Teaching in Thailand

A Survival Guide for Perfectionists

Confession time: I’ve been a perfectionist all my life. Working for ten years in Japan, a culture obsessed with orderliness, detail, and “going by the book,” intensified my natural bent. The positive side was that it brought me a modest bit of success in working with my Japanese counterparts in business. On the other hand, there’ve been huge downsides— trying to over-plan things to the detail level of a gnat’s eyebrow, a tendency to be inflexible and judgmental. I have to consciously and continually monitor myself in these areas, lest I become impossible to work with or live with.

Three years ago, I started teaching at a small Thai vocational college in Isan, the first farang ever to work there. My first duty was to plan my courses from scratch, and that meant planning a week-by-week curriculum, then converting it to a syllabus. I was told not to worry about anomalies in the academic schedule, as it was a straightforward 16 weeks of instruction and two weeks of exams.

Ah, a tailor-made job for the obessed perfectionist!

Oh my. That first syllabus. It was beautiful. A six-pager that choreographed nearly every classroom movement. Want a restroom break, students? Check the syllabus. Want to know when you can raise your hand with a question? Check the syllabus. Want to know how many jinjoes (house lizards) were allowed on the classroom walls at any given moment? Check the… OK, you get the picture.

Then, early into the semester, the unthinkable happened.

On one of my more spectacular-to-be teaching days, using a lesson plan created to bedazzle the most jaded student, inspired by my perfect syllabus, I showed up at a ghost school. Not one soul in sight. For some reason, the security guard wasn’t even there.

It was like the twilight zone.

I checked the time—classes should be starting in 19 minutes. I phoned a Thai teacher and inquired whether it might be a Saturday or Sunday. No, it was Friday, just like I thought.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Ajahn! Half the teachers went to Bangkok for a seminar, so no school today. Would you mind making up your classes on Sunday?”

What? Half the staff gone? School canceled? How in the world did I get left out of THAT loop? Moreover, to rub salt into the wound, make-up classes on Sunday? My Sacred Day of Rest? (Ok, my day to write lesson plans for the following week and to visit friends in another part of the province.) I had arranged for the outing weeks ago. I had meticulously arranged my daypack for this trip the previous Tuesday!

I felt my little organized world crumbling about me. Mini-pangs of indignation mixed with frustration grew into sharper jabs of anger, poking at me like little shards of glass flying about my shattered glass bubble. You’ll never know the intensity of these feelings unless you’ve been under the curse of perfectionism.

So, in those early months of teaching in the Land of Smiles, my own smile began to fade. Despite repeated requests for some kind of written list of school holidays and closures, it never materialized. Not one to give up, I followed up with frequent verbal inquiries about days off. No luck there either. Unnervingly, I now often showed up at a padlocked school, accompanied by quizzical stares from the security guard who wondered why the farang always appeared to be a clueless species. Disillusioned, it dawned on me that I should be flushing my trophy syllabi down the nearest toilet.

Was it a plot to test the sanity of the lone foreigner on staff? Was it a sign from the gods that my stay in this land would be severely curtailed? If only a compassionate fellow staff member would just take a moment to inform me, even the night before…. Soon, I found out that not even my fellow Thai teachers usually knew until the very last minute about closures for national holidays, parades, visits of dignitaries, sports days, a fashion show by the home-economics department, and a host of lesser reasons.

Heck, even the pre-school I attended, a hundred years ago, had a published annual academic calendar. So I knew it wasn’t impossible! Right? My perfectionism told me that the grass just had to be greener on the other side of the fence.

So, I stepped over the fence…

I moved up to the BIG university: 30,000 students, 1,500 staff. Surely a place this mammoth-sized had to have it together, starting with a simple but inviolable school calendar. Ah, now I could plan my life and work with a little more certainty, and satisfy those inner needs for an orderly life. On day one, I went through my orientation packet, looking in vain for that illusive school calendar. Dream on, Thou Idealistic Farang. At Mammoth-U, there was no difference whatsoever. No calendar in sight, nothing on the school website, no handouts, no posters. Nada. As on that other, well-known side of the fence, many of these holidays and days off were often announced only a day or two in advance. Case in point: I didn’t find out about this year’s four-day New Year’s break (Dec 31-Jan 3) until just a few days beforehand.

Yes, it wreaks havoc with the class syllabus and course content. Yes, it’d be nice to know if you had a three or four-day weekend coming up so you could do a little travel or visit friends. Yes, it would be less embarrassing to find out about a closure directly from your supervisor rather than your students, the janitor, or the soi noodle vendor (it happens).

The first year at the vocational school, I thought I’d lose my mind (another downside of perfectionism). At the university, I battled depression every time I perused my personal calendar, which resembled a post-war schematic of battlefield movements by a disoriented army.

It took a while to admit to myself that one of three things was going to happen: 1) I’d pop an emotional cork, 2) I’d give up and go home to my more-scheduled, more-compartmentalized, more-predictable life in my home country, or 3) I’d learn to live with it. Since #1 and #2 didn’t look practical at the moment, I took a stab at #3.

It took about a year of radical self-assessment and readjustment, along with patient coaching by my good Thai friends.

I learned to hand out a syllabus with the accompanying joke (but cringing inside) “…and students, we all know that syllabi are meant to be ignored…” (followed by an understanding nod and chuckle from the class). When my mid-term exam was preempted by a “decorating for Loy Kratong day,” I just sighed and filed it away for future use. Then I tried to adopt the same jubilant attitude that mysteriously overcame my students-to-be-tested. In the face of last-minute closure announcements (or discoveries) I tried following the lead of the Thais profs around me who usually reacted with smiles rather than frowns. I started keeping a list of one-day motorbike trips under my belt, so I could grab my daypack and camera, and take off on a whim.

Begrudgingly, I was finding out that life-on-the-fly wasn’t all that bad, after all. I was becoming a more laid-back Thai on the inside, and a less stressed-out farang on the outside.

It’s amazing the mollifying effect Thailand can have on uptight farangs. I finally came to accept “TIT” (This Is Thailand), and appreciate the “mai pen rai” or “chill out” response. I’m not going to change the culture or the system. I could become an embittered, unemployed, old pot-bellied farang who sits at some south Thai island beach bar, complaining into his beer half the night, about “how impossible it was to teach in this god-forsaken place…”

Or, I could jump in there and enjoy life within the cultural context.

I chose the latter road. Not only is it easier to live, but I think I’m easier to live with. Just ask the jinjoes on my wall who continue come and go as they please. Better than that, ask my students.


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