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Windy City Nights (Vimeo)

Arguably the most photogenic city in the United States. Flashbacks to my time in the Gold Coast and at Andrew Jackson Language Academy. Congratulations to my former Third graders as they welcome the summer months. Bring on Fifth Grade!

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Finally Getting to Know My Students. Thanks, WhatsApp.

Teaching takes patience.

Being patient takes a lot of practice.

When I was in University, my professor told me that, “It takes a special kind of person to teach.” I think she could have easily also said, “It takes a special kind of person to be willing to be so patient all the time.” To become a teacher, I had to practice being patient. 

It is often reported that new teachers stumble through the first three to five years of their careers as they hone their craft. They struggle to juggle national standards, school expectations, student learning profiles, and standardized assessments. Juggling requires practice. Watching the clumsily thrown balls crash to the floor without becoming enraged required patience. A good, student-centered pedagogical technique is to infuse considerable “wait time” into your teaching practice. This wait time allows students to process information conveyed to them and to craft appropriate responses. There is nothing more agonizing that watching your students wrestle with questions you could easily articulate to them and move on. However, this wait time is an essential component that helps to implant new knowledge. A lack of patience would compromise the authenticity of the content. The teaching profession is filled with scenarios like these, scenarios that all require patience.

However, there is usually one thing I can count on attaining fairly quickly within any given school year: my students’ trust. Naturally, the first few weeks of school are saturated with anxious students, parents, and teachers. (Sometimes, I cannot help but laugh out loud when, after telling my students that I am just as nervous as they are, they respond with furrowed brows and frustrated head shakes. I laugh because when I imagine their conversations, I envision themselves really laboring to accept this idea, “No, no, no! There is no way that Mr. Max is as nervous as I am! Teachers are never nervous!“) Yes, even teachers are nervous.

But after the first month has come and gone, and the students have engaged with me enough, those nerves tend to subside and students begin to situate themselves to take academic risks. And after a few weeks of hesitant risk taking, students realize that my entire purpose in their class is to make them feel welcome and to allow them to grow as an individual and a learner. Once they come to this realization, they dive headfirst into the rest of the year. This deliberate restraint on my part is well worth the wait. 

This is how things usually work themselves out.

Usually.

But as I have been learning firsthand this year, things are different in Malaysia. And developing trust is not exception. In fact, Malaysian student shyness levels are on an entirely never level when compared to my previous experiences. I’ve come to find that Malaysian students, particularly secondary students, can be categorized into three general groups: extremely hesitant, immensely shy, or paralyzed by fear.

I would venture to guess that 95% of my student at SMK Badak fell under the latter option when I first arrived in January. 3% could have been categorized as ‘immensely shy.’ And the remaining 2% could not be accounted for as they never could find it within themselves to even look in my direction for more than a second or two. It was like my student put up an impenetrable barrier and left me to solve the greatest riddle of them all: how do I get these kids to tear down their walls?

I tried everything. I sang, I danced, I delivered impassioned speeches, I wandered the school grounds, I participated in extracurricular activities and I made sure to smile. I always smile. In order to provide a academic platform for my Form 4 students to communicate with me, I developed weekly writing prompts for them to process and reflect on. I made it clear that the journals were not for marks, they were a way for me to get to know them as writers and learners. While a few of the initial journal entries were very well written, a handful of students simply copied one student’s essay and turned it in as their own. They were still not ready to take risks, even in their writing. 

It seemed like nothing was happening. I was making little to no progress. I recall one moment of reflection where I convinced myself that, by singing the same song over and over again with the hopes of giving students an entertaining avenue to engage with me, I had actually terrified them even more than before. My months at SMK Badak were a living reminder of just how hard it can be to master one of life’s greatest gifts: patience.

I was patient. I did not falter. I smiled. And I waited patiently.

