Reeya Nalenkaew is very excited over his forthcoming participation in a national painting contest in Bangkok. He has been dedicating at least two hours a day for months preparing to compete in this competition.
Chaiyot Sukto instructs his class on how to make multilayered shadows for ceramic and porcelain models at Ban Yangpao School, Omkoi district, ChiangMai.
"I love the beauty of nature. I want to capture this beauty that I have been living with and put it on canvas," Reeya says. Although the topic of the contest is Thai literature, he is confident that his skills, nurtured by his beloved teacher Chaiyot Sukto, will enable him to do well in the competition. Last year, he competed in a national painting competition and won a silver medal.
Reeya, a 17-year-old Mathayom 3 (Grade 9) student, comes from a poor Karen family in Ban Pha Poon, a small community north of Omkoi town. Currently, he and two of his brothers are students at Ban Yangpao School.
"We want to thank our teacher. If we did not have him, we wouldn't have what we have today," say Reeya and his elder brother, Yajo Nalenkaew.
Teacher in isolation
Omkoi, a town surrounded by mountains and rice terraces, is located in the southernmost district of Chiang Mai, approximately 180km from the provincial city.
The remoteness of the district, the headline news of thick-haired elephants having been spotted in the deep forests of the Omkoi Wildlife Sanctuary years ago and the fact that people in some of the remote communities in this locality are still using elephants to plough their paddy fields have helped to make Omkoi one of the most mysterious places in Thailand.
All these components enchant travellers. However, for many teachers who are deployed in the area, the condition of the district is more likely to depress than to enthral.
"I was crying on the first day I arrived at my school," Mr Chaiyot, a Doi Tao district-born teacher says while laughing aloud as if the pain in the past were an amusing memory. He recounts that 12 years ago, when he was first assigned to Omkoi's Ban Mae Khong School, he had to walk 57km on a muddy road up and down mountains to reach the school.
"It was a truly out-of-this-world experience. I felt like I had been kicked out into another universe. There were no newspapers, no telephones. Instead, I was confronted by a multitude of strange languages and an alien culture," says the 170-centimetre-tall man wearing a black bandanna. "Today, I still cite this period in my life to teach my students that sometimes in life we are faced with difficult obstacles, but we must overcome them," he adds.
The culture shock stunned him for only a week. Since then, he has been devoting all his energy to helping students who live and study in hard to reach places.
Mr Chaiyot is now a teacher at Ban Yangpao School, a 20-minute drive from Omkoi town. It is better-equipped than his old school. As a fine arts graduate, Mr Chaiyot is responsible for teaching art and social sciences to Mathayom 1 to 3 (Grades 7 to 9) pupils.
Building art skills
In one of Mr Chaiyot's classes, students sit around assorted potteries, which are set in the centre of the classroom. The students are told to draw the "models". Mr Chaiyot supervises each student closely during the exercise.
The course content that he uses is comparable to that applied at vocational certificate level.
"If you want to learn something, you need to understand and be familiar with its core," he explains. His methodology ensures that students begin by learning basic composition and drawing skills. After that, he lets the students choose the paint or colouring media that they want to master.
"Artistic expressions spring from using one's free time productively. I let my students start with something simple and convince them that learning art is not difficult. I have to train myself to do things quickly, so that students can see that works of art can be produced easily," he says, adding that in the final analysis, students have to be aware of the beauty of the world in order to be good art learners.
"It is not necessary for art students to have talent. I always tell my students that they need to love their subject to be able to excel in it. Most things are accomplished by perseverance," he comments. Mr Chaiyot believes that his achievements today are the result of continuous efforts and good teachers.
"I am now learning how to draw by using my left hand, my mouth and my feet. I want to show my students that often success is not achieved by talent but by concentrated effort.
"When I draw with my feet, I tell my students that I am not mocking the physically-challenged, that I am not a physically-challenged person, but that I want to demonstrate to them that all skills can be learned," he says.
The young art enthusiasts attend artistic sessions run Mr Chaiyot. Each week, students spend one hour at a club that focuses on an activity related to their interest.
Mr Chaiyot looks after the activities of four clubs: art, traditional songs, dancing, and table tennis. The art club, with 52 student members, is one of the largest clubs in the school. However, he says, one class per week is not enough to nurture artistic skills. Consequently, Mr Chaiyot invites students who want to learn the practical side of art to come and practise with him after school on weekdays or at weekends.
Chaiyot Sukto supervises a student.
