Saturday, December 20, 2014

One Down, One More to Go

Friday was the last day of my first semester of teaching at an international school. The past five months were filled with ups and downs, with many frustrations from surprising and unexpected sources. The last month has been especially draining, with lots of manufactured drama coming from the high-school administrators.

First, the parenting style here has become a major source of frustration for me as a teacher. Most Thai parents are unwilling or unable to set boundaries for their children. The parents' first priority is the happiness of their children, so they don't want to make their children do anything that will make them unhappy. As a result, Thai people tend to be very relaxed parents, and most children of all ages are given a lot of freedom and decision-making power. In addition, those with money, who are used to not having to lift a finger to do anything, always have help raising their children; some of my students continue to have nannies care for them, even at 15 or 16 years of age. Some of my students are being raised by nannies, grandparents, or siblings, while their parents live elsewhere in the world, too busy with their careers and lives.

Because of the lack of boundaries and parental supervision, children of all ages get to decide what they want to do, when they want to do it, and for how long they want to do it. So this year, I've ended up with teenagers who stay up till all hours of the night making online purchases with their parents' accounts, playing video games, and chatting online with strangers; who go to bed at 3:00 in the morning and wake up at 5:00 to get to school; and who then fall asleep during class. This gaming addiction is not atypical of the kids here; I daresay at least 50 percent of students at our school spend most or all of their free time playing video games.

Then, when we ask the parents to take away their kids' devices, we're met with this response: "Oh, I can't. S/he will get mad at me." Sometimes the parents will have the nanny take away the devices instead, either because they don't want to be bothered or because they don't want their kids upset with them. The school and its teachers also should take some blame in this -- because of the parents' connections and social status (I have students who are relatives of the King), the school is afraid to cause trouble by telling the parents the truth about their children. This has been especially aggravating for me, someone who speaks her mind and feels that problems should be dealt with and not swept under the rug.

Many of the mothers are what I would consider to be trophy wives whose entire existence revolves around dressing well, looking good, and shopping. They don't want to have to do any of the hard work of parenting, and they think throwing money at a problem will solve it. For example, one student's mother was called in to the school for a meeting with me and other teachers because the student had been skipping classes and doing no schoolwork whatsoever. Instead of disciplining her son and making him take school more seriously, she is now considering sending him to a boarding school in the U.S.! If I had had low opinions of those American parents who are incapable of setting and sticking to firm boundaries, you can only imagine what I think of these Thai parents.
Exam time!
Another aspect of the culture here that frustrates me to no end is the mindset that every problem has a quick fix. This is especially frustrating when dealing with the parents of my students, who are all learning-disabled and extremely low-functioning academically: reading skills at the third, fourth, or fifth grade level; inability to write a simple, grammatically correct sentence; and some who don't even know how to add or subtract properly. Imagine having parents of these types of students come to you to ask you what their children need to do to be in the IB Diploma Programme in their junior and senior years! These are students who don't even have a clue how to write a topic sentence; my eight-year-old writes better than they do, and I'm not exaggerating. Imagine, too, that the sole focus of all of these -- and all other -- students is their grades, and how to get better grades, without a deeper understanding of what it takes to learn and get better at something. They might have good intentions of wanting to get better at certain subjects and to learn, but once they hear that it's a long-term process to get better, that it takes real, hard work, their minds are turned off, and they go off to seek another solution, usually tutoring. I have a student who has a team of tutors for each subject he takes at school -- English, math, science, grammar, and so on. He understands so little that he doesn't even understand when he doesn't understand something. His tutors are there just to help him do his work and get good grades. Even with all these tutors, though, he is a "C" student at best. But his parents just keep getting him tutors, with the thinking that enough tutoring would be able to overcome the child's learning disability.

Still, nothing tops the frustrations caused by the high school administrators and other managers at the school. First, there's the high school assistant principal. When we arrived last year, we had heard very good things about her, and thought she was a fair and supportive administrator who actually was able to get things done. This year, however, has been a very different story. She has seemingly turned into a micro-manager, treating the faculty like children, reprimanding them for little things like hanging out at the canteen during their own time before school starts in the morning. She's been giving out a completely different vibe this year, and is no longer trusted by the faculty or staff. On top of this, she also seems to be jockeying for position at the school, probably in preparation for the possibility of the principal's departure after this year. She has been taking over various positions and duties, such as the IB Programme and AP coordinators' positions, from people who have been doing it for more years than she's been here.

In the past three weeks, she and the principal also have made it their mission to make the high school part of the special education department miserable by criticizing everything we do and telling us that the entire high school has complained about us (which is completely untrue). They're also trying to chip away at the accommodations the students are "allowed" to have. My department head has been called into their office only to be screamed at and treated like an animal.

The principal did praise me for "raising the bar" for the department, and since I'm new, I'm really not part of this battle. Still, I am part of the department and stand by my colleagues. I wanted to speak out and tell them off, but for the sake of the other teachers and my son (who's in the principal's wife's class at the elementary school), I didn't, though I made it known in other ways that I disagree with what they're doing and their "leadership."

Then there's the administrator for the Pupil Services office, who is a school psychologist and with whom my department works closely when it comes to testing students and placement in the special education program. He has terrible communications skills and has the unique "talent" of saying a lot of words without saying anything at all. He also never responds to or follows up on any emails with questions about students or requests for advice. It has been extremely frustrating for me to have to rely on him to provide services to my students.

Given all this, we've thanked our lucky stars that we made the decision we did to leave the school next year. But it's really given me an appreciation for our school system back home, all the department heads and administrators my husband and I have worked with there, and -- as flawed as they are -- the laws we have in place in the U.S. to protect the rights of students!

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