Inspired by our story about Julia, we’re also tracking the progress of Dave Montgomery as he prepared for life in Thailand as a teacher. Dave’s situation is slightly different to Julia’s. He’s married to a Thai lady already and he intends to teach in the city of Udon Thani - up in the North East of Thailand. And his father-in-law is also a teacher!
My name is Dave - 9th November 2007
My name is Dave. I am 45, I live in Melbourne Florida, USA, and I'm on the verge of making a life-changing event to live in Thailand. I met my beautiful wife here in the US and found out afterwards that she was half-Thai and half-American and her father had lived in Udon Thani for the past 30 years - and he was an English teacher.
Ever since I was a very young child I knew I wanted to live in a SE Asian country. We own a small farm with a simple Thai style house just outside Udon that I find quite relaxing and comfortable.
I have been to Udon and the surrounding area twice in the last six years. Luckily for me, my wife and in-laws have prepared me for this huge step in my life. I am nervous about doing a TEFL course as I do not really know to expect. I have read about how intense these courses can be and hope I am up to the challenge but I will approach it with the same passion I have for wanting to live in the kingdom.
Visas are the one thing that makes me worry some, as we will be coming over on one-way tickets and having read on the internet forums on how the mood of the immigration officer can make or break you on entering the county. We are planning to make the trip over sometime in mid-December so the countdown is on. We do have an escape plan in the event that everything goes sour in Thailand but I feel very optimistic.
Initial thoughts from Phil - 10th November 2007
Well Dave. The countdown is well and truly on. Your story should make a very interesting contrast with Julia's. She's a British lady; you're an American guy. She plans to work in Bangkok, whereas you've obviously got your heart set on working out in the sticks.
I think many new arrivals would envy you from a distance because you've already got something of a support network set up. Even though you'll probably be living in the middle of nowhere, you haven't got to worry about ordering meals or getting your ironing done (that's assuming your wife is one of those rare domesticated types)
I think having a Thai support network can be something of a double-edged sword though. Thai family members and Thai friends can sometimes be full of well-meaning advice but I've found from experience they don't always get it right. I'd always advise you to go with your instincts and seek out people that have been there and done it. I can't think of specific examples right now but I know this way of thinking has always stood me in good stead. I'm not imploring you to rock the boat and disrupt the family harmony but think about what's best for Dave Montgomery from time to time.
I get a lot of questions from people worried about entering Thailand on one-way visas, and reading some of the popular Thailand forums you would think that people get turned away in droves. It simply isn't the case. I don't personally know a single person who's had a problem with the Thai immigration - certainly not at the airport.
If there's a problem with your visa, it's usually the airline company that'll raise a red flag at the check-in counter. I presume at some stage you'll be going for the marriage visa anyway so what type of visa are you planning to arrive on. Also what TEFL course have you decided to take and what influenced your decision? I look forward to your questions. Who knows, we might have someone in Udon Thani offer their help along the way.
Getting ready for departure - 19th November 2007
Hi Phillip, Here is another installment of my up coming journey. So far, things here in the US are going smoothly with regard to the move but there is a little snag. Thanksgiving is just a few short days away and I am feeling a bit of family pressure to stay for the winter holidays. Seems the family would like to have both my wife and I around for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years day and then have us leave. With this in mind, we will postpone our departure from the US until the middle of January when the airfares drop in price.
Getting ready to leave for a foreign country and a new life has had an interesting affect on people, along with me. One thing I have noticed is I seem to be looking at the local area with a different perspective and trying to commit the sites, sounds, smells, and experiences to memory. Living here in Florida has seen some of the best days of my life like meeting my wife, learning to fly an airplane, seeing the many launches of the Space Shuttle and other rockets, living only seven miles from the Atlantic Ocean, building my high performance VW Bug, and working for my family's business just to name a few. As far as family and friends have been, let's just say - a little different. I have noticed that they are starting to distance themselves from me. I see it as a self-defense mechanism against having there feelings hurt by my departure but it does feel odd. For the most part our friends have expressed everything from sadness to joy and even envy from a few.
I would like to thank you Phil for forwarding the letters you have received on behalf of my story as I will write back to everyone who takes the time to write with an offer to help or ask questions. I have been talking to another teacher who has taught in Udon. He has emailed me quite a few documents on TEFL and will be a great help. I also have talked to an administrator of a school in Udon to ask from what TEFL schools he would hire someone.
In closing, I would like to thank both Phillip and you the reader for watching my story unfold before your eyes. I would like to end this letter with a quote from the song (Eminem: Lose Yourself)
"Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity, To seize everything you ever wanted-One moment, Would you capture it or just let it slip?"
TEFL course and visa process - 7th December 2007
I have cast the first die and tempted the Gods of fate as I have enrolled in a TEFL course in Thailand. After many hours of writing and speaking with as many people that I could find to ask about different schools I have made my decision. The school that came to the top of the crowd is a sponsor of this web site. Text and Talk Academy is the winner of my hard-earned money. I feel there are two things that caused me to pick T&T over the multitude of other schools. One is the people I talked with that attended T&T and the other was speaking with Mr. Leigh Richards that works at T&T. In keeping with my desire to live and work in Isaan, I will attend T&T in Khon Kaen.
Now starts the visa processes and tying up loose ends here in the USA. Mr. Richards has been very helpful with the information on visas and I see little problems there. I am having a slight problem with importing our family parrot. So far, all I have gotten from the Royal Thai Consulate General is information on importing dogs and cats. If anyone would have any information on this, would you please forward me their letters?
I took a short trip to Tennessee to visit a favorite Aunt of mine and I was quite surprised to find she was very happy to see me start this new life on the other side of the planet. As fate would have it, we went to a Thai restaurant in Tennessee and the owner had gotten his PhD. in Khon Kaen University and agreed to help in any way he can with the contacts he still has there. My Aunt felt as though I was supposed to meet this gentleman and the path I have chosen is the correct one.
As I write this letter I can see the suitcases, my wife has packed in anticipation of our departure from the US. Many of the things one collects as time goes by are now sold, given away, or thrown away and the house is slowly emptying. It appears as that both cars will be sold along with the furniture. We are now waiting to get the visas once we have them then I shall cast the second die and buy our plane tickets and pass the point of no return. It looks like January 8 is D-Day if no major problems have to be faced.
What to bring from home? - 11th December 2007
Hi Phillip, As the time is starting to wind down I have a question on what I should bring from my home country. This question should hopefully help others thinking of changing there life's and moving to Thailand.
So if you had it to do all over again what would you bring from your home country? I would like to hear about what you will need, what you should have, and what you would have liked to have brought.
So far I have warm weather clothes and a few cool weather things packed. I will bring my laptop computer, external hard drive, wireless router and wireless music bridge. The few other things I will pack are family pictures and a few core RPG gaming books. This is an appeal to both you and your readers as I will be bringing my pet Eclectus parrot to Thailand. I have been searching the Internet, talking with the Thai Consulate, and have been posting to forums with little success. I hope you or your readers may be able to help with this problem.
