Lessons Learned from Teaching in Thailand: Respect Knowledge

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“Hah,” there was a collective sharp intake of breath as 40 Thai students now looked at me as if I had just murdered their brother.

“Crap Caroline. What did you do?”…my inner voice screamed at me as my thoughts scrambled to piece together my cultural faux pas.

I think by now, the students were used to my ignorance and breaking of every cultural taboo in their land.

“It’s okay Ajarn Caloline. You falang, you still learning.”

I looked down at the desk and saw the culprit, my mind suddenly realized what I had absent mindedly done.

Teaching in Thailand
My forgiving students

The Holder of Knowledge

Our cultural awareness speaker at our orientation on teaching in Thailand had warned us about it, and in a moment of Western Culture lack of awareness I forgot and had done what they asked us to be wary of.

“In Thailand, we value education. Education is the path that will give us a better life. Books are sacred in our country. Books hold the wisdom passed down from generations before; from those who can teach us so much.

Treat the books with utmost care and respect. Never throw the book on a table like you do in your countries. Do not write on them or soil them. Treat them with utmost reverence and respect.”

The expectant faces in the room now looked at me watching what I would do after I so carelessly threw the book on the desk.

I looked from the book to their faces and my face crumpled in sorrow for my foolishness.

I picked up the book and placed it back down gently. My apologetic face enough for them to forgive me and break into broad grins once again for the lesson that was to come, not understanding the lesson that once again this beautiful culture taught me.

They raced to my desk at the end of the lesson, like they did every day, so they could be the lucky one to carry my sacred books for me to my next class.

Respect Knowledge

a woman sitting on a bench
Books help me find my way

I often tell my students in the Western world this story, and it generally goes in one ear and out the other.

Books continue to be thrown on the floor, pages ripped out and graffitied on. If only they understood and appreciate, like the Thais do, that books provide us with wisdom.

They entertain us, they inform us, they help us to think and believe in new and improved ways.

Knowledge is power, and books help us to gain this power in order to learn how to apply it.

What are your thoughts on books and how we treat them in the West?

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33 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Teaching in Thailand: Respect Knowledge”

  1. I love books and during my two years in Thailand I learned to treat them with even more respect (like not storing them on the ground). I do however feel that there is a difference between respecting knowledge and respecting and object that holds knowledge. While my students would respect the latter, I sometimes had just as hard of a time getting my students in Thailand to respect the former as I did in the States.

    1. That makes sense too. Although the majority of my students in Thailand did seem eager to learn. I do agree that Americans respect education far more than what they do in Australia. Everyone seems to grow up knowing that college is a normal next step after high school and so they have to work hard in order to get there. In Australia, many students do not go into college instead going out to the workforce instead. So the attitude towards education is very different

  2. I believe Thais hold a respect for teachers and books because at once time the only teachers available were monks and the books were religious. And apparently, it’s a hard habit to break πŸ˜‰

    1. Yes. I do think this is the reason Catherine. I am happy it is a hard habit to break. I think there is not enough emphasis on respect of any form in the Western World, well at least in my country it seems lately.

      1. Too many teachers in Thailand don’t deserve the automatic respect given by their Thai students.

        After 6+ years living in the kingdom, the instances I’ve come across could fill a book, easy. For one, the incorrect ‘facts’ given to Thai students as the truth by their teachers…

        Education in Thailand is a mess.

        1. Very interesting to learn this Catherine. Six months was not enough for me to discover these sorts of things but after six years you would have learned a lot. It seems as if education is a mess in every country. If only we could find a way that truly works for our modern lives.

          1. There’s a great deal written about it online…

            And it’s a shame really, because generally, Thais are smart. Background – Even before I moved here I spent almost 10 years in close contact with Thais and education overseas.

            IMHO, it’s the rote learning (hinders their ability to problem solve) and their preference for Thainess that holds them back.

  3. Its only a generation off that in the West – my parents always told me off
    – I don’t miss buying physical books – in fact I have another huge box to be dumped at a charity shop downstairs. I love knowledge and freedom of expression and thought – but I think physical books are past their use by date

    1. They are certainly going out of fashion, although I do love reading a book. It is a more enjoyable experience for me. I think I really love the Thai’s respect and appreciation for knowledge though.

