Fulbright Stories
ETA Narrative: Margaret Totten

As I begin to write this, I’m sitting in my school’s library during the last week of this semester.My prathom 6 (6th grade) students are upstairs taking their finals silently. The birds, buzzing fans, and occasional motorbikes zooming by sound extra loud today. As I sit here, I’m reflecting on my first two months in Nakhon Si Thammarat and remembering my experiences up until now. I have learned so much these first two months. I have connected deeper with my host community, with Thai culture, and even with myself. I’ve become more observant, more flexible, and more accepting of unknowns. In this short time, I have grown attached to my school and the overall community here.However, looking back to when I first arrived, I remember that I haven’t always felt this way.


Margaret during morning assembly.

When I first arrived in Nakhon Si Thammarat in late December 2021, while excited, I was completely overwhelmed. My host teachers were very supportive, yet I was still intimidated by seemingly simple things like walking up my soi (small street) or going to the local shops. While somewhat irrational, I worried that I’d never get adjusted to this new place. After only being in Nakhon SiThammarat for a week, I went to Krabi, a popular tourist destination, with the other ETA placed in the South of Thailand. We went there to celebrate the New Year’s holiday. Those few days in Krabi gave me a break from all the newness and pressure I put on myself to get settled back in Nakhon Si Thammarat. As I walked along the pristine beaches, I did not miss my new home. Now, just two months later, as this semester is almost over and I’m getting ready for an internship in Bangkok, I realize that I'm going to deeply miss my life here in Nakhon SiThammarat. What has happened that has caused this change? I know that I’ve become better adjusted, but how? I didn’t wake up one morning and suddenly feel secure and at home- this adjustment happened over time.

During one of my first days in Nakhon Si Thammarat, my host teacher, Pi Bird, drove me around in her car to give me a tour of the city. She pointed out her favorite stores and markets, told me the names of the bigger roads and important areas, and showed me the various routes I could take in songthaews. A songthaew is a truck with seats in the back that operates similarly to a bus or taxi. I knew that songthaews would be one of my main ways to get around, so I needed to learn how to use them quickly. While Pi Bird had so kindly showed me everything I needed to use songthaews, I was still nervous to try it by myself. Several days after Pi Bird’s tour, I decided I should just give it a try. I stood at the side of the highway and waited until I saw a blue songthaew bellowing down the road. I stuck out my arm and motioned to the driver that I wanted to board. The truck did not stop or even slow down-maybe I signaled too late? Or they didn’t see me? While feeling a little defeated, a few minutes later, I saw another songthaew approaching. I took a deep breath and signaled for it -this one stopped for me! I hopped into the back and watched intently as we moved down the road that I would soon be familiar with. I noticed that as I gripped the handlebar tightly and anxiously looked for the place I would get off, the few other Thai passengers were sitting casually looking at their phones or conversing with one another. Maybe someday I would be that nonchalant when it came to riding in songthaews,but at the time, I was just happy that I made it on. When I needed to get off,I pressed the button to stop and paid the driver. Once I was safely back on the sidewalk, I cheered for myself. After a little bit of shopping and acelebratory coconut ice cream, I successfully songthaew-ed back to my apartment. Proud, I texted Pi Bird of my little accomplishment and she was happy for me too. Since this first songthaew ride, I have taken many songthaews in Nakhon Si Thammarat, some even to the next town over. Being able to use the local transportation system gave me independence and made me feel more confident that I could navigate this new place and figure out other challenges.

My online class of prathom 1 students with Valentines we made for Valentine’s day.
My prathom 6 students playing a game in my class

I officially started my role as a teacher in January. Due to Covid-19 precautions, my school was online. My first lesson was an online class with prathom 4 (4th grade)- I introduced myself and taught them about my hometown using the vocabulary they were learning. To my surprise, the class was engaged in my lesson - many of them had their cameras on, answered my questions, and repeated after me with enthusiasm. Based on my previous experiences with online education, I expected to be teaching into a void of turned-off cameras and an unresponsive audience. While my prathom 4 students were a joy in online classes, I still felt disconnected and isolated. I would sign into a class, teach for an hour, then close my laptop back to a lonely apartment. This all changed in mid-January when prathom 6 (6th grade) came back to school in person. The first morning, I stood next to Pi Bird and watched the prathom 6 students enter the school grounds. They filed through a line getting their temperatures checked and applying hand sanitizer before entering their classrooms. That first day the students were too shy to talk to me. On my second day at school, I introduced myself at the morning assembly. My voice quivered slightly as I spoke into the microphone in English and then Thai. As I walked away from the podium, a student gave me two thumbs up and said “good job!” I really appreciated that gesture from him and enjoyed getting to know this student and many others throughout the rest of the term. By the end of the first week, students began greeting me everywhere I went. I’d hear “Hello teacher!” dozens of times as I walked down a hallway. As the weeks passed by in school, I cherished building relationships with my students through lessons, conversations, and games. A few times, I even ran into students outside of school and was able to meet their siblings. Getting to know my students beyond a screen made me feel more connected and present in the overall school community.

