An hour’s drive out from the city of Chiang Mai, behind a few narrow, winding country roads lined with rice paddies, the Good Kids Preschool is tucked away.
It is a quiet morning in the village, but the schoolyard is alive with noise and movement. The school seems like any other at first glance: children running haphazardly to and fro and playing before school starts. A closer look tells a different story. Rather than maintaining a respectable distance Khruu Dom, one of the school’s directors, plays tag with a group of kids, who are shrieking with laughter. Another look reveals teachers greeting each child with a hug as they run inside for the school-wide “circle time.” This isn’t an ordinary Thai preschool.
And in the midst of black-haired Thai teachers and a sea of green – the children are all clad in smocks and patterned pants in the Northern Thai style – one young woman in a bright pink top and blonde hair is conspicuously out of place as she hugs each of the youngest children and greets them in Thai.
But really Mary Raikes, a SIM cross-cultural worker from New Zealand who is serving as a preschool English teacher here, is not that out of place at all – she’s actually quite at home.
“There’s this contentment and this peace in my soul, like this is where I’m supposed to be,” she says.
Mary arrived in Thailand in 2014 to serve as a teacher at Good Kids Preschool, a bilingual Christian establishment. As a native English speaker and with her background in preschool education, her skills were a good fit for Good Kids, especially since access to English teachers is rare in small and more remote villages like this one – and English is both a desirable and increasingly necessary skill in Thai education.
Then there’s her salary. Foreign teachers are usually quite expensive, but as a missionary who has raised her own funds to live in Thailand, Good Kids is able to employ Mary and keep costs down so that tuition remains affordable for those in their community.
Mostly, Mary came to teach so that she could love the children, and Good Kids Preschool is a good place to do that – a school where showing and modeling love is the highest objective.
So Mary greets the kids as they patter up the stairs into morning assembly, giving them a wai (a Thai greeting, in which the hands are pressed together, prayer-like, and the greeter bows slightly) and a hug. The former is a traditional Thai greeting, the latter decidedly less so, but hugs are given freely at Good Kids Preschool.
“Not all the children are treated with love at home, and they need that and deserve that as children,” says Khruu Amm (Khruu means teacher in Thai). “And if you hug them, they know that they are loved everyday. And when we are talking about how God is love, they remember that God loves them and that God is good to them.”
“It just seemed like there’s this distance between the teacher and the student, this innate respect, which means they can’t get on the same level as the child... and hug them and be close to them,” Mary says of the times she’s visited other Thai schools. “So for us, it’s all about showing God’s love to the kids and just making sure that they have someone in their lives that loves them and connects with them.”
Khruu Am, along with her husband Khruu Dom, are the directors of Good Kids Preschool. The school has been open for five years, but has been ten years in the making.
“God put in my heart a burden to help children who are at risk and orphans,” says Khruu Amm, whose father passed away when she was young. “I feel like I could come this far in life because of God and because of education. Education is very important to give children a better life.”
From there, the couple prayed and began the Good Kids Project through the foundation they were working with at the time. They began with a small group of kids, including their eldest son, and taught English and math. Eventually they built and opened the Good Kids Preschool.
Mary found her way to Good Kids Preschool after she had been in Thailand on a short-term trip in January 2013, when she felt the first inklings that she would come back longer-term.
“There was a little baby at a fish factory [we had visited], sitting in a laundry basket while her mum was working twelve-hour days,” Mary says. “And that was the baby’s life, just sitting there, all day, everyday, and that broke my heart.
“I was like, ‘I can’t go home and leave this baby like that,’” she says. “After that I just felt God tugging at my heart to come back to Thailand and love the children.”
Mary uprooted and came to Chiang Mai a year later in January 2014 and after taking intensive Thai language lessons, started teaching in May. It was disorienting to teach in a culture and country she was still wrapping her head around – all while settling into a new life and continuing with Thai language lessons so that she could interact better with the kids, who only spoke bits and pieces of English.
“It was quite a shock to me…it’s very sit-down, structured learning, which I’m not used to,” she says. “It was quite a challenge to get to know [the students] and know what’s appropriate here and what’s expected.”
Now, though, Mary has found her niche in the school community. She leads two K2 level classes (four-year-olds) in English, teaching everything from phonics, reading, math, and conversation. Once a week, she leads the school-wide circle time and also spends time helping the other teachers with their English
Mary says that though she’s tended to be “quite individualistic” in her work style in the past, she’s learned to meld herself with the more collectivist culture of Thailand, planning her lessons with the other teachers and being more flexible in her plans as well.
“Definitely the community makes it easier to work here. I feel so accepted and part of the group of teachers,” she says. “The teachers are really supportive.”
“Mary loves Thailand, loves the kids here, and I see her heart when she plays with the children and every time that she teaches – she’s doing it with her heart,” says Khruu Yu Pa, Mary’s coworker and friend. “So thank you, God, for her!”
Khruu Amm and Khruu Dom have made Good Kids Preschool not just a school, but a home.
“It’s like a big family, and Khruu Dom and Khruu Amm, they really look after the teachers,” Mary says.
“For us, we don’t think that this is work, this is our life,” Khruu Dom says. “We treat the students as our own children.”
Their work is indeed personal – there is no separation of work and home. Khruu Amm and Dom both grew up and now live in the village that the school is in. They have invested their lives in that community.
“They are my model to serve God,” says Khruu Yu Pa, who was adopted by Khruu Amm and Dom when she was ten. “I saw them serve God when I was young, so I wanted to be like them. It’s very meaningful that I get to teach here.”
Amm and Dom’s heart and vision is to see their community transformed through education and the Gospel.
“We are the first Christian family in this village,” Khruu Amm says. “It’s also been a dream to have a church in this village, but it was not possible before.”
“At first, the community was watching, thinking, ‘What are they doing?’” Khruu Amm says of the early days of the school opening. “Now I think they are more open and are able to send their children to come to the school, and some of them are sending their youth to come for the worship during Sunday services.”
Enrollment at the school is at it’s highest ever at 170 students and Mary has decided to stay on for at least another three years, immersing herself more deeply in Thai culture and the school community and the simple pleasures of just spending time with the students.
Even though Mary says there are “moments when it’s felt like, this is where I’m meant to be,” there are moments when life in Thailand is far from peachy. She is currently trying to sort out car issues, having unknowingly bought a stolen car. After returning the car to the auction company she bought it from, she still has not received a refund. Ongoing health issues, in the form of recurring bouts of bronchitis, have slowed down daily life as well.
Remembering the best parts of her life in Thailand, has been crucial in not allowing circumstances to override her trust in God, and the belief that Thailand is where she’s “meant to be.”
“For me, that [feeling] is most poignant at the graduation ceremonies,” Mary says. “Seeing the kids in the highest level class – how much English they can speak, and how confident they have grown, sharing in front of the parents and everyone.”
“I have a joke with Mary, I always tell her, ‘You were born in the wrong place!’ The way she talks, the way she acts is very, very Thai!” Khruu Dom says. “Mary is our sister, is one of the family.”
For Mary, she’s well aware that God, who led her to Thailand, has also given her a new place, family, and home there.
“This is where God’s planted me,” she says.
Good Kids Preschool is in need of another native-English-speaking teacher, either full-time or part-time. If you are interested, or you know someone who might be, please get in touch here!