John Phelps Testimonial 1, 2, and 3
It is certainly foolish to leave a good-paying job, a loyal set of friends, and a comfortable home to move across the world to a place you may very well dislike. It is like intentionally derailing the train that you are riding. I highly recommend it. I had most things that people consider to be important in life, back in Texas. (No, I did not have a horse. So just stop thinking that.) It was good to have a little niche carved out. I had progressively increased my responsibilities at my job over three and a half years. I knew how to entertain myself, run my errands, and look the right direction when crossing the street. It took over a year and a half for my wife and I to make up our minds about teaching abroad. The inertia had a strong grip. We were used to what we had... but eventually the growing curiosity and need for adventure got to us.
We picked Super English because the website looked great and we felt good about how Peter answered our questions. It was a little nerve-wracking to buy a plane ticket when we couldn't even touch the school to see if it existed. But after we got to sewing soccer balls and shoes in the factory, everything was okay. Sorry, bad joke. We got to Surat Thani and were initially unimpressed. It is dirty here, and there are a lot of strange smells. In just a few blocks' walk from our house, you will smell incense, feces, curry, trash, frying bananas, and charcoal fires. Your senses get confused. Our first day here, we made a trip to Big C (Thai version of Wal-Mart) with one of the very friendly Thai staff from Super English. Children began to follow us around the store, laughing when we turned around to look at them. “Teacher, teacher” they called us from behind shopping carts. That was when I began to like Surat.
The first few weeks of the job, I began to feel I could get a grip on the fifty-five chattering little heads and uniformed bodies in the classroom. I didn't feel completely at ease until much later, when I had found my own style as more or less Bugs Bunny meets Sergeant Pain. Victoria, our supervisor, gave me some good tips from observing my class. Other teachers shared ideas for games during chats over lunch or in the break room. Peter gave me some advice on how to get a crazy prathom 6 class in line, and things really began to work for me. A new state of being light-hearted and relaxed became the norm. I am pretty sure that is not due to switching from Starbucks to Nescafe. I ruled that out once I found a few good espresso spots in town.
The ability to throw myself into the class was really helped by other two factors. One, that the kids respond to your energy and giving you some soul income with their laughs and participation. Two, that I recently had a vacation and have another coming quickly. In the fall semester (October- February), the amount of time to relax and/or travel ensures you are well tanned and adventured. I have been here less than a year and have already had more trips to amazing places and do-nothing beach days than in the whole three and a half years in my last job. Super English is very different from most employers. You are able to experiment as a teacher or charades expert in class and find your own style. All of us sweat and work very hard, but not because of a demanding boss or strict set of quotas or policies. For my part, I think it is because I enjoy the work the harder I play at it. You can really do that here, as you have plenty of room to try new things and support when you ask for it.
Stepping out of my old life as a social worker was to leave a lot of comforts and pains behind. These have been replaced by a bright and shining new set of comforts and annoyances. However, cracking into a non-touristed town and becoming a part of it is quite a discovery. It is a strange moment when you realize that you are more yourself in a new place, than where and who you were before. You can say to yourself, “Why did I stay in that job/town/mullet haircut for so long?” Or, it may be best to celebrate. I believe it is a win over inertia.
John Phelps' Two Year Testimonial
Staying a second year in Thailand is similar to finding the warp zone in Mario Brothers. All of a sudden, you find yourself easily hopping over obstacles and getting into situations you had never before envisioned. Why did my wife and I decide to stay with Super English, in a lacklustre town with no tourist attractions? Good life. That is the answer. My life is better on every front: I have fun at my job, I have more time with my wife, and I get to travel.
I go to class every weekday, and I am greeted by class after class of fifty-five kids who are excited to see me, learn, and play together. It's amazing! For each bit of effort and creativity I put into my class, they give me back an equal measure of fun-loving energy. Lesson planning and preparing for my classes has only become easier as I have learned how to enjoy both myself and my students while pushing their mental capacity to the maximum. This second year has been much better than the first, as my classroom persona has become much easier to fall into. I feel like I am myself with my students, with only an added tendency to be goofier than normal and a razor-sharp edge of discipline. I still have days teaching that are very tough. Such days are usually those that call for me to lay off the joking around and bring down the hammer of discipline. Since my first year, I have developed the ability to switch back and forth from drill sergeant to comedian within a split second. That doesn't mean it doesn't wear me out some days. However, there is a sweet reward in being a second year teacher in the same school. I see the students I was hard on last year every day in the hallways and hear how they are doing in their English class now. The kids I drilled on to get them to do their homework, listen during class, and take notes are flourishing. A year of having good days and bad days with them, and they are still running up to me to give me high fives and ask how I am doing. Combined with my current load of one hundred sixty-five students, I have an army of fourth and fifth graders seeking me out to ambush me with some kind of cuteness attack.
Having more time with my wife is the primary reason that I came to Thailand. While there have been times that I have been very busy with evening classes and a non-stop day, there have been so many long weekends, week-long, and month-long trips with her that I did not count on having. It is as if we have had the opportunity to put many years of maturing together into two years in Thailand. Traveling together seems to accelerate relationships to either a breaking or a unifying point. The first year, Janet and I started out just seeing sights. As we stayed longer, we realized there was no point in rushing around. Travel became more about finding relaxing places to be and experience new things together. After seeing all the big spots in Thailand during the vacations of the first teaching year, we went to a few out of the way places in Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. It is unlikely that many people get to see SE Asia like that in just one year. We did some volunteer farm work outside of Chiang Rai. We stayed three days a Qui Nhon, a random fishing town in South Vietnam. We took a slow boat down the River Ou in Laos. Just finding settings that were helpful to growing together. We have also done this largely on money made in Thailand, dipping into our American money on some of the longer breaks from school in which we chose to travel heavily. Another choice we made for our second year was to move out of Super English housing. This allowed for us to have our own place to have quality time together and our own neighborhood. We have lived in two houses since, and made some good friendships with Thai neighbors. It seemed that once our Thai friends knew we would be around more than just a few more months, they made more effort to get to know us. Once some of our Thai and foreigner friends showed us around Surat Thani, we began to see what find this town really is. I began to study Muay Thai and found a trainer that really encouraged me. We have strolled through markets and found new things every time. We have driven down dirty alleys to find peaceful coffee shops and friendly florists. So many beautiful and interesting things hide under a thin layer of grime. And Janet and I have gotten to discover these things together, and we will always get to remember them.
