Today has been one of the most difficult days for me in the classroom. I’m searching frantically for someone to talk to about my situation, an old friend in the education field back home, another volunteer, anyone who will listen, and maybe this presents itself as an opportunity to share my struggle, to bring it to light.
I started my 3rd grade class off with good morning greetings. My co-teacher took over because she saw how I taught the previous lesson. Her style is slightly less organized than mine and she tends to teach with more love than discipline most the time. That might work if our 3rd grade class weren’t so disobedient, rambunctious, and chaotic. I knew immediately that we were losing control of the class when the students were running around speaking at decibel levels so loud I couldn’t hear the person next to me.
What I did next may have been my first misstep, I yelled, “Quiet please!” loud enough that it could be heard by everyone. Let me just say, it was loud. Usually, I prefer to stand quietly and mimic the behavior I’d like my students to model until they quiet themselves naturally. That involves standing there with my hands in my lap looking at the students, or silently raising my hand. 9 out of 10 times that works. Maybe that’s where I lost them all, I don’t know.
There was so much chaos going on in the classroom that I had a difficult time keeping an eye on the students. So many of the children were hitting each other, slapping each other, poking each other and so forth that I couldn’t keep up. Maybe that’s where I let one slip and didn’t have the capacity to take care of the group. I say this because something happened that caused a chain of events…but I missed it. I know something happened or escalated by what happened next.
My co-teacher and I split them into two groups. One of the groups had all the girls and a few boys, the other group was all boys. In Thailand, the girls tend to better behave themselves and act more obediently than the boys. This calls all sorts of gender norms, stereotypes and parenting into question. I’ll leave those reflections for later. The all-boy group had some of the most disobedient in the class, ones I often see punching their friends and acting very mean. I was hesitant to sit down and take their group. Secretly, I hoped my co-teacher would do it. She took the girls. So, I sat down with the boys and started to teach them how to play memory match with the cards we’d just made and our new vocabulary. My mood changed and I started to feel excited and eager because I had the attention and enthusiasm of almost everyone in the group. They chanted, “Play game! play game!”
We started to play, one person at a time, each student flipping over a card and reading the vocab word out loud. With each correct match we cheered each other on. By that point, one of the students, Bon, scooted away from the group as his turn approached. I waved him back into the group, but he curled his knees up into his chest, looked at me with sad eyes and shook his head. Several times I asked him kindly to come back to the group. The other boys spoke for him and said, “He doesn’t want to play.” He remained silent but returned to the circle. I asked him if he wanted to play; he shook his head. I asked him if he was tired; he shook his head. Small tears welled up behind his eyelashes. I asked the group, “Did someone hurt their friend? Who has hurt our friend? He is upset.” I then asked the boy if maybe I could take his turn and pick for him; he nodded. I chose two “apples” and the group cheered. The boy rejected my high-five and, though bummed, I continued to the next person and left Bon to himself.
The next round the same boy didn’t want to participate but he returned to the corner and cried, this time tears falling down his cheeks. A few of the boy students pointed it out to the teacher and said, “Khun Kruu, Khun Kruu, Bon’s crying. Bon’s crying.” The teacher walked over to the corner, picked him up by his ankles and physically drug him across the floor and into her group. Let’s just take a moment to reflect on that…
I’ve worked with this teacher for a couple of months now and I have to say, in her defense, I believe she initially did this lovingly. I believe that she wanted to do something funny to cheer him up and express her silliness and love (in a very Thai way). Earlier in the class period, a very disobedient student was acting out and she playfully put him in a head-hold hug. He smiled, got the hint, and settled down. However, as she drug this student across the room he clung to the floor in resistance and started bawling loudly.
In the circle, she took her hands and physically forced him to sit and stay in the group. She used her hands to move his head and his body toward the circle, rather forcefully. Over and over again she said, “Be quiet. Be quiet.” Then, she left the group for a moment to get a long wooden stick.
At this point, I got up from my group of boys, hoping that their excitement about playing the game would keep them on task, and I walked over to the teacher and student. I asked her to give me time with the student so I could speak privately with him. She said mai bpen rai, which means “nevermind” or “it’s okay” in Thai. It’s a cultural phrase with many uses, and is sometimes used to smooth over a very serious situation (such as this one). It signifies the passive aggressive nature of Thai culture and their resistance to confrontation. I tried again to talk privately with the student but she stood firm while holding the boys shoulders to keep him in the circle. He cried uncontrollably and loudly. His tears wouldn’t stop.
Disheartened, I returned to my group while keeping an eye on the boy and on the stick that the teacher held in her hand. First, she simply used the stick as a long pointer to keep the other students on task in the game. Then, as the crying continued, the teacher said to him, “Be quiet. What are you? A preschool student? No, you’re a third grader.” Then she hit him. My heart sank into the pit of my stomach. I could only take it for so long, hearing the tears of this young, terribly upset student who just wanted to be taken care of and have his needs met.
At that point I got up from my group again and sat right next to Bon, right next to the teacher holding him in place. I shimmied my body right next to him and sat cross-legged with him. He continued to cry and not say anything. I put my hand on his back and rubbed it. I focused my attention on the group playing the game, as to not draw anymore attention to him. When I glanced at my co-teacher she smiled and acted out slapping him on the back, I assume to imply that is what I should also do.
I continued to rub his back, sometimes his head or shoulder and quietly tell him that it was going to be okay. Another boy student mocked him and I gave him the look of death. He stopped. Eventually my co-teacher walked away to the other group. The period bell rang. I didn’t budge from my spot next to him as everyone grabbed their bags. We sat together as everyone, individually, came to say, “See you again next week.” Finally, the boy’s tears started to quiet and slow down. I sat by his side and smiled until he stood up to gather his things.
Where do I even start reflecting on this situation? I have to say that it pains my heart. All I wanted in the entire world was to take away that young child’s suffering. I wanted to hold him and his pain and understand him and listen even if he wasn’t saying anything. I just wanted him to know that I was there, that someone was there that loved him. I wished I could tell him that it’s okay to cry. It’s okay to be upset and sometimes people hurt us. It’s okay for boys to cry, too, boys of all ages. Men, too.
I just finished a training program for Peace Corps Student-Friendly Schools and we learned about gender-based violence. If this was a girl student would the teacher have drug her out by her feet and hit her for crying? What message does this send to the men of Thailand and how they think they should act and conduct themselves? What sort of unhealthy and potentially harmful gender stereotypes is this sending to our children, the same children we’re molding into inspired adults of the future? Educators and parents use punishment in situations where someone has done something wrong and I cannot wrap my head around what this child has done wrong. Why would you discipline a child who cries? It’s a signal that should prompt you to care for them and let them know it will all be okay. Is physically hitting or forcefully touching the student the right answer? The only answer?
To grow up in a world where your sadness or pain cannot be cared for by others, where you feel like you can’t reach out, where you feel unloved, that’s a sad and gloomy place. Unfortunately, my observations of Thai culture imply that dealing with emotions other than happiness is their weakness (hence the advertised “Land of Smiles”). However, as general understanding of life and in Buddhism we know that suffering exists, no matter what, because we’re human. If I can say anything, take care of your suffering, and know that we owe it to mankind to take care of others with the same love. It will help make this world a better place.
Comments, questions or advice for me about this difficult situation? Pass it my way as I continue to digest this incident.