The Road Less Traveled

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Let me introduce myself through an excerpt from my all-time favorite poem written by Robert Frost:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by…

I am Jerraleen J. Balais, a teacher by profession and human rights advocacy is my passion. I was born and raised in the Philippines, grew up in a simple, loving family with parents who have shown us that although life is not easy, there is always something good that we can do for others.

I had an amazing but challenging high school life and was surrounded by teenagers like me having the same teenage issues and pressures and in the middle of all these, we’ve had teachers who despised us and we’ve had those who made us realise that although we cannot control all the situations in our lives, we can use our experiences to learn more about ourselves and understand others better.

Childhood, teenage years, it is a very critical stage in anyone’s life. Some children do not have a safe home or family, and I am thankful that schools exist because it can be the closest place for us to have that nurturing environment with caring people. It is because of these teachers, my heroes – that I was inspired to be one.

I graduated from the University of Santo Tomas with a degree in Bachelor of Secondary Education, majoring in Character Education and School Guidance. I started teaching high school students in the Philippines and volunteered in different non-profit organisations in our long holiday. I studied at night and took a Diploma in Social Work at the University of the Philippines-Diliman.

I worked part-time in Childhope Asia Philippines’ prevention, recovery, and rehabilitation program for street children through organising youth activities in the slum areas of Manila and teaching basic, functional literacy in a temporary shelter for street girls who have been sexually abused and in need of rehabilitation. In all these experiences, I realised how education can change the lives of people one single to a collective effort, one policy, one step at a time.

On December 26, 2004, the devastating Tsunami hit so many countries including Thailand. I went with the Daughters of Charity to visit and distribute relief goods in the evacuation camps of the displaced Karenni community in Phuket in April. My journey also took me to the refugee camps along Thai-Myanmar Border and to the nameless mountains in Mae Ramat to visit the stateless people. Before I left my country, I had so many complaints about the government, politics and more…here I was humbled and met people who are peaceful, happy, strong, surviving even if they are ‘unwanted’ in every country they go. They don’t have freedom. They don’t even have a flag to be proud of. I was still in my last semester in my Social Work course but I decided not to go back home to finish it and proceed to the Master’s program but instead spend my time doing in real life what we were taught in class. I helped organise a school for street children, most of whom were indigenous peoples and Burmese migrants. It felt selfish for me that in reality, the people that I have met and their stories of courage taught me more about life than I have taught them in the class. How little I know about humanity, about people’s pain and suffering. I can’t change their past but education can help them start anew.

In as much as I wanted to continue volunteering, I had to find paid work to support myself and family back home. From the north of Thailand, I moved to the south and worked as a teacher in private and government schools. In 2007, I was a teacher and also the liaison officer representing the principal and the board of directors in an international school in Songkhla province. I taught English, Character Education, Arts, Science and Information Technology to primary and secondary levels.

I traveled back and forth between Thailand and Malaysia as the Liaison Officer and also the Primary Years Programme Coordinator of our IB (International Baccalaureate) School in Penang Island. I was involved in school management, curriculum planning, and development, guidance and counseling, teacher training, events and charity projects of the school.

I was working with the same company for 7 years. I loved my work, the children and my team, yet in the middle of those busy days and administrative tasks, I was missing the hands-on teacher and human rights advocate in me. I left my job gracefully in September of 2015 and headed back home for a brief rest. My parents asked me what I wanted to do next. I knew what I wanted – I wanted to be back in the classrooms again and I wanted to do more than teaching.

It seems that fate has brought me to Phuket Has Been Good To Us Foundation. It feels like all my experiences in the past, all those stops in the ‘road less traveled’ have a significant connection to what the Foundation does. When I’ve read that the Foundation was started after the Tsunami, that their main mission was to provide better life opportunities for the children through education and that in their biggest school- Rajaprachanugroh 36 (RPG 36), there are more than 170 residential students needing help, I told myself – “This is my next path.” And I couldn’t be any happier.

I started working in the Foundation in February 2015. I was amazed how a small group of teachers and a small team in an office could do so much not only for the 3 government schools that it is working with, but how it slowly helps the local community. In April 2015, I was offered the role of the Senior Teacher.

My favorite time of the day is being with the children either in classes or at Coconut Club. I am teaching Grades 3 and 6 as well as Year 2 and 3 in secondary level. Some days are tough but as a teacher, I know that those who have behavioral issues in class are the ones that need my understanding and attention the most. Happy days are those times when you see your students write their own names independently, or hearing them say “I can”, or seeing them do a task they haven’t done before confidently. It is when children who started out quiet and aloof suddenly share with you what made them happy that day, or when they run to you to tell you they’ve lost their baby tooth and a new one is growing or come to you to confide and ask you to help them save a stray cat at the end of the day. I wake up for those moments.

Most of them have gained confidence in starting and engaging in simple English conversations. The school initially only wanted us to focus on teaching conversation and vocabulary words. However, we felt that these are not enough because students can indeed respond to questions, express their thoughts and feelings in the most basic ways but sadly, the current educational system’s choice of assessment is mainly in written form and they mostly fail because they are very weak in reading, comprehension, and writing.

In 2015, we began incorporating phonics in our curriculum. I have modified the curriculum to follow the requirement of the Thai Ministry of Education, and at the same time also incorporated Cambridge Primary English as a Second Language Curriculum Framework which was developed from the Council of Europe’s Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). This is to have a point of reference as to where our students are in terms of their language skills. Within 2 years of working on the students’ reading skills, we have seen improvement as most classes in the primary level have acquired the skill of simple blending of 2-5 letter words. 

It is still a long way to go but it is definitely a progress especially that RPG 36 has also opened the English for Integrated Studies (EIS) programme where other subjects are taught in the English language. Since the EIS programme’s inception, our teachers have also been teaching Science and Math for Grade 1-3 classes. Some of our primary and secondary students who had to relocate for various reasons have also been accepted in private schools and well-known universities where a good level of English is required. Although we are sad that we’re missing them in school, we are happy to know that they have found better opportunities elsewhere. This year, we are working with the Youth Career Initiative (YCI) and local hotels to help the Year 6, secondary level students to learn skills in the tourism industry as an alternative for them to secure jobs in the future.

Working with Thai schools is not without challenges but more than the obstacles that we have been facing, it is inspiring to meet so many local and foreign people from all walks of life wanting to make it better for the children. No matter how different our perspectives, our strategies, our ways are, we all have the same goal – to help improve the chances for all of these children through education.  We have also initiated teacher training and sharing sessions with the Thai teachers on classroom management and teaching strategies. They too are an essential part of the team. Some days, it gets really difficult but there’s nothing a team of dedicated staff and teachers will not be able to overcome for the children. If it’s easy, we won’t be here.

With all of these small steps, moving forward we have a vision of making the parents and the local community more involved as well in the progress of the children. The 3 key factors affecting children’s overall development are family, school, and community. It may be a long shot but it is worth trying…we are getting there. Our Foundation does not receive funding from the Thai government, it is through our own projects, fundraising events and generous support of amazing people that we are able to continue what we are doing.

…And that has made all the difference.”

Jerraleen J. Balais

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