As the bus was slowing down to stop at a hidden bus stop, I was struggling to wake up from 4 hours of a sluggish ride from the capital city of Thailand—Bangkok. Half-asleep, I stepped out off the bus and found myself in front of a small grocery store on the sidewalk of Route 4, the only major highway that links the rest of the country with the narrow peninsula of Indochina. According to the map of Thailand, I was now officially at the narrowest part of the country, looking over at one of the first national parks of the country, Samroiyod.
To the far right of the road, a long stripe of multi-peaked dark-green mountain lay lazily behind an extensive green wetland. Behind the mountain rested a serene beach, facing warm seawater from the Gulf of Thailand. A gentle wind blew from the mountain, bringing the smell of salt, dirt and trees to my nose. For a moment, I felt jealous of local people who lived in such a pristine nature, for which all of the urbanites like me always longed. Consumed by the grandeur of the nature, I felt an urge to go tell every one of the locals about how lucky they were to dwell here, but I did not.
Looking back on Route 4, I noticed a row of decorative bushes, found everywhere in the city, standing orderly on the curbside. Across the road emerged small buildings with colorful signs, advertising their businesses. Despite its location far away from the urban area, this small town had everything the city could offer: cell phone shops, jewelry store, fresh markets, bookstores, convenient stores and so on. In this quiet afternoon, a few people walked back and fourth between the stores. No one seemed to pay attention to the majestic mountain on the other side of the road. Perhaps, they already knew the area too well, and I was just being too excited about the exotic nature. Should the eight-lane highway discourage the townies from appreciating the nearby nature, I did not know and hoped to find out.
Ten minutes later, a gray pickup truck drove toward me. I looked through the windshield and recognized a familiar face of the driver, the same square face wearing the same black moustache that I met ten years ago. It was Mr.Supot Sukhapat, environmental teacher of Samroiyod Junior High School.
I first met Mr.Supot in a three-day environment camp at Samroiyod. A short man with the dark complexion and never-combed hair, he was the organizer, the teacher, the field trip leader and the entertainer of the camp. Here in this camp, students from all over the country learned about the great Samroiyod wetland, birds, trees and our connection to the nature. Ten years later, Mr.Supot was still doing the same thing, but the program has become nationally recognized and drawn me back here to reveal the secret of a successful environmental educator. Perhaps, it was merely the magic of a vast area of Samroiyod wetland.
"Howdy? You haven't changed at all, have you?" Mr.Supot greeted me as I hopped in his car. With his simple, if not crude, demeanor and 100%-cotton loose-ended shirt, he, too, remained the same. "You're right. I have been doing the same job for ten years, but, you know, it's getting crazier everyday. I mean it was fun. I get to do a lot of new things too. Our program is doing so well, and we have a lot of kids joining us. But, you know, for the past ten years, things have changed a lot." He paused and we fell in silence.
Almost Twenty years ago, Supot studied general science education at a teacher college, where he spent most of the time fooling around with his life, not caring about what he wanted to do after the college. Enrolling at the teacher college, he knew that he had signed up for teaching, but what and where to teach remained mysterious. For twenty some years of his life, he had never left home in a suburb of Bangkok and still never thought of moving. However, graduates from teacher colleges would be assigned to different schools across the nation. One might choose the school they wanted to go, but students with better grades picked first. Therefore, for a rather rugged student like Supot, there was no decision to be made.
Complying with the reluctant assignment, he packed his belongings and headed south to the rural Samroiyod Junior High School. At the time, Samroiyod was barely a town. Most of its people were either planting pineapples on the arid soil or catching fish in the fertile wetland. A city kid and mama boy, Supot found himself in an utterly lonely place, because he could not connect to anyone around him. During his first years, he impatiently crossed out days on the calendars, waiting for the weekends to catch a bus home. Although the ride back home was not a short one, it was definitely better than the stillness of the mountain and the wetland.
Year passed. Trips to home had become less frequent, since Supot knew Pongsak. Unlike many other social study teachers, Pongsak was extremely passionate about birds and balls. In the evenings, he played soccer with a bunch of students and convinced the kids to go bird watching in the wetland with him on the weekends. The combination of soccer and Saturday bird-watching trips seemed to work so well that Pongsak wanted to form a student conservation group. He persuaded many teachers to help him create the group, and Supot was among of the first who agreed to help.
