Tag Archives: teaching

Grateful for Memories: My Heart-Centered Thai Students

Whenever people ask me what it was like to teach at Benchamatheputhit School in Petchaburi, Thailand, I tell the same ole story every time:

It was my first week teaching high school students – ever.  And granted, most of my classes were with the younger crowd: 7th, 8th and 9th graders, nervously awaiting my next command in PE or Health Science.  But there were a few English Language classes I taught to the older, more hormonally-challenged lot.

Several years prior, I didn’t have to worry much about getting students’ attention in Japan, where the majority of the class were exceptionally respectful adults – and the kids sessions I taught were just lovely little 5-8 year-olds.  No big whoop.

But a heaving class full of talkative sweaty teenagers, bubbling over from sugary snack breaks and extra-spicy (pet mak mak!) lunches was a completely new phenomenon to me.  37 of them, fully engrossed in a crescendo of wide-eyed Thai gossip.   I tried the silent treatment.  But they seemed to appreciate the gesture.  Clapping?  Nope, that’s more for the wee ones.  Screaming?  Hm, that somehow just didn’t seem to go with the yoga studio voice I’d been honing for years.   The anxiety started to build . . . I could feel my breath control slipping away . . .

Sea of students on Teacher Appreciation Day. The kiddies presented us with flowers!

Looking back on it, I was going through a pretty rough time in my personal life during this week.  Part of the reason I left San Francisco was to hide away (from a psychopath!) in the warm Buddhist arms of Thailand, where I dreamed of studying meditation and Thai Massage.  Everything had sort of . . . fallen apart.  Including my classroom management.

Oh no, is that a tear forming?

Yup, it was.  I started to tear up.  From what I recall, I didn’t let the kids see it directly.  I quickly turned around and started writing on the board.  As soon as someone noticed it was a “Homework Assignment” they went quiet right quick.  Miraculously, they started writing and asking pertinent questions, just as the bell rang, sending them to their next victim (haha!).

On the way out the door, one of the students (I actually really loved her sass, she reminded me of my high school days) actually noticed the remnants of my momentary emotional whimper.

“Teacher!  No!  What happened?!”

“I’m just having a hard day.  Don’t be late for your next class.”

By this point the whole class had gathered.

“Teacher Joanne!  Sorry!  Teacher, you heart, you love!”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  At that moment I imagined what this scene would have been like if I were teaching in America or the UK – I would probably have a butterfly knife halfway through my ribcage by this point.

“We quiet!  We sorry!  You from heart, we love you!”

And then they hugged me.


Yes, that was my reward for being a poorly prepared teacher.  My students hugged me.  And it was awesome.

So, I’m grateful.  Grateful for that story (cuz it’s a classic) grateful for those heart-led students (who were quiet for most of the remainder of the semester, surprisingly), and grateful for Thailand being so damn Buddhist.  It makes for some truly lovely kids (that’s my theory, anyway) 🙂

Here are a few choice shots of my students for your enjoyment . . . may it warm your hearts!

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Classroom Window

Go on, take a peek!

Ever wonder what a kindergarten classroom in the Western Region of the UAE looks like?  Well, if you have, you’re a part of a very niche group of people, I can assure you!

It’s always fun to have a window into the lives of people we know and love, or just some random stranger who happens to be doing something you’re interested in.

So, without further adieu, my KG1B children introducing themselves . . .

The kids are generally about four years old and they’ve gone from wetting their pants and crying for mommy, to answering simple questions in English, and testing twice a semester.  It’s not an easy curriculum for the wee ones – integrating all the English and Math vocabulary with hands-on activities has been a challenge, especially in the face of a rather ambitious pacing chart.  But we’re having fun and learning together.  Every day gets a little easier.

And a little more interesting . . .

The kindergarten classroom is setting the stage for these kids’ futures.  And some of the scenes are rather entertaining!

Take, for example, the little rascals who happen to be a bit bossy, always standing up, not necessarily paying attention to the lesson, they’re smart when they try, but usually they’re trying to tell some other kid what to do.

