University Student Brittany Rocheleau
Learns Life Lessons Abroad
Story by Karen Paton-Evans
Photography by Brittany Rocheleau
Thai Mueang, Thailand is as far from Harrow as Brittany Rocheleau has ever travelled, yet it reminds her of her hometown. A small friendly community where everybody knows one another. The similarities end there.
The Canadian woman increased Thai Mueang’s population by one when she began a short-term teaching position in an elementary school last spring. She had just wrapped up her first year toward earning a Bachelor of Education degree at the University of Windsor. “I did four years of human kinetics beforehand and am aiming to teach physical education and social science,” says Brittany.
Teaching in Thailand “was a spur of the moment decision. I’m 24 and was feeling a bit lost,” she says. “I knew I wanted to travel but didn’t have enough money. I figured I could teach English as a second language in a foreign country and was drawn to Thailand in Southeast Asia.”
To get there, she turned to the Road Experience recruitment agency in Thailand. “They offered me a placement at a school in the busy city of Bangkok or in a quiet town in southern Thailand where the beaches are. I chose the beaches. The agency took care of visas and finding me a home five minutes from the school. I paid the agency’s fee and showed up for orientation in Thailand.”
Landing May 8, Brittany committed to staying till Sept. 15. Despite her online research, “I didn’t know what to expect, other than I intended to enjoy myself in a beautiful country. Thailand proved amazing. The people are so welcoming and caring. I had the most challenging moments of my life, but they were also most rewarding.”
She excitedly moved into her little beach bungalow on one of the town’s two streets. Dead cockroaches on the floor gave Brittany pause. “I didn’t name the lizards in the bathroom – we didn’t become that close – although I liked them as they kept mosquitos out of my house.”
Beyond her front door, Brittany discovered “most toilets are basically a hole in the ground and you have to carry toilet paper. I adapted.”
Culture shock also struck during her first two weeks in the classroom. “I was thrown into teaching 13 classes from kindergarten to grade six – with no curriculum. I taught every kid in the school.”
“The language barrier was frustrating. Ninety-eight per cent of the staff didn’t speak English. Google Translate was useful,” Brittany says. “One teacher, NAME??, spoke decent English and we became good friends. She helped translate and made my stay easier. The other teachers were also right there to help me.”
There were many other reminders Brittany was not in a Canadian school. “The kids are given three breaks a day, kind of like we do recess. But instead of playing, they brush their teeth.”
“Thai students don’t usually respond to Canada’s style of non-corporal discipline. When kids misbehaved, a teacher lined them up and hit them, one by one, with a ruler. Sometimes the teacher did it to every student, which, surprisingly, fostered community in the classroom. If one kid misbehaved, the others told them to stop because if one got in trouble, they might all be in trouble.”
“I couldn’t even think about hitting my students. Eventually, we got into a routine and enjoyed a good relationship. Some hugged me every day,” Brittany says. “My favourite part about teaching in Thailand was the connection we made. I went to bed every night grateful that these kids were changing my life.”
In a third world country of more than 61 million people, students and staff deal with no air conditioning in tropical heat and a lack of personal hygiene items. Brittany says, “The Thai people I met make do with what they have and seem content. They appreciate life. That is what they taught me.”
Everyone gathers Sunday nights for Thai Mueang’s street market. Brittany notes, “They are like one big family. They’d wave and smile at me. When I’d go for a run, they’d cheer me on. They wanted to talk with me even though they couldn’t. There was never a moment I didn’t feel welcomed – the people invited me to everything.”
Honoured to be included on a two-night sleepover during Buddhist Lent, the teacher bunked down with her students on the temple floor.
On weekends, “I’d ride my motorbike and go to touristy areas two or three hours away,” Brittany says. She loved Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, offering deep sea diving, white sand beaches, elephants and nightlife.
When Brittany’s parents and cousins visited, they shopped, hiked and experienced different “beautiful, very clean beaches.” The scenery inland is gorgeous. “We climbed huge limestone cliffs.”
All too soon, it was time to depart. Once again immersed in her university program, Brittany is juggling studies and working as a temporary part-time assembly line worker at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ plant and supply teaching in a before and after school program at the YMCA.
“The Thai kids and I continue to FaceTime once or twice a week,” Brittany says. “I plan to see and hug them again if I get a year-long teaching assignment in Australia after graduation and can country-hop.”
Her teaching adventures have taught Brittany to “enjoy the moment you are in. Smile at people. Take chances – or you’ll never know what life can offer.”