Together with a minimal funding from the school, Supot and Pongsak organized several field trips to the wetland and recruited students to form a conservation group, later known as "Dek Ruk Thung" (Kids for Wetland). Bird by bird, Pongsak taught Supot and students about bird identification, so that they could lead the bird-watching trips on their own. Supot dropped the ritual of home visit during the weekends and drove to the wetland with students. He stumbled through glossy pages of A Guide to the Birds of Thailand, comparing living birds in the telescope to the flat ones in the book. Week after week, Supot befriended Pongsak and all the birds in the wetland and finally found himself at home.
In 1995, as the school just broke the ground on the construction of the new Center for Environmental Education and Conservation, Pongsak was suddenly assigned to another school in the city. Ready or not, Supot stepped up as the head of the newly found environmental education program at Samroiyod School.
The Samroiyod Center for Environment Education and Conservation stood at the back corner of the school. The architecture was simple: a single-room building with an open-air classroom. As if to hide the center from the rest of the school, a thick row of trees and bushes encircled the Center, providing shade and moisture to the area. Entering the office, Mr.Supot walked past piles of books to a metal cabinet and opened it. The cabinet contained stacks of folders, collecting dust and pictures of the events that the Center had organized since its foundation.
"We did a lot of training and guiding around here. A lot of people came and asked the students to show them the wetland. And you know, our kids are good. People were impressed!" He paused as he reached to another folder, "Okay, look at this one, just last year, the TV show just filmed us right here and interviewed some of our students. They became famous now." Another folder held an article from a national bestseller magazine, featuring the student-led activities of the Center. On the table, the picture frame showed the photograph of a student leader receiving the Outstanding Youth Award from the Princess of Thailand. "There are more of this stuff, in case you want to see," said he as dropping another pile of picture folders.
"The wetland of Samroiyod is one of the most amazing places in the world," said Mr.Supot, "I was ashamed of myself when I started here because I knew absolutely nothing about it. But, you know, I learn. I kept reading books and go to the wetland. I learn a lot, and now they have to ask me to give a talk about the wetland. Isn't that funny? I'm not even from here, and now I have to teach about it."
Fifteen square-miles of the Samroiyod wetland were incorporated into the Samroiyod National Park in 1982. The Thai government previously had attempted to distribute this wetland area to the locals for farming, but the soil was too hard and salty for agriculture. Therefore, the area was abandoned, allowing cattails, hardy sugar canes, and other grasses to dominate the area. Though formidable to humans, the wetland appeared to be amicable to at least 157 species of birds, many of which are threatened and endangered. With the desire to crate more preservation areas, the government decided to revoke the proprietary right over the wetland and annex half of the wetland into the national park. Many farmers moved to the peripheral areas to continue farming, despite the poor quality of the soil. Many left the agriculture behind, walking across the highway and establishing their new lives as vendors and labors in the town.
"So few people here know about the wetland. It is hard because they don't live there anymore. They know that is the national park, but so what? They don't own the land. The government does. They gain some more money from tourism, but not as much as those big companies that built bungalows near the park. Local people don't really care, but their kids live here. They ought to know about their place. That's why we needed to teach them about the wetland, so that they can tell their parents. They can protect this wetland," Mr.Supot explained, as he finished up his preparation for the class today.
At the beginning of each school year, the program recruits new students through the club activity, from which students can earn an academic credit for attendance. Students are expected to participate in the program during the activity period (the last period of Tuesday). While other students in school may play sports or write poetry, the students in the "Kids for Wetland" learn more about the wetland, organizing environmental awareness activities in the school, ranging from the recycle campaign to bird-watching trips. Even though there is no grade for the participation, the students end up spending most of their time during the recess, after school, and on the weekends at the Center to simply hang out and work on their projects.
"Students like it a lot, but some parents just don't," Mr.Supot told me, "they don't see how these nature things can help their kids learn in schools. They just don't get it."
