Attack of the Clones

I swear if I didn’t have to write the date on the board I would have no idea that it is June already. Time is flying super-fast, I’m in my fourth week of teaching this term and so far the students are up to date with what is in my plan (yes, I have a plan. I have developed the ability to be organised, and the anxiety associated with not being organised – a changed woman indeed!).

In my English Communication classes the topic of the moment is ‘Physical Appearance’ and ‘Describing My Self’. As is standard procedure for my now-most-organised self I draw up a list of target vocabulary that I aim to teach the students over the duration of the topic. I can remember this topic in my French lessons at school and can recall a monstrous list of various hair colours, styles, eye colours, facial features etc. (and “J’ai les cheveux brun et les yeux marron” still rolls off the tip of my tongue). Describing myself in French required navigating this collection of various vocabularies and much to my annoyance I couldn’t simply copy my best friend and desk partner who had blonde hair and blue eyes. Anyway, I digress. I start to compile the standard list of words associated with this topic;

Hair colour: brown, black, blonde, ginger/red;

Hair style: straight, curly, wavy, spikey, long, short, fringe;

Eye colour: blue, hazel, brown, green, grey;

Looking at the list I realised something; the a vast majority of it is completely irrelevant to my students; they won’t have the task of going through the definition of each word and finding the most appropriate description for themselves. An overwhelming amount of my students, probably 95%, are carbon copies of one another. Black, shoulder length hair for girls or a military-style short back and sides for boys; very dark brown eyes (OK, so the genetic tendencies of an ethnicity can’t be helped), no piercings; no deviation from the norm. This ‘norm’ that the majority of students conform to is not governed by fashion, or any passing trend. It is a government issue standard of appearance that all students in attendance at a standard school must adhere to. The 5% of students that don’t conform will have attended a private school at some point and so are allowed to keep their longer hairstyle.

I went to school in the UK, where uniforms and a dress code are in place. My school was probably on the more relaxed side, with a baggy maroon jumper, black trousers and the introduction of a black shoes only rule when the new head teacher Mrs. Critchley took over. Earrings and make up were not wanted but this was not policed. Similarly, hair dye was not allowed but I managed to have my hair all sorts of shades from hues of purple and red to orange and blue-black without any teachers batting an eye. During a certain regrettable gothic stage I was able to wear thick black eyeliner, purple lipstick and a studded dog collar without raising any concern. The situation in Thailand couldn’t be any further than my experience. Your socks aren’t pulled up? Hair longer than the three-inches-past-the-earlobe rule? Fingernails too long? You could be facing the cane, (corporal punishment may be against the law but is still common practice in many schools) or a physical punishment such as carrying bricks across the school campus or cleaning. These details are scrutinised during morning assembly with too-long nails or hair immediately addressed. During my first week of teaching back in October I can remember a certain spot where there would often be a pile of hair cuttings from a rudimentary hair shearing session. At the time I thought it was rebellious girls chopping off their pony tails but I couldn’t be further from the reality of the situation.

The uniformity among the students goes beyond their appearance. Each morning they recite the same school rules along the lines of being a good student and not making any trouble. They stand to attention and repeat the words of a nominated teacher or class captain. At the beginning of each lesson the same words are repeated in Thai or English along these lines;

Class Captain: (always sat at the front, always keen, always on time) Please stand up!

*The whole class stand*

Class: Good Morning Teacher

Teacher: Good Morning everybody. How are you?

Class: I’m fine thank you, and you?

Teacher: I’m great thank you. Please sit down.

Class: Thank You Teacher.

*Everyone sits down*

This whole thing is carried out in a robotic, monotonous fashion. I’ve done away with the whole standing up thing, and prefer to simply greet the students as they walk into the room and ask a few of them “How are you?” randomly, encouraging them to NOT say ‘fine’. So many students automatically reply with “I’m fine thank you, and you?” without giving any thought to how they actually feel or understanding what they are saying. It’s just another example of how they have rote speech drilled into their brains rather than being encouraged to think for themselves. Dialogues are memorised rather than exploring the meaning of words.

One student in a school near Bangkok has had some success starting a Facebook campaign Thailand Educational Revolution Alliance calling for the end of this ‘mechanistic’ education system. He has even spoken out on TV and has had some support from politicians who claim that they are considering loosening the constraints on individuality within the Thai classroom, starting with a call to relax the rule on hair length that was made last term. Despite working in a government school, we haven’t heard a peep of this – maybe because we are so far south, or because our school management don’t want to make any changes, lest they encourage students to act out and go all crazy; who knows, they may even want to wear black socks!

Click here to watch a video on New York Times online about the Thailand Educational Revolution Alliance challenging conformity in Thai schools.