Sandy Michael never truly retired from teaching. Instead, she took a giant leap of faith and transitioned from working with elementary students in Indiana to teaching elementary students in Thailand.
“I was retiring and looking for [something] to do,” Michael said. “It’s just part of who I am as a Christian that the love of God builds a fire in you to make you want to do things for other people.”
A Terre Haute native, Michael graduated from Indiana State University in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and received her master’s degree in early childhood education from ISU in 1973. She taught third grade and kindergarten in Monticello and Mitchell, Ind. for 36 years.
She said the courses she took at Indiana State made her “well prepared” to enter the teaching field.
Michael retired in 2006, but she still had a desire to help children receive a good education. She soon discovered that the options to volunteer teach in her hometown were limited to an after-school program, substitute teaching and short-lived program at her church. So she looked elsewhere and found opportunities in the world.
“I was never interested in substitute teaching,” Michael said. “Being in a relationship with students day in and day out is much better that being a person who just fills in.”
“If we eat rice three times a day, we think that’s not quite right. If Asians don’t have rice three times a day, they think something is wrong.” – Sandy Michael
Michael contacted International Ministries, an organization that connects people to mission opportunities, and asked how she could serve overseas.
With the help of International Ministries and the Amity Foundation in China she took baby steps to becoming a full-time international teacher. She began with a three-week trip to Brazil where she taught conversational English to Brazilian missionaries. From there, Michael traveled to China where she spent one month teaching English to Chinese teachers.
“I thought ‘OK, maybe I can teach children with my experience,’” Michael said. “I asked about opportunities and found this one [in Chiang Rai].”
Chiang Rai International Christian School began as a home school system aimed at educating missionaries’ children. In 2011, the school opened its own campus to accommodate its growing student population and is currently working to receive international accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and the Association of Christian Schools International. The school is an English-based school that teaches children of missionaries, pastors and other nonprofit agency workers.
Michael is in her sixth year of teaching English at Chiang Rai International Christian School. She taught first grade for three years and is in her third year of teaching kindergarten.
“At first it was just a trial run, but then I saw that this small school had a huge challenge ahead in creating an international school with full accreditation,” Michael said. “I was excited by the need to create curriculum, a room with appropriate furniture and materials in a place where none of those things were available.”
She was drawn to the school because of the ability to provide a good education to missionaries’ children and the value they placed on creative teachers. With the exception of a “ratty blue-painted table that is now used for art projects,” Michael built her classroom from scratch. She purchases many of her school supplies including books, posters and crayons in the United States and takes them back Thailand with her.
“A lot of times I bring things in suitcases or mail them,” Michael said. “Now, I have this marvelous classroom that is fully furnished but it has taken five years.”
Although she teaches all subjects in English, there are many different languages, including six Thai tribal languages, spoken at the school. For some of Michael’s students, English is their third language.
“Parents of one child are Thai and American… yet another set of parents are Canadian and Australian,” Michael said. “Two other children have Thai parents and [recently] I got a boy from the state of Pennsylvania.”
Michael calls Thai people “gentle, kind, respectful and hospitable.” She said that although they have very little, they are happy.
“I think as Americans we are very wealthy,” Michael said. “Even people that consider themselves middle class are wealthy compared to most Asians.”
Michael had to adjust to different cultural practices when she moved to Thailand including removing her shoes when entering a building and eating with a tablespoon instead of a fork. She also found differences in the country’s driving and eating habits.
She said that people in Thailand drive on the left side of the road, pass on the wrong side in an intersection and do not stop when turning onto main roads.
“I think as Americans we are very wealthy. Even people that consider themselves middle class are wealthy compared to most Asians.”– Sandy Michael
“The first year I just watched, but now I drive,” she said.
While Michael appreciates the healthy fruits and vegetables available in Thailand, she said their food choices differ from the “bread and potatoes” diet that Americans have.
“If we eat rice three times a day, we think that’s not quite right,” Michael said. “If Asians don’t have rice three times a day, they think something is wrong.”
Michael’s experiences have not only increased her global awareness, but also better developed her sense of self and deepened her faith.
“More significantly I’ve learned… there are lovely people in all parts of the world and I can really count on the Lord wherever I go,” she said.
Michael’s teaching position in Thailand has opened the door for her to travel the world. During the past several years, she has visited Australia and Israel among many other places. In her retirement, she prefers to ride elephants and climb waterfalls instead of relaxing on a beach in Florida.
Michael goes home to Mitchell, Ind., for three-month summer breaks and two weeks at Christmas. Calling America “tremendously beautiful,” she said she misses her family, but considers Thailand her second home.
“I have a good time trying to help people who are visiting for the first time,” Michael said. “I laugh and say that I am their tour guide, which is funny since I’m not from this country.”
Although some people have difficulty understanding why Michael chooses to spend most of the year away from home, she receives a lot of encouragement and support from her mother, brother and son.
“I’m really happy to be here,” Michael said.
To learn more about the teaching opportunities available at Chiang Rai International Christian School visit http://crics.asia/.
Emily Sturgess is a sophomore communication student at Indiana State University.