As teachers, we put these kids into leadership positions for two reasons: 1. It keeps them from getting into trouble.  Much better they’re passing out pencils than smacking their neighbors upside the head!  2. Ever heard the phrase, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer?”  Definitely applicable here!

What’s funny, is these kids are likely going to run countries or big companies when they grow out of the drooling stage.  They’re power hungry, they get into things, they need to be in charge.  So what do we do?  We vote for them!

Then there’s the Nerd Alert of the classroom.  Don’t get me wrong, I love these girls – and yes, they are just about always girls – I may actually have been one of them at some point in my academic career.  They know all the answers, do more than they’re asked to, and even finish early.  But what do we give them in return, besides a “good job!” and a sticker?  Extra work!  I say with nothing but hope, that this kind of student will eventually find their way back into academia where they can continue to … do more work!

I’ve already mentioned the uncanny parallels between some of KG kids and boys I’ve dated in the past.  There’s the masochistic charmer and the starry-eyed dreamer to name a few . . .

And then we have the Shadow Teachers, that rare breed of super bebe that embodies all we’re looking for in a student: smart, sociable, confident, respectful, creative.  This kid’s got it goin’ on.  What’ll they grow up to be?  Anything they want!

We’ve lost a few kids on the roster these last few weeks because the UAE asks foreign residents to pay for their kids to come to public schools.  Some parents simply can’t afford it, especially if they’re supporting their other children through school, not to mention the fact that Kindergarten isn’t compulsory.  An interesting topic for debate there, perhaps at a later date when I’m not actually living under Big Brother’s watch.  😉

So goes another week in the desert.  I’m still writing lotsa yoga-related articles, and just got one accepted by Elephant Journal for online publication (yay!).  More on that to come . . .

Til next time x

UAE National Daze!

Children twirl and wiggle in unison, dressed in colorful traditional gowns and headwear.  Mothers, decked out in bedazzled abayas, watch on with pride, taking pictures, videos and sharing smiles with their town neighbors.  Teachers run around, attempting without much success, to organize an auditorium full of kindergarteners.   Administrators talk with parents, pinch the cheeks of brothers and sisters.  Women from Sri Lanka and Kerala serve bland cookies and boxes of juice.

If there’s a schedule, I have no idea if we’re following it!  It’s been a day full of last minute details, dressing up the performers, and running about aimlessly – chaos!  Pure and utter chaos.

Happy UAE National Day, everybody!  The country is now officially 39 years old.  And you thought America was a young country!

Yet, unlike the adolescent  – sometimes infantile – USA, the politically-young UAE has a long cultural history.  Camel racing, herbal medicines, international trade connections, shisha custom, tea ceremony, the desert ethos, dance,  pearling, fishing, the list goes on and on.  Though you won’t find the same kind of collections of historical artifacts that you might in Italy or Japan, the nomadic natives have much to commemorate today.

For our humble celebrations at Al Areej Kindergarten, the kids showcased some of the UAE’s most treasured traditions.

A fashion show


A parade of culture

Cutie pies!

The other day, I caught myself in the middle of an internal trip out – “I’m teaching kindergarten in the Middle East. What am I doing here?”  Well, saving money in the hopes my mother will start talking to me again, actually.  But really, for the first time, I was completely enraptured by how HERE I am right now.

There are some funny things about this place sometimes.

The firey temperament of my colleagues.  The hotel village community (more on that later).  The Arabic men.  The unexpected Irish and French contingencies.  The nannies who’ve come from countries far and wide.

Best thing about being a woman?  You get the front seats on the bus – no matter how many men are lined up, period!

Learning words like schwei schwei – which could mean slowly, nicely, or little by little. ‘Hodrawhat,’ meaning vegetables – and my personal favorite, ‘melfuff!’  Lettuce.  And the ever-so unforgettable ‘How much is that?’ in Arabic – ‘cum hardar.’  Say what now?

It’s a mad little world I live in.  Where a surprise flat tire turns into an impromptu photoshoot in the desert.

And sunsets send tingles down spines.


