Wat Doi Saket Project – Lessons from the classroom, teaching at a Buddhist temple

This week was my fifth and final week of teaching at my first temple (Wat Pra non ba get tee) and the start of final exams and winter break for the novice monks. It has been a busy five weeks but I enjoyed teaching, getting to know the novices, and being a part of the school. I would like more time with the classes to see them progress further but I am happy to have spent the time with them that I did and know that they are excited about the next volunteers to come and teach.

Wat Pra non is a relatively small temple, located in a district outside of Chiang Mai, settled in between rice paddies and quiet streets with a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains. On the grounds there is the school, in two separate buildings, an outdoor eating area, the temple, pagoda, a small building to house the monks, kitchen, community space and a radio station for talks on Buddhist history, philosophy and healthy living (tune into FM 98.25 MHz!) A series of small gardens are placed around the grounds with hidden statues and wooden signs with faded white writing.  Tombs for the deceased monks line the back walls of the Wat in a row of brightly colored statues. The temple houses a large “reclining Buddha”, where his right hand out symbolizes his death and entering Nirvana. The walls of the temple are painted with detailed images of the Buddha’s life and his teachings.

The Wat is often used as a space for local events, including lectures, community meetings, and religious ceremonies. Local vendors come in to deliver bags of rice and jugs of purified water, and stay to chat with the monks and novices. There is even an “ice cream truck” that peddles in everyday after lunch for a cold treat to sneak in before noon, after which time the novices and monks can’t eat. Stray cats and dogs roam about for the leftovers after lunch and then relax for an afternoon nap in the shady gardens.

One of the novice monks who is from a Karen village

Only five novices and three monks currently live at the temple, and although that number fluctuates slightly throughout the year, it is still pretty small. During the week, one hundred and fifty five novices are bused in from other temples around Saraphi and surrounding towns to attend school here. Many of the novices are originally from hill tribe villages and farming communities outside of Chiang Mai and have ordained as a novice for a variety of different reasons -Thai tradition, financial strains, religion, behavior or problems at home but predominantly they are sent because their families cannot afford public school. I imagine it must be very hard to be away from home for so long at such a young age but some novices are fortunate to be with friends from their homes. One group of boys in particular came from a Karen village a few hours away and were able to ordain together at the same temple. Their village school is very small and poor and can’t afford basic resources for the students. The boys taught themselves some basic English reading and writing and ordained to complete high school. Despite the fact that Wat Pra non is also small and relies heavily on donations from the community and lay people, the school makes regular trips up to this village to give extra books, supplies and food to the people. It is amazing to see that even those who have very little still give all that they can to help others.

Afternoon gathering of all novice monks at the school

The school has six classes of novices broken down by age, from twelve to nineteen, and ranging in size from nine to fifty five, for a total of about one hundred and sixty students. Teachers are highly respected in Thailand and the classes begin with the students saying “Good morning teacher” in unison and end with a big “Thank you teacher ”. This surprised me the first few days; even the class of fifty five thirteen year old’s settled down just long enough for a proper greeting. The main focus of the volunteers teaching is conversational English and it is fun to watch the novices break out of their comfort zones and begin to speak with more confidence, even if they are just repeating words. Some are very nervous about speaking in front of the class or even to the teachers but most are just excited to learn, practice new words, and play fun games.

It is clear that many of the students want to have better conversation skills to communicate and connect with others outside of the monastic community. Thais are very friendly in general and do their best to make conversation with you anyways, even if they can’t speak English. I would like to work on improving my Thai to communicate better with the novices, and the students appreciate it to see that the teacher is learning along with them.

Along with the six classes of novices, I have also been teaching very informal English lessons with the other teachers at the Wat. The teachers would like to learn more English not just for general conversation but also for business and traveling. The principle of the temple school, who is a monk, mentioned he would like to travel to India to see the birthplace of Buddhism.  He said that if he had better English he would be able to speak with other monks there and it would be a more meaningful trip. This was encouraging to hear how teaching English can help even the most unlikely of students.

The teacher’s class is also a great time for me to practice my Thai and learn more words and phrases. One of the first classes I was trying to introduce classroom vocabulary and I pointed to a chair. Chair in Thai is Gao-ii (pronounced “gow-ee”) and chicken is Gai (pronounced “guy”). As I was teaching, they all started looking under their chairs and laughing. It wasn’t until I repeated myself a few times I realized that I was saying, “…this is a chicken, you are sitting on a chicken, I am sitting on a chicken…” Laughter and having fun is very important in Thai culture and it helps in many situations, especially learning a new language.

Although I have had a lot of fun and learned many things so far, there are also challenges to teaching in a foreign language classroom. The novices are all at different levels of English and basic classroom instructions are difficult to get across, especially with larger classes and on days when the Thai teachers are not there to translate. I have learned to slow down my speech, speak a few Thai phrases, and use classroom objects, drawings and body language to communicate instructions and new words but it is difficult to know if all the students understand fully. The other English classes are taught in Thai and focused on grammar, reading and writing but very little on listening and speaking skills for conversation.  This is why the Wat Doi Saket project focuses exclusively on teaching conversation.

The English teacher and I in the classroom

Another challenge has been getting used to “Thai time”. Classes are usually at least 5-10 minutes behind schedule and some days they are cancelled altogether. One day, class was cancelled for the principle to talk to all the novices about the importance of attending class. Other days the teachers did not show up, students are called in and out, and classroom space and materials are sometimes not available. As with any job, one frustrating day can not deter you from coming in with a smile the next morning, and having a relaxed and positive attitude is a must. Everyday after lunch the English teacher would hand me the keys to the office and tell me to “relax now, drink coffee” and I gladly would. When something was confusing or didn’t work out the teachers would often say “Mai ben rai” (don’t worry about it) and of course “sabai sabai” (take it easy).

The last day of teaching I was amazed by the appreciation and generosity of the teachers and the novices. I received a few goodbye notes and gifts, including an over sized teddy bear called Vanilla, aka Vanilla Ice. I also received two handmade bags from the hill tribe village mentioned above and a glass bird statue from the markets. The novices were proud to hand me their written good bye notes and I was just as proud to get them. I will be teaching at different schools throughout this year and will not be returning to teach here but I know they are excited for new volunteers and I had a great experience and learned a lot that I can take with me.

Next week I am moving into Wat Doi Saket and will be staying there through the end of October.  Check out the Photography Corner this week for pictures of Wat Saraphi and my students, and don’t forget to subscribe to this blog!

By Katherine Devine


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