What about the parrot? - 12th December 2007
Hi Dave. Hopefully one of our readers might be able to help you on the parrot dilemma because frankly speaking, I haven't got a clue. There's really nothing from the UK that I can't get here apart from maybe powdered cooking sauces (I always stock up on those when I go back home). Years ago in the days before the internet, I used to buy up lots of videos of my favorite TV programs but now there's hardly anything that you can't download for free. Not only is it more convenient but you can save a ton of money into the bargain. There are computer shops everywhere you look in Thailand so you needn't worry about computer hardware / software, etc. I bought a 200 GB external hard-drive just the other week and also had a fan replaced for about five dollars. Sometimes it seems like everyone has a computer here so a computer repair shop can be a very lucrative business.
The excitement builds - 11th January 2008
Hello Phillip, I have just cast my second and final die as I just received my visa and ordered my plane tickets. I would like to publicly thank Text & Talk Academy for there help in getting my visa and making the whole process simple. I feel as though I made a good choice in schools but only time will tell. If only the process of importing my parrot to Thailand could be as easy. This is where the story turns sad as due to the bird flu problem in Asia Thailand is not allowing the import of any birds. I have been lucky to have my friends watch him until one day Thailand lifts the ban on the importation of birds.
I have just talked to my father in-law and he has been informing a few of the schools in the area of my arrival and of my desire to teach English. He has told me that more than just a few are willing to take me in right off the plane but I'm sticking to my guns and going to T&T to get my TEFL and only then I feel I "might " be ready to step into a classroom but inside I can't wait to get started.
We will be arriving at Suvarnabhumi Airport at 12:10am local time and then I guess we will get a taxi and drive over to Don Mueang airport to catch the early flight up to Udon Thani. Suvarnabhumi is going to be a new experience for me where as going to back to Don Mueang is going to be like seeing an old friend I haven't seen for a few years. Another experience will be dealing with Bangkok taxis and traffic but I've been told not to worry at this hour of the morning.
I would like to ask once I get settled in what should I try to do to get my new life started in Thailand. I will have about one month before I head off to Khon Kaen and start my classes at Text & Talk. One thing my Father in-law mentioned was getting my Thai drivers license for both car and motorcycle. I would like to hear your advice on a new resident to the land of smiles and if you may have a check list of "must do's" to go by?
With any luck I will try to give both you and the readers a running report of my progress across the planet as I land in the different airports on my way to my new home. From what I have read on the "net" there are quite a few free Internet "hot spots" for wireless laptop users and I will try to use these to relay my reports.
I was hoping to spend a few days in Bangkok if for nothing else to meet you personally but my wife is very anxious to get back to Udon Thani and I can not blame her. Therefore I would like to extend my invention to you that if the hustle and bustle of Bangkok starts to wear on you come up to Isaan and I'll show you around Udon. Here you will enjoy an Isaan favorite "gai yang" or a marinated and roasted chicken that is to die for. Also an Udon favorite and hoarded by the local expats is Beer Lao and golden nectar that on rare occasion I can get here in the US. I truly love to see and experience Bangkok one day maybe during a school holiday and then you can give me a few pointers on how to enjoy the "Big City" life.
Phil’s comments - 11th January 2008
Hi Dave. Glad to hear that things have gone smoothly on most fronts - the exception being of course the saga with your beloved pet parrot. I can't say I'm surprised that Thailand won't allow you to bring it in with all the bird flu scares we've had over the past few years, but it was worth a try. I'm sure you have someone back home who'll take very good care of it.
I've got my parents coming to visit me on Sunday for a month and like you, even though they've used the old Don Muang airport many times, the modern Suwanabhum airport will be a totally new experience. I've flown out of Suwanabhum about three or four times now and I still can't make my mind up. It's nearer to my house than Don Muang so it's a little quicker to get to, but I liked the old airport. I knew where everything was and it was never too far to walk anywhere. The place never seemed crowded either despite being quite small by international airport standards. The moment you get dropped off at Suwanabhum and go through the automatic doors, you're overpowered by sheer numbers of people. Everywhere seems too far to walk, and I'm already bored with the choice of restaurants. One thing I did hope for when they opened the new airport was good riddance to the taxi mafia who hassle you the moment you come through the arrival gate. If anything, the new airport is worse! They really do need to sort that out. It's always a pain in the butt having to wave away those folks when you've just had a long, often sleepless flight.
I think your plan to 'take things as they come and not rush into any old job offer' is a very good one. I'm sure your father-in-law means well, but you're going to be the one working there - not him. Get the TEFL certificate under your belt, apply for some jobs in person and have a good look around each school. Decide whether you'd be happy working there. Some schools are sure to be more appealing than others. But at least you know the job opportunities are already there.
I've never lived in rural Thailand so I'm probably not the best person to ask on how to kick-start your life in Udon. However, you've got your wife, your Thai family, and once you start work, you'll make more friends - Thais and foreigners alike. I would just let life take its course and see where it leads. It's not like you're going to be Mr Lonely up there.
Thanks for the invite. I do like my 'grilled chicken and sticky rice' Who knows, I might get up there one day. Good luck with the journey and keep us all posted on your first few months in Thailand.
Finally here - 23rd January 2008
Hello Philip, I am very happy to inform both you and the readers that I am now in country and I could not be happier. I was planning on giving a running account of my travel across the globe but my email was crashing and I did not find out until today that my email server would not except email from outside the network, oh well live and learn.
We left Melbourne early in the morning and on time with calm winds and dark skies. We flew in what we call a small "puddle jumper" jet aircraft and it seems my wife's carry-on bag was a bit to large so it had to be put in the belly of the aircraft, no problem. The problem occurred when we landed in Atlanta Georgia and had to retrieve the bag outside, and by outside I mean standing in 37*F with a stiff wind blowing. By the time we got back into the terminal I was shaking for at least 10 minutes until I warmed up. Atlanta was a nice airport and well laid-out and the prices were not too expensive.
Our flight to Korea left on time and we flew in a Boeing 777 and what a great aircraft - smooth, nice seats, and every seat had a personal entertainment system that made the 15 hour flight bearable. Landing in Korea my wife got to see snow for the first time in her life from the aircraft window. Incheon International Airport again I thought was a very nice airport but the prices for food and beer were expensive to say the least.
The last leg of the journey, we left Korea on Korean Airlines on a Boeing 777-300 and although this aircraft did not have the personal entertainment systems the seat were large and comfortable and the service was top notch and I would recommend them to anyone flying. Again we left on time and had a smooth flight all the way to Bangkok.
Landing in Bangkok the first thing I notice is it's the first time I have been warm since leaving Florida and it was a welcome feeling. Exiting the plane I get my first look at the Suvarnabhumi Airport and it was not what I was expecting. The whole place is an industrial minimalist look of steel, glass, and poured concrete. Being the Thailand I know and love so much one could see you could not hide the little blemishes on the ultra modern monster that makes Thailand, Thailand.
