Inspiring Caring Leaders Across Cultures  

Dominique Callahan

Published Date : Dec 3, 2019

The Student and the Teacher: A Dance of Symbiosis!

Dominique Callahan is a 2018-2019 Fulbright ETA at Thasala School in Nakhon Si Thammarat province. Over the course of her year here, she has taught students in Anuban & Prathom 1, 3, 4, and 5 (which is equivalent to kindergarten & 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades in America). She graduated from Smith College in 2018 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Education & Child Study. During the summer of 2017, she prepared for her Fulbright by earning her TEFL/TESOL certification from a teacher training school in New York City. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. In her free time, she enjoys attending dance classes at the gym, trying new restaurants and Thai dishes, and exploring Nakhon Si Thammarat province as well as the neighboring provinces. After completing the Fulbright, Dominique will begin her new job as a researcher concentrating on English Language Learning and Assessments before enrolling in a Ph.D. program.

I can clearly remember my first day of teaching at my host school, Thasala School in Nakhon Si Thammarat province. I remember not yet having a schedule, but just being told to “go teach!” I remember spending two hours with one section of Prathom 3, not already aware that each class period is only one hour long. I was prepared to continue to teach them if they hadn’t told me that it was already time for lunch. Overall, I remember feeling unsure of my teaching methods at first, but later feeling as if I was growing into my role as a Fulbright ETA.

Before arriving to Thasala, I was warned that Thai students were typically very shy, especially when it came time to practicing English. When I first began teaching at Thasala School, I quickly noticed this trait in my own students. I nearly had to beg them to practice the conversation points of the day. I decided to reset my expectations and adjust my point of view. I, myself, have been engaged in language learning for many years, so I can understand how intimidating a foreign language can be, especially when it’s taught by someone who I haven’t gotten to know yet. I imagine it is even more overwhelming for my students, individuals who primarily use Thai in their daily lives and only have a limited number of opportunities to practice English outside of school. To combat this, I decided to adapt my approach by using relationships as a teaching tool, or teaching through relationships. I vowed to always be a source of warmth and encouragement, as I felt that a safe and supportive learning environment might allow my students to be more willing to push themselves and to take risks in my presence. From then on, in all of my interactions with my students, my primary goals were to uplift and affirm them, build their confidence, and congratulate their efforts. Their displays of courage are incredibly valuable to me, and they never go unnoticed.
As I am preparing to leave Thailand now and I am able to reflect on my contributions over the year, I believe that my most valuable accomplishment is this attention to the relationships that I have forged with my students. In fact, my favorite part about being a Fulbright ETA has always been my ability to establish a strong rapport and a solid foundation of trust with my students. I quickly learned that Thai students love to play and joke around, and I have leaned into this aspect of Thai culture. I cherish the plentiful moments when my students make me laugh so hard that I cry. The best way for me to seek out these positive interactions has been by spending my free time surrounded by my students. During my first semester, I liked to spend time with them in the library after lunch and in the office during my free periods. During my second semester, I liked to arrive to class early or stay behind a bit later just to chat and get to know them better.

I have learned that Thai people are usually very curious, especially when they have the opportunity to get to know foreigners. I don’t mind the never-ending personal questions, which include, but are not limited to, how old are you?; do you have any brothers or sisters?; do you have children already?; do you have a boyfriend already?; where do you live? I felt that sharing bits of information about myself with my students and answering all of their burning questions helped us bond and build relationships. To show the same interest in my students, I liked to ask them the same questions back to them. This also mimics the same format in which I teach the conversation points in my English classes – person #1 asks person #2 a question, person #2 answers the question and then asks the same question back to person #1. Even though I teach English, my students always feel more comfortable speaking to me in Thai, so I have developed the ability and confidence to both understand and respond to personal questions of this nature. From this, I have discovered the power of learning the language of my host country; I have become better equipped to engage with, and more importantly, form meaningful and long-lasting connections with not only my students but also my coworkers and other Thai people in my community.

