poet” for his occupation on job applications, and announced that he is now trying to learn Chinese because he has Thai down. Lovely. Perhaps our biggest challenge in teaching will be figuring out how to make the literature accessible to everyone, but still interesting.
For as long as I can remember, I have had a fear of speaking in front of large groups of people. Whitworth and Tall Timber both did their best to cure me of these qualms and, while I know I have come a long way, being in front is not my natural stance. Standing in front of our class the first day, however, I felt a strange excitement that I wasn’t prepared for. Being able to discuss poems with a class, to ask them questions and to listen to their responses, felt wonderful, like a strange sharing. The few nods or flashes of understanding in students’ eyes as they listened to our presentation were so encouraging to me. There were, of course, students sitting in the back, that did not comment on anything; I am not sure they understood at all. Thinking about the entire course is very intimidating, but having a plan for tomorrow can be done. Next time we will ask all the students to sit towards the front as they come in and assign discussion groups to mix up their abilities. We are writing our own curriculum, which is very time consuming, and are not sure exactly how it will work, but we are trying to take it one day at a time. For now, that is enough.
I do not expect to be good at this. I have watched enough friends struggle through student teaching, an honest gleam of humility knotted in the way they explain it, to know that experience is perhaps the most important part of learning to teach. Education majors take four years preparing to teach and I have not done any of that. I am trying to take on the attitude of a student myself. If explaining something entirely fails or a poem just does not make sense, we will try again the next day. I am trying to give myself space to grow, not expecting it to all work, but expecting to try my best and hopefully learn.
Actually, being in Thailand at all takes that attitude. We have had lots of “unproductive” days, days in which we finally figure out how to tell a driver where we want to go only to find it is randomly closed, or days in which we wander around looking for a building for hours and never find it because all of it is in Thai. Thais have different expectations of what getting things done means. They do not set goals and finish them as much as live life and see what happens…men pen rai…it’ll be fine. Thus far, Sarah and I have been able to laugh at ourselves pretty well. But it is definitely a process to learn. I have done lots of heart-felt praying since being here. God is faithful. Not always, or even usually, in the way I want Him to be, but He is faithful. And it is better that way.