Standing in line I was nervous as I have been hearing horror stories about immigration. My fears where heightened when a pair of young French girls were turned back for some problem with their paperwork I think but I can not be sure. I step up to the counter and produce my passport and cross my fingers. The lady looks at my passport then asks to see my plane tickets and I think to myself "oh God what" and hold my breath. At that time my lovely wife comes bouncing up to the other lady officer next to me and informs both that I am her husband. Their attitude changed just like that and the officer stamps my passport and sends us on through. Getting our four large bags we make our way out to the taxis but the story doesn't stop yet. Passing through customs my wife is a few people ahead of me and the customs officer want to see my luggage. I have no fear as I do not have anything to worry about but I just think about the hassle of having my luggage checked. Again my wife comes up and again a change of attitude and they just put it through the x-ray machine and give us both a salute.
I am happy to inform everyone that if they miss the taxi mafias from Don Muang then do not worry because they're at Suvarnabhumi in force - and larger than ever. Sadly due to the size and number of our bags the regular taxis wound not hold both us and the baggage so we had to use a mini van to go to Don Muang.
Driving through the outskirts of Bangkok I started to get the feeling of coming home. Arriving at Don Muang was like seeing an old friend again after being away for too long. We went inside and waited for six hours for our flight to Udon. Next time I will fly Nok Air as they leave for Udon Thani at 7:30am. As it was we flew on Thai Airlines and left for Udon at 9:00am. Well we were supposed to board at 8:55am but we did not board until 9:15 and again another reason to fly Nok.
Flying to Udon only takes 45 minutes, which was nothing after all the flying hours we had logged. Coming in over Udon I can make out landmarks and see our soi where I will be living as it is not too far from the airport. Pulling up to the gate I get another shock. Udon has ramps that attach to the plane now and we don't have to walk down the stairs and across the tarmac and enter the terminal anymore. After getting our bags we find that the family isn't here which is better because of all the bags we have. We hire a local man with a pick-up truck and make our way home.
Traveling out of the airport I see all the familiar sites and my heart starts to race. I can not believe how happy I am to be here. Pulling into our soi and stopping in front of the house the girl that owns a small store stares at the truck trying to figure out who this is? I wish I had a camera ready for the look on Id's face when she sees me coming out of the truck and she screams and runs over to give both me and my wife a big hug. We walk into to the courtyard of the family estate and announce our arrival. Again the family is happy to see us once again and we are shown to our new apartment. The apartment is perfect for us as it has two large rooms, air-conditioning and a nice bathroom with hot water.
I have been here in Udon since Sunday and so far both my wife and I have our new cell phones. She has gotten her new Thai ID, and I have got a new wireless router working and did some maintenance on both my father in-law's and sister in-law's computers. Next on the list is to get my Thai drivers license and contact Text and Talk and go to Khon Kaen to meet the staff and get my books. I will be looking for a set of wheels to get around on and have already put "feelers" out looking for a 400cc+ bike.
Tonight we have had what I call a typical Isaan style dinner. To start cast iron charcoal burners are lighted and a cone shaped aluminum cooking device is placed on top. Out comes two pots of marinated meat, fresh vegetables and soup broth. We all seat outside on plastic mats talk, laugh, and drink and cook our meal. After the meal we all retire to different parts of the house to play cards, watch TV, drink more and for myself write this report.
With this latest report I hope I have given you a both a ride across the globe along with a little slice of Isaan life. Only after a few days of being here I believe I made the right decision of coming here. I do miss both my family and my beloved parrot but I have gotten emails from the family and they are both sad to see us go but happy for me as they see my new life starting. My parrot's foster family says he is happy and doing well and I will be checking weekly in any change in a chance of him joining me in LOS. Best regards, Dave
Welcome Dave - 24th January 2008
Glad to hear that you made it to Thailand safely Dave. It's quite a journey isn't it? I'm sure I echo the thoughts of many ajarn readers by saying we look forward to hearing how things unfold for you - the TEFL course, the job hunt, those first teaching weeks, etc, etc. Keep us posted.
Life on the TEFL course - 23rd March 2008
Hi Phil, seems like it's been forever since I last wrote to you with my ongoing story, so here is a mini update. As you know I am in the Text & Talk TEFL course here in Khon Kaen and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I will be having my final exam this Tuesday and then graduation on Thursday. I would like to inform both you and your readers at the present time I am very happy with the course but it has been quite challenging to say the least. The work load of this course is very heavy and leaves little time for entertainment and just enough time to decompress before classes start again.
In this course you will teach six classes of students - and this has been an eye-opening experience. You will have many of your preconceived ideas of teaching destroyed only to be replaced with methods that help you to teach in Thailand. I must admit I enjoyed teaching the Thai kids much more than I though I would but it was also a very humbling event. We are evaluated by professional TEFL teachers and graded the same as experienced teachers so the bar has been set very high. I am happy to report that my evaluations have been in the 'very good' to excellent range. Speaking of evaluators I was evaluated by a Thai lady (and I use the term "lady" very loosely) that works in the Thai school system and at the first meeting I could see she had nothing but disdain and contempt for me. The lesson was not much fun either as the lesson I was to teach was for a pre-intermediate class but the students that came to class were beginners at best. Thinking fast I adapted the lesson as best as I could but in the end I was disappointed. The Thai woman did her best, in perfect grammar but poorly pronounced English, to tell me how awful the lesson was and she asked me why was I taking the TEFL course. She also went on to say how ALL TEFL courses are worthless here in Thailand. She came back to evaluate another student in the class I'm in and again a very poor review but this time another person listened in and the opinions were exact opposites. This 'devil woman' was told she would not be welcomed back as an evaluator anymore. I have been warned of these people working in the Thai school system - those that hate farang teachers - and now I've seen it first hand. The education I have received at T&T has gone far beyond just grammar and teaching methodology but a good primer of what to expect both good and bad in the Thai school system.
After next week I will graduate and be ready for the job hunt to start. I believe if I have timed it right doesn't the new school year start the first week of May? If this is true, is there any advice you would like to pass on in the face of all the trouble I have been reading about? I have read about this new program that the government wants all teachers to take along with news of funding being cut to schools and English programs being scrapped due to no money to pay foreign teachers. Text & Talk offers employment assistance and I will use it but I would like to hear where you think I should start or focus my efforts on looking for employment. I'll be checking again after graduation and I look forward to seeing what you have to say.
Best regards, Dave
So far so good - 24th March 2008
Hi Dave. Yes it's been a while. I'm glad to hear that your TEFL course has gone well. You say that it's been tough, but these courses are not cheap. You wouldn't expect it to be an easy ride. And what's most valuable is the experience you are getting in a Thai classroom. Cometh the first day of your new job (wherever that may be) at least you'll walk into the classroom with half an idea what to expect. It's a great shame though that you met the Thai 'farang-hater'. Don't let the experience put you off teaching, because these people are definitely in the small minority.
You've certainly timed your job hunt perfectly Dave. The months of April and May are easily the busiest hiring months in Thailand, and last year, June was very busy as well. A lot of schools start back in May for the new term. It's then they find out their 'new teacher' hasn't turned up for work because he / she got a better offer at the last minute, or one week into the new term, they discover the new guy is a chronic alcoholic who can't get up in the morning (seen that happen many times). As a result, you get a lot of schools pressing the panic button in June. It certainly happened last year.
