A Losing Game

It’s final exam time at Suwannaphum Wittayalai, which means the end of the year is nearly here and students who haven’t come to class all term have decided to show their faces. It also means the Thai teachers have begun work on their lesson plans for the current term (yep, a large book that tells the government what they will teach the students, or in this tardy case, what they supposedly already taught them), as well as writing student grades in the back of their beloved pink books.

As I finished computing my grades this week, three sophomore students came rushing in, followed by a teacher who handed them a pile of tests. I assumed there must be good reason for the girls to take their makeup exams in my (shared) office, but what I witnessed was a sorry excuse for anything aimed at determining a student’s knowledge.

I want my kids to fail – and you should want yours to also.”

The girls appeared to be contestants on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? But in their version, lifelines are unlimited.

They used Phone a Friend more than once – the voice on the other end promptly gave the requested answers, and they giddily jotted them down.

When the English exam reached the top of their pile, they chose to Ask the Audience. Rather, they handed me the paper and told me to do it. When I said no, they looked shocked. But the audience always produces results!

Their teacher returned from a break outside, and I thought for sure the students would stop begging. I was wrong. The girls told her what they wanted, and she handed the test to me and said, “you can, you can!” They thought she was the coolest instructor in the world.

“I will not do their test for them,” I said. “How will they learn?”

Which brings me to a blog article I recently found, titled, “I Want My Kids to Fail.” The author, a presumed member of the Rochester School District in Michigan, writes, “I want my kids to fail in the classroom. This is true education! I don’t want them to believe that success is easy, but when a child is bright enough to learn with minimal effort and is rewarded with A’s for that, they come to believe that hard work isn’t needed for success. I want them to struggle, to not always succeed on the first try – or the twentieth, to learn that asking for help is not a sign of weakness or lack of intelligence, and to see that success is often a long process…I want my kids to fail – and you should want yours to also.” Read the rest here.

Her words ring true. In Thailand, children learn early that they cannot fail, but they would be better off if they could.

Remember how I told you (in Paper Politics) if I didn’t give students a passing grade at the end of the year, I’d most likely be asked to change them? Well, curiosity struck, and I decided to test that theory.

I was too lenient with my midterm markings (because I did as I was told), so I decided for the second half to give my students a more honest representation. If they didn’t show up to class or chose not to do the day’s work, they received a zero and an absent mark. I let them know, to be fair, that this is what would happen. My threats worked on some, but others knew the truth.

When I totaled my grades (the over-generous first half numbers with the more accurate second half ones), I admit I adjusted the ones who were beyond failing and brought them up to the 50% mark (my own spin on the 50/50 lifeline). Therefore, everybody was passing, even if just barely.

But I still got those books handed back to me. Apparently, students can’t have a zero where there should be a score.

“If teachers cannot fail, why would their students be able to?”

I took the books to Mrs. Pussadee and played dumb. I knew they wanted me to change the grades, but Mrs. Supaporn, the teacher who asked me to redo them, wouldn’t tell me that. Instead, she told me she would have all the necessary students come talk to me.

Yeah, right.

Mrs. Pussadee is the only one honest brave enough to tell me the truth: “You can just change the numbers,” she said. “Give them five or ten points, whatever you want.”

Now I understand why nobody appears to care if a student gets help on a test, and why teachers wait for the end of the year to mark their grade books. As vital as they are, they don’t accurately portray anything.

The government mandates every child must pass in school. Therefore, it seems, cheating is encouraged for both students and teachers. They’re all just playing the game, and everyone is following her own rules.

I wish I could send that blog article to the Ministry of Education in Thailand, but it wouldn’t do any good. Directors and teachers cannot lose their jobs. Ever. Once a government employee, always a government employee.

If teachers cannot fail, why would their students be able to?

5 thoughts on “A Losing Game”

  1. So disappointing. I don’t think I could do what you had to do with the grades. I was hoping to teach in Thailand but after reading this post and the post describing a day in the life of a Thai student I’m not so sure.

    Hopefully the break will give you a chance to enjoy some of the positives of being there. Please keep posting. They’re great reads, if sad.

    1. I think the system is flawed, yes, but it by no means has affected my time here. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it (even the stories that sometimes shine a negative light on certain aspects) because it’s all part of embracing a foreign culture. I hope I didn’t deter you from teaching in Thailand. It really is an amazing place to live and work…this post was simply to give others a glimpse into the differences in cultures. As expected in a developing country, things aren’t quite up to par with western countries, but they’re getting there. Unfortunately, some things (the school system, for example) are much more difficult to change than others.

      I do hope you’ll consider teaching abroad. It’s a memorable and worthwhile experience!

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