CCHS grad McKenna Ontko spends four months teaching the English language to teenagers in Thailand

PHOTO COURTESY OF MCKENNA ONTKO - McKenna Ontko spent four months teaching English to 13- and 14-year-old students in Maha Sarakham, Thailand. Pictured is Ontko with some of her favorite, more advanced students on her last day.

Some students were standing on their desks.

Some were wrestling around.

A girl in the corner was checking her makeup on her hand-held mirror, while others were walking on the roof of the school, and some weren't even present.

It was her first day of teaching, and McKenna Ontko somehow had to teach English to these unruly Thailand teenagers.

"The classrooms were wild," she said. "Thai people live by this 'no worries' saying, which is really cool, but it's something I'd never seen in schools."

Ontko always knew that she wanted to live somewhere else for a while, but when she landed a four-month job teaching English to hundreds of teens in rural Thailand, she was in for a big surprise as the kids and the cultural differences quickly surfaced.

"When I looked to go to Thailand, I saw the beautiful beaches, and I thought, 'That's where I want to go,'" the 26-year-old Prineville native said. "I got placed in rural, and I was upset at first, but it turned out to be amazing."

The daughter of John and Tia Ontko, she graduated from Crook County High School in 2010 and earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in education from Western Oregon University in 2016.

"I love Prineville, but I knew I wanted to travel," Ontko said. "When I graduated, I didn't have a job at the time, I didn't have a family that I was leaving behind, and the opportunity came to teach in Thailand, which utilized my degree."

She looked into the Teaching English to a Foreign Language program and applied for a four-month teaching stint in Thailand.

"That's the perfect amount of time — not too short but long enough to live there and experience it," she said.

She got the job and landed in Bangkok on Oct. 15, where she and 100 other English-speaking teachers from various countries attended a three-day orientation.

Ontko was originally placed in Bangkok, but after a week, she and one other teacher were transferred to Maha Sarakham, a small city off the beaten path, 10 hours by bus northeast of Bangkok, and away from everything.

"It turned out amazing, but it was quite the dilemma at the beginning of my stay," Ontko shared.

She and three other teachers rented a space from Derna, their "House Mom," who knew very limited English. Derna ran a small hotel and took good care of the girls, even throwing dinner parties on holidays.

Ontko's housemates were from England, South Africa and Italy, and all four taught English at Phadung Naree School, a high school for 10- to 16-year-olds. Her students were 13 and 14 years old.

"I taught English, and I had 20 different classes with 52 students in each class," Ontko said — 1,040 students! "And they didn't speak any English."

And, of course, she didn't know their language.

She taught four or five different classes each weekday. Her day began with gate duty at 7:15 a.m. and concluded at 4:15 p.m. Rather than the students changing classrooms, the teachers would rotate.

The native teachers would go to class 15 minutes late because they knew the students wouldn't even be there yet.

"It was really unorganized but taught me a lot," Ontko said. "The kids aren't very disciplined, but they're still good kids."

With only a handful of students knowing minimal English, and very few interested in learning English, communicating was tough.

"I really learned how to do a lot of gestures, and we played games to help them figure things out," she said, adding that she often used pictures.

"'Cow' seems very easy, but that means something totally different with their language. Cow means 'white' for them, so I would say 'cow,' thinking how can you not understand me, but they really didn't, so that was challenging," she said.

Teachers are not allowed to fail a student in Thailand.

"In the end, it was kind of sad because I'd have kids that I had never seen before come to my last class, and as a teaching requirement, I had to figure out how to help them earn enough points by asking simple questions so they weren't failing in the gradebook," Ontko said, adding that she had to bring 300 of her students up to passing. "It was probably really disheartening for the kids who actually did try."

At the end of the course, her students were not fluent in English but had learned some of the basics.

"I feel that this experience helped me gain confidence in the classroom, which is what I'm happy about," Ontko said.

On weekends, Ontko and her teaching friends were free to travel to nearby islands or ride their rented moped bikes to other rural villages. They frequented a swimming pool and went to some concerts. Ontko's family was even able to visit her in Thailand, and she was able to travel with them for one of the weeks they were there while school was on break. 

In mid-December — on her birthday — she got into a wreck on her moped, and two days later, got into a second wreck.

"They don't have traffic rules — there's no stop signs, nothing," Ontko said. "On a two-lane road, there are so many mopeds around that they've made seven lanes out of it — at least."

While on her lunch break, a guy on his small motorcycle turned too soon and swiped the back of her bike, knocking it out from under her. She suffered severe road rash, and her bike landed on her leg, causing huge bruises.

She was able to make it back to school, and her fellow teachers had her go to the emergency room, where for $3, they took X-rays and gave her some pain medicine.

Two days later, late at night, another driver passed her as she was turning, hitting her handlebars and knocking her off her moped. She got more road rash and was shook up but otherwise OK.

"I was so scared. I didn't drive for a long time," she said.

She once met a Thai girl who didn't speak English, and by using Google Translate, she invited Ontko to spend New Year's with her family in a nearby village.

"It was really interesting. They slept on the floor. They don't have beds. They eat on the floor," Ontko said of the family's hut.

Toward the end of her stay, her Thai friends and teachers gave the visiting teachers a going away costume party, and their House Mom made a special farewell dinner.

Ontko's last day teaching was March 6, and she returned to Prineville.

She is waiting to substitute for Central Oregon schools and plans to eventually get her master's in teaching. She would love to someday teach language arts to fourth- through eighth-graders in her hometown.

One thing that's certain — her international teaching days are over.

"I've always known I've loved Prineville, but being away made me love it even more," Ontko said. "It was a great experience, but I was ready to come home."

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