Forty seventh-grade students rushed into the open-air classroom near the Center. Seating themselves, the children put down their books and started chatting with each other. They came from the newly found English Program at the school, in which the majority of instruction was in English. Mr.Supot's class was an exception to the rule, and the kids seemed to be excited to have a Thai-speaking class again.
"Students, pay respect!" a young big boy yelled to the class, as Mr.Supot walked in. the class stood up and said in unison, "Good Morning, teacher!"
"Sit down, please" Mr.Supot responded to the ritual, somewhat militaristic greeting of a Thai classroom. The students lowered to their seats and quietly opened their notebooks, ready to take notes.
"Today we will learn about the classification of organisms in the world," Mr.Supot directed them to the chapter in the book and started explaining the constituents of five biological kingdoms. All the students jotted down the information silently, allowing nothing beside Mr.Supot's voice and the noise of flipping paper to be heard. They looked intently on the blackboard, where Mr.Supot wrote several strange Latin words, and swiftly copied them down.
Over the fence of the school, one could see the green horizon with the background of multi-peaked mountain. Looking from the classroom, Mr.Supot, for a moment, seemed to be enchanted by the whole scenery. "Look to your right, students," Mr.Supot turned back to the students, "you can see the park and the wetland from here. We know that so many species of birds out there. It is so diverse. Today as we learn about Kingdom Monera, the bacteria, but have you ever seen it in there?...That's why we need to learn about it. We need to learn more about the wetland."
It was almost the end of the class, Mr.Supot still talked about the park and what his students had done to protect it. The students now put down their pencils and absent-mindedly looked at their teachers. Some closed the books. The others started talking among themselves. Only a few students in the front row seemed to absorb what Mr.Supot said, and the rest seemed to let it diffuse away with the tender wind that constantly blew through the classroom.
The bell rang. "Student, pay respect!" the same big boy yelled. "Thank you, teacher," the class stood in response and quickly left the classroom. Exhausted, Mr.Supot placed himself in a chair and leaned back, "These kids think that they don't have anything to do with the park. They are elite. They are in the English program. Most of their parents don't want them to spend so much time with the group. They say it is a waste of time. The activities we organized here don't help them get into a good college. A lot of my students got into good colleges! The admissions are all excited when my students tell them about the project that we do here. It is too bad. The parents don't get to see these things." He sighed and looked back at the park.
It was 3 P.M. The last bell of the day rang. Mr.Supot just finished teaching the class on how to use the microscope. As most of the students were leaving, a few were still busy, looking at their plant specimens under the scopes. Mr.Supot was also at the scope with a student, trying to explain the structure they were looking. It took them several minutes to finally turn off the microscope light and return the scopes back to the storage.
"Is anyone interested in going to the wetland today?" Mr.Supot suddenly asked, as the kids were cleaning desks in the classroom. "Sir, you mean now?" one of the students inquired, looking surprised. Mr.Supot nodded, "If you want to go, you can call your parents and let them know that I'll drop you off at your homes, okay?" Excited, four students sped off the room and dialed their parents' numbers on the payphone.
"Are we all set to go? Let's hop in!" Mr.Supot started the engine, while two boys and two girls eagerly climbed up into the trunk of his pickup truck. "Oh man, this is gonna be so cool. I've never there before!" said Keng, a rather chubby boy, whose father runs a convenient store in town. The girl from a farmer family, Nid gave him a surprised look, "You gotta be kidding me. It was just across the street. My aunt lived right there. You missed out a whole lot." "I've never been there either," another boy, Chai, interjected. He said that his parents would not take him there because there was nothing to see. "We're gonna be there soon. This should be awesome," Keng concluded and the rest burst laughing.
The car left the school behind and turn left onto Route 4. On the nicely paved highway, Mr.Supot sped up and turned right into a small dirt road, heading toward the mountain. The scenery gradually changed, from crowded human dwellings to a thick row of cattail grasses. Shrimp ponds near the village were replaced by the vast body of water filled with lotuses. As the car was moving closer to the mountain, all of kids were losing their words and simply looking at their surroundings, stunned.
