Teacher Appreciation Day is also known as Wai Kru Day in Thailand. It is a Thai ritual where the students pay respect and show gratitude to their teachers. The way it’s celebrated, and the extent to which foreign teachers are included, varies per school.
By Helena Baeyens, teacher in Kamphaeng Phet, Thailand.
Hierarchy in Thailand
“In Thailand there is a hierarchy system.” “You should always greet someone using a wai.” “Just follow what everyone else does.” These might be some of the things you hear before starting your teaching job in Thailand. Why? Because Thailand is like any other Asian country a country of respect and hierarchy, very different from our European standards.
Wai Kru day
Now I did my research, listened to the advice people give me before starting and tried to master the wai. However it still wasn’t enough to prepare me for Wai Kru day. I had heard the stories during training how on Wai Kru day students would greet the teachers and give them flowers. From the stories I heard and the pictures I saw, I imagined it to be a low-key student-organized greeting in between classes. Nothing could be farther from the truth, or at least not at my school.
On Wednesday we were told there would be no classes the next day (in Thailand you always get the info last-minute or not at all and you sort of just have to go with the flow) because of the ‘Wai Kru’, which literally translates to ‘greet the teacher’. I was told to join the event at my own convenience. Given the lax nature of the way the info was handed to me I just figured I’d show up whenever. In the morning, when Matayom (grades in thailand) 1, 2, and 3 were having their event I showed up around second period. I went to the grand hall and saw a sea of students sitting on the floor. To my left I saw some teachers sitting on chairs and made my way to them. As I sat down on one of the chairs pretending I knew exactly what was going on (I had no idea). I saw some students standing up and making their way to the front. As I looked closer I saw a row of teacher with pretty flowers in front of them. The students went up, kneeled in front of one of the teachers, got back up and made their way back as another line of students was headed to the front. Before I had fully comprehended what was going on, one of the teachers took my hand and guided me to front. It appeared it was my turn to be greeted.
They placed me in the middle seat, because being the only foreigner and the only teacher without a uniform didn’t make me stand out enough already… As I saw the first line of students approaching I kept glancing at the teachers seated besides me to mimic their action. I felt a little uncomfortable as the students kneeled before us so I kept staring at the teachers as to avoid looking at the student before me (who was clearly as uncomfortable as I was and also seemed to have no idea what was happening). I then saw the teachers reaching out their hands so I did the same. It was then the student handed me some Thai traditional flowers which I then placed in front me (still mimicking the other teachers) and figured well that was it, no big deal, off you go now, when suddenly the students made a full bow on their knees, bowing all the way down with their heads on the floor. The same bow they give to buddha after praying. Following the other teachers I waied back with a small nod of the head. The students got up and made their way back as already another line of students was waiting to greet us. At the time, I felt very awkward, sometimes delighted, most of the times uncomfortable, but looking a student in they eye as their kneeled down in front of you smiling nervously in comfort, I couldn’t help but think: “Oh so this is as weird for you as it is for me.”and it oddly made me feel better about the whole thing. I don’t recall how long I actually sat in the front because I had so many emotions rushing through me. But I estimate maybe twenty minutes. I was guided back to my original seat and was offered some Thai tea (it’s delicious!). I left the ceremony early because I had an activity with Matayom 4 but saw the students simultaneously stand up and say some Thai words in unison.
In the afternoon, it was Matayom 4, 5 and 6’s turn for the greeting. This time I attended the ceremony from the start. The director was standing at the entrance ready to start the ceremony. He gestured at me to stand behind him and follow the import people in (My best guess is they were people from the director’s office). As I was standing very nervously in line the vice-director arrived. Not knowing what had happened she told me I had to go sit with the other teachers. At that very moment the director started walking, a cameraman was filming him, the students were watching, teachers were watching and me still feeling like the odd one out felt this was my chance to make a break for it. As the line of important directors made its way to the front, me and some other people at the entrance who knew what happened couldn’t help but laugh. I once again said down at the teachers seats in the back was again offered some Thai tea and was once again asked to sit at the front (luckily the third row in the front this time). As the ceremony started students came up with massive flower arrangements, when I say massive, I mean it, one class build a dragon that was like a meter tall. Seats changed and other row of beautifully decorated flower ornaments was presented. Seats changed again (me at the front again) and the last of the flower ornaments were presented. After that it was the same student greetings as this morning but I had to sit in front twice because seats were open and I sat in the front fort what I believe to be a very long hour. After the ceremony we took some class pictures (Thai people love taking pictures) and I hung out with one of my better known class. I was surprised when they stood in a circle around me and their homeroom teachers and again made a full bow with their heads to the floor, completely voluntarily and not ceremony scripted. We took some selfies and that was it, that was Wai Kru day.
In hindsight, I think I felt very respected and accepted but in a weird it was also a very humbling experience. Yes these students will bow down to you but they prefer to just hang with you, laugh with you and take selfies with you. Most of them seem to be genuinely happy that you are there (when they are not treating you like a zoo animal and staring at you while you’re eating) and the teachers try their best to include you. The day had been great and I felt very good. Really what could go wrong? I don’t … maybe a teacher walking up to me at the end of the day and saying that my white dress was just a little bit too thin and everyone could see my underwear… 🤦♀️🥲