PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Seeking to find a comparison between modern history and an adventure being undertaken by a group of students at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, Seri Parndejpong, director of the Lertlah School in Thailand, pulled out a book he was reading about President Barack Obama.
“Barack Obama is the first African-American president,” Parndejpong said, holding up a copy of a book with a picture of Obama on the cover. “And you are the first students from UMPI coming to teach at the Lertlah School.”
The group of 10 UMPI education students who met Friday with Parndejpong and Gary Smith, Lertlah School assistant director, will head to Thailand by the end of the month as the first representatives of a partnership between UMPI and the Bangkok school.
Last September, officials from the two schools signed an agreement that will allow UMPI education students to complete their student teaching requirements at Lertlah School, a private school with three campuses. The school is bilingual, with a portion of the courses taught in English.
Education students in their final year at UMPI must complete a student teaching requirement, which most students fulfill in classrooms in Aroostook County and other parts of the state. UMPI students now can apply to complete their student teaching at Lertlah School.
The first group of 10 student teachers will spend 10 months in Thailand teaching English, math, science and other subjects at the school, which caters to students up to the ninth grade.
The grade level the student teachers will teach will depend on whether they are studying elementary education or secondary education at UMPI.
Smith and Parndejpong met with the UMPI student teachers at an orientation session, educating them about the school, the country and its culture.
The Lertlah School already brings student teachers from the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, but this is the first time the school has partnered with a U.S. university.
“We are very excited about this collaboration with UMPI,” said Parndejpong. “We want to give our students an international education.”
Rob McIver, an UMPI teacher certification student from Nova Scotia, said he was sold on the idea of completing his student teaching requirements in Thailand within a few minutes of hearing about the opportunity.
“I want to do it for the experience,” he said Friday. “My brother taught in South Korea for a time, and he loved it. My whole family is behind me on this, offering their support.”
McIver said he might consider a career teaching abroad if he enjoys his experience in Thailand.
While he is excited about the opportunity, he says he’s a bit apprehensive about the distance between him and his family while he is in Thailand.
“The distance from home scares me a little, but all of my friends and family are going to keep in touch,” he said.
Shawna Lyons, an UMPI teacher certification student from Oakfield, said she jumped at the opportunity to teach in Thailand.
“I love to travel, and I studied abroad in London for a time,” she said. “I have never been to Asia.”
Lyons said she is looking to return to Aroostook County after her time in Thailand to pursue a teaching career in a County school.
“I have family and friends who are already planning on visiting me in Thailand,” she said.
Smith said the student teachers’ journey to Bangkok would take about 25 hours. Once there they will undergo three weeks of orientation in Thailand before classes start.
“Each student teacher will receive their own apartment, and we help them set up bank accounts,” Smith said Friday. “The student teachers will get to know each other and the rest of the staff, and we are going to teach them things they need to know, such as how to buy food. It is pretty hard to buy food in a foreign country if you don’t know the language and you can’t read a menu. Sometimes you just have to point at something someone else is eating and hope.”
When the orientation is over, the UMPI student teachers will be in classrooms of 25 to 30 students.
“This is going to be a great experience for them,” Smith said Friday. “If we see success with this program at UMPI, I’d like to expand this opportunity to student teachers at all of the University of Maine campuses.”