“Right, let’s kick off.”
So began my final lesson as an English teacher, or ajarn, in Bangkok. My students from the city’s Ramathibodi Hospital respectfully turned their heads towards me as I embarked on the day’s topic. It was, coincidentally enough, a lesson about farewells.
I had moved to Thailand 15 months earlier with a great deal of enthusiasm and a TEFL qualification under my belt. This was a great way to live out my dream of working abroad.
After all, how difficult could this teaching lark really have been?
As it turned out, very.
It’s a strange kind of pressure that comes from a classroom of expectant faces staring at you – on at least a couple of occasions the urge to run away had the strength of Hercules.
It was sometimes difficult to maintain people’s, and my, interest over a six-hour Sunday lesson. Moreover, it was always difficult keeping excitable children under control on a Saturday morning when they’d rather be anywhere than sitting with a strange farang forcing crosswords on them.
And yet my love of the work grew with every lesson. To see a student apply what I’d taught them warmed my heart, as would their smiles and wais at the end of a lesson.
The life of a teacher also offered me the chance to see the daily comings and goings within Bangkok.
It was the small things that stood out. A motorbike taxi ride from Victory Monument BTS; watching the Sirat Expressway racing by in the distance at Chulalongkorn University; walking down a jampacked Sukhumvit Road; dodging the shoppers at MBK or Siam Paragon; or stopping for Kuey Teow Ped along Thong Lor on my way home from work.
Tiny moments, admittedly, but it was those details I’d notice and cherish as I took in the sights, sounds and smells of the metropolis.
More importantly, it was the students who helped me settle into BKK life.
It was through them I had my first taste of many staple Thai dishes. And it was the students who explained the tradition of wearing yellow shirts every Monday as an homage to the King and the day of his birth.
Their generosity of spirit was humbling and any special occasion saw me inundated with cards and gifts. It was the first time I’d ever received a Valentine’s Day card signed by 25 people, for instance. I felt guilty spending the following hour explaining to them the finer points of modal verbs. It didn’t feel like a fair swap.
And as my final lesson wound down one of my favourite students, Pan, unknowingly summed up my experiences and skills as an ajarn in Thailand: “Khun Tom, thank you so much for being our teacher. Khun Tom, I will never remember you.”
It took a few seconds to compute what was said – irony and sarcasm not being my intended lesson for the day – but I appreciated the sentiment.
It was well meaning, but a most definite work in progress. Couldn’t have said it better myself.