Ban Ta Klang - The Beginning (an English Teacher's first week in Elephant Town)
By Tim Klabunde
28 May 2015 04:55:00
I arrived in Ban Ta Klang, renowned Thai elephant village in the province of Surin, on the eve of the 13th of May, 2015. Or, sister to Oh at the Learning Link, the wonderful, kind, and intelligent woman who had brought me to the village, stayed in town until Saturday assisting me with settling in at my accommodation and getting acquainted with my schools. It goes without saying that such an experience, living and teaching English in this community for the next two terms, will have an everlasting and profound effect on my life. But as I began to explore the town, meet the people, and finally meet and interact with the teachers, staff, and students at my schools, a more important realization dawned on me. I began to grasp perhaps, really, what kind of an impact my presence in this community will potentially, hopefully, have on the lives of the people here, and how equally so, surely, their lives will also never be the same.
Thursday and Friday Or and I met with the other English teachers at both of the schools I’d be teaching at; Chang Bun and Ban Ta Klang. I was able to get a feel of where things were situated in the community, see the actual schools, and get an idea of the teachers’ expectations of me. This was also a great opportunity to offer a first impression of myself to the teachers, and gather my own impressions of what to expect when teaching, beginning the following Monday. At Chang Bun, there were quite a few students hanging out. I made my first attempts at interacting with several groups of them on Thursday; we took some pictures as well because God knows that Thais like taking selfies. At Ban Ta Klang we met a bunch of the students, took some more pictures with them, saw the facilities I’d be teaching in, and again got a general gist of their expectations of me.
The students at Chang Bun were extremely shy. The girl students went into a state of silent, emotionless stillness when I approached them, and when engaged in conversation would look fleetingly at each other and bury their heads in each other’s shoulders and chests. They seemed petrified of me. The boys smiled, looked at each other, giggled and scattered when I approached them. The children at Ban Ta Klang, however, seemed excited to meet me from the get-go. They were not nearly as shy, but rather more curious and enthusiastic about their new farang English teacher. The teachers at both schools exhibited their enthusiasm to have me on board as a teacher and generally speaking to have me in their community. I felt very welcomed, with the famous Thai hospitality living up to its name.
There were definitely immediate challenges as well as little leaps of progress. For example, initially after arriving in town, no one seemed to know when school was set to start at Ban Ta Klang, and considering that the main structure currently has no roof (it is being replaced), we were naturally curious about the state of affairs at the school. Eventually after speaking with the school staff we learned that they would be using the adjacent smaller classroom buildings for school until the roof is finished on the primary building. Indeed, substantial progress has already been made. There was some confusion as well among myself and the teachers of Chang Bun in regards to the curriculum and what content was to be taught, and to which levels, and which language skills were to be focused on. But understanding was eventually reached regarding what my teaching responsibilities and the learning objectives of the students should be. I even chased down a group of male students across the courtyard in front of school as they scattered to avoid interaction with me, and ended up having a fair amount of interaction and dialogue with some of the students regarding sports, particularly Tagraw.
The first week of school, although at times extremely exhausting, overwhelming, and challenging on multiple fronts, was a great success and encouraging to say the least. I believe I get along very well with the faculty at both schools, and I believe that they like me as well. The students seem to really like me as well, regardless of their shyness in class and evident fear of actually interacting and speaking in English. For the most part I was able to get students warmed up to me right away, and comfortable enough in the classroom to speak and interact some in accordance with my lesson. For me, this was my primary goal for the first week. I wanted them to be comfortable with me and feel safe in the classroom to experiment with the language. I used their first class period with me mostly as a way to gauge the general make-up of each class: number of students, age, male to female ratio, their general level of English language proficiency, number of special needs/gifted and talented students, etc. I have to say there was definitely a drastic difference between the levels of interaction received from the kids in the Pratom level at Ban Ta Klang versus the students at the Matiyom level at Chang Bun. The younger students at Ban Ta Klang are much less hindered to interact and speak, and seem much more enthusiastic about, well, life in general. The students at Chang Bun seem be generally much more shy and afraid to interact or speak in class. I believe that there is a level of understanding in regards to the content being taught, but they appear afraid to demonstrate their level of comprehension for fear of making an error. I am doing my best to exhibit to them that without making mistakes we will learn nothing, and thus must try to experiment and speak. Although interaction at the younger grade levels is higher, the students in the lower levels of Pratom seem to have little to no knowledge of the English language. So there are huge strides to be made at both schools in many different realms of the learning process. However, I have complete confidence that we will make leaps and bounds together over the course of the following two terms, and will end up learning a wealth of knowledge together.
The family running the accommodation where I’m living is incredible. They seem to be a very busy, hard-working, successful family, which I respect greatly. The fact that they have agreed to host my presence is greatly appreciated on my part. I will do my best to get to know them better and create bonds of friendship as time goes on. So far they are doing everything in their power to make me feel welcome and comfortable. I really, really am happy that I like where I’m living. I think that’s a huge part of being happy anywhere; it has to feel like home.
All things considered, with the immense amount of cultural difference I’m having to overcome and embrace (food not being one of these cultural factors; I eat everything and can’t get enough of all of the delicious authentic Thai dishes), the gigantic linguistic barriers clearly present throughout the majority of my every day, and the ridiculously awesome yet horrifyingly intimidating opportunity that I have to make a difference in this community via education in the English language, I could not possibly be happier to be here, and if anybody’s the man for the job it’s me. So look out Ban Ta Klang, Tim Klabunde just moved in, and he’s here to hang out for a while!
Tim is an English teacher that Anantara's in-house charity the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, funded by The Elephant Story, have sponsored to work in Ban Ta Klang. Ta Klang is the home village of the majority of our mahouts - indeed the majority of mahouts in Thailand pass through these two High Schools - it is our long term goal to improve the education for the next generation of mahouts to better give them the tools to control their own destinies (& therefore those of their elephants) rather than leaving them in the hands of businessmen.
We chose to provide an English Teacher first as that is what they asked for but hope to provide more teachers and modules as the project progresses.
Tim is recruited by Minor International's Education Programme partners The Learning Link.
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