Respect in the Thai Classroom

A girl demonstrates how to "wai" in Thailand. Larry Oien via Flickr.com CC BY 2.0

Written by  December 5, 2017

Four unique customs that teachers will encounter in Thailand. 

Teachers are respected all over the world. In Thailand, there’s an evident level of respect present in every aspect of the school day. Value is placed on learning and education here.

Native English-speaking teachers are especially held in the highest regard (besides monks, of course). Whenever I have a conversation with a local, they assume I’m in Thailand on vacation. When I tell them I’m a khru (teacher) their face instantly brightens—they’re always eager to hear more about where I’m teaching and how I’ve been engaging with my students. 

Although I’ve only been teaching in Thailand for a short time, I want to highlight some of the many ways in which teachers are respected, both in and out of the classroom.

The wai

For anyone who has travelled to Thailand, I’m sure you understand the importance of the “wai.” In its simplest terms, the wai is a greeting. When you wai, you’re also showing respect to colleagues, elders and monks.

To wai, with hands pressed together in prayer, you bring your thumbs to various points of your body—depending on who you’re greeting—and bow. Your thumbs are pressed between your eyebrows to wai to a monk; your thumbs touch the tip of your nose to wai to an elder or a superior; your thumbs touch the tip of your chin if when you wai to someone the same age or social status.

My students are expected to wai to me whenever they see me in the hallway. They also begin and end every class with a wai, along with “good morning, teacher Addie” or “thank you, teacher Addie.” In return, I wai them back. I also wai to my colleagues.

I think it’s a beautifully humble way to show respect to everyone I encounter, and it lets me know that I’m respected in return.  

Shoe removal

In Thai culture, it’s considered disrespectful to wear your shoes inside a home, a business, a temple, and even a classroom. This is because they believe the feet are the furthest removed physically and spiritually from the most sacred part of the body: the top of the head. In other words, feet are dirty, but shoes are dirtier—that’s why they’re taken off before stepping inside a home, a classroom or a place of worship.

The feet are the furthest removed physically and spiritually from the most sacred part of the body: the top of the head. In other words, feet are dirty, but shoes are dirtier. 

Every classroom in my school is equipped with shelves outside the door, where rows and rows of shoes are lined up for the day. In the classroom, students and teachers will be barefoot or will be wearing socks, but when they’re walking between buildings, to lunch, or out to play on the playground, they’ll wear shoes.

From a Western perspective, this fascinates me. I love how everyone follows this diligently and takes the time to make sure everyone respects this rule.  

Prayer

I’m not sure if this is common in other Thai schools, but at my school, all the students say a short prayer before eating their mid-morning snack and afternoon lunch. Even though I can’t translate every word they say in Thai, I know they give thanks for the food they’re about to eat. They also wish for all the students and teachers to be happy and full. The prayer is less of a religious observance, and more of a generally thankful attitude towards what we are given.

Every afternoon before lunch, a bell will ring. Students and teachers stop and bring their hands together in meditation. A student then leads everyone in a unified prayer. I enjoy spending time—even if it’s only for a minute— to step back, take a breath, and give thanks for the delicious meal before me, especially because it’s prepared fresh from our school’s farm and garden.

Dish cleaning

After lunch, all the students and teachers are expected to wash their dirty dishes and silverware. There are multiple stations set up in the back of the kitchen, where everyone will scrape any leftover food into a bin, wash their dishes and silverware, and leave them on a rack to dry. 

The responsibility to clean dirty dishes doesn’t fall on one person—it falls on everyone. This level of discipline breeds a sense of community and reminds us that we are all responsible for our own tasks. With the Buddhist philosophy in mind, the students realize that lunch isn’t a right, it’s a privilege.

At the end of the day

In a Thai classroom, I strive to adopt the cultural respect that is shown to me every day. While I’m the teacher and they are the students, these are the times when I feel they are my equals. We are all just human beings living our lives, but these small acts help to ground us and teach us the importance of respect.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Addie Weller

Addie Weller is a native Mainer who left the corporate world behind to pursue a meaningful life of teaching and travelling. When she’s not in the classroom, you can find her with a book in her lap, a journal in her hand, or a yoga mat at her feet. Having lived in the United States, Spain, and China, Addie is happy to call Korat, Thailand her new home.

Website: www.addieweller.com/

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