And why have I chosen to stay with Super English for this whole time? It is the way that Super teachers create a positive, helping environment that makes me want to be a part. In our teacher's lounge, we throw around ideas and take suggestions. It is just as common for the more experienced teachers on staff to use ideas from the recently arrived as the other way around. We help each other find places to eat and see around town, we go on trips to the beaches and waterfalls together. Peter throws awesome parties to show his appreciation every so often, and people toast and laugh at each other until late into the night. This is a no “Team Building Exercise 1999” necessary type of group.
We help each other out and don't try to withhold anything in the way of games or classroom management tricks. No one is trying look any better than anyone else. There is no corporate ladder climbing or vying for promotions here. Peter and the staff that have been here over the last two years have created a culture that makes people want to help each other do well. Not a culture like in yogurt or cheese. A culture in which everyone laughs at my terrible jokes. I mean a culture in which I laugh at my own terrible jokes, and everyone laughs at me. We have fun together out of work, and being coworkers goes right along with that. This is a good place to grow as a teacher and live a good life.
One Lifetime in Two and a Half Years John Phelps' Testimonial
My grandmother had a funny habit the last six years of her life. She would sign all cards, whether for birthdays, Christmas, or St. Patrick's Day with “I love you. This is is my last Christmas/Easter/Fourth of July.” She just wanted you to know that this might really be it, so listen up. Either that or she just had a really dark sense of humor. So listen up, this is my last testimonial. My Thai life will be over by the time you get your next Easter egg. Sniffle. It is not an easy thing to leave Super English when you have put your heart into the work here. Because I was free as a teacher to teach in the way that most closely follows the pulse of my own creative soul, I ended up with signature pieces of art all around me. My last year and a half has been filled with experiments in the classroom. I've been able to try new classroom management strategies, team projects, chants, class dances, games, problem-child solutions, affirmations, etc. I have learned that teaching always takes intense effort. But I have also learned that the more you put into the students, the more you get out of them. They give their attention, and they let themselves be shaped by your efforts. You begin to see your own work taking shape in them, and it makes you pour more of yourself into it. How do you finish your last few brush strokes, put your tools down, and walk out of a studio filled with painstakingly refined works? There is the sense of accomplishment, and there is the strong pull of belonging. I want to stay in this place where my ten-year-old prathom four student can have a five minute conversation with me about Legos or martial arts. The strong pull of belonging is not just something in my brain, it is usually a actually hugging my leg, trying to keep me from leaving the classroom.
Peter gave me a very rare and valuable opportunity when he offered me this job, one lifetime ago. He has challenged me with difficult classes with adults and children of varying levels. He has asked me to resolve tricky management problems. During these challenges, he has always been available to me with some guidance, even to the point of demonstrating a technique in my own class, to be sure that I could pick it up. He has never once burdened me with paperwork or overplanning. He encourages fluidity and flexibility in the classroom. His method of keeping his teachers' performance high has always been to offer support when it's needed and help teachers come up with their own solutions to setbacks. It has always made me feel a sense of ownership in how I run my classroom and appreciation that nobody is making me fit into a pattern.
he lifestyle that Super English has allowed me has been rich. Just in the first year in this job, I had more quality vacation time with my wife (about three months, counting holidays and breaks) than in the whole three and a half years at my last job in the US. We've traveled extensively through Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia. I came back to work each time to find that I still had plenty of time every day to exercise, have time with friends, and relax with my wife. I've been able to make Thai friends, study Muay Thai, play the guitar, and explore around the city on my motorbike. When I am at work, there are several moments a day where I would rather be nowhere else. There is no teaching job I have seen in Thailand that even remotely compares to the vacation time you get with Super English. There have been time where I have had to scale back on the daily expenses to save for the vacation, but it has been pretty easily done.
I am going to miss the group of people that Super English brings together. Over my time here, many teachers have chosen keep signing up for another term or another school year, just because of the way that we all bond as we work, live, and travel together. It is no coincidence that even though some people go and other stay, the culture of helping and enjoying each other has stayed consistent. We go out of the way to help each other out because somebody did it for us. Then they help the next teacher. We have fun helping each other have fun with life. At work, if I have a classroom activity that made my students go wild and learn something, I pass it on in the teacher's lobby to everyone else. I've formed many lesson plans from five minute conversations with my coworkers. Socially, if one of us finds a new restaurant, bar, beach, or waterfall, we take each other there. Your life gets filled with all sorts of things that you want to give to the next teacher. This is has gone on for years, and there is too much momentum for it to stop.
This crowded art studio of a lifetime in Thailand looks like so many years. Years of homesickness, wanderlust, of friends coming and going, of being challenged and and growing. This time would make me feel so old from all the experience packed into each day, but strangely it has made me feel younger. Working with Thai children makes you learn to play at life. Being challenged by the job but supported by your director and group of friends makes you live with just the amount of stress that an artist has when leaning toward the canvas. That stress that comes when you ask yourself what you will create next.