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Soft skills, the hard way

Teachers are often characterised as a cantankerous bunch, repeating the same dusty syllabus ad nauseam to students who blur into an amorphous lump before their myopic eyes. Well, since moving to an international school in the Far East, I have found the opposite to be true. Teaching is a life of extremes and unpredictability. And improbability.

Let's take the story of Sirichai. On a recent school trip, I found him with a puddle of pee beneath him. I discreetly brought this to the attention of my colleague, thinking that we might discuss how to deal with this delicate situation. But this teacher subscribes to the "I know what's best" school of education, and blustered straight over to make the boy stand up. Fortunately, only two other boys were present to witness the chromatography on Sirichai's shorts. Remarkably, one offered to get his bag while the other sweetly but quite unnecessarily took his elbow and led him back to his dorm.

I spoke to them both about the art of discretion, knowing too well the lifelong blotch this incident could leave on Sirichai. Two days later neither boy had breathed a word, which is testament, I suppose, to the more peaceful and collaborative spirit you so often find here. Back in the UK, I knew students who had transferred schools for less.

It turned out that this was only the beginning of my crash course in new pastoral skills. Later on the same trip, one of my students, Duy, was feeling homesick and despondent about the activities. For some reason he singled me out to attach himself to, and wherever possible he kept trying to hold my hand. This was considered odd by no one but me.

On the same outing, some anxious girls dragged me over to their hysterical friend Ammy. It transpired that a group of other, slightly more prematurely teenage girls had been taunting Ammy about a boy making a proposal of some kind that night. Ammy was entirely unprepared for this and it took nearly an hour of deep breathing before a female colleague and I convinced her that, although things will change as she grows up, she never has to accept any invitations from boys that she doesn't want to.

When I was turning out the lights later, another boy, Warun, loudly demanded a bedtime hug, entirely unfazed by his dorm companions. Predictably, this pushed all sorts of buttons for me about appropriateness, but I also appreciate that Asian culture has a different view on tactility and these frightened 11-year-old boys just wanted reassurance. Male teachers here are not yet all seen as latent sex pests.

I have never encountered any of these situations before. Certainly, my long-forgotten postgraduate certificate in education did not prepare me for them. Sure, some situations might be repeated year after year, but more often than not teachers have to think on the hoof and pray they don't mess up too badly. Which is probably what makes life feel so far from the cantankerous staffroom bore repeating the same lessons year in, year out. Thank goodness.

Nelson Thornberry is a pseudonym. He teaches in an international school in Asia

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