Tag Archives: Koh Tao

Goodbye Koh Tao!

This morning as I look around my room, all traces of my existence in this space are packed away tidily into airtight and compact bags. Even the Bukowski quote that I put on my mirror is now gone and placed into my personal diary. That quote kept me persevering despite the many challenges of Koh Tao School.

“dismiss perfection as an ache of the
but do not give in to the mass modesty of
easy imperfection.

and remember
the belly of the whale is laden with
great men.”

-“Advice for some young man in the year 2064 A.D.” by Charles Bukowski

I have made a long list of all the people and students I will miss from Koh Tao. I have either had dinner with or said goodbye to each person. Also, I have never lived on an island before, but the ocean and the stars at night will be sorely missed as well. Last night, I just laid on the beach looking at the moon and clouds wishing there was a way to take that form of grandeur back to Nashville with me.

Looking forward, I have some visa business to settle on the big island, Koh Samui today and tomorrow. I am staying with a friend who is a teacher as well. Her name is Lynn and she has taught in Thailand for over 3 years now. On Saturday, I will fly to Bangkok and take a bus to my next teaching location- Sing Buri. In a total contrast to Koh Tao, Sing Buri is a mountainous region that hardly any Westerners visit.

Despite the excitement of new adventures, I am sad to leave the connections and way of life that I began here. These children and their sweetness will always be remembered before any of the challenges that arose. To all my new found friends, do stay in touch.  I have had some great conversations with many Thai people despite our language barrier. In fact, I was thinking yesterday- I have more Thai friends than other farang (foreigner) volunteer friends. Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago that I was wondering how to adapt? Here’s to Koh Tao and all that it gave me- friends, family, sea, and stars. All various forms of vast beauty in this crazy thing we call life. I am forever grateful.

The Sunset on Sairee Beach

It’s All About Literacy

This week, the whole experience of teaching changed with the change of volunteers. Gregg and Nikki are a great pair of volunteers for me. We work well together. Every night before school, we plan, prepare props, and put together a coherent plan of what we are going to do in class the next day. The unused second bed in my room is used to store all the supplies that we brought here ourselves or picked off from the old supplies.

My tutoring sessions have revealed a whole new layer in the conundrum of language acquisition and culture on the island. I get a closer look at the student’s abilities, their family, and myself as a teacher. With the exception of two students, all of my tutoring students cannot read English. When asked to recognize a word to symbol, the ones they have memorized in shape will stand out. However, generally, the problem comes down to the fact that they do not know how to read. I’m hoping that I might be able to switch from having them memorize English phrases to memorizing phonetics. If they can learn to read, everything else about the language will click better. Rome was not built in a day, but I do intend to at least put forth a valid effort in bringing the students up to check in reading.

Another benefit of tutoring is the time I spend getting to know their families. Word seems to be passing around Koh Tao that I am willing to do free private tutoring. When I go to a new place for dinner, someone will ask me if I’m that teacher from the school. Also, other needs in the community are brought to my attention. A massage therapist located opposite the spot where I tutor on Saturdays asked me to help him translate some terminology about reflexology to English.

Saturday was my perfect day in Koh Tao. I spent the morning tutoring the kids, hung out with the kids while swimming for a few hours, talked with P’Jin and split fruit all afternoon, and ran off to my last tutoring session of the day with Zoe and her brother, Lucas.

Zoe, Lucas, and their mother, Sandrine, are pretty interesting to watch in action. After my tutoring session with the kids, I ate dinner with their family. I watched as Sandrine spoke in French to her children, asked me questions in English, and ordered from the server in Thai. In addition to French, English, and Thai, she speaks Italian and German. I think it is absolutely crazy that she can just flip the switch in her brain that quickly from language to language.

With Monday through Saturday filled with lesson planning, tutoring, and school, the only day I have completely off from all things teaching related is Sunday. Today, I went to Chalok Beach with Gregg to swim and relax. I’m finding that even workaholics need a day of rest. That said, I would rather have the well earned rest after a busy week than spend my time being bored on the beach. This week restored my faith in my cause here in Koh Tao. The families have really welcomed me to Koh Tao and their children are a gift to teach. I’m so excited about my last month here. On the 27th of August, I will go to Koh Samui to finish a visa extension and then I will be on a flight to Bangkok. From Bangkok, a bus will take me to my next English teaching camp in Singburi, just two hours outside of Bangkok. From the beach to the mountains, I’m thrilled to serve through teaching English!

