Published Date : Feb 24, 2020
Learning to Lean on People: Group and Individual Processing
Camilla Fuller is a 2019-2020 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at Sansai Wittayakom School in Chiang Mai province. She teaches Mathayom 1, 4, 5, 6 along with a few teachers. Camilla graduated from Colorado College in 2019 with degrees in Sociology and Education. After having lived abroad as a kid, followed by meaningful host family exchanges in high school and college, Camilla was ready to be back immersed in a new culture and new food wisdom. She believes strongly that in order to be a good educator, one must feel inspired by the place she is in. Camilla feels extremely fortunate to feel this way living in Thailand. She is committed to helping students feel heard, important and empowered through her teaching and continues to experiment with new lessons that can make this dream possible. After the Fulbright program, Camilla plans to move back to the United States, work in the food industry then get her Masters in Teaching.
The goods and bads of self reflection
I cannot begin to count the number of hours I have spent at my desk at school, staring off into space with a stress haze hanging over me. How can I be my best teacher? Am I being my best self in Thailand? And, how much of my energy should I even be giving to these thoughts?
I love being on exchange and I love education. These two facts in combination set me up for success in my Fulbright placement most of the time, but these same two facts are also exactly why this year has hard elements.
Thailand is a group thing
My love for exchange digs me into a hole of sorts. I am quite good at being present. Call me a great Buddhist, but it is truly something that comes very naturally to me. This trait is wonderful for the relationships with the Thai people I interact with on a daily basis, because it means that Sansai feels more like home. But, this trait also means I struggle giving love to people who are not physically here. This matters greatly because this year is not just an immersion program, it is also about learning how to fully process a place. This meant accepting that this processing cannot be separated from ALL the people involved in the process, so, I had to learn how to function in a cohort.
This functioning was not a natural thing for me. Since I spent my middle school life living in Vietnam, travelled extensively through South East Asia, and have completed an intense study abroad experience in Nepal, I came to Fulbright thinking I did not really need a cohort for support. Don’t read this the wrong way! I was extremely excited to get to know my fellow Fulbrighters and was pumped to share this experience, but I was also confident in my ability to process my experience on my own. Then, BAM! Groupchat! Bam! Snapgroup! Wowzers TPC emails. Hello! Individual messages! Facebook groups, Insta stories, texts, Whatsapp… you get the picture. Information was constant, check-ins were expected, affirmation was sought and wholeheartedly received, support was immediate, always. And in all this love, so much of the time, I just felt stress. I never wanted to fall behind, worried I would miss someone who needed my support. I also was intrigued by our different province lives, though, ever weary of the social media filters.
A few weeks into province I took a long hard look at the group processing stress I was experiencing. I knew a few things: A) People care about me. B) People care about their placements C) People want to share these things with the whole group. D) Thailand is very different depending on your placement.
I realized that my stress was stemming from the part of myself that wanted to “figure this place out alone.” I didn’t want the support because it felt like cheating in some way. This meant that the support I was giving to others was less a true manifestation of my care and more the feeling like I needed to uphold my role in the group as a “support person.”
Sick of all these silly individual versus social levels, I gave myself a big shake and started looking at it in a new way. Importantly, “figuring this place out alone” is perhaps the least Thai way to be thinking through living in Thailand. The Thai people I am with are constantly communicating (whether that is via social media, Line or over a physical meal), and they think being alone is silly and boring! What’s more, every message I see from someone in the cohort expands my definition of what living in Thailand means, and for this I am so grateful. Plus, we are learning this place together and that is humbling. We are silly and make mistakes but also are learning how to stick up for important things too. I have felt challenged on what it means to be real with others and what it means to be real with myself. Memories of this year are multifaceted and existing in many spheres, group chats and photos. Thailand is not just the things I see and do in Sansai. Now, I breathe much more easily into the space of group processing. Cohort vibes can still be overwhelming but they evolve to paint a beautifully hectic picture of life here and I truly cannot imagine what life would be like without it.
Camilla, come back down to earth. Teaching happens down here
My love for education comes from the courses at my innovative liberal art school where I was fed loads of education theory and ideas for achieving student empowerment. For this I am grateful, but it also means that it is extremely difficult to not spend all my time thinking in abstract circles about how my lesson could have gone a little bit better. Or, thinking about what scaffolding needs to be done so that my students can CHANGE THE WORLD! Because I am so often existing in my abstract headspace, it usually does not occur to me at all that there are 14 other extremely talented humans, in similar teaching contexts in my cohort. These are the people who could so easily help me come back down, put pen to paper, get teaching, and get on to other things, such as self care.
Usually it is a phone call that saves me.
“Hey Camilla what’s up? How are you doing?”
“Oh uh you know great-busy- thinking a lot”
“Do you want to talk about it? Like what have you been thinking about?”
<reader, kindly insert any imaginable paragraph of Camilla trying to explain where her dream lesson plan is at>
“Wow! That’s awesome but have you tried this really simple thing that worked great in my class?”
“Oh, no I haven’t that’s fantastic! Why did I not call you sooner?”
And this happens All. The. Time.
It’s like I want creative ownership of my lessons; like somehow my mind’s loops and circles that I spend with the lesson feel necessary to the success of the lesson.
Sometimes this is actually true. I have noticed when I put my heart into a lesson it usually works really well, but it is also true that for about an eighth of a time, simply talking to another person in the cohort guides me to success as well.
One call specifically stands out. I had just gotten home from a particularly crazy Monday. The kind of Monday where students are dead set on the weekend continuing into the class period. I got home to my little studio apartment, put my bags down and changed into athletic clothes. It was time to clear my head. I walked out the door, tiptoed past my local crazy dog (he was luckily asleep this time), and strategically and carefully crossed the hectic road that separates me from the wonderful oasis that is Maejo University where I go to exercise. Running past the students in uniform working on their field projects and past the concrete water buffalo statues, I kept waiting for my head to find clarity but it wasn’t coming. Then, my friend called! We exchanged stories of the Monday crazies and then they asked me very directly what I needed help with. Together we devised a plan, combining our experiences, successes and new knowledge of Thai schools. The next day I headed into the classroom with a class motivator that focused the students using rhythm. We then launched into an awesome lesson on “thankful letters” which let the students be personal and independent. Yes, it meant giving up creative ownership of my lesson but the energy of the well executed lesson kept me down on earth, and was actually what allowed me to fully engage with my students.
Maybe I’m just extremely lucky to be in a cohort with such considerate people but it also seems like something about the ETA program helps us learn how to ask the right questions, in direct, efficient and helpful ways. There’s an acknowledgment that we are allies for each other whether we like it or not and it’s so special to be part of this type of learning experience.
So, I’m trying to remember this. Just like how I am trying to be more gentle in expanding what it means to process a place, I am trying to be more gentle asking for help and recognizing the power in collaboration. Thailand, thank you for loving me, cohort, thank you for grounding me.