After months and months of smiling, my student finally began removing their walls. They began consistently engaging in academic conversations with me in class. They would ask clarification questions and for me to repeat myself if my instructions were unclear. One Form 4 student even told me a hard truth about my teaching, “Sir, sometimes you too excited and we cannot understand what you say. You talk too fast.” That is a life skill right there: to let me down easy like that while maintaining a professional tone? Bravo! (And duly noted!)

Despite the fact that all of this was monumental progress, I still wanted my students to open up and reveal themselves to me. I wanted them to ask me about life. I wanted them to share with me their honest ambitions in life. I wanted them to ask me questions about how to improve their English. And while some students did, the majority of students still we not ready to expose themselves.

WhatsApp and Selfies. Two essential technological components of daily life in Malaysia.

WhatsApp and Selfies. Two essential technological components of daily life in Malaysia.

It was only after weeks of hovering in this state of limbo that I realized I needed to take a risk if I was going to expect my students to do the same.

As a professional rule of thumb, I do not believe in distributing my handphone number to anyone save for my colleagues, friends, and family members. However, I noticed that my students were constantly on their handphones outside of school. If I was eating at a food stall and I saw a secondary student, regardless of if they were from SMK Badak or not, they were on their phone. In Malaysia, WhatsApp is the main form of communication. Corporate companies and schools have their own private groups where they can efficiently communicate with their employees. The same was true for my students. They were always communicating with one another via WhatsApp.

This was the avenue I needed. The chance to forge relationships with students that would benefit them as individuals and learners. WhatsApp.

The results were not what I was initially expecting. I braced myself for hundreds of messages from students every day but they never came. I receive maybe five to ten messages per day from students asking about assignments, extracurricular activities, or just to say “Good evening Mr. Max. What you doing?”  

 However, I cannot overstate how much of a positive impact my handphone number has had on my students. It was as if I had finally given my students permission to be themselves around me. It was my stamp of approval. And once they had that stamp, they were ready to make up for months of lost time.

My days at SMK Badak are now filled with genuine conversation. Those students who used to shout, “MR. MAX!” from across the yard only to duck behind the cement wall once I turned to address them, still do the same thing with one critical new detail: instead of throwing themselves behind a literal and figurative wall, they stand tall and throw their hand in the air. They shout and wave. And so I finally get to wave back.

My classes are filled with English conversations with a little Malay sprinkled on top for good measure, not the other way around as was the case for the longest time. The room is often filled laughter. But, the laughter is the result of a joke or accidental mix up, not as a result of an awkward silence or a student’s shyness to speak to me. My students actively seek me out during morning assembly just to say “Good morning, Sir.” or “Sir, how are you this morning?” Sometimes they will even stick around for a full-blown conversation. In English.

To the surprise of all the staff members at SMK Badak, my Form 4 class purchased a cake and a ceremonial plaque to celebrate Teacher's Day. Although Teacher's Day is a national holiday in Malaysia, my school chose not to celebrate until after their exam period was completed. Tell that to these students.

To the surprise of all the staff members at SMK Badak, my Form 4 class purchased a cake and a ceremonial plaque to celebrate Teacher’s Day. Although Teacher’s Day is a national holiday in Malaysia, my school chose not to celebrate until after their exam period was completed. Tell that to these students.

My students’ journal entries are now filled with thought-provoking entires. Some of my students have revealed their personal secrets, their ambitions and their dream jobs. There is plenty of research that has been published on English language learners and their hesitancies to write in English. Written errors are not as easily concealed as oral miscues. They are glaring. They jump off the page. And so the fact that my students were willing to produce personalized writing samples without fear of judgement shows just how much progress we had made. My students are comfortable.

It is hard for me to believe that my life at SMK Badak could be so different as the result of something as simple as a handphone number. And yet, I do understand why those digits carry such weight. As I have stated before in previous posts, I am the first American my students have ever met. They have never seen someone who looks like me or speaks English the way I do unless it was on the television. I don’t think any of them could have imagined a scenario where their school, pushed up against the coast in a forgotten corner of Malaysia, would ever have an American teacher. In their minds, there is just no feasible situation where I end up at their school. 