Note: I would post more pictures, but the internet connection is being really slow right now... 🙁 Sorry Friends.


Teacher or Student?


The past couple of days have been an interesting exploration in the school for me. We have come to the conclusion that there are very few resources for us to use. As a result, instead of copying or using the school’s paper, I use my own personal funds to pay for paper or write out copies of the worksheets. By cutting the sheets into eighths, we are able to supply our total 80 students with one worksheet a piece with just 10 sheets of paper. More often than not, they end up not valuing the effort (i.e. it ends up on the floor or in a waste basket), but at least they had the opportunity for a written exercise.

Currently, there are three volunteers. Fatemah, Alie, and I have been working with the children the past week. We have decided the best way to keep the children’s attention span is to split the hour-long class three ways, in short-form 20/20/20. This 20/20/20 structure allows us to give them a positive incentive, normally a game or drawing, last. Generally, the structure ends up being composed of three things:

1st 20 minutes: Drills (Using vocabulary, songs, and chants, we have the children repeat what we say orally)

2nd 20 minutes: Written exercise (Using the new vocabulary and reviewing the old, the children write down what is on the board. When they finish, they are allowed to move on to the game or creative project for the day)

3rd 20 minutes: Game or drawing/coloring project utilizing the new vocabulary

What’s even more successful to regain classroom control is if we can split the class into groups. Instead of being 3 teachers to 20-25 students, one teacher to 6-8 students is easier to work with. Today, we rotated the students between the three teachers. Tomorrow, we are going to see if one teacher can rotate the group through all three activities. Sadly, Fatemah and Alie are both leaving Koh Tao this weekend. I have heard from one of the in-country coordinators here that a new volunteer should be here Monday. Without the new volunteer, I am scared that I won’t be able to both teach and control the class at the same time. The true test of my effectiveness and how much respect I have earned with the children happens the minute I become a solo teacher.

Also, I will check back with P’Jin about the tutoring schedule at the end of the week. I’m hoping that I have a full tutoring list. I am really excited to see what I can help them learn in a smaller situation. All for the hopes of bridging the gap between the students who have potential to be challenged further and the students who really need the outside help.

Outside of school, I enjoy the culinary experience. Absolutely positively awesome. Last night, three of us went to a Chinese hot pot restaurant. I have never in my life seen anything like this. In some ways, it could be compared to French fondue or Japanese shabu shabu, but basically, you make your own food. I will put pictures up of the food soon. I’m also learning that my immune system is not sure about Thai pathogens. I have been sick a number of times in the past 3 weeks and I continue to have iffy, sometimes nauseated moments. Here’s to hoping that goes away soon!

Overall, I’m truly enjoying the new challenge of teaching in this setting and exploring Thai culture. Somehow, the most applicable advice comes from the Thai motto- Mai Pen Rai (pronunciation: My Pen Rye). Basically, this translates to “don’t worry about it”.  Plans and structure aren’t everything to the Thai. I go into every class having a plan, just like I go into my life. The reality is that one must adapt to whatever the situation at hand might be. In the classroom, that might mean modifying an original structure to the current situation of caffeinated and sugared up children. In life, that might mean adjusting your view of reality. An example of this would be last week when a centipede bit me on my way back to the guesthouse. Looking back on it, it’s kind of hilarious because a random, kind Thai gentleman went to his backyard, ground up a leaf, and pressed it into my calf. His generosity became my saving grace that night. Ultimately, between “mai pen rai” and the Thai principle of saving face with patience, switching roles to teacher, as opposed to the student, will probably teach me more than I have learned ever before.

All the Small Things

I’m finding that so much of what I miss in telling the story of the culture and people of Koh Tao is in the small things. There are a couple specific things having nothing to do with what happened today or yesterday that are so fascinating to me.

