Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Joshua E. WaltersOfficial U.S. Navy Imagery

As an American English teacher in a traditional Thai school, I’m allowed a unique perspective. One which permits me to observe the way Thai teachers conduct their classes, but with the freedom to teach in any way I please. I’ve been given an insight into Thai teaching traditions — the way knowledge is taught, the way young minds are molded — and, thus, the foundation for the values and precepts that define Thai culture.

I’ve been intentionally reluctant to divulge my views on the practice of Thai teachers using physical punishments on their (and my) students in class. Before expressing my shock and condemnation — which I indeed felt — I wanted to be sure I had fully absorbed what was happening in front of me. So, for three months I set my ethical qualms aside, allowing myself time to digest and synthesize these seemingly archaic tactics, in search of cultural sensitivity, understanding.

Bluntly put, Thai teachers are very physical with their students. By Western standards, it is abuse; by Thai standards, it is fundamentally necessary, expected. Teachers will strike kids on the head, the neck, or the hand with a ruler or an open palm. They hit hard and they hit often. The list which warrants such punishment is never-ending: students are hit for talking, or sitting improperly in their desks, speaking out of turn, getting an answer wrong, or for keeping their fingernails or hair too long.

When provoked, which is usually several times in a class period, the Thai teachers can become menacing, intimidating military sergeants who use every opportunity to disparage their students. Fear and humiliation are their weapons, which they wield with much skill, for instilling obedience into these kids. To them, a condescending tone and a blow to the back of the head are necessary for restoring order. And regrettably, it works. Though I may never become accepting of or desensitized to this method of punishment — I’m quite positive I felt my heart rip in two when I walked in on my beloved student, Fry, sobbing and helpless in the grip of a Thai teacher — it works. Like a charm. With one smack of the ruler, a Thai teacher can make an entire classroom of 40 screaming, psychotic children fall dead silent and perfectly in line. Whereas I will spend the entire 50 minutes of class trying to get the students to notice that I am standing in front of them.

If a Thai teacher is not present in the classroom, a riot ensues. Nothing will be taught and nothing will be learned and every rule those kids have ever learned goes flying out the window. What transpires is unfathomable chaos, rage, and destruction — students jumping from desk to desk, beating each other up in the back of the classroom, slapping each other in the face with rulers (go figure), trying to fit as many people as possible on the back of a suddenly supine victim. Forget teaching and start remembering CPR and strategies for dissolving a riot.

On one particularly hellish day, all of my second students decided to ignore me for an hour and carry on with more important plans. Even though I had a microphone, and even though they most certainly understood my basic English commands, I remained insignificant, invisible. They simply did not respect me. The deafening din of 40 screaming students had silenced me. I begrudgingly admitted my obvious failure — that I could not control this class, let alone teach them English.

Then, suddenly, everyone was immediately quiet. All discordant activity ceased and hung in silent suspension. The room appeared bewitched by a potent incantation. Forty faces sat, transfixed, and perfectly poised in their desks, their gazes glued to the classroom door. From behind the door, two eyes stared back — their enchantress. A Thai teacher had made a brief but powerful appearance in the classroom window, effectively restoring order and controlling my classroom for me without ever setting foot inside.

I was grateful for the relief, but disappointed by my students. I asked them, in the most basic way I could and with hand gestures, “Why, when I am here, you talk…But, when Thai teacher is here, you don’t talk?”

The response, from a naughty one in the front: “Teacher, because she hit.” (Motions a ruler slapping his wrist).

“So, you want me to hit you?” I asked.

“Yes, teacher.” (Several other students nod their heads in accordance.)

I was speechless.

For the first time in 3 months, my staunch opposition wavered. My convictions were uprooted. I had to take a step back. I came here thinking I would be some kind of benevolent savior for these kids, that they would appreciate my passive demeanor and respect me for my refusal to resort to authoritarian methods of controlling them. But, instead, they ask me for it. They don’t know how to operate without it. They don’t know how to respect me if I don’t command it. They are conditioned this way. These expectations of order and this militant learning atmosphere are so intrinsically ingrained in their culture, are so accepted, that any attempts to stray from or dismantle the paradigm are rendered futile. Plus, it confuses people. Though morally I can’t understand this aspect of Thai culture, intellectually I recognize the fundamental reasons keeping it in place. Mainly, it’s a matter of priorities. Where Americans view individual freedoms and self-assertion as some of their most important values, Thais regard obedience and collective conformity as equally important.

Never mind the postulation that the students’ unruly behavior which warrants such harsh reprehension is an expression of their inner autonomy in revolt against the years of repression caused by these very punishments. That the system in place is forever unproductive, unchanging, cyclical. That using unchecked subordination to control disruptive behavior becomes the impetus for more rebellious behavior and, thus, more violent punishments, more subordination. None of this is relevant. Because how do you attempt to deconstruct a system whose very structure serves to maintain belief in structure? When the atrophy of this system would mean sacrificing order and, thus, challenging an ideology embedded within the heart of an entire culture?

You don’t. Or rather, why should you want to?

Still, I can’t restrain my protective maternal instincts when one of my favorites is being beaten. When they flinch, I flinch. And silently I plead that it is over quickly.