I have now attended countless assemblies in the seven weeks that I have been working at this school in Bangkok, and according to coworkers, this first semester is the semester when we do not have many assemblies! I cannot imagine what the second semester will be like. I have gotten the distinct impression that school to Thai people is important first and foremost for cultural reasons, then for social reasons, and finally for educational advancement. This is not to say that education is not greatly valued. It is, but the students here are educated outside of school, as well as during school hours. The majority have private tutors, so students do not fall behind when their school day is “interrupted” by ceremonies and other gatherings. I put quotation marks because as a teacher who is used to pacing guides, assemblies often are just interruptions, big chunks of time that take away from teaching and learning. Here, however, I have to remember that the purpose of school is primarily to perpetuate Thai traditions and cultural norms. Needless to say, I very lightly write my lesson plans on my calendar in pencil.
The International Program (IP) has its own assemblies every other week, and the whole school (Thai program and IP) has joint assemblies every other Wednesday morning. I should not have said “every other week” or “every other Wednesday”, because there actually seems to be no regularity, but that’s an average. We have also had an awards assembly and an assembly to honor teachers — plus the multiple all-school rehearsals for these major ones. Yes, the entire school must attend the rehearsals, which means that they sit for two hours in a huge auditorium, doing absolutely nothing (during our precious teaching time!). Let me tell you, these kids are really good at sitting and doing nothing for hours on end. But I have to say that it is pretty remarkable to see 3,000 children sit quietly (well, not loudly) for so long. And I ask for some praise for sitting through these rehearsals and assemblies myself, because they are 100% in Thai, very very air-conditioned (I’m bringing a scarf next time), and incense-filled (I’m allergic).
The awards assembly that I attended honored 4th-6th graders who earned a GPA that was 3.75 or higher, around 300 students. First, we stood and sang the national anthem (I can hum it now!) and recited a 5-minute long Buddhist prayer. Then we bowed to the principal, and an MC explained the importance of getting the awards, etc. Really I have no idea, but I can infer, and I had translators at my service (i.e. my grade 6 students). Then the procession began. Three hundred kids were called by name to accept their awards. But it wasn’t like high school graduation, when we just shook a few people’s hands and accepted our diplomas. Instead, each student gave five bows and followed a very specific choreography. It was clear why they needed to rehearse:
1. Bow to Thai flag with hands at side.
2. Bow to Buddha with hands together at forehead.
3. Bow to King (curtsey if female).
4. Walk toward principal to accept award.
5. Get on knees.
6. Accept award.
8. Walk away backwards.
9. Wait until next kid is ready to walk backwards.
10. Turn to walk down the stairs and back to seat.
The students looked very proud to receive their awards. By the end, several audience members had fallen asleep, and I had caught a cold, but what is important is that a school tradition, seeped in Thai culture, was experienced by all.
Every Thursday is a national day to honor teachers. This is not acknowledged but for one arbitrary Thursday each school year, when there is a big assembly. Of course, the students rehearsed sitting still, and others rehearsed the process of presenting flowers to the teachers. All the teachers (probably around 100 of us) sat on the stage, while our 3,000 students sat unaccompanied in the auditorium. Over a period of about two hours, we sang the anthem and recited the prayer, and watched students walk on their knees (forwards toward where they placed flowers, then backwards away), all the while listening to some beautiful traditional Thai music played by high school band students. Only a couple of people spoke; it was mainly kids crawling on the floor. This event, called Wai Kru, is all about honoring teachers in a very formal way. In day-to-day practice, students are very formal in greeting teachers (with a proper wai) at the beginning and end of class periods. Some kids are always sure to bow to teachers as they pass by in the hallways, and most are very apologetic when they bump into a teacher by accident (lots of bowing). However, I feel that the majority of students are not particularly respectful of teachers when they are outside of class. My hello’s and smiles are completely ignored more often than not. Perhaps it’s this student body (very wealthy, upper class, some might say spoiled), or perhaps all of them feel that all the formal recognition for teachers should be good enough!