Thai Manners at School

Today is National Teacher’s Day in Thailand and I thought I would take this opportunity to show you how well respected teachers are in Thailand. It is a pleasure teaching here and I wouldn’t dream of teaching anywhere else. Certainly not in America! Every January 16th is a holiday for us and we get the day off work. Then, at the start of the academic year in May, all of the students come to school with flowers and prostrate at our feet. You cannot get a better job than that! In Thailand, teachers get a lot of respect in the local community though, unfortunately, they don’t get much money in comparison to other jobs. Many of them have to supplement their income with second jobs and private students.

A few weeks back, I was telling you about the Thai Manners competition we had at our school. Some of the students also gave a demonstration on how to act when visiting elderly relations. Today I want to talk more about manners in a Thai school. If you speak to any Thai teacher, they will immediately say that their students are naughty and badly behaved. They will also comment that children these days are not as well mannered as they were in their day. This might very well be true. In the 12 years I have been teaching here, I have seen some watering down of Thai ethics in both the school and local community. However, ask any educators that have visited our school from America or Europe and they will all agree that our students are the best mannered children that they have ever met.

The Thai people are world famous for their hospitality and their smiles. From an early age they are taught to be well mannered and considerate of other people. Surprisingly, most of this is done in schools across the country. The students are taught not only how to behave at school and their community, but also at home. The students are taught from an early age that they have to do their part in order to keep the family together and happy. Their chores around the house should be done without question. They should prostrate at the feet of their parents on both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. They should wai their parents in both greeting and a way of saying thanks. They should be forever grateful to their parents and should always show them the utmost respect.

Proper manners start as soon as the students arrive at school early in the morning. Most, though not all, will wai their parents in a prayer like gesture as they are dropped off at school. This is a way of saying both “thank you” and “goodbye”. They then greet the teacher by the front gate, with a wai and then slightly bow their head as they walk into the school. As they enter the first building, they pause to take off their shoes. They carry them in their hand as they walk up to their classroom. If they meet any teacher in the corridor, they will put down their shoes and wai that teacher. If a teacher is walking down the stairs, they will stop to let the teacher pass.

Inside the classroom the students are just as polite. Maybe too polite. As I walk into the classroom for my English class, the class captain will shout out “please stand up” in English. This is not really a good translation of the Thai version which they do for other lessons. Really they should say something like “students, pay your respects”.  They all then stand up and say “sawatdee krap/kaa” to the teacher. This is the Thai greeting. The teacher then replies with the same greeting and tells the students to sit down. They then say “thank you”. What I always find amusing is the little routine we have at the end of the lessons. Which, by the way, ends when I say it does and not when the bell goes. When I am ready to leave, I signal to the class captain that the lesson is over. She will then tell the students to pay respect to me in much the same way as before. They then thank me for teaching them that lesson. They do this even though I may have been horrible to them or just given them a lot of homework!

In the classroom, the teacher is always right and anything she says will not be questioned. Even if she is wrong. In the past, the teachers taught many classes using the “rote” system. This usually involves the teacher standing at the front of the class reading from one of the text books. The students then sit quietly in their rows listening attentively. Sometimes the teacher will ask the students to read from their books at the same time or repeat after her. From an educators point of view this is obviously very good. It is very easy to maintain discipline when everybody is doing the same thing at the same time. The students are very respectful and don’t really give us a great deal of trouble. However, this is starting to change. For the past few years, the government has been encouraging us to use a “child centered” method of teaching. This means the focus during lessons should be on the students rather than the teacher. The students now do more group work and quite often have to try and work out things for themselves.

In some ways, these new methods are good. I have always said that Thai students are taught what to think instead of how to think. However, the downside of this new approach is that discipline and class control is starting to slip. Students are now questioning the teacher. The want to know why things have to be done in a certain way. Freedom of speech may sound like a good idea, however, the idea of questioning your elders or disputing what they say goes against Thai culture. Students at that age are more likely to cross the line without realizing it. We are starting to see students who are more cheeky or not listening to what the teacher is saying. Before, the students all did the same thing. Now they are split up into groups and are working on different projects. To the older teachers, this looks like chaos. They don’t like it so much. However, the younger teachers realize the potential of teaching the students how to think for themselves.

Despite these changes to teaching methods, some things haven’t changed. If a student wants to go to the toilet during a lesson, he or she will come up to me with their hands together in a prayer-like gesture and kneel at my desk. They will then ask if they can be excused. If I then say yes they will then wai me and say “thank you”. On returning to the classroom, they will hover by the doorway with their hands again in the wai position. They now ask for permission to come back in. When I say “yes” (am I really going to deny entry?) they will thank me again. When I first came to Thailand the students would kneel in the doorway waiting for me to give them permission to enter the classroom. This seems to have stopped now.

If you have read my blogs you would know that the level of your head is very important. In the above photo, you can see that the “teacher” is sitting at his desk. If the students want help with their homework they have to approach the teacher on their knees. They cannot just stand by the desk as their head will be higher than the teacher. Also, if they walk by the seated teacher, the would have to bow their head out of respect. In the past, when students entered the school office, they had to do so on their knees. They weren’t allowed to stand at all. However, these days they can walk in but they would still have to kneel at the desk of the secretary. This isn’t just for the students. If a teacher is called to the office of the school director, they shouldn’t sit on a chair unless invited. They should first kneel at the desk.

Change is to be expected. It is inevitable. However, change is not always for the best. How much of the culture of Thailand is lost when they try to emulate the West? Will all of these examples of Thai manners just become “quaint” and old fashioned? Will Thailand as a country be better off as an an exact clone of the West? I don’t think so. People love Thailand for its charm and level of repect it shows. I for one would hate to see Thai students act like some American and European students dfo in the classroom. Some of my Thai students have seen American movies where students swear at and even hit their teachers. They are shocked and say it will never happen here. But it could. When I first started teaching here in Thailand I told my students not to kneel at my desk or wai me. I regret that now. We all need to do our part to make sure Thai ethics and the Thai way of life is preserved for future generations. It doesn’t matter if we are Thai or foreign. We all have a duty.


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