But there I was. 

The shock waves that ran through their bodies must have been like nothing they had experienced before. An American? In our school? Wanting to speak with me? Never! I completely understand their reasons for being nervous. However, it was only after I gave them access to my handphone number, their preferred method of communication, that my presence was real to them. Now, they could communicate with me in a safer space. A digital space. With autocorrect and Emojis. Again, I believe that my handphone number was the validation they needed. To them, it was my way of saying, “I really do want to get to know you.

Five months from now, when I am sitting back in the United States preparing for the Christmas season, I will have a lot on my mind both personally and professionally. Hopefully, when I am feeling down or cold (for once), my pocket will vibrate and I’ll look down at my pocket and smile. I’ll silently sit for a moment of reflection before unlocking my phone, opening up my WhatsApp messenger application, and responding to a simple yet heart warming note: “Good evening, Mr. Max. How are you?

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Gallery

Beauty From Above: Amos Chapple’s Stunning Drone Photography

Although I do not consider myself a photographer, I love photography. I am always flipping through my favorite bookmarked blogs with the hopes of stumbling across a breathtaking photo or two. Rarely do I find a complete set that stuns me the way Amos Chapple did with his “Air” project.

I would say that the photos below are a sample of his work, but that would be a lie. I’ve posted every single one of the photos from the collection below. I couldn’t help myself. I hope you appreciate these masterful shots as much as I do.

For more incredible collections, check out Amos Chapple’s website.

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Saint Petersburg’s Hermitage Pavilion wreathed in dawn mist. The little whipped cream palace was famous for parties where mechanical tables laden with food rose from beneath the floorboards.

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Saint Petersburg’s Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood during a squally autumn morning. The church marks the spot where the reformist Tsar Alexander II was assassinated; the patch of the cobbles on which he lay dying is preserved inside the church.

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Saints Peter & Paul Cathedral rising through winter mist.

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The Peter & Paul Fortress, Saint Petersburg’s founding point. At the time of the fort’s construction the islands of St. Petersburg were populated only by a ragtag collection of fishermen’s huts. The area was deemed “too wild, too wet, too unhealthy” for human habitation, the equivalent of founding a capital city in the upper reaches of Hudson Bay.

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The Lotus Temple, dotted with pigeons at sunrise. Designed by an Iranian exile, the building serves as the centre of the Bahai’i faith in Delhi.

Taj Mahal as the day's first tourists trickle through the gates.

The Taj Mahal and its gardens as the day’s first tourists trickle through.

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The neatly arranged suburbs around Sagrada Familia. Octagonal city blocks allow for the light, spacious street corners which make al fresco beer & tapas in Barcelona such a delight

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The Vittoria Light, overlooking the Gulf of Trieste at sunset.

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The star fort at Bourtange. Three centuries after the last cannonball was fired in anger at the fort, it now serves as a museum and centre of a sleepy farming village in eastern Holland. The low, thick walls were designed to offset the pounding force of cannonfire.

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Buda castle on August 20, 2014. The barge in the centre of the Danube is loaded with fireworks, launched later that night to celebrate Hungary’s national day.

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Clouds swirl through the pillars of Sagrat Cor Church, high on a hill above Barcelona. Twenty minutes later a thunderstorm hit the city.

Paris’ Sacré-Cœur glowing in a hazy sunrise.

Paris’ Sacré-Cœur glowing in a hazy sunrise.

Via My Modern Met

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Using Photographs to Modify Perspective

It’s hot in Malaysia. Some days the afternoon heat and humidity is so crippling that all my students want to do is sleep. Usually, I want to curl up into a ball and sleep too, preferably directly underneath the classrooms single functioning fan.

And yet I need to teach.

How can I possibly teach in this heat?

How can I focus on content when there is sweat accumulating below my lip? Beads streaming down my neck and lower back. How can I expect my students to focus on a rigid information transfer lesson when I am struggling just as much?

