Having spent three months teaching English in Thailand to Anuban (kindergarten), Prathom (primary), and Mathayom (secondary) age students, I’ve witnessed a wide and disturbing pattern of child abuse.
“Corporal punishment”, the practice of hitting children that if done against adults would be classified as assault, is to my knowledge near-universal. All of the schools that I had taught at, and all of the schools that other teachers I knew had taught at, had hitting children as a mandated policy.
The other ESL teachers didn’t seem to care
Perhaps more disturbing than witnessing members of a culture still stuck in the middle ages abuse the weakest, most vulnerable, and dependent members of society, was the blithe disregard of the foreign teachers there towards the whole situation. I met maybe 20 other teachers during my time in Thailand. I knew a few of them quite well. I was the only one who spoke out against it, and to my knowledge I was the only one who told my “classroom assistants” to stop hitting children (I had to teach the word “stick” first).
Perhaps if foreign teachers started leaving their jobs in droves to protest this child abuse (a teacher who did this to kids in the West would promptly lose their job and possibly be arrested), maybe the Thais would take that as a signal that something needs to change. Instead, every single foreign teacher told me that they were happy using the violence of Thais as a means to control the class, and that “it’s their culture”.
Culture as the coward’s excuse
As if culture is an excuse for anything. That’s like saying “I’m from country XYZ and I can be an asshole to kids, and if you question my individual responsibility for my actions, I’ll just claim to be a deterministic robot controlled by ‘culture'”.
I put the job title of “classroom assistants” above in quotation marks because their English was barely at a pre-intermediate level and they did very little assisting. They would basically walk around the class and hit or scream at children who were bored or not behaving like obedient little robots.
As if children of any age are made to sit around in stuffy classrooms of 50, with no air conditioning, in the middle of a perpetual summer.
Hitting the children with sticks and rulers
Oh and yes, every Thai teacher I’ve seen (and I’ve seen hundreds) walks around with a stick. A couple of them claim to only use them to hit tables for attention. One teacher told me “I don’t like hitting the children, I just carry the stick around to control the class.” (Well, I’m paraphrasing. Her English was worse than that.) So she doesn’t hit the kids with sticks, she just walks around with an implement she knows will inspire terror in them. In a way, she was outsourcing the hitting to the other teachers – as the stick she carried obviously had associations of violence and pain from the other teachers.
Sticks aren’t the only implements used in the abusive hellholes that are Thai schools. Rulers, hands, or anything else nearby is also used. Children from as young as 4 are hit on the hands, on the buttocks, slapped on the face, and hit behind the head. They’re also pushed and shoved, grabbed by the arms, and screamed at.
The mask Thai teachers wear
It’s seriously creepy and disturbing to look at a Thai teacher’s happy smile instantly turn to vehement anger the moment she looks at a child. I’ve discovered that almost every teacher I’ve met has two faces. Their out-of-classroom face, which is usually very polite and full of smiles, and their in-classroom face, with is an almost permanent scowl on a face carrying around eyes that are clearly dead of any compassion inside. Worst of all was the uncertainty – which is the real them, and which is the mask? How can I like, let alone trust, someone who waits until they’re in a position of authority over children to abuse and humiliate them?
Almost all of the teachers are women, too. In Kindergarten, I was the only male. I’ve heard a lot about abusive men physically attacking wives and children in the media. It wasn’t until I went to Thailand that I saw for myself just what it was that some women were capable of.
The attitude of the female teachers towards the children was that they were a nuisance, an annoyance, something to be controlled (not someone, for these children were not treated as human beings), and something that was broken and needed to be fixed with violence. Being this angry and frustrated with children made me wonder many times why it was that these teachers chose this job and stayed at it for decades. The reason, of course, is that they enjoy abusing children.
My attempt to de-normalize the abuse
I tried to offer a de-normalization for the children – to provide an alternative method of interaction between them and an adult. To show them that they can relate to others without violence and abuse.
Already, children as young as 5 were hitting, kicking, and pushing each other in classes. Behaviors they had learnt very well from their adult role models.
In some ways I succeeded. Teaching Kindergarten I received ridiculous numbers of hugs. The group hugs even got a little dangerous (50 small kids running at you really has some force behind it!). And seeing the kids run after me as I left the Kindergarten building and put their little hands through the prison-like gates made me want to cry and kept me coming back long after when I wanted to just leave.