Week 3 – Games, crying and settling in

It wasn’t an easy week at work!  My preschoolers cried their little eyes out, some of them separated from their mamas for the first time ever.  I won’t be working w/ the more experienced Kindergarten class anymore, due to a schedule change – but have no complaints since, technically, I did volunteer to take the wee ones w/ my colleague Monique.  I knew it’d be more challenging, in terms of classroom management and meeting our pacing chart requirements, but I figured the cuteness would make up for their animal-like behavior!  They are adorable, of course … and considering my lack of experience with preschool classes upwards of 24 students … I have been keeping an open mind.  Then again …

Last week, during snack time, I literally had to stop a young girl from squatting down and peeing right there in the corner!  Earlier in the week, a few boys who I tried to calm down with a soothing voice and a pat on the back actually threatened me w/ raised fists – another made motions like a gun with his hand.  Don’t make me get all jihadist on your ass, little man, that’s no way to gesticulate toward your teacher! ;o)  Hehe, they’ll learn.  (note: the first meeting I had with my Arabic-speaking colleagues at the school, they all thought it would be hilarious to welcome us with the jihadist war cry.  LOVED THAT.  I can work with a sense of humour!)

Yeah, school’s been fun so far – we mostly played games last week – but next week’ll be an entirely different story.  Our weekly goals could be a challenge, but if the Arabic-speaking teachers in the classroom help with translation and behavior, I think we can make it work.  It’s not an easy situation for them – some have been teaching KG for upwards of 15 years.  Having all us young Americans roll in with binders, clipboards and lists of objectives has got to be a bit of a shock.  But most are warming to us, little by little.

Back on the home-front, life is pretty sweet.  After a long day w/ bugers and tears, and an hour-long commute that follows, a moment on the beach is just what the doctor ordered.  I go for a walk along the soft white shores and everything else melts away.  Pranayam (breathing exercises) in the steam room’s a nice trick as well.  It still completely boggles my  mind that just 60 of us get to live in these amazing surroundings, and so many others are off stranded in apartments in the middle of nowhere!  Granted, I’ve heard their accommodation is pretty sweet, but we have all these amenities – and our buffet alone is supposed to cost $50 a pop!

The dessert buffet at our humble little five star <cue waistline crying!>

Other than getting adjusted to work, this was a pretty low key week.  I interviewed a friend of mine out here for an article on courage.  That should be posted in a week or so.  I also managed to catch a killer flu from a coworker who came in with a fever, fully sweating balls.  Cheers, Ms. Wissem!  ;o)  I certainly hope that explains why I had another nightmare last night – this time I find two babies on a bench and try – with very little direction – to take them on a subway ride back to London.  Disturbing.

Off to recover before the new week starts.  It’s a 5am start to the day out here – wish a sister luck!

I Believe the Children are the Future . . .

. . . teach them well and let them lead the way . . .

We ARE the New School Models

This year, the Abu Dhabi Education Council announced the launch of the New School Model, a long term plan that puts UAE students at the center of a multi-faceted bilingual education, aiming to make use of “the real wealth” of the UAE – an educated human resource.  By placing teachers from Canada, America, Ireland, the UK and South Africa in KG-3 classrooms, the government is aiming to produce students with the knowledge and experience necessary to make them global leaders not only in the oil industry, but in all innovative industries of the future. For the New School Model, ADEC has recruited 1,405 native English-speaking teachers out of 50,000 applicants world-wide(Lucky us!)

The opening ceremony at the ADEC meeting in Abu Dhabi, attended by over 6000 educators, admin staff, specialists and dignitaries.

Putting Things Into Perspective

Before the discovery of oil, there was very little development in the UAE, and no compulsory educational system to speak of. In 1962, when oil production started in Abu Dhabi, the country had just 20 schools for less than 4,000 students, most of them boys. Lacking the necessary infrastructure for development (hospitals, proper housing, airports, etc.) as well as qualified human resources, His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, former UAE President, certainly had his work cut out for him.

The discovery of oil provided the necessary finances to improve the education system. This was a top priority for the president, whose approach was summarized in the powerful statement: Youth is the real wealth of the nation.