Like all relationships, some of my connections with certain students are stronger than others. I have found that my students remember language more when actions or movements are coupled with the vocabulary words. For example, during my free time, I taught one of my students what it means to make a pinky promise. Now, every time we see each other at school, we put up our pinky fingers, say “pinky” and then lock our pinky fingers together while saying “pinky promise!” In another moment, I taught one of my students one instance when you would say “Sorry!” to another person – when you bump into them by accident. Somehow, we started to intentionally poke each other and say “Sorry!” after each poke. This went on for several minutes, and it’s something that the student still likes to show me that he remembers. In another moment, I was collecting my students’ assignments at the end of class, and with each paper that I collected, I repeated, “Thank you very much!” They were already familiar with the commonplace expression of gratitude, “Thank you!” so I simply built on the language that they already knew and were comfortable with. At first, they didn’t understand what “very much” meant, but I offered them the Thai translation of the complete utterance, and they understood very easily shortly thereafter. With each additional paper that I collected, I repeated, “Thank you very much!” and they liked to mimic me each time, which is beneficial as repetition increases the likelihood that students will consolidate information into their long-term memories.

Additionally, when I teach English, I have always been thoughtful about the cultural context that I exist in and I have considered cultural differences. For example, I would never want to embarrass or humiliate any of my students, or cause any of them to feel as if I have caused them to lose face in front of their peers. On top of that, I avoid overwhelming my young learners or making them feel incapable of completing the tasks. To that end, I think carefully about the language proficiency levels of each of my sections and accordingly, I give each content and activities that are appropriate and achievable. Additionally, I have paid a great deal of attention to my students and their interests, and I have taken care to incorporate the things that they like and the topics that excite them into my lessons. As a cultural ambassador, I also presented them with lessons that included information about America, American people, and American culture. Additionally, with the knowledge that the majority of the population in Thailand are Thai people, I have made sure to show my students images and representations of people of many other ethnic backgrounds, individuals who the students might never have been exposed to before here in our small town, but who I certainly have throughout my life.

Through all of this, I have been putting my double major in psychology and education and my TEFL/TESOL certification to good use to the best of my abilities. When I was at Smith College, I spent many years doing research on student-teacher relationships and understanding their ability to either boost or hinder students’ motivation and achievement in the classroom. I have been considering and applying everything that I know to my role as a Fulbright ETA, or more specifically, to adopting the best practices involved in the processes of teaching and language learning. By living and working as a foreign teacher in Thailand, I will be taking away a deep understanding and appreciation of the Thai educational system and Thai culture along with lasting memories of how I navigated these aspects of my life here.

With only one week left of teaching at Thasala School, my students will be my hardest goodbye. One indication of the legacy I have hoped to leave behind has stuck with me throughout my time here. During my first few months at Thasala School, one of my students constantly kept asking me the following series of questions: a) if I knew my predecessor, b) if I was friends with my predecessor, and c) if I knew where my predecessor was and what she was doing right now. I anticipate that after I leave here, I will leave a similar positive and indelible impression on my students, to the point where some of them will be incredibly curious about where I am and what I am doing back in America. Above all, I hope that I have left a lasting impact on my students through the connections that I formed with them and the affection that I showed them, just as I will never forget the unbridled joy and inspiration that they have given to me all year long. They will always have a special place in my heart, and for that, I am eternally grateful for this unforgettable experience.

My Mattayom students during my “practical teaching’ experience in Bangkok

Me leading a speaking activity with one section of Prathom 4 during my first month at Thasala School

One section of Prathom 3 during my first semester


Some of the girls in one section of Prathom 4 during my first semester

One section of Prathom 4 on Valentine’s Day in 2019. To celebrate the holiday, I prepared a relevant lesson and we all attached heart-shaped stickers to our clothing

Some of my Prathom 4 students stopped by the office to say hello while I was creating a lesson during my free period

Some of my EP students in June 2019. All of the students, teachers, and parents celebrated the commencement of ‘Sport Day’ by dressing up and walking in a parade through the streets of Thasala