Teaching at a migrant school

In July 2016, I had the opportunity to teach a daily evening English class at Knowledge Zone. The class consisted largely of Burmese migrants in Mae Sot between the ages of 15 and 30, who were keen to improve their conversation skills. At first, I was incredibly nervous. Although I have had some teaching experience in Singaporean schools, I had no idea how I would go about teaching English. I would spend ages poring over textbooks and websites, wondering how I could make lessons meaningful and engaging. It got better over time, though. I learnt to teach more confidently, largely because the students in my class were always encouraging and keen to learn. Their smiles and the warmth they showed towards me reassured me that I was not doing too badly after all.


Throughout my stint in Mae Sot, I was impressed by my students’ enthusiasm for learning. They would arrive in Knowledge Zone at 6pm, after a full day of classes at one of the migrant schools or vocational schools in the area, or after a full day at work at the hotels, restaurants, and motorcycle repair shops in the area. Some would already have attended another class at Knowledge Zone before mine. Yet, they were ever energetic; they would do the work I assigned them to the best of their abilities, and would participate enthusiastically in the activities I had planned. I thought about my own experiences in school, and how disinterested I was in comparison. In contrast, the Burmese migrants at Knowledge Zone—for whom educational opportunities do not come by easily—never take their time in class for granted.


Teaching at Knowledge Zone also gave me an acute sense of my privilege. For one, there is the fundamental irony that I was able to fly into Mae Sot for a few weeks to teach people who had never been on a plane before, and who find little opportunity back home, and are yet unwelcome in Thailand. This was thrown into sharp relief in the last week, when the country-wide immigration ‘crackdown’ swept through Mae Sot. I can only guess that that was why several students were unable to show up on my last few days in Knowledge Zone. One of the games I played with my more advanced students was called ‘I never’, in which I encouraged them to practice the present perfect tense by constructing sentences about things that they ‘had never’ done, but which their classmates would have likely experienced. One said, ‘I have never stayed in a hotel’ (though he works in one!); another said, ‘I have never had a passport’; and a third, ‘I have never gone on holiday in another country.’ The game was just one of many instances that threw the inequalities between myself and my students into sharp relief, though they never begrudged me for it.


Living in Mae Sot is certainly an interesting experience. Having been neglected by both the Thai and the Burmese state, migrants receive NGO assistance for health, education, and a variety of other things. While I taught at Knowledge Zone, I was able to loan teaching materials from The Curriculum Project, and received training from a teacher at another migrant school. There is a complex network of NGOs that has done well to provide for many aspects of migrant life. But the situation along the border is changing. As Burma opens itself up to the world economy, and as the NLD government in Burma eases into power, international donors—perceiving that Burma is now a safe and democratic country—have become less and less willing to fund organizations in Thailand that assist Burmese migrants. Yet, migrants themselves are not prepared to leave Thailand: there is considerable uncertainty about finding a job in Burma, while many migrant children have spent their entire lives in Thailand. These funding shifts therefore put thousands of migrants at risk, along with the groups that support them. Volunteering in Mae Sot made me realize how much easier it is to live in a country in which I am a citizen, and where I do not have to be uncertain about where help might come from tomorrow.


– Shona joined the English teaching program and taught at a migrant school in Mae Sot in summer 2016.

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