The answer, I discovered, was to modify my approach. Modify the content. Modify the activities. Modify the desired outcomes. Once I shifted my perspective, I was able to cut through the challenges and deliver an engaging and successful lesson. Although this realization seems to be quite simple, the fact that it occurred organically made it very impactful. This simple yet powerful realization contributed to one of my favorite learning experiences to date at SMK Badak.

Part of the Malaysian National Curriculum for Form 4 classrooms requires that student be able to read, understand, and accurately summarize a text. The curriculum encourages that students read blocs of academic text and share their knowledge with the teacher.

This activity, although mandated by the Malaysian Ministry of Education, would not have been entirely successful for my students for the aforementioned reasons. I was just too hot to ask my students to focus on paragraphs in a textbook. So, I modified my approach.

Instead of using the students’ textbooks, I brought in large photographs that showcased every day life for different groups of Americans. To begin the lesson, I laid out all twenty-six photographs across the room, one per desk, and gave my students five minutes to walk the classroom and examine the different photos.

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During the “Gallery Walk” portion of the lesson, students were able to examine the twenty-six photographs before selecting one to analyze further.

 

After five minutes, I encouraged each student to select their favorite photograph and take it back to their seat. Inevitably, there were a few photographs that multiple students loved, so I permitted them to share the photograph. Once the students had selected their favorite photo, I explained that they would have two minutes to study and describe it. We discussed techniques for recording as much description as possible in a short period of time. The students determined that writing single descriptive words or short phrases would be more efficient than recording whole sentences.

Although our whole class conversation was fruitful, I made sure to direct towards the underlying curricular focus of the lesson: recognizing, recording, and summarizing critical information. I reminded the students to, “answer the ‘Wh questions’ when you are analyzing your photo: Who is in the picture? What is going on? Where do you think the photo was taken? When was the photo taken? Why do you think the photographer chose to capture this particular moment in time?” Working together as a whole class, I modeled a two-minute “quick write” using a photograph that nobody selected as their own.

After modeling the activity to the whole class, I reset my alarm and asked the students to practice with their selected photograph. Walking around the room during this work time, I witnessed students pushing themselves in ways they had not in a long time. I heard them reminding themselves or each other, “Answer the ‘Wh questions.’ Who is in the photo? What is going on? Where…”

I couldn’t help but smile. Even though their shirts and tudungs were heavy with sweat, and their arms subconsciously rose and fell to wipe their brows, they were engaged. Their brains were too busy generating nouns and adjectives to think about the humidity.

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After selecting an image, students had two minutes to write down words and phrases that described their photograph.

 

After the two minutes were up, I asked the students to partner up. Once everyone was settled, I explained that the next part of the activity built upon their quick write descriptions and emphasized their oral speaking skills. I asked that all the photographs be flipped over to the blank side. I told them that their next challenge was to orally communicate their photograph to their partner or small group using only their memory and their generated word list from their quick write. They would not have the luxury of using the image as a guide.

The room fell silent. Then, after only a moment of stillness, it exploded with self-deprecating comments.

“But Mr. Max, my English is not good enough!”

“How can I do this with these words only?”

“My word list is too small!”

While we could have spent an entire day discussing the reasons why these comments were untrue, I opted to brush them aside with positive reinforcement and encouraged every one to try their best. To further prove my point, I participated in both describing and drawing my photograph with various groups. Each individual or small group was given ten minutes to share and draw. After the ten minutes were up, the groups switched roles for another ten-minute session.

Despite the students’ lack of belief in themselves, their finalized pieces were spectacular. My boys, although outnumber nearly three to one in the class, shone brighter than ever before. Their buried artistic talents finally surfaced and they were able to fully participate in an activity without feeling uncomfortable or shy. Changing my pedagogical approach allowed for this growth to occur. Encouraging student to illustrate their essays or name poems is one thing, but creating an activity grounded in art is another thing entirely. I could not have been prouder of their hard work!