The schools are like prisons
And it was a prison. In the canteen, the only cutlery served was a spoon. Other teachers ate their meals with two, so I asked them why the canteen didn’t just have forks as well. They told me because otherwise, the students would stab each other with them. Just like in a prison, large communal areas were devoid of anything sharp – even a fork – lest the inmates take their helpless anger at authority figures out on each other.
But it was just too much. The last few weeks that I taught at my first school, I called my job there an “Asshole relief effort”. I just came in to provide some brief relief from the nightmare of the other teachers. A small window of time in which the kids wouldn’t be yelled at or hit by people three times bigger and heavier than them.
I still tried to teach them English, but I realized the futility of it. The level of English in Thai schools peaks at about the age of 11-12, and then goes downhill from there. My 15 year-old students were worse than my 12 year-olds, and that has been the experience of other teachers too. And it’s no surprise. Teach a group of 6 year-olds English for 15 minutes, and all of that information disappears the moment the Thai teacher randomly smacks her stick on the table. The poor children, terrified, are back to square one. How can children in fear of abusive monsters be expected to retain information?
Witnessing children at the age of 4 being abandoned by their parents at these nightmarish institutions, crying in hysterics and being herded like cattle, their needs ignored… Hearing one teacher tell us that her daughter is in one of our classes, and that if she ever acts up, we are to inform her immediately so that she can “kick her”, and seeing both her and the other foreign teachers laugh…
Ultimately, the abuse I saw children experience is one of the main reasons I left the first school I taught at to move to older, college-level students in another school. At least there, since the students were now adults, they were no longer being hit all the time.
Nationalism and superstition abides
Unfortunately, the above-mentioned physical and verbal abuse is not the only kind inflicted upon children in Thailand. Nationalism and insane religious superstitions are universal. Unlike the Buddhism you hear of in the west, Buddhism in Thailand is very much a mishmash of the most asinine beliefs I’ve ever heard of.
All schools play the national anthem in the mornings, at which point every student and teacher must freeze, like a statue. I kept walking for a few weeks, until at one point an infuriated “colleague” screamed at me to stop. I thought “I’m surrounded by crazy people, might as well do what they say until I get out of this hellhole”.
Foreigners are pejoratively called “farangs”, and although I have a name, and introduced myself in all of my classes, the other students and teachers continued to call me “farang teacher”. It is my experience that racism in western countries pales in comparison to that of Thailand (and from talking to friends elsewhere in Asia, all of Asia). If you ever visit Thailand, pay attention to that word. If you hear people around you saying it, they’re talking about you. Enjoy trying to figure out what they’re saying…
Outside of schools, the situation was hardly better. One woman who worked for a family I was tutoring asked me if I wanted to go out drinking with her. Being a teetotaler, I declined.
A few weeks later, she gleefully informed me that she had a fourth child as she waddled away. This being a woman who drinks alcohol every day (while pregnant), already has three children she never sees because she works full-time, and is a single mother. It’s difficult to put into words the anger I feel at people like this, and how sorry I feel for their kids.
Thai children are massively behind
Since at the end of the day these children desperately need compassion, curiosity, and kindness in their lives, their academic performance is in comparison all but irrelevant.
But for those who care more about results than the souls of children broken in the process, I will say that Thailand has consistently ranked as by far the worst country in Asia when it comes to their level of English. Thais in any way involved with tourism will routinely hire Filipinos over locals, because it’s genuinely hard to find a Thai person who speaks even passable English.
And when it comes to IQ tests, 6.5% of Thai children had scores lower than 70, putting them in the category of mental retardation. That’s more than three times higher than the world average of 2%. Since there’s a strong correlation between child abuse and lower IQ scores, I’m not at all surprised.
If you are at all sensitive to the needs and suffering of children, be very careful about visiting Thailand. It’s possible that as a tourist confined to hotels and restaurants you won’t see much of this abuse going on, but if you plan on living and working there, especially in any way related to children and schools, I would suggest you give Thailand a very wide berth.
Thailand is the “land of smiles” the same way America is the land of the “free”. Orwell would be turning in his grave at this propaganda and doublespeak.