Kingfisher image
The kingfisher is honored all over the island through various images posted in public locations. Every shop has a kingfisher in a cage nearby. Also, there is a field close to the center of town where locals bring their kingfishers for a kind of contest. I have asked a few people what the meaning or goal behind the contest is, but no one has given me a conclusive answer. I did some research into the Thai cultural perception of the kingfisher. It seems that the kingfisher stole fire from the gods and gave it to the people of the Andaman Sea region. According to one website, the translation of the myth is as follows: “The kingfisher stole the fire and ran away with it. He made a fire and cooked some fish. When he had filled his belly, he went to sleep. The dove then stole the fire from the kingfisher and ran away. The implication is that it was the last of the thieves who gave the fire to the ancestors of the Andamanese.”


The generosity of the Thai people amazes me more daily. At first, they did not know how a farang would get along with them. “Farang” is a word used to describe mainly peoples of European descent, but they also call me a farang because I am a Westerner. Each day I spend here, people warm up more to me. Slowly, they learn to really like my company. For example, there is a young lady who I buy breakfast from every morning. Friday, she knew that I would come the next morning and informed me that she is going back to the mainland for the day. She was trying to look out for me and let me know to get breakfast somewhere else.
Also, a woman that works at the Koh Tao Info Shop here is very kind to me. The Koh Tao Info Shop runs the guesthouse and sometimes I sit with her to talk. She teaches me a bit of Thai, I help her practice her English, and she gives me drinks and snacks in a kind, sweet gesture. I have learned that she reads several Thai romance novels between customers. I asked if she wants to marry or be in love. We share a cultural similarity that Thai women want to be fair just as Indian women want to be fair too. Through her eyes, I learn more about what it is like to be a Thai woman.
The many languages heard on the island
Through trial and error I have learned that if I try to speak whatever language another person speaks, they are more likely to attempt English as well. No one wants to sound childish in someone else’s tongue and be seen as stupid for it. On this island, there are so many people from so many different countries. Walking down Sairee Beach one night, I might hear a group of Italians, French, German, and Thai. I took French in high school and college; so, I try my hand at conversing with the French speakers. Because I tried to practice my French with Fabienne, she would practice her English with me. The exchange enriches both of our lives. Having all these other cultures here makes this experience more multifaceted than I expected.


As an update on my teaching progress, I talked to Tara’s parents, P’Jin and Kevin. They are happy to ask their friends to sign up students for 30 minute sessions with me once a week. In the classroom, things just get so unruly without a Thai teacher and so many kids are at so many varying levels of knowledge that I feel the tutoring will really bridge the gap. My schedule for now will be with just seven students beginning on the 27th of August, but if the demand for tutoring sessions becomes higher, I will open up more sessions on the weekends. Tuesdays and Thursdays, I will tutor for an hour after school. Saturdays, I will tutor for an hour an a half. I’m really excited to make headway on something that I came up with myself in addition to the classes. I came here for these children and I don’t mind the extra effort to  help them. This idea that in the small things the difference for change is really made sinks in more daily.

School Days and Mountain-Top Experiences

The weekend brought some interesting adventures, mainly in my own brain. I spent much of the time writing, reading, and researching possible lesson plans for the children. I was excited to begin teaching on Monday, only to go to the school and find out that it was another school holiday!

I went out to a local coffee shop, Cappuccino, and a photography store, Tao Technologies, to talk to some parents about possibly private tutoring their children in English. Since I have time on weekday evenings and weekends, I am looking to find more time with the children.

School begins at 8:30, but I only teach 3 hours a day Monday through Friday. The average school day for me goes like this:

9:30 Get to school and make preparations for the lesson (copies/worksheets)
10:30 Grade 1
11:30 Lunch
12:30 Grade 3
1:30 Grade 2

Often, teaching in this setting is hard because we don’t have real control over the class. With no translator or local teacher in the classroom, the children are less likely to listen. Nevertheless, we find games and demonstrations that get them interested. For example, on Tuesday, in the classes we played “one of these things is not like the other”. I would draw shapes on the board and ask the children tell me in English which shape is which and which did not belong in the grouping. Afterwards, we did worksheets asking them to identify the number of animals in a drawing and then write the answers in English. If they finished that, we would take them outside to play Duck, Duck, Goose or toss the ball. During the ball games, we ask them to say things like their favorite food, favorite color, or count when the ball is thrown to them.