Since then, the UAE has come a long way.  Working with the Women’s Federation, they’ve increased literacy amongst women from 30.9% to 77.1% (as of 1998) – beating out a 73.4% literacy rate amongst men.  And as of 2008, the overall literacy rate was up to 90% – amongst youth aged 15-24, the numbers soar to 98% (Unicef).  And all this can be attributed to strong leadership from the top down, efficient allocation of funds and a sharply focused implementation strategy.

New Schools for New Challenges

The New School Model is simply the latest in the country’s vigorous program to increase reliance on human resources over oil resources.  At the ADEC meeting this week – attended by over 4000 educators, including myself – the Director General of ADEC, Dr Mugheer Khamis Al Khaili, announced a goal of 40% reliance on oil by 2020, compared to the current rate of 60% reliance today.  The hard cold obstacles educator would face were presented with transparency:

  • The UAE has an average school year of only 142 days – 50% of the highest scoring nations in education
  • An increase of 150,000 students by 2018 translates to a need for at least 150 new schools
  • Many non-urban regions in the UAE severely lack the funds or infrastructure to provide a quality education to their students
  • 350 million dhirams (about 1 million US dollars) must be invested to provide internet access to all schools in the UAE
  • To address these issues, ADEC is working closely with many private companies, like my employer, SABIS, to ensure the model is implemented in an efficient and thorough manner.

“The model focuses on the engagement of students and cooperative group activities. Children are encouraged to learn through play, problem solving and creativity,” Rhian Johnson, head of faculty and adviser for cognition education at Umm Habebah School, explained.

Video from the inspired presentation on ADEC’s New School Model.

Creativity, Leadership, Teamwork

The curriculum focuses on these dynamic human qualities (rather than a simple linear focus on ‘technology’ or ‘grade point average’), putting students in groups with academic and managerial leaders to keep the activities moving along smoothly.  Detailed pacing charts and materials are provided, giving the teachers time to focus on the effective delivery of the subject matter.  For KG classes, local teachers will be present to ensure behavior is kept in check and group games executed without wasting any time between language barriers. Results from frequent testing are recorded electronically and analyzed on a regular basis to ensure the students are best benefitting from the classes.

Dr. Lynne Pierson, ADEC’s Director of P-12, presented the key elements of the NSM and its implementation phases.

Although most of the native English-speaking teachers are enthusiastic about the program, the New School Model could look more than daunting for the local teachers whose classrooms are being invaded by men and women often with much less experience under their belts.

“The program looks great in a Power Point Presentation – and the teachers at my school have been incredibly welcoming,” says one of the ADEC hires, “But the actual on-the-ground process is delicate.  Some of these teachers have been in Emirati classrooms for 15 years.  They know the kids, they have their own system.  And we come in, some of us with only a few years of teaching experience, and we’re supposed to be in charge.  I can see how it’d be a tough situation – at first.  But there’s been a lot of cooperation.  We should be able to find our middle ground to achieve the big goals.  And we all know it’s in the best interests of the kids.”

The government is aiming for 90% of the workforce to be local UAE residents by 2020 – which means teachers like myself are here to implement, model, and hit the road.  That being said, for high-level education, pronunciation, career-specific English and the finer points of grammar and writing will certainly still be subjects native-speaking teachers could present.

My Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades

With a comprehensive education system for boys and girls and free education for nationals in governmental schools, colleges and universities, the UAE hopes to become a major competitor in academia – the sooner the better. The private education sector is constantly being improved and some offer foreign language education in English, French, German,Urdu and a Chinese program with a waiting list of 1200 students.  Green schools are popping up all over the country, complete with solar panels and recycling program – 50 of these green schools are set to be completed by August.

“It is wonderful to see the initiatives ADEC implemented slowly, but surely, coming to fruition. We are proud to see Abu Dhabi’s educational landscape positively shifting and our students reaping the benefits of years of planning and dedication from everyone involved,” said the Director General during a visit of public schools this week.

Watch this space for updates on how things are looking on the ground!

And for making it all the way to the bottom of this article:

More photos of the event: