All you need is love”, according to John Lennon and 65 year old Thai English teacher, Thim. I had the opportunity to sit down recently and chat with Thim about her English teaching career which has spanned over 4 decades. After surviving over an hour of my inquisition, I had one final question for her: what advice do you have for new teachers like me?
After 30 plus years of teaching, I was expecting a laundry list of advice, perhaps a checklist to solve all my problems. Maybe it’s because I am new to the job or maybe because her wisdom led me to believe she had specific answers for all my challenges. Her answer was so beautifully simple but is lost on so many new teachers. Love. Love what you do, teach from the heart. Love your best students as much as your worst.
Inspired by the British and American music of her childhood, Thim was drawn to English from a young age. She was ahead of her time in knowing the value of speaking English. Nowadays, everyone understands the importance of learning English; but in 1960s Thailand, especially for those like Thim who were not wealthy and privileged, learning English was an obscurity. “I loved the music. The Beatles, The Carpenters, Nat King Cole. I wanted to understand. I wanted to travel the world, be a guide, maybe even fall in love with an American!” she joked with a smile that lit up her face. “I wanted opportunity.” She never intended to be a teacher, but almost as if the job found her, it became her life’s work and passion for over 30 years.
Every day, from the late 70s until her retirement in 2009, Thim took a bus 2 hours each way to her school where she taught for 6-7 hours per day. With a starting salary of just 2000B per month, she barely broke even. Thim taught Prathom 5, 10 year old students. Foreign teachers at her school were paid 50,000B and given a housing/food allowance. Her classes had 60 plus students in them despite government regulations intended to restrict classes to 30 or fewer.
Thim found the most challenging part of her job was to motivate the students to learn in an environment, both at school and in society, that did not value English. So, she turned to her first love, music, to make lessons fun and interactive. “I made up my own song that students sang to greet me (she sang) ‘Good morning teacher’, it was more fun than the usual greeting.” For those unfamiliar, Thai students are required to robotically stand and greet their teachers … Hello teacher. How are you? I’m fine, and you?
Music and activity became the backbone of Thim’s lessons. Thai schools hammer students with grammar, grammar, grammar. Memorisation and regurgitation are the standard. On top of these largely ineffective practices, her school gave almost no support to English teachers until the mid 90s, when they finally got books! Shocked, I asked what materials she used. She answered as if it’s was totally normal, “I made everything myself. We all did. And I would act out things like ‘I am eating’ to show students. And of course, music.” Imagine 6 classes of 60 students with no teaching materials. On top of that, “they put all the bad students together and all the good students together. I had to plan all different lessons.” As a teacher myself, this sounds like an absolute nightmare. Despite these fundamental challenges, Thim’s passion for teaching was unwavering.
As our interview came to a close, I asked how she feels about retiring. With a noticeable change in demeanour and her first frown of the hour, she said pity. Pity for the teachers who only see it as a job and don’t teach from their hearts. Pity for the students who have a teacher who doesn’t love their job. When I asked what she missed most, her warm smile returned and she said, “The students, the good ones and the bad ones. I miss their smiles.”
This thought led her so effortlessly into her final piece of advice, Love is all you need.