There's still a lot of confusion over this new cultural program for teachers Dave. Some schools are insisting their foreign teachers take it while other institutes are blissfully unaware of the whole thing. I would play it by ear and bring up the topic at the interview. If your new employer insists you take it then ask if they will foot the bill (if you don't ask you don't get)
When the job hunt starts in earnest, fix up as many interviews as you feel comfortable with but remember - it's a teacher's market out there. Don't even waste your time traveling to attend interviews if you're not 100% comfortable with the sound of the job. Get as much information about the position before you go. If the employer isn't willing to give you enough answers on the phone then give it a wide berth. Why don't you see what Text and Talk can offer you with their job finding service and then get back to me.
Beginning the job search - 8th April 2008
Hi Phil. Here is the latest news from the sticks. I began the job search on Monday and on the short list of places I wanted to teach at were a private language school and a large government high school here in town.
I dropped in to the private language school and met with the manager. After a short interview he said he didn't have any openings at this time but he would have a few teachers going on vacation and wanted to know if I would like some part-time work. Of course I said yes. He said if he had a stream of students coming to the office saying they had enjoyed my classes, we might talk about something more permanent.
The big government high school is number one on my list simply because I have been told it's a great school to work for and I talked with a few of the falang teachers there and they seemed very happy. They told me the students are great and the hours are good. I went for my first interview and must have impressed the head of foreign teachers as he asked me to come back at the end of the week to meet the Thai English teachers. That interview went very well and they asked me to do a "sample" lesson for the Thai teachers as students last Saturday. Again I felt my "lesson" went well and I had the charm turned up to kill and my attire was sharp, clean, and I smelled good too. I was told they wanted to discuss what they thought of me and would get back to me later.
So this is where I am now. Should I wait for an answer or go out and start pounding the pavement again? My father in-law (a retired Ajarn here) feels I have a good chance of the job at the school along with other falang teachers I have met. My question is how long does it take these schools to make up there minds? So what I'm asking is 'to wait or not to wait', that is the question?
I would like to say that the training I took at Text and Talk in Khon Kaen really helped in the interview at the Thai high school as I knew what to expect and was able to avoid a few well placed land-mines that the Thai teachers set during the lesson. I am sure without the training I would not have made it this far. This is just my feelings about T&T and I'm not being compensated for this review in anyway. If anyone has any questions about T&T, Phil you can just forward the emails to me.
Phil’s advice - 9th April 2008
Hi Dave. Good to see that you've wasted no time in getting your resume out there and knocking on a few doors. Now is certainly the time of year for door-knocking. I think out of the two choices, the government high school sounds like the best bet, if only for the reason it's a full-time position. No disrespect to the private language school, but their offer sounds like a 'bits and pieces' deal - that's if it ever comes off. If you find yourself doing a few hours here and there, then you seriously limit your options as regards proper full-time employment. In your shoes I would go all out for a full-time job first and fit any part-time work into a few evenings a week, when private language schools are busiest (I'm presuming the language school follows the business model of the main branch in Bangkok)
He said if he had a stream of students coming to the office saying they had enjoyed my classes, we might talk about something more permanent.
Frankly that sentence worries me. You're there to teach - not win a popularity contest. OK, no teacher wants students marching up to the reception desk and lodging complaints, but to judge a teacher - especially a new teacher who's just finished his training - on the number of students who sing his praises, well that's just plain daft. No teacher - new or otherwise - should be put under that kind of 'pressure' or judged on that criteria. It's simply unfair.
When is that high school going to get back to you? It could be tomorrow, it could be after Songkran, it might be never. It depends how badly they need a teacher and how good or terrible their communication is. In your position, always end an interview by thanking the interviewer, telling them you are interested in the position, but tell them you have quite a few other interviews to attend (even if you haven't). Create a sense of urgency on their part. You might even say "could you let me know your decision by...........". It's perfectly acceptable in this day and age. Keep on interviewing at other places Dave. It's a teacher's market. You don't owe it to yourself to sit by the phone waiting for one school to give you the nod simply because 'they like you'. Thais are good at 'liking' people and saying all the right things to your face. Don't let that lull you into a false sense of security, despite what your father-in-law might say.
Thanks for all the e-mails - 14th May 2008
Here is the latest update to my story. Seems Udon's schools are full for the most part so sadly I have had to expand my search. Thanks to both Ajarn.com and Text & Talk for finding two very good possibilities.
One school is in Khon Kaen and is a prestigious government school. The other school is in deepest darkest Issan. It too is a government school but with much smaller classes and A/C classrooms. One add-on is I will receive a house for my wife and I to live in for free. Both pay the same so now it's time to pick.
You're right, once I expanded my search beyond Udon it is a teachers market. The tough choice is village life, free rent, save money and gain experience with smaller classes or big city Issan, night life, shopping, and large classes of 13 to 15 year olds. I would like to hear some of your ideas in choosing a school to teach in.
With any luck I will be sending you a update rather soon on my choice and my first impressions of my new job. I enjoy writing these updates and I've even meet a few readers of my journey. Thanks for the forwarded emails as I write back to everyone who takes the time to write me. Look for an update in about a week or two.
My first teaching gig - 27th May 2008
Here is another installment of my adventure here in Thailand. As I said before I was torn between taking the job in Khon Kaen or taking the job in the sticks of Isaan. I decided on the school in the sticks. All things considered I picked this school because of class size, quality of classroom, and school environment.
The name of the town is Borabue and it is a 4-hour bus ride from my beloved Udon Thani. Ahh yes, good old Borabue. The town itself is about 5 or 6 blocks long with only one stop-light in the middle of town. I haven't had much of a chance to see the town yet as last week both my wife and I were trying to get settled in our new home. I will report back on the town in the next update.
Now for the school itself. I think it will be a good place to gain both experience and confidence teaching here in Thailand. The high school has about 2500 students and draws from many outlying villages. The school has an MEP or mini English program that was started just two years ago. I'm the first native speaker the school has had for this program. My job is strictly conversational English. The other English teachers are from both the Philippines and the east coast of Africa. We have an MEP office with computer and internet access (that isn't working) my own desk and a staff refrigerator and hot water pot for coffee. I was amazed to find that the students come in to clean the office everyday! This is truly amazing Thailand as this would never happen back in the states.
The students I have vary greatly in there English skills. The MEP kids are quite good whereas the kids in just the foreign language classes need a lot of help. I only have M6 kids in the foreign language classes whereas in the MEP I have students from M1 to M3. Sadly because I have anywhere from 38 to 45 kids per class once a week in M6 only the brightest of the students will get anything from the lessons. I informed all my classes that if they need any help with their English to come see me. I won't do their homework for them but if they have a real question or are curious about some aspect of English then I'll be there to help. I also told them that if they see something on TV or hear something on the radio that they don't understand, to come see me and I'll help them to find the answer. I hope some of the students take me up on my offer to expand there horizons but my father in-law told me not to hold my breath waiting.
