"In Thai schools, a drill sergeant's dream of regimentation rooted in the military dictatorships of the past, discipline and enforced deference prevail. At a public school in this industrial Bangkok suburb, teachers wield bamboo canes and reprimand students for long hair, ordering it sheared on the spot. Students are inspected for dirty fingernails, colored socks, or any other violation of the school dress code."
- Excerpt from "In Thailand's Schools, Vestiges of Military Rule" by Thomas FullerLast Friday I sat in on a Friday meeting between a secondary school's student body and faculty. While I had never sat in on these meetings last semester, I assumed this weekly ritual would not be much different from the morning "meetings" I had witnessed at the primary schools: Grades One through Six students standing in six rows on the lawn, facing the teacher wearing a Scouts' uniform and holding a bamboo stick reminiscent of Ms. Trunchbull's outfit from Roald Dahl's Matilda. The teacher will usually lecture the students on the school guidelines and bring up truancies from the past week (going to the bathroom without permission, taking too long on water breaks, etc.), to which the students will reply, "Yes, Teacher! No, Teacher! Thank you, Teacher!" Once the orders are given, the meeting is adjourned and the students will march in their six neat lines off the lawn and to their morning lessons.
Friday afternoon greets me with the sight of approximately 150 secondary school students, all sitting in a dozen rows on the cement floor of the school's meeting area between the library and the principal's office. The chatter and giggles amongst the teens suddenly disappears as a male faculty member enters the area in full-military uniform: green camouflage pants-and-shirt combo with shiny black lace-up boots, all accompanied by a metal rod in the teacher's left hand and a pair of scissors in his right hand. "Good afternoon, Mr. Trunchbull," I think to myself.
As predicted, the Friday afternoon announcements follow suit with student-teacher meetings past:
"Are sixth-grade girls allowed to wear blue bows to school?"
"Do you have to wear your motorcycle helmets to and from school?"
After lecturing the students about which of the three school uniforms corresponded with which days of the schoolweek, Mr. Trunchbull talks about the school's hair regulations and uses students as props to show the appropriate length for sixth-grade bob cuts and ninth-grade ponytails. When Mr. Trunchbull discusses hair regulations for male students, he requests a volunteer from the audience to come to the front of the meeting hall. Since nobody comes up, Mr. Trunchbull points his scissors at a Grade 9 student sitting in the back and says in accented English, "Come here, please!" As soon as a skinny 14-year-old Thai boy quickly walks to the front of the room, Mr. Trunchbull has the "volunteer" model for his classmates by facing forward, to the sides, and backwards.
"Is his hair too long?"
"Um... no, teacher?"
"Speak louder students, IS HIS HAIR TOO LONG?" *motions at the back of the student's neck*
As if the students said the magic words, this second reply prompts Mr. Trunchbull to set aside the metal rod and place his left hand on the ninth grader's head. Once the student bends his head forward, Mr. Trunchbull starts snipping away at the back of the student's head, with pieces of black hair falling to the cement. As my mind takes in what is happening, I think back to a lesson from Pre-Service Training last February: if you see a school faculty member do something unsettling, control your reaction by touching the roof of your mouth with your tongue. 30 seconds of keeping my jaw from dropping passed, and the teacher excused the student by saying, "Sit down, please." The student obediently thanks Mr. Trunchbull and quickly walks back to his seat, with his new patches of baldness visible to the 100+ sets of eyes in the meeting hall.
Later that afternoon, I spoke with one of my co-teachers about the impromptu haircut at the meeting and asked for her input on the Thai school system. While she agrees that the Thai school system's discipline practices should be re-evaluated and students' potential should not be limited to a militarized mold, she reminds me that we are serving students in a rural area of Northern Thailand. Although some of Bangkok's students are petitioning for broader freedoms of expression in the classroom, potential in the major cities has yet to change the minds of headmasters and teachers whose backgrounds are rooted from the principles of respecting elders and upholding the law.
As someone who eats lunch with such teachers every week, I respect their work. However, as someone who has gotten to know much of the student body these past fifteen months, I see potential that has yet to be met with opportunity. I do not know how or when, but I hope to show the local schools how students can serve alongside their superiors rather than under them.