  4. Very nice piece. I’m in Thailand- though currently not teaching, I did learn a few tips, like never, ever put a book on the floor. Isn’t it amazing how much we, teachers, can learn from teaching overseas? πŸ™‚

    1. Absolutely Mira! You have to do it with the eyes of a student as well as a teacher. I think our students and our children can teach us so much no matter where we are.

  5. I love books, I treasure them, though I sometimes make notes in them. I enjoyed your post. Students can be very caring and forgiving of our errors.

    1. I always make notes in books too. I think this is a good thing because you are engaging with the wisdom, which shows your respect for knowledge.

  6. I loved this story Caz and agree that we do not place enough emphasis on books. I never knew that in Thailand they did and it makes me smile to know it.

    Also perhaps I am old fashioned however I love reading a good hard back or paperback but with the internet now a stable factor in most peoples life, will the old fashioned paper books be a thing of the past?

    1. I don’t think they will. I can only read limited things online. I can’t read whole books, I just don’t find it relaxing. I will always enjoy holding a book in my hands, and I think there are many people who will continue to want to do that. Sometimes we need to shut off from the online world

  7. Not all books are good. Books that, for example, incite race hatred are not good.

    Leaving that aside, it is good to respect books because they are a source of knowledge.

    Any behaviour that respects good things is good.

    On the other hand, a collective sharp intake of breath that embarrassed you is it’s own kind of cultural insensitivity.

    1. Well this is true, but we can learn a lesson from them I suppose, such as how not to be. I think the students just reacted naturally. It didn’t bother me too much, helped to keep me in check πŸ™‚

  8. Interesting to learn this cultural taboo. Of course, throwing a book on the table does not mean that you or I respect the knowledge we gain from that book any less. But such strong cultural practices really show their commitment to this idea.

    1. Agree. I really like the commitment to the idea that knowledge should be respected. I have to say I am still not that great at remembering to treat the book with reverence but the knowledge within it I do.

  9. it’s good that your students were so forgiving. i’ve never really thought about it. on the one hand, it’s practical to mark up your book in order to study better, on the other hand i’m guilty of having been a naughty kid and drawing bad things in books too. even though i love books today, i’d probably be guilty of tossing a book or worse if i was in thailand.

  10. This is a great piece, I loved learning about the Thai’s respect for books. It must have been a great experience for you to teach in Thailand.

  11. That’s a very cool story. I can never understand why some people treat books so badly. I have one friend who you cannot lend books to without removing the front cover (i.e. ripping it off!) before handing it over – he believes that the illustration has excessive influence on your expectations and imagination. He’s not usually that nuts…

    Mind you I’ve written in books many times (in pencil I might add) so perhaps that makes me as guilty as he?

    1. I have written in books as well. I think that shows you respect it as you are interacting with the book which is the intention of the knowledge contained within it πŸ™‚

  12. If books were more precious, we would think better of them. But so many of us had easy access. I loved books. Still have a very wonderful little working library that was a dream come true. I was always told never to write in a book, but in the very beginning of books, the hand made ones were often “glossed” which was writing in the margins with a further explanation or a correction. I once house-sat for the widow of the poet Randall Jarrell, and sat in their library finding book after book with the margins filled with notes by the poet. It was thrilling. I think I started annotating a few of my books now and then, when it was important. My father’s education was books from the library and old textbooks he found on sale. If education were harder, we would certainly value books more but the real point is that real knowledge is more than about getting a job. Children whose parents like to read will grow up wanting to read.

    1. I think interacting with a book in this way is showing your respect as you are appreciating the wisdom contained within the text.
      The best thing that any parent can ever do for their child is read to them from birth, actually from within the womb. Every single day. They will become great readers which forms the basis for most learning.

  13. That’s an interesting observation Caz, I know there are many taboos in Thailand, and many things are considered sacred. I believe your act of throwing the book down was maybe wrongly seen by your students as you losing your temper, one of the very biggest taboos in Thailand.

    1. i think you are right on that. Showing anger is very taboo. I loved that actually as it forced you to pay attention to your emotions and to rein them in. Makes you discover the art of patience and calm

  14. I want to explore the Thailand. What’s the best beach you’ve ever been so far? I just love the Boracay from the Philippines. Been there last year.

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