I'm happy to say that so far I have enjoyed being with the Thai teachers. When I started I was told that they would like me to look at the Thai teachers' lesson plans, reinforce the lesson and help the students speak and pronounce their new vocabulary. I haven't got any lesson plans as yet so I am forging ahead with conversation lessons. Another thing I find very appealing is how friendly the teachers are and how they involve me with their off-campus activities. It's nice to see I'm not expected to pay for everything just because I'm a farang.
I would like to hear any tips you may have on dealing with both the students and teachers. Also I would like to hear any other advice you might have for a rookie teacher.
Congratulations Dave - 28th May 2008
Firstly congratulations on finding a job Dave. It's a shame that you couldn't find anything in your beloved Udon Thani, but I guess you're thinking that you need to just get your foot on the first rung of the ladder and build up a bit of confidence and experience. You'll certainly get that from classes of 38 to 45 kids. Wow! That's a lot of students. It's also good that you are operating an 'open-door' policy, but your father-in-law is absolutely right. Don't hold your breath waiting for a whole gang of kids eager to share with you something they heard on the radio that morning.
The first six weeks - 2nd July 2008
Here it is I'm at the six week mark and wow what an experience. If I have to sum it up in one word I would say, dizzying. In these six weeks I've been taken to dinner a number of times, stayed with a student's family in one of the villages to see a "Bun Bang Fai" up close, seen two school celebrations, and been on a school sponsored 3-day vacation! Let's start with the dinners. It seems as if every other week my wife and I are asked to go to dinner with one of the directors or teachers. We both enjoy this as it gives us a chance to connect with both the administration and staff. Next we were invited to one of my student's home in a village about 15km's from school. Up here in Isaan there is the Thai rocket festival of Bun Bang Fai to welcome the rainy season. If you have never seen this your missing a great spectacle. After the rockets were shot off (with no injuries or fatalities) we headed off to the temple grounds to watch a live show. This was quite an experience living the rural village life for a weekend. I was humbled at how we were treated as honored guests.
For the school celebrations this school knows how to put on both a show and presentation. The first was for the "Pray for the Teacher Day" in which the students make Thai style fresh flower arrangements for the whole day and then the next day they present them to the teachers. I have to admit I got a tear in my eye when my students presented me with there arrangements with huge smiles on there faces. The next was a Thai play done in traditional dress and the style and colors were amazing. After the show the student's wanted to pose with both my wife and I in the costumes from there play. So to say the least the pictures were stunning seeing the student's dressed up.
Last is the school sponsored vacation in which we went to a school on the outskirts of Bangkok to see there English Program. I was in shock when I saw all the resources the school had along with an E.P. only library both myself and the other foreign teachers where so jealous of. Then over to the Bridge over the River Kwai and I could not believe I was seeing this piece of history. I've only read about or seen shows of the sacrifices of the men that build and died rebuilding the bridge under the harsh treatment they had to endure during WWII. Then a barge ride up the river Kwai eating a delicious dinner and ending at a beautiful resort for a party and karaoke. The next day we loaded up on the buses and then stopped for the ladies to do some shopping before heading off to Cha-um. The beach at Cha-um reminds me of Florida and the teachers asked me if I was homesick, I answered the only two things I miss are my American family and especially my parrot. Next stop was the beach palace of King Rama 6 and being a fan of architecture I was stunned at not only the beauty but, the sheer size of the place. Truly this was a place worthy of the King of Thailand. If you ever have a chance to see this place I recommend it.
As you can see I've been very busy and between all this I managed to slip in a few lessons to the kids. I'm happy to say I have been seeing the students making good progress in class. My wife is now my teacher's assistant as she speaks English, Thai, and Lao she has been a great help. She also helps the administration communicate with the foreign teachers. I'm also pleased to report that all of the foreign teachers although being from different backgrounds are working very well together and we enjoy each others company.
I believe that even though I'm in the middle of nowhere Isaan I have landed in a wonderful school. The campus is beautiful, the MEP class rooms have A/C with sound systems and LCD projectors, but the best part is the students. Sure there is a downside as there is no nightlife to speak of and the schools Internet connection is abysmal. As far as TV goes out here I only get two English speaking channels but I can't complain as the school gives me this house and satellite TV service for free. Living on campus is not that bad either as if I need anything from home I just walk to the house. At night the place is quite and safe so all an all I think I've done pretty well for just starting out here.
I have a border run to make this week for my 90 day stamp so I'll be cutting out of school Thursday and Friday to run to Laos. I hope to have my work permit finished this month so I can get truly settled in. My question is how long does it take to get a work permit? Also should I just run my present visa out as I get a break every 90 days and then get my new visa based on the W/P then I don't need to make a border run every 90 days?
Great news - 3rd July 2008
Wow! Cracking update Dave. It sounds as though you are really settling in and enjoying Thai life. I agree with you about that Thai palace in Hua Hin. It's well worth seeing and I always take visitors there if we're in the area. How long it takes your school to get the work permit depends on many factors. How au fait your admin staff are with the whole process would be top of the list. That said, it really shouldn't take more than four weeks so I would expect you to do only one visa run and then you should have things well and truly sorted out. Let us know how that goes and how things worked out for you in Laos. You don't hear quite as many horror stories about the Thai consulate in Vientiane as you used to, and provided your paperwork is in order, I can't see a nice guy like you having any problems.
Student activities - 21st July 2008
With the beginning of the Buddhist Lent I have a few days to catch my breath and give an update on teaching here in Isaan. I would like to start by saying this is a bittersweet update, not so much for me but my students.
Let me set the stage. It turns out the head of the MEP comes to me and tells me I have two days to help one student get ready for a public speaking contest and one student for a writing contest. Lucky for me the Thai teachers were going to tutor the student for the writing but I was to tutor the other student for the public speaking. So in the course of two days I wrote (along with the other foreign teachers) a five-minute speech and tutored the student at school and home.
As we get to the school that is holding the contest I'm giving both girls a pep talk (both are my students) and trying to calm their nerves. As I sit outside with "my kids", other students at the school come over and stare at the farang teacher. Bittersweet is what comes to mind as I get the girls ready. One is ready to go and the other is feeling sad and depressed. I did my best to cheer her up as both girls headed off.
Sadly the student that was in the writing part of the contest only took second place. I and the Thai teachers worked with her as much as we could in the two days leading up to the competition, and to tell the truth, I am very proud of Faa. Faa is a great student and works hard and I would like to publicly thank her for her hard work. I felt awful for her as she was very hard on herself and I told her I would help her in anyway possible to make her feel better. She said she has learned a lot from being around my wife and thanked me for all the extra work I did to try and help her.
Now Prim had to compete in the public speech part of the contest. I'm happy to say that she won hands down, much to the chagrin of the other Thai schools. There was a fair amount of pressure put on me as I felt like the school wanted to show off not only there "native speaker" teacher but also my ability to help my students to speak properly. I was told that we should win because this school employs foreign teachers. I would like to thank Prim for her hard work and her love of learning English. Hearing Prim speak English is a pleasure as she spoke with passion and feeling. The other students didn't have a chance.