Margaret with a group of prathom 6 students during the last week of the semester.


The prathom 6 English department at a thank-you lunch for the student teachers

I had to learn to be flexible and embrace changing plans throughout the term. Due to more students starting school in person, a holiday, or standardized testing, my schedule was revised often. In fact, one week I didn’t have any in-person classes because of the standardized tests. When I first learned this, I felt a little bit frustrated. What about the lessons I had planned? What would I do all day at school if not teach? These frustrations dissolved quickly and I ended up really enjoying that week. After all, I still got to talk to my students in the hallway, eat lunch with the prathom 6 teachers, and converse with people around school. Each day since starting school in person, I would stop by the office to refill my water bottle and chat with the women who work there. This daily small talk soon developed into me teaching my friends in the office an English word or phrase a day. As I helped them with English, they started to teach me phrases or words in Thai and help me practice too. Our mini-lessons with each other have resulted in mutual learning and laughter. One afternoon we were all wiping away tears of laughter brought on by my mispronunciation of a phrase in the Southern Thai dialect.During the week that I wasn’t teaching in person but still went to school, the conversations with my friends in the office grew longer and deeper.Additionally, I would walk around the school and pop my head into the teacher offices of different grades to say hello. If the teachers weren’t in the middle of something, many would invite me to join them for a snack and conversation.While the unexpected change in my schedule originally threw me off, I ended up better understanding the work culture here and got to spend extra time building community and exchanging language and culture.

Teachers from my school playing music during Scouts.


Students playing a clapping and teamwork game during Scouts

Gang mac!” (very good) a group of teachers exclaimed as I danced in the Thai style I had learned a few moments before. My feet hit the tile floor off-beat to the music and my wrists didn’t bend elegantly like the Thai Dance teacher’s wrists did, but I just laughed and accepted the compliments. It was late in February, and my school was having Scouts days for students in prathom 4 and prathom 5 (4th and 5th grade). Scouts is a program similar to Boyscouts or Girlscouts in the United States, but in Thailand, students learn about Scouts as part of their school curriculum. In Thailand, Scouts learn outdoor skills, leadership, history, and how to be a good person. During Scouts days, participating students and teachers wear Scouts uniforms and do special Scout activities. This sounded really interesting to me, so in the moments I was not teaching, I went to observe this unique part of Thai education. I started off just watching from the edge of the room, but before I knew it, I was participating alongside the students in some of the dancing activities and games. During the lunch break, teachers continued the dancing and music for fun. This is when I was given instruction on Thai dancing. After trying to dance my way through several songs, we switched to playing musical instruments. A few teachers taught me how to play the ching (a Thai bell). I played the ching as others played the drums, the keyboard, other percussion instruments, and sang along to different Thai songs on YouTube. I felt such a sense of joy and belonging as we all played music together.As the break ended, students came back into the room and we all danced and played more music. While I was content just to watch Scouts from the outside,being included made me feel welcome. It was an honor to learn Thai dance and music, as well as just fun to get to see teachers in this different context.I’m so thankful that people at school allow me to watch and participate indifferent activities. Their inclusion has taught me so much about Thai culture and made me feel connected to Ban Tuad Thong School.


The prathom 6 teachers and student teachers - the people I’ve spent the most time with so far!

There’s a walking bridge over the highway by my apartment - sometimes as I cross over it, I stop and stare out at this beautiful place that I’m coming to know. From up on the bridge, I can see my school, my favorite shops, the place where I catch songthaews, and an array of places I haven’t yet explored. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to live and learn here in Nakhon Si Thammarat. I’ve shared a few experiences that have helped mead just to my life here - I’ve had moments like these daily. Sometimes it’s the little things like greeting the lady at the tea stand as I pass by, or how I noticed that the dogs on my soi stopped barking at me weeks ago. Other times, it’s bigger moments- like dancing alongside teachers during Scouts, or carrying on a Thai conversation with a stranger in the back of a songthaew. While I still have difficult days and feel overwhelmed at times, this is a part of the process. Overall, I am saddened to be leaving Nakhon Si Thammarat for the rest of March and all of April. While it is sad, I’m glad to have a difficult goodbye - it’s shown me how connected I’ve gotten to this community in a short amount of time. I will return to Nakhon Si Thammarat in May for a whole new semester at my school. I’m excited to reunite with everyone I’ve met and to see the new experiences and growth this next semester will bring.

Margaret Totten is an ETA at Ban Tuad Thong School in the city of Nakhon Si Thammarat in Southern Thailand for the 2021-2022 school year.At Ban Tuad Thong school, she teaches conversational English to students in 4th to 6th grade. Outside of teaching, you can find her conversing with people at school or hopping on a songthaew to explore Nakhon Si Thammarat. Margaret graduated from Kalamazoo College in 2021 with a degree in Computer Science and Environmental Studies.