At the bottom of the limestone mountain erected the Nature Study Center, from where tourists might obtain the information about the wetland. Mr.Supot parked in front of the building and handed out several pairs of binocular, a field guide and a telescope to the students. "Here is the wetland of Samroiyod," said Mr.Supot, while pointing out to the water, decorated with green rushes, sugar canes and lotus leaves. Blooming pink lotuses emerged from the water here and there. He led the students to a long wooden bridge that extends into the body of water, allowing sightseers to appreciate what the Samroiyod wetland really had to offer.
"Hey all, come take a look here," Mr.Supot yelled, as he looked into the scope. The kids eagerly ran to him, fighting to be the first one to see the bird. "Wow, that one has a really long neck," Keng exclaimed. "Yes, you're right. Purple heron is one of the most elegant birds around here. It is the indicator of a good wetland," Mr.Supot remarked, while flipping through pages of the field guide, "Look at this picture. See? The long neck allows the birds to eat the fish deep down in the water. They have also long legs to stay above the water. If the water is higher, or the fish is gone, we will lose this bird, too."
"But I always see them flying everywhere," Chai protested, "But, oh, look at that colorful rail! What is it? I see them in my backyard all the time."
"That is a purple swamp-hen. Aren't they pretty? Let see if you can find it in the book" Mr.Supot handed them the field guide and held his binocular up, searching for green beeeaters.
"Let's go up and really see the field," Mr.Supot told the students. They were back at the mountain, trying to climb up spiny and slippery rock. Smaller and lighter, the kids swiftly ascended that small hill and reached the top at no time.
"Come quickly, Mr.Supot, it's awesome up here," Nid shouted as he struggled to the top.
Standing on a flattop of the small hill, Mr.Supot and his troop were looking at the horizon, where another range of mountain was positioned. Between two mountains lay a large field of yellow and green grasses, partially submerged in the water. For a while, only the heavy breaths and birds' songs were audible. The calm wind flirted with grasses, creating moving waves of green and golden leaves. Small patches of water reflected nothing, but the bare blue sky. The panorama of the Samroiyod Wetland appeared before them.
"I always bring students up here," Mr.Supot finally broke the silence, "Only a handful of people get a chance to see what the wetland really looks like. You see the mountain over there. That's the Thailand-Burma border. And down there, that's the town of Samroiyod. Each year, the wetland in front of us received 14 million cubic feet of water from the town and factories, and this land filtered water before releasing it to the sea behind us. The grasses slowed down the flow, allowing the waste and pollutants to sit at the bottom of the wetland. It saves our sea. Townies, government people. They don't live here. Their lives don't depend on the sea. So they don't care. They think of the wetland as a ‘wasteland,' in which they can grow nothing. They don't realize how much we owe this wetland. They just want to make use of it. I guess that's why I'm still doing what I have been doing. The kids are still learning. They learn fast. If they know what I know about the wetland, they will want to save it. The school and parents might say that taking students to the field is astray. I don't care. Those adults have lost contacts to the land. I don't want that to happen with the students. They are going to live here. We need them to take care of this place."
The sun was descending behind the faraway mountain. Mr.Supot did not say a word. Tired but glowing, his black eyes looked for his students, who, since climbing up here, had incessantly gone back and fourth like young monkeys on the trees. They surveyed every single crevice on the rock and giggled as they poked at strange millipedes and pale earthworms. Mr.Supot smiled and told the kids that it was time to go home. Slightly disappointed, they bid farewell to the wetland and the worms and slowly climbed down the rock. "Oh man, this is so much fun. I should have known about this place before," Keng said as they hopped into the truck, "I think I'm gonna join the group, so that I can be here more often."
"Me too!" exclaimed the rest of them.
After a long, frustrating movement for educational reform, the Ministry of Education finally launched the National Basic Education Curriculum (NBEC) in 2001. Attempting to rectify the major flaws from the previous national curriculum, which standardized all of the materials taught in schools, NBEC gives schools more freedom to design their own curricula that could meet the needs of local communities. In principles, the school is expected to create a "community-based" education that not only fully utilize learning resources within the community but also cover all of the eight basic disciplines from language, mathematics to technology. According to NBEC, high schools graduates should have a solid understanding of local issues and be able to use their basic skills to solve the problems.