Afterwards I was approached by one of the local schools and asked if I liked where I was working and if I had signed a contract. I said yes to both, and they told me for whatever reason I should change my mind to come and see them. As things stand now my school has nothing to fear of me leaving as I have been treated very well. I would have to say though my students are the main reason for me staying. These kids are the salt of the Earth and I've had a chance to meet some of their parents who are just as friendly. Another strange thing is returning to Udon a few weeks ago for my border run and it doesn't feel like home anymore. I wish Borabu had a bit more night life but it's definitely home now. Life out here in deepest darkest Isaan is good.
Midterms are coming up shortly and I'll be writing the tests for the students to check there conversational skills. I think most will do well as many of them spend there free time with my wife and I here at school. During this time I speak only English with them forcing them to use there new skills in everyday use. I don't think many of the kids know how far they have advanced from the first time I met them but, I'm very proud.
More good news - 24th July 2008
I just got some breaking news. I am sitting here in the MEP office when the head of the department comes in to tell us that our student that won last week has done well again. Turns out Prim has taken 3rd place in a competition taking in three provinces and twenty schools. From what I was told there were some very big and prestigious schools competing and here we are, some no name Isaan school, showing we have what it takes to teach our students. I'm not sure what happens next but, I was "elected" to coach the public speaking and story telling students for next months competition. I got a short story written for the students. I had all the foreign teachers read it along with some of the Thai teachers and everyone liked it. Hopefully both the student and judges like it to. When I started teaching I had no idea it would be like this but, I love it! Just like an old slogan back in the states says "it's not just a job , it's an adventure" and how true it is living in Thailand.
No time to breathe - 3rd September 2008
To say I've been busy this last month would be an understatement. Starting with, I'm happy to say, I have jumped head first through yet another hoop in my new career. Also not to mention the added pressure of a big Issan school competition this month to make things interesting. But first things first, let the update begin.
I'm happy to say I have completed the T.C.T or Thai Culture Training in Khon Kaen. Thankfully I didn't need to go to Bangkok for this training as my school did not pay for the course or my lodgings. The upside is that it was far cheaper than what I had seen posted on forums and completed it in two brutal days. As you know we are required to attend 20 hours of training and it was a tough two days. Day one, the presenter was a fellow, I believe, from Australia and was about as exciting as watching paint dry. I did feel a bit sorry for him as the crowd was quite hostile. Most of the trouble arose from his lack of information on the new teacher's license law which is not entirely his fault as from what I gather no one knows. In a nutshell he said that the MOE is aware of the trouble with the test (that VERY few can pass) and they are rewriting it. We were told we have 2 or 3 years before we must pass this test but also as he put it "nothing is written in stone here" and "exceptions" will be made.
The second day was much better as the presenter was a very nice Thai lady that spoke fairly good English; she was a pleasure to listen to after the first day. All in all she was a bit more fun and she separated us into groups to role-play using our new found Thai language skills. For those of you that were there, I was in the "Beauty Salon" group and yes it was my idea for the guys to act as "katoys" and we had a great time of it. One thing I was very pleased to see is the imagination and creativity of the teachers in their productions. Thailand doesn't know how lucky they are to have these people teaching here as there children can learn so much more than just English. There was a bit of a black spot on the second day as one of the "gentlemen" attending must have had a bit too much to drink, and along with being angry at being forced to be there, he could'nt hold his tongue any longer. He made some interesting points but the delivery was all wrong and he was escorted out of the room. He did though echo the frustration of many of the teachers there worrying if whether we will be able to stay in the kingdom or not due to these new regulations.
I never knew how isolated I was teaching here in Borabu until I talked with many of the other teachers at the TCT in Khon Kaen. It seems I'm really in the middle of the rice paddies compared to the other teachers. No worry though, I'm happy here for the foreseeable future. Another big bonus and surprise was being able to speak "American" again to someone. I meet a wonderful lady, Andrea, and she is the head of the EP department at her school. I had a great time just talking, thank you Andrea. I enjoyed meeting many of the teachers there. At some stage in the proceedings one of my fellow teachers here at Borabu said do you know who this is? This is Dave from Ajarn.com. Thankfully many people said I look younger in person. Another thing I was told, people that read my story and meet me in person said I really am that passionate about teaching here and it's not something I've made up. I never though it was that obvious.
Now if that wasn't enough, the foreign teachers and myself have had to write, train, produce, and coach our students through the last month to get ready for what I call the Issan English speaking school competition. From what I have been told this is the first time this has ever happened up here in Issan. I would like to thank the school in Khon Khan for doing a great job hosting the event. They made everyone feel very welcome. The categories were skit, storytelling, public speaking, quiz, spelling bee, project work, and production. About ten days before the competition the production got canceled due to time limits and the number of schools attending. To say the least, I had a group of disappointed kids but the show must go on. Long story short I'm happy to say we came away with 1 silver and two bronze metals. Not bad for a rice paddy school. Needless to say the big power house schools like Khon Kaen, Ubon, Udon, and Roi-Et took the top spots and our teachers were happy........ but not me, I wanted to win! I know deep in my heart my students can do better and I'll do what it takes to get them there. My wife told me afterwards the kids were scared to death on stage but they held it together and I am so proud of them! At least I can say those other schools knew they were in a fight, especially in the English speaking parts. Today I spoke with the students and asked them to tell me how I can help them to improve for next time. It got them thinking and that's what I really want.
There was much more than just the school competition; it was a chance to be turned loose in the big city! I had a great time in Khon Kaen going out with all the Thai teachers at my school then being spirited away by Alac, Bo, and Seth for a grand time on the town. Their evasion and non-detection skills are quite good in avoiding unwanted company (wink, wink, nug, nug). I'm happy to say that these three teachers are what Thailand needs. These guys are every bit as passionate about teaching as I am. Way to go guys! I can't wait to meet-up with you again.
So things are getting back to normal back here in the sprawling metropolis of Borabu and time to start writing lesson plans for the students again. The difference is the students can hold there heads high as even though most of them are just rural kids they can compete with the big city kids and win; one day soon.
Phil’s comments - 3rd September 2008
Thanks Dave for keeping these updates coming and for keeping this very interesting ajarn.com feature alive. I would love to have been a fly on the wall at that cultural course. I'm sure there have been other cultural course venues where teachers have got a bit emotional over having to complete this program, but we just haven't heard about it. My sympathies for having to sit through a rather tedious day one. There's nothing worse than a dull presenter! You did very well in the competition Dave. Two silvers and a bronze and a night on the tiles with some fellow chalkies. Can't be bad. I think what's evident from these updates is just how much you're enjoying life in Thailand and the fact that you are definitely making a difference. I'm sure you would echoe those sentiments
Getting to know the students - 7th October 2008
Enlightenment, that would best describe what I have experienced last month. As part of an MEP project the foreign teachers, along with myself, went to our students homes to meet their parents. I would say that it was a twofold affair; one - job security, and two - a goodwill visit. Lets start with job security. With my limited understanding of Thai I could still tell the parents were being asked to keep their children in the MEP program. That makes sense as no students equals no job. I still couldn't help feeling like a "product" that their child shouldn't miss out on. For myself it was a goodwill trip to show the parents how proud I am of their children. I would speak with the kids in English then let them translate for their parents to show them their child's understanding of English. The smiles I got from the parents told me more than any words could express.
