As part of our curriculum while studying in Thailand, we were required to do 6-8 hours of service learning around Chiang Mai. This allowed us to give back to city we were calling home for 8 weeks as well as interact with the Thai people on a deeper level. I decided to break my service learning experience into two parts: Monk chat and helping to teach English to students at Chiang Mai University. I’ve already talked a lot about the monk chats so I will focus on the English class.
When I first heard about teaching English as a service learning project I was a little bit hesitant. First of all, I don’t have any qualifications to take on such a task. Speaking English and teaching English are two very different things and, though I greatly admire teachers, I’ve never had the desire to be one. But, in the spirit of trying new things in a new place, I decided to give it a whirl and, for the record, I’m glad that I did.
First we meet Jaah-Jah (I’m pretty sure I’m not spelling that correctly) one of the English teachers at CMU. She’s a petite and lively Thai woman with short hair (a bit uncommon) and a big smile (not at all uncommon). She speaks English very well with a mild accent and a lot of enthusiasm. As Jaah-Jah leads us into the classroom I feel almost as if I’ve traveled back in time a bit. The desks are small, wooden, and uncomfortable, there isn’t any air conditioning and the students are all in their uniforms. The uniforms make the school seem very strict and stuffy to me but I soon learn that the classes are anything but. We take our seats along with a handful of Thai students but when the class starts at 11:00 the room is still very empty. Embarrassed, Jaah-Jah explains that they will surely come but probably 5-10 minutes late. Sure enough, as the class went on the students trickled in and we all introduced ourselves by stating our name and major.
We soon broke off into groups to get to know one another and, though they were shy at first, the questions and chatting soon came to a full sprint and the classroom became deafeningly loud. Over the next few weeks we helped them with their lessons and with their first presentation where they had to tell a story about an event that happened to them. This was an interesting experience! We got to watch most of the students tell their stories (complete with a microphone hooked up to a karaoke machine). The stories ranged from ghost stories to lessons learned from strangers, first loves, and illegal activities. To be honest, I expected the students to be shy about getting up in front of the class and speaking. I know a few of them were very nervous but you would have never known it. The stories were so honest, funny, and some were even embarrassing but they all got up there and told their story in English without using notes. I have to tell you, it was a blast! Almost every story had us laughing and it made me wonder if American students would have been so willing to put themselves out there. This is just another great example of how the Thai people incorporate sanuk (fun) into every aspect of their lives.
I learned some great things from working with the Thai students who were so eager to learn English. My biggest lesson by far was to (again) relax and have fun no matter what you are doing.