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Students were encouraged to work together or independently during this activity.

 

My girls, suddenly called to utilize artistic skills they had not relied on in quite some time, were initially hesitant to completely engage in the illustrating portion of the lesson. However, after a few minutes, they simply could not resist the urge to produce a piece to be proud of. It was wonderful to step back and watch my students engage wholeheartedly in an activity given the circumstances. I was taken aback when a number of them approached me after the lesson and asked that I take a picture of their work so that I could show it to my family and friends. This had never happened before. In fact, my students almost always shied away from my camera lens. Not after this lesson.

Teaching English in Malaysia has not been easy. The experience has taught me a lot about myself both as an individual and as a professional educator. I have learned to consciously pay attention to my oral, written, and non-verbal communication. Speaking to non-native speakers requires patience. Often times I find myself scouring my brain trying to think of a third or fourth way to explain the meaning of a word or to provide the comprehensible background information necessary for my students to grasp a written text. I have learned to slow my speech and enunciate each syllable, careful not to glaze over any distinct vowel or consonant sounds. Sometimes I will walk into my scheduled classes or after school activities to find that the students have been pulled for a school-wide program.

However, all of these experiences can be synthesized into one general realization: the importance of modifying my approach. When I realized that I was speaking too fast, I modified my approach and slowed my speech. When I search my brain (and sometimes my thesaurus) for synonyms to unlock the meaning of a new word, I am modified my approach to vocabulary instruction. When I prepared an after school activity only to find that a mandated school program had occupied my time slot, I changed my modified and infused the activities into the normal school day. And when I take the information I know about my students as learners and tailor my lessons in a way that acknowledges the Malaysian curricular standard(s) and allows for learning to occur, I am modifying my pedagogical approach.

Even though I remain positive throughout most situations, sometimes all of this modification can be draining. I sometimes find myself reflecting on my time at SMK Badak wishing I could do more. And yet, whenever I begin to become unsure of my purpose, I teach a powerful lesson and all of those concerns become insignificant. All thanks to small modifications in approach.

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One of my student’s finalized pieces. Even though they were hard on themselves initially, they produced some fantastic work!

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A Little Taste of a Happy(er) Life

I woke up one morning late last week and, for the first time in over one hundred days, my first thought was, “What are you doing here?” I laid there blankly staring up at the ceiling fans whirling above my head, attempting to suppress the stagnant morning humidity, and began to justify my being in Malaysia. 

Terrifying. 

I had never begun my day with a cerebral wrestling match like this. 

Horrifying. (Clearly, I needed coffee.)

Once the emotionally radical part of my brain settled into the daily routine thanks to the rich and robust aroma of Nescafe, I began to process why I was subconsciously battling with these thoughts in my sleep. “Why was I suddenly having second thoughts? How was today any different from yesterday? Or the day before? Why now?

What I came to realize was that my experience was nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, it was just the opposite. Wrestling with one’s self purpose is a ongoing struggle that many people face quite often. I just happened to be confronting these thoughts before the sun had peeked over the horizon. 

These past hundred plus days in Malaysia have been some of the happiest of my life. There is no denying that. However, there have also been moments of intense struggle sprinkled throughout. I’m living in a beautiful country, am frequently awarded opportunities to travel both domestically and internationally, and I’m working in an educational setting. How could I possibly have any reason to be upset? 

Nevertheless, I believe that it is because of these exceptional circumstances that I find myself on one of the two ends of the happiness spectrum on any given day. Either I’m absolutely ecstatic, or, I’m essentially miserable. As a wise man once said, “I go zero to one hundred real quick.” 

But again, there is nothing wrong with that. 

As a licensed educator, I hope to spend the initial portion of my career working within an international school setting. However, prior to Fulbright, I had yet to work abroad and so this goal was based merely in idealized dreams. It was not grounded in actual experience. I chose to accept my Fulbright grant because I knew that it would provide me with the chance to challenge my teaching practice while simultaneously answering some important life questions. Without this opportunity, I would not be able to accurately process thoughts pertaining to my purpose as an educator in the international arena. 

