My favourite community in Samut Prakan Province is Ban Khun Samut Chin in Laem Fapha District. I have been going there every month since July. The village is located along the coastline of the Gulf of Thailand. Half of it is now under water due to land erosion. Many people in the community have moved their houses three or four times in the last two generations. Most people blame global warming and rising sea levels, but the destruction of the mangrove forest and the building of shrimp farms hasn’t really helped their situation much. Now the local community are frantically trying to build a sea wall and replant the mangroves. But it takes time and a lot of money. Both of which are in short supply.
The old Ban Khun Samut School is now under water. Only the concrete water tank can be seen at low tide. In 1982 the community raised money to build a new school further inland. They had the foresight to build the classrooms on stilts. But in hindsight, they maybe should have built further inland. As you can see in this picture, at high tide, the playground is covered in two feet of water. No-one guessed back then that 25 years later the sea would again be knocking on their door. The playground is flooded so often that between the tide and heavy rain it never really dries out. For morning assembly, the students have to line up outside their classroom. The head boy and girl have to get their feet wet in order to raise the flag. There is a volleyball court in the playground but they can only play for a few weeks a year.
I returned to Ban Khun Samut Chin this week with some friends to volunteer as an English teacher in their local school. The number of students enrolled at the school is fast dwindling. A few years ago the school had a total of 50 students. Many families have decided to move away from the area as they had lost their land or were fed up with keep moving and rebuilding on land that didn’t belong to them. The educational authority threatened to close the school but the community managed to persuade them to allow the school to continue. Today the school population has dwindled further to only 30 students and three teachers. They have no other staff to look after the school. The kindergarten teacher doubles as the school cook and the school principal has to then teach her class while she is absent. The primary 6 students then spend lesson 4 washing up the dirty pans and plates and doing odd jobs such as refilling water jars. There is no running water and the school has to collect their drinking water in giant jars which are open to the rain.
The school has three building on stilts. One of them is the canteen and kitchen. The other two have classrooms, school office, sick room, table tennis room etc.. Considering that they only have 30 students, they have plenty of vacant rooms. However, a couple of classrooms are closed because the wooden pillars have been eaten away by termites and are too dangerous to use. In most Thai schools in the city they would have a minimum of 45 students in one room. The first classroom we visited had a total of seven students. Four students from Primary 6. Three students from Primary 5. And one student from Primary 4! They weren’t sitting facing the blackboard at the front of the classroom. Each grade was sitting around their own television set. Their teacher is several hundred miles away in Hua Hin. Lessons there are beamed around the country to hundreds of schools like this one who don’t have enough teachers. Or who have teachers who cannot teach every subject. Each grade has their own channel. Although this may seem great in theory, there is no interaction between teacher and students.
We decided we would teach all three grades at the same time. Before we started we asked to see their English book so that we could gauge their level. We quickly realized that the books they had were far too hard for them. Hardly any of the exercises had been completed even though this was term two. I asked who marked their work. We were told that no-one was qualified to mark the books. So, we decided to start with the basics greetings (Hello, How are you?, What is your name?). Only a couple of the students were confident enough to do this. They probably knew the words but they had never used them before with a foreigner. We then did numbers (we could only get as far as 20) and parts of the body so that we could teach them the “Heads and Shoulders” song. I think they had a lot of fun as we played plenty of games and sang songs. It was supposed to be only one lesson but we stayed in that class all morning until lunch time. We were tired though fortunately not hot. There was a really lovely breeze coming off the sea outside the window. Just as well, as there were no fans in this classroom. Coming to think of it, there were also no lights!
After lunch we were then invited to teach the eight students who made up Grades 1–3. Obviously we knew by this time that whatever we did would have to be very basic. In fact, other than the ABC, I think everything we taught them was new. I had a really enjoyable day here at the school. We were made very welcome by the teachers and students. Everyone was keen to have an opportunity to speak English with us. Obviously, just one lesson wasn’t enough, but at least these kids have now met some foreigners for what was probably the first time in their life. Before we left to catch a boat to take us home, we promised the principal that we would come back next week to spend another day with the students. Although I cannot come here that often on a school day, I will make an effort to come back as many times as possible.