Watputthisan School is a small, rural school for grades K through 8. Class size varies between 20 students in the K2 group (second year of kindergarten) to only five students in grade 8: in total, about 185 kids. We have a principal, about 15 teachers and, at present, two volunteers.
Slide Show of the School Property
When we’re all together, as we are every day for morning assembly, we fit easily into an area about the size of a tennis court. The video below was taken during my first morning assembly. Just as in China, the kids stand in separate lines for each class (boys in one line and girls in another.) After the less-than-enthusiastic singing of the national anthem, there is an exercise routine that may help wake the kids up. You’ll notice the kids are wearing what appear to be scouting uniforms. In fact, they have a different uniform for each day of the week and this was Thursday – “Scouting Day.” After the exercising, they ask a volunteer to write and present an English sentence so the entire student body can recite and understand it. Laurian, the young lady from Maryland who has been here for four months, has been doing this every day: she asked me if I would like to but I said I thought she was doing it very well :-). She really is an amazing, capable and dedicated young lady; only 21 years old and fresh out of undergraduate school. She loves it here: both the kids and community and the simple life style and she works very hard to help the kids learn English and to help Jason improve and grow his volunteer program. She has applied for graduate programs in cognitive psychology in the fall but she’s really not sure what she wants to do with her life yet (I explained to her that most of us are never quite sure.) One thing for sure: this experience has been very special to her and she knows she will have trouble adjusting back to the American lifestyle. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her start her own NGO some day – to help people in need somewhere on this planet.
If you were a parent living here, Watputthisan School would probably not be the first choice for your child’s education. It’s old and run down. Some of the classrooms have no desks or chairs and others have furniture badly in need of repair or replacement. Those who can afford to send their kids to private schools or to public schools in the larger city of Wattana Nahkorn (about 45 minutes south of here) do so. The reason our grades 7 and 8 have so few students is that most of the kids this age have either moved on to better middle or high schools in the city or dropped out. Those remaining here want an education but probably cannot afford to go elsewhere.
The school is also not the first choice for a teacher. In fact, the school has been losing teachers. A teacher is permitted to submit a transfer request after they have been here 2 years and many have been doing exactly that. This includes Jason, the founder and CEO of this volunteer program (ICCVTT website), who will be leaving in March. Teachers here work very hard, performing many tasks that might be handled by specialized positions at larger schools. One of the benefits of the job, for single teachers at least, is that housing is provided. But the housing provided across the street from the school is so dilapidated it’s an embarrassment to the school and to the teachers who are living there: small, dark, dank rooms with leaky roofs, dangerous electrical service and even termites. Jason has a room there but will not use it – he sleeps in a tent in the principal’s office every night. It is a requirement for male teachers to take turns staying at the school overnight for security purposes: Jason makes it easier on his male colleagues by staying every night.)
Although the principal has agreed to support Jason’s volunteer program by providing a subsidy for our meals (not much – about $5/day) there are many other expenses which Jason ends up paying out of his pocket. Jason is passionate about his ICCVTT program: it is his baby and he wants to use it to help kids from this area get a better start in life. I’ll dedicate a future post to telling you more about Jason and his efforts.
The teachers and the students are very welcoming to foreign volunteers. I imagined that there might be some resentment among the teachers that our living quarters are better than theirs but, if there is, it is not apparent. Of course, those teachers who don’t speak English (about half of them) cannot socialize with me because my Thai is limited to a few words and phrases. Laurian, on the other hand, having been here 4 months, can understand and communicate quite a bit. The Thai language is similar to Mandarin in that it is tonal, questions are formed by adding a special word to the end of a statement, verbs are not conjugated, and nouns are not pluralized. Of course, the kids have trouble remembering to pluralize English nouns and English verb conjugation is extremely difficult. Still, many of the kids are learning English very quickly and enjoy practicing it. Just as in China, walking from my room to the classroom involves responding to “How are you?” about 10 or 15 times :-).
As I said before, Jason will be leaving this school soon. When he does, it seems likely the volunteer program at Watputthisan School will not be continued. The principal here is not really very supportive and and it won’t continue unless one of the teachers steps forward to champion it the way Jason has. But the ICCVTT program will not end as it is not limited to this school. At present, there are about 10 other ICCVTT volunteers at various other schools in this province, some quite far from here. At those schools, a local teacher is coordinating the volunteers. When Jason moves to the large school in Wattana Nahkon, which has hosted several ICCVTT volunteers and understands their value, he has been promised facilities, budget and time to run the volunteer program. It is sad to think of these beautiful kids at Watputthisan School missing out on the program so I hope someone makes an effort to continue to host volunteers here.
I really like volunteering. I enjoy being helpful to others and, being a native English speaker, teaching English is a natural way to help. And working with teachers in other countries is a great way to get a real insight into the local culture and to get to know the people on a personal level. But teaching is really hard work: physically and sometimes emotionally. Laurian and I teach about 17 hours (a period is 60 minutes) per week, 10 hours individually and 7 hours together. In our joint classes, Laurian has been doing most of the work: for the past 6 weeks, she has been teaching the kids phonics (e.g. explaining the various sounds that the vowel “a” can represent as in “hat” “hate” “any”, etc.) and she works tirelessly at this. Since she seems to have boundless energy and I get pretty tired by the afternoon, I appreciate that she is willing to take the bulk of the load. As I think about what makes teaching hard, I suppose the language barrier is a part of it but I think that, mainly, it’s just that teaching is an intense activity. Being responsible for keeping a roomful of little minds actively engaged requires a lot of planning and delivering the lesson is a bit like being in a play where you are working loosely with a script but must be ready to ad lib when necessary. To do this you are always a bit tense and the adrenaline flow that helps you perform adds to the fatigue you feel by the end of the day. I am only here for 4 weeks and I’m taking care to get lots of rest so I will be fine for the remaining 3 weeks. But, in thinking ahead to my next adventure, I think I might explore other, non-teaching volunteering assignments.