As a result of Mr Chaiyot's help, Reeya will move on to Chiang Mai Vocational College (CMVC) to continue his studies after graduating from Ban Yangpao School.
Mr Chaiyot contacted his former teachers at CMVC to take Reeya under their charge, just as he did for 10 other students before Reeya. Some students live with their "mentors". Sometimes Mr Chaiyot had to beg the abbot of a temple near the college to provide shelter for students during their studies.
Without his help, his poverty-stricken students would have had little chance of continuing their education in a city. The first two students that Mr Chaiyot supported are now in their third year at Rajamangala University of Technology Lanna in Chiang Mai.
"I don't know what I will do when the teachers whom I asked to 'adopt' my children retire," he bemoans. "I might need to make friends with some of the new teachers there," he quips.
Aware of the many limitations, although many of his current students want to follow in their seniors' footsteps, Mr Chaiyot is unable to ask his former teachers at CMVC to act as guardians to all of them.
"I tell my students that they need to constantly remind themselves that they are a burden to the host teachers. Having a meal with them once or twice is already a burden, but actually living with them for three years or, if they are kind enough to support you longer, say, seven years, that is a true act of generosity on their part," he says.
Under the circumstances, he always tells students to behave properly and to assist their voluntary guardians as much as possible.
Mr Chaiyot tries to encourage his students to participate in competitions. He says that by taking part in contests, students get to know their own abilities and second, the rewards or prizes that students gain will be beneficial to them if and when they apply for a job.
Last year, his students won a total of 27 awards at local- and national-level art competitions.
Mr Chaiyot opens a bank account for each student who receives a monetary prize from a competition. Every baht that is received by the student is deposited into the individual's bank account by Mr Chaiyot. The teacher says that this is to inculcate in his students the value of thriftiness and the habit of saving.
Commitment to teaching
Reeya and Yajo have decided to become teachers and return to teach at a school in Ban Pha Poon.
When he was a child, Mr Chaiyot never thought he would ever become a teacher. He is the youngest child in a family with 12 children, and his parents never encouraged him to go to school. He and his brother jointly funded his education until he graduated with a bachelor's degree from Chiang Mai Rajabhat University.
Initially, Mr Chaiyot was not a great student; he once ranked 33rd in a class of 34 students.
"My friends usually excluded me from their group because of my poor performance," he says.
However, at the college, he was one of the top students, and he says it was due to the care and attention that the teachers there lavished on him.
In the past, he held the view that there was a distance between all teachers and students. However, a teacher at CMVC wiped out this negative perception and inspired him to reach his life-changing decision to become a teacher.
"One day, my teacher put his arm around my neck to express his admiration for me as a student," he recalls. "From that day, it was engraved in my mind that I was going to become a teacher," he says, adding that that teacher is still his role model today.
It is not an uncommon sight to see Mr Chaiyot playing with his students or cooking and selling roti (a southern flat bread) alongside them, just as friends do.
"There must be no distance between students and teachers. If we allow a distance to develop, all of us become ineffective. Students will fear us teachers. They won't dare to speak to us or face us," explains Mr Chaiyot.
Peace of mind
The art pieces by Mr Chaiyot's students are certain to stun people who have the opportunity to see them. It might be hard to believe that these pictures are drawn and painted by students in such a secluded place.
Many people have asked Mr Chaiyot what things keep him in such a far-flung place when he has exceptional talents that would probably bring him fame and fortune if he were teaching in a big city.
"Three things," he says, "culture, nature and students."
"Real happiness does not come from money alone, but it includes the peace of mind that I gain from these three things," he continues.
He does not expect all his students to continue studying or to work in the world of art.
"I hope that putting artistic abilities into practice will relax the students, and it is the way to train the eye to link with the brain. They can always apply this skill to other academic or work areas later on," he explains.
According to Mr Chaiyot, a successful art teacher, or indeed a teacher of any other subject, needs to have "knowledge. However, people who have knowledge alone cannot endure in the teaching community. They need to have love: love their students, their society, their college and their country. This is the true heart of being a professional teacher".
Reeya will soon be leaving Omkoi to weave his future in Chiang Mai. Yajo has already asked Mr Chaiyot to send him there, too, after he graduates. Mr Chaiyot will remain in Omkoi and will nourish students for many generations to come.
"As long as I have students who dedicate their heart to learning, I'll continue doing this for as long as I can," he says.
Mr Chaiyot welcomes donations for art supplies and other assistance. He can be reached on 080-051-3560.
Mr Chaiyot welcomes donations for art supplies and other assistance. He can be reached on 080-051-3560.