As for enlightenment I saw how my students lived and the distance most of them have to travel to school. My student's homes ranged from very nice and modern Issan style homes to just mere corrugated metal shacks sitting on stilts. I have been both told and read that this is one of the poorest parts of Thailand and I now believe it. I think at first some of the kids were ashamed to have me come to their homes but when they saw me plop down next to their parents, grandparents, and relatives and do my best to speak with each one of them they seemed relieved. The area of draw that the school has is quite large. I would guess a good 25 km. circle would cover the area the kids travel from.
Going from village to village was great fun for both me and the kids. The school has a brand new Issan style school bus and I was offered a seat in the A/C cab of the truck but I declined as I wanted to ride in the back with the kids. This was a two-fold idea of mine. First I don't want the students to feel I am in someway "better" than they are and therefore separating myself from them. A second and more covert idea was to engage the students in conversation on what I was seeing on my ride through the countryside. For three days I had the students talking and telling me of what I was seeing and they never knew it was one continuous lesson. I have used this tactic more than once teaching here and it seems to be working.
This goodwill trip has also given me new ammunition to use for my students. I now know how many of them live and I can use this to tailor my lessons to make them more relevant to their lives. Another thing this trip has done for me is to cause me to redouble my efforts to help these kids to learn English. Many of these families are barely able to scrape together enough money to send their kids to the MEP program. I promised each mother, father, aunt, uncle, and grandparent that I would work my hardest to make sure I gave their son or daughter every chance to learn and improve their English.
Midterms have just wrapped up and all my MEP kids passed. As everything here, it was bitter sweet. The bitter part was I had two students not improve as much as I would have hoped for. The sweet or I should say very sweet part was I saw one student make very good progress (M3) and another (M1) make amazing progress. As I gave them their oral conversation test a tear almost came to my eye as they sat there just gabbing away using almost perfect grammar and pronunciation in there answers.
I guess I'm in for some more enlightenment as I will be coming to Bangkok in the third week of October to get both my passport renewed and my coveted temporary teachers' license. I have never been in Bangkok but just enough time to get from one airport to another should be an experience. If I get a chance to meet any of my fellow chalkies I can just hear them say, look at this "ban nok" teacher staring at the sights of Bangkok. In your article on taxi drivers in Bangkok if I get the guy missing the middle of nowhere Issan he will have a sympathetic shoulder to cry on. I believe I too will be missing my rice paddy school and the middle of nowhere Issan.
I have another school contest to get my students ready for at the end of this week. The school seems to be quite happy with their students' performance as I have been getting the thumbs up and a 'good job' from the school directors. I sometimes feel I'm more a coach than a teacher but in the end if my students are learning to speak English then I'm happy. To be honest I'm very happy out here in deepest Issan and hope things continue to work out well here.
A year has just flown by - 25th November 2008
Well, here it is - the one year anniversary of Dave's Journey. Wow! where did that year go? If someone could have told me how much my life would change in just one year, I don't thing I wouldn't have believed them.
In the last update I was prepping my students for the Royal Award. I'm happy to report that Borabuwittayakahn High School is now the proud owner of the district Royal Award for the first time! Now I'm prepping the students for the next phase. I was told that we won the first stage and the next step is just a few days away and the students are ready. I have a strategy that seems to impress the judges with our MEP student's English conversation skills. I'm so proud of my students because they have worked very hard and they are a pleasure to teach.
I've had another new experience here at school with one of the foreign teachers. The teacher from Cameroon left at the beginning of the semester to go back home and finish his master's degree. We asked if he was going to be replaced by another teacher but no luck, the three remaining teachers have to pick up the slack. That being said I now have the dreaded "hell class" in my schedule. It's sad that sixty percent of the class has no intention of wanting to learn English and the rest are somewhat interested at best.
We now have a new class in the MEP - computer studies. I guess after fixing some of the schools computers they gave me this class. I feel it's also a reward for the MEP students as they really enjoy the class. I have read posts saying Thai students don't have much in the way of imagination so I have set out to prove this theory wrong. From what I have witnessed in class and from the students' conversations, I hope I'm on the right track. The first program I'm teaching is Photoshop Elements and only after a few lessons I have been rewarded with some very interesting and imaginative photos. I have a number of other programs I need to show them in a short amount of time. This hopefully leads up to a grand project at the end of the year but time will tell.
My trip to the Big Mango was a great and frustrating adventure. I would like to tell you the train is the only way to travel in this country. Unfortunately I couldn't get a sleeper train to Bangkok so I came in on what's called a "diesel rail car" which is a self contained passenger car. It's a bit noisy but the ride is comfortable and cheap. Once I arrived at the Bangkok station things went downhill for a bit. One of my lessons in class was on giving directions. Sadly many Thais find it hard to give directions. To my surprise many of the foreign teachers are just as bad. Sadly it took a ride on the subway, skytrain, two buses and three cabs to finally make it to the teachers counsel. It was worth it as I now have my coveted temporary teacher's license for the next two years.
I made my way over to Pantip Plaza and thought I was in computer heaven. The variety of hardware and software was dizzying to say the least. I also made my way around the Sukumvit shopping area. I have never seen so many people or shopping plazas crammed together. I was also surprised at the number of language schools around. It was a real eye opener after living out here in Issan.
Sorry we missed each other on that day - it was my fault. I sent you the wrong phone number. I was secretly hoping you would have caught your marauding parrot and I would have gladly taken him off your hands for you. Speaking of parrots I haven't given up hope in trying to import my parrot here. There's an expat living in the area that knows of an exotic bird importer so I'm keeping my fingers crossed. If all else fails and you know of a parrot breeder here in Thailand please pass along there details.
I got to experience Loy Krathong here in Borabu. What a beautiful tradition of casting away one's sins upon the water and getting a fresh start. Seems the whole town and outlying villages showed up. I saw many of my students and teachers and they were quite pleased to me involving myself in their traditions. Saying that I find I'm become more and more "native" each day. I now find that I enjoy the spicy hot food that a year ago I would have thought came straight from the furnaces of Hell itself. I happily ride the bus to Maha Sarakham, which seems to be held together with spit and baling wire. I go shopping in the local market and buy food from many of my students' families. I frequent many of the local restaurants and food stands eating out under a blanket of stars. The downside is that my driving skills now rival that of those crazed Bangkok taxi drivers. In my cab rides in Bangkok I never even blinked an eye. Sad.
In closing this update I do find I am missing one thing from the states and that's the Thanksgiving holiday. It's at this time I miss the family and food of the day. That being said though, my wife and I are going back to Udon to see her family and then out to an American restaurant for a traditional Thanksgiving Day dinner. I can say that this last year I have been truly blessed, not only with my wonderful wife but with the chance to live here in Thailand and teach at great school. This has been one of the greatest years of my life.
A happy man indeed - 27th November 2008
Dave, I think if ever teaching in Thailand needed a ringing testimony, then you've provided it. You seem to have nothing but positive experiences, and of course you have the sort of personality that doesn't allow all those minor annoyances to get them down. I'm sure even the 'class from Hell' will be character-building and something you'll look back on very favorably in years to come. I find that you need a bad class now and again to remind you how good the better classes truly are. Congratulations on completing a very successful first year in Thailand.
