Dara Academy – past and present

It’s been a busy few weeks since my last blog. On the last day of my last training course of 2010 I came down with a chronic chest and throat infection. It put me out of action from Christmas Eve to just before our first course of 2011 started – what a holiday! Happily though, there was some ying to my yang and from January 16th to 21st I was an all-expenses-paid guest on a familiarization trip organized by the Singaporean Tourism Board (STB).

The STB promotes Singaporean education across Asia. I was selected and trained by the Singaporean Government over 4 years ago to become a Singapore Education Specialist (SES) as part of their Global School House initiative to create a network of education agents. In addition to the many leading foreign universities with campuses in Singapore, their schools and universities are some of the best in the world. There were many highlights during my visit including visiting Oliver Stone’s office at NYU’s Tisch School of Art’s where he conducts classes. Other ‘unofficial’ highlights were eating a really delicious curry in Little India and sitting watching the world go by while drinking large bottles of Tiger beer in a roadside restaurant in China Town as it prepared for the upcoming Chinese New Year.

For my second blog I’ve decided to write about one of the most well-known private schools in the north of Thailand. Often teachers new to Chiang Mai will ask me about the best schools in this city for a well-qualified foreign teacher, and I always mention the school that I will blog about today: Dara Academy (โรงเรียนดาราวิทยาลัย). According to Wikipedia its student enrollment of 7,000 is the highest in the north, and to cope with such a large student population it employs over 400 teaching staff including 30 native-speaking English teachers, 6 native-speaking Chinese teachers and one native-speaking Japanese teacher. Interestingly, the school was founded by a foreigner, and it has been employing them as teachers for over 130 years; as a consequence of this long history, there is little this school does not know about successfully employing foreign teachers.

During the nineteenth century American missionaries started to arrive in Bangkok with the intention to introduce Christianity to a pragmatic Buddhist nation. One such missionary was Dan Beach Bradley. Dan Bradley also played a significant role in introducing Western medicine and medical practices to Thailand. He was also the father of Sophia Bradley McGilvary who along with her husband the Reverend Daniel McGilvary later moved to Chiang Mai in April 1867 to establish the first Presbyterian mission (known as the Laos Mission) in Chiang Mai. In around 1875 Sophia started a small class for Christian girls in her home which was the starting point for the founding of the first Chiang Mai Girls’ School in 1879. The school received the royal patronage of the royal consort Pra Raj Chaya Chao Dara Ratsamee, and in 1888 King Rama V named the school Pra Raj Chaya’s Girls’ School in honour of his Chiang Mai wife. Known locally as Princess Dara Ratsamee, the school’s royal patron was also the daughter of Pra Chao Inthawichayanon the seventh Chiang Mai King. The school is almost universally known in English today as Dara Academy.

To really find out what it’s like working here I contacted a couple of old friends who have both taught at Dara for a number of years. Todd Cikraji is American, married to a Thai teacher and speaks Thai fluently. Deborah Baker is also American, and she is one of the few foreign teachers I know who has successfully passed the TCT Exams in order to obtain a permanent Teachers’ License.

1. What are your responsibilities?

Deborah: “Over the years, I have taught Matayom 3 and 5, as well as a special class on brained based learning. For the last two years, I have been teaching an advanced English class for the Thai English teachers. Our school is proactive with the new ASEAN initiatives that were adopted by the Ministry of Education.”

Todd: “My responsibilities are half related to teaching and half to administrative duties. I teach 12 hours of Prathom 4 (4th grade) per week. I love Prathom 4, they are by far my favorite age group to teach… Still young and sweet. Everything is fun. However, they are old enough to be able to focus and work on a task for an extended period of time. I also oversee the work of the Prathom (primary school) NP (Native Speaker Program) teachers at our school. When the situation arises, I also assist with coordinating the hiring process and whatever else comes up throughout the year.”

2. What’s been your biggest challenge and what’s been your biggest success while teaching at Dara?

Deborah: “My biggest challenge has been learning to communicate in the Thai way. Now, after 4 years, it has become second nature, but in the beginning I didn’t understand and was too direct in my approach.”

Todd: “Being taken out of my own comfort zone and working within a system, can still be foreign and difficult to me, has been and will continue to be my biggest challenge. However, being able to operate and build upon this overall system at the school and having my friends and long-term colleagues tell me that they are pleased with how the program has developed and that I have had an active role in that development has been my biggest success. Not just working with, but being an active member of a large organization, that operates within the cultural and social rules of another country is a difficult, but rewarding task.”

3. How do you think Dara differs from other Thai private schools?

Deborah: “This is a difficult question for me because I’m not too familiar with the other private schools. However, Dara has a long history and has a good reputation which is one reason many parents choose Dara for their children. Dara has won a number of Royal Awards for quality education. For the foreign teachers in Chiang Mai, it is generally considered one of the best places to work. Dara realizes that many foreign teachers are away from their home countries, so they make an effort to provide services like housing, breakfast and lunch, laundry services and a trip to the beach every year to keep our spirits high.”

