Teaching and Learning in Thailand

  1.    For my STEP Signature Project, I traveled to Thailand for three weeks to teach English at a pre-school in Thailand as part of an international volunteer program called Cross Cultural Solutions. In addition to the volunteer work, I had “cultural activities” everyday to learn more about Thai culture;  I learned Thai Boxing technique, visited temples and palaces, attempted to learn the language, tried new foods, and met so many wonderful people. I even flew out to the mountains one weekend an visited an elephant sanctuary.

2.     I always used to think that I had to plan everything I do out beforehand or else bad things would happen and everything would go terribly wrong. Sudden changes of plan would cause me a lot of anxiety and spur of the moment decisions made me nervous so I would usually opt out of doing whatever it was. I think this has caused me to miss out on a lot of really great experiences in the past. This is one thing about myself that has definitely changed since coming back from Thailand. Opting out of something because it was spur of the moment would have meant missing out on almost every cool experience I had there. Nearly everything we did was spur of the moment and plans changed a Lot, but I found myself being surprisingly okay with that. I have found that things are a lot more fun when you don’t have pre-formed expectations on how it Should be. I have brought this change home with me as well. Now I find myself saying yes to things I never would have before. When I wake up in the morning with an idea of something I want to do or somewhere I want to go, I don’t think about it or plan it out for a week, I just Do it. I have already done so many things, and my life is so much less stressful now that I am willing to “go with the flow” and not freak out if something changes.

Another thing that has changed is that I am much more willing to take initiative, and to put myself in situations I might not be 100% comfortable with. Before I left for Thailand, I would usually wait for cues from others before I would do anything, I avoided situations I wasn’t familiar with, and have always been rather quiet and shy around people I don’t know.  This is all because I was afraid of looking stupid if I do the wrong thing. That had to change quickly in Thailand; a different country with a different language and culture, plenty of people I didn’t know, and a whole lot of unfamiliar situations. Not having a choice to avoid all of this forced me to face it instead. I’ve learned that putting yourself out there is the best way to learn, and that it is okay to make mistakes because it’s really not a big deal if you do. Understanding it’s okay to mess up and look stupid sometimes has made me so much more confident now than I was before this experience. I am much more likely to start up a conversation with a stranger, to go to a party where I might not know everyone, and to jump in when it looks like something needs to be done instead of waiting around to make sure it’s okay first.

3.     In Thailand, things aren’t so planned out and organized as they tend to be in the states.  A lot of the time, our planned out activities for the day would change and we would end up doing something else, going later, etc. Oftentimes, our entire day wouldn’t be planned out at all and we would leave in the morning with a rough idea of what was going on and end up doing a bunch of other stuff we were never ever told about. One of the first days this happened I was confused at first, but it ended up being one of my favorite days there. It was a holiday, so we had no work that day, instead we had plans to visit the floating market, a temple, and go out for lunch. Well, we did do all of those things, but we also visited second temple, this one was Chinese Buddhist. We just showed up there in the van without even being told we were going there. It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen! I could have spent a week there just exploring, observing, and taking pictures. I was something I never planned on doing, but it is one of my favorite memories of the trip. From that point on, I decided I would say yes to everything, to try to experience everything without expectations, and not to let myself get too caught up in planning.  I was a great decision because all of my favorite experiences were the ones that were unexpected. Almost every night when we had free time, we would spontaneously decide to go somewhere and it was always a blast. We planned a weekend trip to Chiang Mai only two days in advance; we ended up at an elephant sanctuary and it was the coolest thing I have ever done. Sometimes things didn’t go perfectly smoothly, but that was okay. I learned to be confident in my ability to figure things out in those situations.

Teaching three-year-olds in a pre-school where the staff speaks only minimal English taught me pretty quickly that I needed to learn to take initiative, and that being shy simply wouldn’t do. The teacher I was partnered with and I had quite a bit of trouble communicating in the beginning. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing a lot of the time and always was waiting for her to tell me, but she couldn’t obviously, because we had a significant language barrier. The kids were great but I was afraid of attempting to teach and having them ignore me or of overstepping the teacher. Finally, she handed me an alphabet book and mimed that I should go through the sounds with them. I did, and I was blown away by their enthusiasm. They were so eager to learn! Eventually I started planning out my own lessons, jumping in when it looked like the teacher needed help, comforting crying children, attempting to sing along to the Thai songs, and joining in at play time. I saw as the children grew and progressed with their English, and I formed real relationships with them. My relationship with the teacher got better as well and became something truly special. We started to be able to communicate using gestures and hand movements, facial expressions, pictures, and the few Thai and English words we both knew. Sure, sometimes I said the words wrong and sometimes I probably looked a little silly. But the point was, I was making an effort. My experience was so much better and wonderful having tried, than it would have been if I had just sat awkwardly in the corner and never put myself out there.

4.     I believe that these changes will be significant in nearly all aspects of my life.  With life in general I feel like nothing ever goes exactly according to plan. That always used to bother me, but I am hoping that my newfound appreciation for spontaneity will help me to take those changes as they come in the future.  As for my personal life, I have wanted to expand my social circle; to meet new people, make new friends, and feel more comfortable with people I don’t know well.  After this experience, I feel like I might actually have the confidence to do that.  Academically, I feel empowered to take more initiative on projects, pursue my interests, and to participate more in the classroom, now that I am not so worried about making mistakes.  Finally, my primary professional goal is eventually become a medical doctor, and I believe that both the ability to cope with change and to take initiative are essential for success in the medical field.  Overall I am sure that I will be drawing on my experiences from this project for the rest of my life.