Thursday, February 6, 2014

Unreasonable Expectations

Yesterday was a particularly hard day. It stemmed from the fact that we have been forced to focus all of our time with our sixth grade students on drilling for the O-NET, a national standardized test. The test carries a lot of weight for schools and students alike, so it is taken VERY seriously. While it’s really difficult to describe all of the challenges and the roller coaster of emotions I experienced yesterday (and most days these past few weeks), I’ll try my best to describe the atmosphere for you:

My co-teacher (Joy) and I walk into the meeting room where the sixth graders have already been doing O-NET drills for the entire first period. It is the start of second period, and Joy and I are going to embark on yet another hour of test drills with the students. Each hour is a different subject, but the activities are all the same…drill, drill, drill. We have both of the sixth grade classes at once. Normally we have one class first period and the other class second period, but for some reason the students are all lumped together and we only spend one hour total with them. It gives us an extra hour “off” in the morning, but makes the room extremely unruly because we now have to try to manage about fifty students rather than our usual twenty-five. Joy starts going through practice test questions one at a time, mostly directing her attention towards the students who seem to be paying attention.

Our session is not even a quarter of the way through and students are already hitting each other with their rulers, banging on their desks, pulling chairs out from under their friends and being so loud that it is difficult to hear Joy despite the massive sound system she is using. I can’t believe that we have to strain through another forty-five minutes of this. I make it even worse by trying to sit near some students who are being ultra-rowdy. It works for a few minutes, but they soon realize that there really isn’t much that I can do about their behavior in this context. Within those few minutes they have already begun singing karaoke and dancing together, making comments that are probably not appropriate. (I don’t like to assume, especially when I still barely understand any Isan, the local dialect they are speaking amongst themselves.) One of the students I’m sitting near shouts at Joy, “Dtong bpai kii!” (“I have to go shit!”) Joy continues with her current test question. I slink back to my spot next to Joy, feeling defeated. Only forty more minutes to go…

Sitting here rather than actually teaching is torture. I feel a huge range of emotions including anger at the students for not having more self-control and desire to do well. I start thinking about my general day-to-day relationships with the students.

Is it possible to convince every single one of them how important it is to try their best? Should I be doing more day-to-day to instill the value of self-sufficiency when it comes to their learning? Do they rely on me too much to make every single thing fun and engaging? Could I teach them skills that would help them handle situations like this one better? What could I do differently?  

Despite my frustration I can also see how truly awful this is for the students. They have to do these “drills” for every subject, almost every hour of the day. They are also required to stay for an extra hour of school every day so that they have an extra hour for… can you guess? That’s right, drills! Our students are literally spending seven hours per day going through practice test questions. On top of it all, we are now in the third or fourth week straight that they have had to endure this crazy schedule. All I want is to get back to “normal” teaching in our normal classroom where the expectations are consistent and reasonable.

Yesterday also happened to be the day that the students had “English drills” for their extra hour at the end of the day. At that point they had already sat through six hours of drills. Joy asked me if I was ready to head to the meeting room. I jokingly told her I needed to “dtriam-dtua gon” (prepare myself first). We tried to be light-hearted with one another, but I could tell that we were both just as weary. She told me that it would be okay because she had told the students they needed to “greng-jai” me. I smiled at her encouragingly, but thought that telling the students to “greng-jai” me was a lot like telling them that it would hurt my feelings if they didn’t behave. I still need to write more about “greng-jai.” It’s a word that is difficult to translate into English and can vary slightly depending on the context it is used in.  It’s (very) basically a concept in Thai culture to be considerate and put others’ needs before your own.

The next hour-long drill session began at 3:30. This would be the seventh hour that the students had spent that day doing O-NET drills. As soon as I walked into the room I could feel that the atmosphere was literally one hundred times worse than it had been that morning. Joy sat patiently, waiting for the students’ attention, but they never gave it to her. She started to present a question several times then stopped because there was literally nobody paying attention. Her next approach was to try to turn up the volume on her sound system. By then there were about five students out of the fifty paying attention. Those five kept complaining that they couldn’t hear. In the meantime, the classroom was absolute chaos. Objects were flying through the air, a couple students were standing on chairs, several games of what seemed like a more violent version of “tag” were going on and there were still students wandering in and out of the room. After about five rounds of Joy turning up the sound system, it was at its maximum volume. A few students were still complaining that they couldn’t hear. Joy raised her voice even more and tried to get everyone’s attention one last time. Nobody seemed to notice that she had said anything. At that point, I could have sworn that I felt something snap. Joy’s tone changed and she started to yell at the students more forcefully. To make it even worse, many of the students started to laugh at her. It was like everything beginning from that morning had just continually escalated, bringing us to our current, awful situation. There was only one other thing that my co-teacher could think to do. She took out her bamboo stick and didn’t seem to hold back at all as she hit the nearest student, first on his hand, then across his back. She apologized to me, and then sat back down. The class regrouped for about three minutes before it was chaos again. The stick stayed out on display, but was thankfully not used again that day.

My co-teachers and I have discussed different approaches to classroom management and have agreed to never resort to corporal punishment in our classroom. While I am not at all saying that what she chose to do yesterday was appropriate, I can definitely sympathize with her desperateness. In order to effectively manage a classroom, the expectations must be reasonable. It is not reasonable to expect students to take practice tests for seven hours per day for weeks on end, nor is it reasonable to expect the teachers to teach in overcrowded classrooms full of students who have been forced to do the same activity for hours, days and weeks straight. The nature of the situation sets up teachers and students alike to have negative experiences, and it’s so discouraging for everyone involved.

Peace Corps has made it clear to participating schools that our presence at the school will not necessarily raise test scores and that this should not be a motivator for requesting a volunteer. Peace Corps supports us if we choose to not be at the forefront of O-NET activities. Some volunteers have no involvement while others host camps or trainings geared towards skills that would help students on the O-NET. At first, I was hoping to not be involved (mostly because I anticipated the above experiences), but I also came to the decision that my top priority is to support my co-teachers. If they are expected to do O-NET drills, I feel like it is my responsibility to help them in any way that I can. That’s why I have chosen to be present in those jam-packed rooms full of burnt-out, unruly students. There have been countless times that Joy and I have just looked at each other, shaken our heads, and laughed resignedly because there was just nothing to do but laugh at the ridiculousness of the whole thing. No mature how discouraging it is, it’s worth it for me to be there if it makes the experience just a little bit easier for her and helps to show that I care.

With all of that said, I cannot wait for O-NET season to be behind us and for our “normal” teaching to continue. Hopefully the negative experiences from the past few weeks do not carry over into our classroom. In all likelihood though, we will probably have to take time to reteach expectations and rebuild relationships. Normally, the students are engaged, they are learning and they are ENJOYING learning. That is enough for now, despite all of my questions and fears about how to be a “good” teacher. I am taking one day at a time and trying to instill a joy of learning rather than a dread of it. I can only hope that, given time, other important life skills and values will follow.

HERE is a link to the first in a series of interesting articles about Thai Education, including O-NET testing.


  1. Ugh, hang in there Laura. This too shall pass!

  2. Laura,
    You're doing great, even if it feels awful right now. I have some ONET resources and thoughts if you want them - ways to change the "drilling" a little bit and to potentially be more effective. But the bottom line is, the ONET is a terrible test; the cramming is a terrible way of teaching -- and both of those things are out of your control. It's nice of you to be there for your teacher! HUGS!

  3. Thanks for the support ladies. I know that you guys can totally relate :) Erin, so excited for your upcoming move!! We're only a couple hours from KK, so you can expect some visits from us...(if you'll have us!) lol