The headline of the Bangkok Post Tuesday, September 5, read, “Srettha Cabinet Sworn in.”  Finally, Thailand has a newly elected head of government, ending the nine-year reign of the military party. The new prime minister was not elected via a majority vote of the Thai people, but that’s another story altogether. I looked up the new education minister: Permpoon Chidchob, a retired police general who was appointed to the post. 

Meanwhile, it’s just another day in my neighborhood in the northwest suburb of Bangkok where a prominent international school (whose tuition rivals those of prestigious high schools in the U.S.) is situated, and children were shuffling off to school in golf carts (yes, golf carts!), private cars, or school buses. A stark contrast could be seen just outside our community gate: children going to school on their parents’ motorcycles. I also saw some of them on board a “songthaew” (literally meaning two rows), a pick-up truck with a modified back area that includes a high roof and two benches fixed along either side. Depending on the size, a songthaew can accommodate up to 20 passengers. Most run in the “soi,” or narrow roads that connect main roads.

Bumble Bee Free Library

I wonder about the children, the schools they go to, the education they receive, the quality of their lives, their future, etc. I got a glimpse of some of these children’s lives when I started my teaching journey a couple of years ago at a neighborhood library, the Bumble Bee Free Library (BBFL).

The BBFL is a community library that offers a free book-borrowing service and free weekly English language lessons. The library was founded in 2013 by Liz Lu, a Chinese-American expat living in Thailand who saw that access to English lessons was limited and that there was no free community library in her Thai neighborhood. From a few students in her first class a decade ago, the free Sunday English class now attracts 20 to 30 children per week.  I started teaching here at the beginning of 2022. By that time, the library had over 800 members. 

Students at the BBFL are Thais from the neighborhood. A majority of them come from poor economic backgrounds. Teachers are volunteers who come from the nearby expat community, as well as high school students from an international school close by. Lessons include basic vocabulary words, colors, days of the week, months of the year, and many others. I have adapted a phonics method to teach students how to spell words, along with a phonics-based program. 

Brothers Mike and Mark are among the students who have benefitted from the free English class. Photo by Vara Sumetanon.

I have taken in a few kids to privately tutor for free during the week. Brothers Mike and Mark (not their real names) are two of them. Their dad is a driver for an expat executive. He works at least 12 hours per day, including weekends, to earn enough overtime pay to support the family. The boys hardly see their father. But they adore him.

The mother doesn’t work. She dedicates her time to taking care of the boys. She sees the value of an education and the opportunity I can provide her sons. She tirelessly picks up the boys from school, drops them off at my house (where I teach), and waits patiently in the car not minding the heat inside, sometimes up to three hours. 

Over the past year, the older boy Mike, a quiet, reserved 12-year-old, has noticeably improved. He has progressed from not being able to read a sentence to being able to read a whole paragraph. He has acquired over 1,000 new vocabulary words. (I reward him with points, which can be used in exchange for gifts, meals, outings, and others.) He has learned and now understands basic sentence structure and grammar.

Looking back, I had to undo his incorrect pronunciation of words with the letter ‘l’ in it. He would mistakenly pronounce those as ‘r,’ so ‘like’ becomes ‘rike,’ ‘family’ becomes ‘famiry.’ It was hard to undo. I asked where he learned it from, and replied he got it from his school. He was taught to pronounce ‘l’ as ‘r,’ and practiced this for two years. No wonder it was so difficult to undo.

Mark, the 10-year-old jovial little brother, goes to the same school as his older brother Mike’s. He’s a natural English speaker. He always pronounces English words correctly. He took to my phonic approach with enthusiasm and applied the techniques he learned in pronouncing the words he did not know.  This year, he started taking an English class in the same school as his older brother’s, and started pronouncing the words with the letter ‘l’ like ‘r.’  I had to task him with saying sentences like, “Little lions love lollipops,” on a daily basis just to unlearn what he was taught in their school.

Teachers failing in the subjects they teach

It is infuriating to witness. I looked up some statistics. The Office of the Basic Education Commission in 2010 tested secondary school teachers on the subjects they were teaching. “The failure rates for teachers who took exams in their own subjects were about 88 percent for computer studies, 84 percent for mathematics, 86 percent in biology and 71 percent in physics,” based on this report. “And almost 95 percent of about 37,500 secondary school directors did not score a pass mark in English and technology,” it added.

Not surprisingly, in a study conducted in 2022 by Education First called the English Proficiency Index (EPI), which ranks 111 countries and regions by English skills, Thailand ranked 97th out of 111 countries studied: well behind the Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Cambodia. In the ASEAN region of 10 countries, Thailand’s EPI ranks only ahead of Laos. 

Last year, Mike took a test to attend a new secondary school. First, he registered to do a ‘pre-test’ and scored poorly. I asked if I could see the test materials used so I could help him prepare, but they weren’t available. Because of his poor results, the school offered special entrance exam tutoring sessions at 3,000 Baht (around US$85) for six subjects. It might not be much, but their family had to scrape together the money they had saved up for tuition to cover the tutoring cost. It seemed to have paid off.  He got in. 

Again, I asked to see the test materials, and again they were unavailable. I asked Mike what he thought of the test materials used in the pre-test and the real test. He said that the real test was easier than the pre-test and those covered in the tutoring session weren’t even in the real test. Could it be that the pre-test was only set up to lure parents into enrolling in the special tutoring program? As I was not able to see the test materials used in the pre-test and the real test, it would be difficult to find out the real story. The murkiness of the system troubles me.

The writer at work with one of her students. Photo by Vara Sumetanon.

Another prevalent practice exists among Thai schools. They advertise offering a special English program, where kids can have two extra hours of English lessons (supposedly taught by foreign teachers) tagged at the end of every school day. This program requires extra money, too.

Ruby, one of my students, is currently enrolled in such a program. She’s 7 years old and in second grade. She takes six extra hours of English per week (compared to less than three hours for children who are not enrolled).  Yet, Ruby cannot spell simple words, such as “they,” “are,” or “aren’t.” She memorizes vocabulary words through picture clues. Without them, she turns blank. She wasn’t taught phonics. She has over five English textbooks from school. I noticed during our tutoring sessions that she has a short attention span and seems so burnt out.

For children like Mike, Mark, and Ruby, the change in the government might not likely impact their lives, let alone their education. Thailand has had 22 education ministers in the past 23 years (2000-2023). Only two of them lasted more than two years. The new education minister just recently announced a revival of the program, “One Student, One Tablet,” launched in 2012 but failed and folded two years later. A Thai education advocate group has such little hope in the new education minister that they hope he wouldn’t add burden to Thailand’s education system. The prospect of bettering it is so grim and quite despairing. 

Yet little hope remains for little Mike, Mark, and Ruby. Mike’s mom just called me to report that he scored first in his English class. This is a young boy who could not spell the numbers 1 to 10 a year ago. He inspires me, and despite how hopeless I feel about the country’s education system, I will continue to teach and hope to have a positive impact, one student at a time.

(Correction: Liz Lu is Chinese-American, not Taiwanese-American as reported in the earlier version of the essay. The error has been corrected.)

By Vara Sumetanon

Vara Sumetanon currently lives in Thailand. She received a B.A. in English from Assumption University, Thailand before continuing her education in the U.S.A. She worked and raised a family for 15 years in Michigan, U.S.A. before moving back to her hometown in 2010. Other than spending her free time volunteering to teach English to children, she enjoys reading, traveling and spending time with her 17-year old poodle, Mushu.

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