The guideline that accompanies NBEC stresses the importance of environmental education as a way to produce a "desirable science student." After twelve years of schooling, according to this guideline, a student should "express the appreciation in the beauty of the nature and realize the importance of natural resources and environment. [A student should also] participate in activities related to the conservation of natural resources and environment in schools and communities." Many educators and policymakers are hopeful about this new, promising curriculum because the suggested guideline should be applicable to all schools, regardless of their environments. However, after the decade of NBEC, environmental education has made a fairly little progress.
Formerly a student in Mr.Supot's environmental education, Prateung returned to Samroiyod Junior High and taught Thai language. Now as a teacher, she remained involved in the program, helping Mr.Supot organize various activities. "Mr.Supot is crazy. He is workaholic. One good thing is that he doesn't a wife. Otherwise, his wife would have been miserable. He doesn't get along with a lot of teachers here, either. I guess, that makes it hard for him to run the program," Prateung observed, "The harder part, though, I think has to do with the curriculum. We don't have time for extracurricular activities or something off track. It is true that we now have different curricula, but for students to go to college, to move on with their lives, they are still tested on certain materials. As much as I want to teach them some nature poems, I am obliged to teach them some classic works that will definitely be on the national exams. It was hard."
The national exams that Prateung mentioned are part of the national assessment to evaluate if students' performance meets the national standards. If not, the school must revise its curriculum and improve student's performance. Although the failing schools will not be penalized nor closed, the colleges require students to submit their assessment scores and use them as a main criterion for admissions. For many bright students, excelling this national test is far more important than learning about their local community.
"It is hard to compete with that idea of getting out of this place," Mr.Supot admitted, "Many of students' parents are poor and work so hard to send their children to school. They don't want to see their kids stuck here, doing the same laborious work that they did. They want their kids to become doctors, engineers or something that pays them a good sum. Not many people want to live here. Telling them to come back and work here almost sounds backward."
He recalled one of his best students, Pook, who was also the professional birder. When coming down to the Samroiyod Wetland, many nationally known bird experts had to follow Pook and listened to what he said. However, during high school, his father, a military officer, coerced him to leave the program and concentrated on getting into the college. Pook, as Mr.Supot remembered, was a smart student, and to nobody's surprises, he went to a prestigious college. However, he left his birding career behind and tried to become a professional musician. "I don't know what he was thinking, but, these days, when he comes home, he looks like a ghost, speaking to no one and playing music at nights," Mr.Supot sighed, "I thought that he would be one of the greatest birders of Thailand and continue to educate other people about the birds of our wetland. But, whatever, I hope he will find what is right for him."
On the curbside of Route 4, Mr.Supot sat beside me, waiting for the next bus to Bangkok. He bought me a bottle of chocolate milk from a local convenient store and drank his coffee. The serene wetland and the lazy mountain were still there on the other side of the street, perhaps quietly watching us sipping our beverages. I thanked him for taking care of me during my short visit to Samroiyod and asked if he had any advice for me for the career as environmental educator. He patted on my shoulder and replied,
"I'm glad to know that you want to be an environmental educator, but I must warn you. It is a hard job. It is easily discouraging. The reason I'm standing here because I'm insane. I'm crazily in love with what I am doing. As a teacher, you have to keep fighting for your students. I'm always happy to see my students going out in the field and confidently explaining tourists, reporters, or even their peers about our wetland. At least they know about the park across the street, the place they live. That's what matters to me the most."
"But as a teacher, what can you really do when the system is not the favor of environmental education?"
"In this country, we already have a lot of talkers, but not a single doer. It is the duty of environmental educator to take initiatives. We cannot wait for the curriculum to solve the problems, because it never will. We must learn about the place and create our own way to teach students about it. That would be my answer for you."
The bus finally came. I stood up from the table, ready to leave. "Remember, teaching environment is not easy," Mr.Supot said, "because your job is to connect the school to the community. Make students feel that the school is important for their community. If I can do it, I'm sure you can do it too."