As much as I am enjoying my time teaching English to my secondary students at SMK Badak, there is no denying that my heart lies within the primary setting. While I am enjoying my time living and teaching internationally, I hope that the next chapter in my life occurs within the walls of an international primary classroom. This past Monday, I finally had a chance to live my future life for a day when I visited Regents International School in Pattaya, Thailand. The school works with both primary and secondary students and is part of the Nord Anglia network of international schools meaning it is well-respected globally. Finally, after a patchwork of mini successes, I had found my happy place.

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Students run around on the school’s main athletic field. The secondary building stands tall in the background.

I spent my day working with Year 2 and Year 3 students, the equivalent of Grades 1 and 2 in the United States. The class sizes were tiny, no more than fifteen students in a class. Each teacher had a constant flow of support staff in and out of their classroom. Some staff provided pullout learning support services while others were responsible for push-in support as needed. Every classroom was equipped with a SmartBoard and this technology was seamlessly integrated into every lesson I observed, be it literacy, maths, or topic.  

Although all of these factors were truly refreshing to see, the overall culture of the school was what impressed me the most. From very early on in my visit, it was very apparent that Regents emphasized student, teacher, and staff empowerment. The school grounds were vast and secondary students were able to spend time outdoors during their free periods or class breaks. There were a handful of cafes and food stalls on the grounds that students and staff alike frequented for lunch or a quick snack.

Teachers, although they were still responsible for conveying the school’s curriculum-based learning objectives, were encouraged to incorporate and utilize any outside resources they felt could help students access the content. I observed lessons where teachers featured YouTube videos, eBooks, and teacher-made worksheets, word lists, and other materials. All of these resources were used in an attempt to provide students with additional opportunities to hook their attention and provide different access points to new learning concepts. It was uplifting to witness such a powerful learning environment. 

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The primary school’s interior yard.

In addition to noticing the school’s focus on empowerment, I was also able to sense the importance of collaboration. Students across all year levels engaged in learning activities with partners or in small groups. These conversation partners were an integral part of each activity. It did not matter if they were analyzing a storybook during literature, placing two-digit numbers on a number line during maths, or arranging soldiers from different eras in chronological order during a topical study of Ancient Egypt. They were talking, process, and collaborating with one another.

As a visiting teacher, I was able to walk around and work with different partnerships throughout each lesson. It was very apparent that the students enjoyed processing their learning with one another. Once the teacher dismissed the students from the whole-class introduction, groups were quick to assemble and begin the learning task. The students’ eagerness was noticeable. It was also clear that these students had a lot of practice working in collaborative groups. Ideas were presented, analyzed, and built upon. If there was a disagreement amongst the group, they were quick to address the issue and move on. It was powerful to watch.

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Students worked in partnerships to ask one another questions regarding a book presented to them during the whole-class portion of the literacy block.

Even though I only spent one day at Regents International School Pattaya, I am inspired. The learning environments I witnessed and experienced firsthand were the kind that I want to be a part of as a classroom teacher. The school’s focus on empowerment and collaboration align with the central pillars of my teaching philosophy. I would be a very happy educator if I was given the opportunity to teach at Regents. 

However, despite the fact that Regents International School Pattaya was an inspiring educational environment, it is also important for me to remember that my experience was merely a taste of life at one international school. Nord Anglia operates 35 international schools in 14 countries worldwide. In all likelihood then, there are thousands of international schools worldwide that are similar in many ways. While I was fortunate enough to have Regents serve as my initial international school experience, it would be foolish to think that there are not alternatives as well. 

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The inside of a Year 2 classroom, complete with a total of 20 seats.

If this past weekend taught me anything it is that I still know my purpose in life. Even though I may have been wrestling with questions of doubt more frequently than I would have liked, my time in Thailand solidified what I knew deep down all the while: I was born to be an educator.