The most entertaining thing that happened on Tuesday was tug-of-war using my body. Once we got back to the classroom, a few of the kids decided them wanted to hug me all at once. That hug turned into 5 children pulling on my left arm and 5 children pulling on my right. My torso turned into a flag. Haha!

On Wednesday, we didn’t have class again because of school-wide exams. I was going to go to another part of the island with my friend Fabienne. Mango Bay was our destination, but it was too far to walk. Ultimately, we rented a scooter, but the mountains on the island were a little too precarious for my liking. Climbing at an 80 degree angle, the scooter was just not going to make it with two people. I hopped off and walked all the way back to my apartment, then passed out for three hours from exhaustion. Mountain-top experiences? Oh yes, I’ve had them!

First Impressions


With almost a week behind me since I left home, there is so much to write about I don’t think I could cover it all.

When I arrived in Koh Tao, there were a number of expectations I had due to an agreement with the company I am volunteering with here. Many of these expectations were not fulfilled due to various situations. I am making the best of it. Fatima, another volunteer, has been the main reason that I have gotten some sense of an orientation with the town and school.

There are so many wonderful little things about Koh Tao that I have discovered. First off, the people here are incredibly kind, generous, and friendly. From the time that I arrived at the airport hotel, people were always curious about why I was traveling alone. I have answered honestly and told them I am going to work with the children of the Koh Tao School.

Here begins the contradiction. The Koh Tao School is a part of the local culture which is a direct opposite of the Western tourists here on the island. While there are a limited number of transports to the island per day, there are almost an equal number of tourists to the local population. The locals live in very basic living conditions while the tourists live in luxury. For example, I arrived after a four day water shortage and electricity had been off for two days. The children of the Koh Tao School hardly have resources for themselves- i.e. pencils, notebooks, and socks with no holes. These children are still incredibly happy and curious about all that their Western volunteer teachers have to offer. Many times, some of the tourists will walk in to the school and ask to help teach. Nevertheless, one half of the island struggles to meet basic needs while the other goes out to party perpetually. Every night, one can see the difference between the living conditions of the locals in cottages, villas, and sometimes in their own stores. Home and store becomes one. Meanwhile, the tourists are out on the beach, at bars, drinking, dancing, and partying.

A cohesive curriculum for teaching English at the school is nonexistent. Because we are teaching primary school, years 1-3, keeping the students’ attention is of utmost importance. Each volunteer from the gap year companies makes his or her own lesson plans and tries to teach using games. Mainly because of the language barrier, we are unable to really command the classroom in a way that would allow for us to teach rigidly to a plan. Volunteer teachers come and go, thus many times lessons are repeated sheerly because they were successful last time and somehow never remembered.

Despite all the obstacles, there are bits of beauty and kindness everyday. Every night, the volunteers go out for dinner together and watch the fire dancers on the beach. Below, I have included several pictures because I’m not sure there is a way to capture the beauty of this sport.


Another beautiful aspect of the Thai culture as expressed in the Mother’s Day Festival today is respect. Sunday is Her Majesty Queen Sirikit’s birthday and it is also celebrated as Mother’s Day in Thailand. Since it is on a weekend, the school celebrated today. With everything from music, dancing, and ceremony, it was the expression of how seriously the Thai view respect for one’s elders and parents. At one point, children that have no mother came up to sing. It was quite moving as some of the teachers cried alongside those students.

These are a few of the younger students dressed in traditional Thai dancing costumes. A few of the grades presented dances. These little girls were among the cutest! I wondered how those heavy earrings stayed on their ears sometimes.

Following the festivities, each child takes his or her mother on the stage, gives them a chain made of jasmine, and then bows to them. This is a picture of one of the teachers, Eve, and her daughter, Nam King. Nam King is bowing to her mother in respect and love.

Also, the food is killer. For lunch, I had a healthy papaya hot and sour salad- shredded papaya with lime juice, carrots, and beans. Every fruit juice stand and pancake stand is fantastic too. The pancake stands make these delectable crepes. My favorite so far is banana and nutella. They spread the crepe, slice bananas, spread nutella over the filled crepe, and then drizzle sweetened condensed milk to top it. After being cut into bite size pieces, this is a sweet worth every calorie.

Overall, I’m excited to begin leading class soon. Because Friday was a holiday, I only got one day in class. Next week, the real fun begins!