Todd: “Well, some of the Thai private schools in Thailand are rather new. Dara’s been around for a very long time… over 130 years – and has some amazing traditions and a great history. It’s technically the oldest school in northern Thailand, and considering it was originally started by American missionaries, the administration and organization as a whole is rather welcoming and familiar with issues related to foreign teachers.”

4. How are Dara’s foreign teachers viewed by the local community?

Deborah: “Generally, foreign teachers in Chiang Mai seem well received by the local community. Dara has been here for over 130 years, so you will come across Dara alumni everywhere. If it is a Dara uniform day, people will go out of their way to approach me and say hi.”

Todd: “Generally well, I think. Everyone in Chiang Mai knows of the school, and most are semi-familiar with its history. For this reason, most of our foreign (and Thai) staff are fairly well respected by the community. ”

5. What qualities does a foreigner need to possess to be successful as a teacher at Dara?

Deborah: “Teachers at Dara must have a Bachelor’s Degree. A TEFL is not mandatory, but is given preference. A good TEFL program, particularly if it includes teaching practice in a Thai school, usually proves invaluable. It is also helpful if an applicant has prior teaching experience.

The most important ingredient for success at Dara is to relax into the Dara culture. If a teacher is inflexible in their views on Thai education, the importance of a dress code and proper behavior for teachers and in their direct communication style, they will usually not be successful. Flexibility is the key. Often this inflexibility can be spotted in an interview, but not always.”

Todd: ” The minimum qualifications to get a job teaching English in the Native Speaker Program at Dara Academy, is to have a 4-year bachelor’s degree, speak English clearly and be of the following nationalities: American, Canadian, British, Irish, Australian, New Zealander or South African. Individuals with previous teaching experience, TEFL certifications and degrees in teaching are looked upon highly.

As for individuals that are successful in their job placement… It takes a lot of flexibility and cross-cultural sensitivity to work successfully in any long-term position in a foreign country. Therefore, people who are able to leave their cultural baggage at home and understand that things are going to work differently here at Dara Academy and Thailand, are the ones that normally end up having the most positive and successful experience.”

6. Is there a career path for foreign teachers at Dara?

Deborah: “There is a career path at Dara. It is not formal, but Dara definitely values teachers who are willing to do quality work, be creative and who will make a long-term commitment. These teachers are rewarded in a variety of ways.”

Todd: “Yes, but it’s not easy. There are opportunities for promotion within the system, but it’s not going to happen for a teacher in a year or two. At this point one really has to prove himself or herself as a devoted, hard working, culturally sensitive individual, with an interest to stay and work with Dara for many years before they are given the opportunity to do have a more active role in the system and administration of the school. ”

7. How do Thai teachers view foreign teachers at Dara?

Deborah: “The foreign teacher relationship with the Thai teachers has improved gradually over the years. Everyone continues to try to understand each others’ perspectives. We generally have fun in the classroom and co-teaching is encouraged. The differences in salary and the requirement for attendance at a host of ceremonies and special events is a source of frustration for some of the Thai teachers. However, the Thai teachers also realize that these differences are the result of separate programs with their own financial structure and parent preferences.”

Todd: “I suppose this question is ultimately up to the individual Thai teacher. It’s been interesting in that when I first started working at Dara, which was also the beginning of the Native Speaker Program and when the school started hiring large numbers of foreign teachers, the foreign teachers had their own clique and I believe we were seen as very much a separate entity within the school. As the years roll by I have seen foreign teachers and Thai teachers become close (and even in some cases get married). At this point the foreign teacher department is certainly embraced by the Thai teachers and administration as an important and well organized/operational part of the school.”

8. Why did you choose Chiang Mai?

Deborah: “Before coming to Thailand, I envisioned that I would be teaching in the South on a secluded island with white sandy beaches and turquoise water. Of course, those jobs are few and far between. When I visited Chiang Mai, I fell in love with the city. It is like a small town in many ways, yet has loads of good places to eat, ayurvedic spas, yoga studios and nature experiences. Coffee houses are plentiful and it is easy to find secluded places to relax. The Lanna Culture with its diversity and friendliness has proven addictive for me and besides, I can get away to the beach on holidays. So, it’s truly the best of both worlds.”

Todd: “I chose Chiang Mai, because the first time I visited, I knew this was the place I wanted to be. ”

9. Do you have any other interests outside of work?

Todd: “Yes, I also work for a small volunteer organization named Friends For Asia. Friends for Asia places short and long term volunteers in a variety of different projects within the Chiang Mai area. So, I keep pretty busy.”

Thank you Deborah and Todd.

Well that’s today’s school visit finished. Next blog I plan to write about the foreigners’ cemetery in Chiang Mai. Each headstone has a story, and I plan to relate some of those stories to the history of the foreign community in Chiang Mai.

Find out more about TEFL teaching.

First published January 30th, 2011 on ajarn.com.

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