I'm sorry that we didn't get to meet for lunch as planned. I called the number you gave me and woke a very surprised Thai gentleman from his slumber. I have no idea who I spoke to that morning but it certainly wasn't Dave! Keep us posted on developments with computer classes and competitions and it's probably the time to wish you a very Happy Christmas and a prosperous 2009. I'm sure it will be.
Way to go Julia - 8th December 2008
Hey! Way to go kid. You've not been here seven days and you've landed a potential 48,000 baht a month job for just twenty contact hours a week, and you've got Inlingua knocking on your door to offer you extra work. Do a little bit for them and you could be pushing 60,000 baht plus. You're almost in the Siam Paragon preferred shopper category on that sort of income
Seriously though - you've done well. I got a few e-mails from long-term ex-pats telling me that I was giving you false hope by promising you'd make over 40,000 in your first job- but you've slam dunked that mother. Where there's a will, there's always a way. OK only time will tell if it's your dream job but you're certainly off to a flying start. Time to get your head down and get some experience under your belt.
As you say, the location is great too. You can't put a price on working somewhere that's a stone's throw from where you live. It's not so much about saving money on transportation, but saving the most precious commodity of all - time. You won't be finishing work and wondering whether it's going to take you half an hour or two hours to get home. You know exactly what time you'll be putting the key in your apartment door. Magic. Good luck with the lesson preparation and keep us up-to-date with how those difficult first few days go.
Latest news from Isaan - 22nd February 2009
I can't believe it, 15 months in the kingdom and I'm still here. I was told by many back home that I would not complete six months here. With a small amount of guilt I do not see myself returning to the US anytime soon. That being said, with the current economic conditions circling the world, things may become difficult here as well as back home. However, the school is now talking about renewing my contract.....but more on that later.
I would like to ask you a question. When does the honeymoon period end here in Thailand? In my short time here I have run into people that say that it ends after about six months and others who say it never has to!Personally, I am a "the glass is half-full" type of person and I find I am still happy to be living and teaching in Thailand. That said I guess some of the strangeness of living here has worn off to an extent. No longer do I stare in disbelief and wonder at the way many Issan people live. Shop-houses and what we would call self storage buildings are apartments with peoples' living rooms exposed for all to see as they walk by. Then there's the eating at outdoor restaurants that would have no chance of passing a health food inspection back in The States. The list could go on for pages but in short what was once a strange and exotic land has now became common and comforting.
Life here in deepest Issan during this winter has been a bit of a downer. For one, over the last month my wife and I have been freezing along with the students. For those of you unfamiliar with an Issan public school uniform, the girls wear a below-the-knee length navy blue skirt with a white short sleeved blouse. The boys wear short brown pants and a white short sleeved shirt. This is fine for most of the year but during this last cold spell it was torture. At the school morning assembly the students would just stand and shiver as the cold winds blew. I would say about 3/4 of the students had coats but the one's that didn't just killed me to see them. Now, being that I have lived a large part of my live in Florida I have not adapted well to the cold weather either. Also all the rice has been harvested and the paddies are dry, brown and lifeless - a far cry from the beautiful emerald green I got used to seeing everyday.
It's very dry and dusty here now and I haven't seen any rain in over a month or more. Bung Bang Fai or the rocket festival is still over a month away and it is a custom to launch homemade gunpowder powered rockets into the sky to remind the Gods to make it rain. If this dry spell keeps up I'm tempted to make my own Bang Fai rocket and do my part to shake the pillars of heaven. Anyone got an old flack jacket they're not using?
When I last wrote, the school was heading into the uncharted waters of the second round of the "Royal Award" school. Sadly we were edged out by a larger school and to be honest I'm still a little bitter. I know the MEP students did their part by wowing the judges with their command of English but in the end it was not enough. However, I am so proud of how hard the students worked and continue to work at learning English. Now the school finals will be coming up in the next few weeks and I am approaching it with mixed feelings. On a personal level, I will be the first western teacher to last a full school year here.
I'm feeling a little sad though as my M3 students will be moving on and I will no longer be their teacher. I have been telling them I will still have an "open door policy" for any time they want to stop by and practice their English. Now as for my contract, that will be talked about in March. Last week I had an official classroom observer watching my teaching techniques and to my great relief I passed with flying colors. The observer was pleased with my ability to engage my students and how they interact with me. She also liked the positive reinforcement I used encouraging them to think for themselves and to use English in real conversation - not just repeating phrases in their text books. She said that she would pass all the comments to the staff and hopefully this will help secure a new contract.
Class field trips this year have been great. I went to a national reserve (sorry the name escapes me) in Mahasarakham province that is home to the famous land crab only found in these parts. I've also been to Phrathat Nadun, said to house the Lord Buddha's relics, and the Sirindhorn museum, also known as Issan's 'Jurassic Park'.
About a month ago I meet a native speaking English teacher from the neighboring big town. What a great guy! A week later he calls to tell me that Mahasarakham Rajabhat University is having an International Day and that other foreign teachers will be there. My director OK'ed the trip at the last minute so my students would have a chance to speak with other foreigners. I gave my students a questionnaire sheet and told them to engage the other foreigners in easy conversation. I guess I must have desensitized my students to foreigners. Later that day I was approached by some of the foreign teachers that were at the International Day fair and I was told that they have never experienced Thai high school students just walk up to them, introduce themselves and politely ask them questions. It made my day. These trips are a great way to both connect and challenge the students but also a great learning experience for myself.
I was told by the one veteran teacher about the marketing that we would be doing close to the end of the school year. For the next two weeks I will be going to four to six schools a day trying to get students interested in joining the MEP program at our school. As of this update we have twelve students interested but the hard part will be if their parents can afford the classes. I find that the marketing of the MEP program to be far more taxing than I first thought. The team consists of yours truly, one or both of the other foreign teachers, two Thai English teachers, the guidance councilor, and two MEP students. Our presentations are high energy and by the end of the day we are all exhausted. Still it's part of the job and I accept it as more students translates into job security.
I would love to make a comment on the Issan schools and their Thai English teachers. From what I have seen the Thai teachers are doing the best they can trying the get the students ready for a chance to study with a native speaker. When I climb out of the van you can almost hear a collective gasp from the staff and students, falang! From what many of the teachers have told me I am the first westerner many of these kids have seen. I understand the Thai shyness and do my best to make the students comfortable with me from the start. You only get one chance to make a first impression so it's never too early to start the lessons on a good foundation. In many of the schools I have visited, there is always a group of students that seem to really want to learn English and I do my best to encourage them. I also like to speak and practice with the Thai English teachers and help them with any problem areas they may be having when I'm not on in front of their class.
Here is another new development on my life here in Issan. Shortly after my last update I was approached by an American-owned factory here wanting to know if I would teach their employees English. I agreed and we made a three-month contract to teach two hours a night, three nights a week. The contract is winding down at the end of the month and here is what's been happening with it. At the start the employees were typical nervous students, but after a week I won them over again with my style of teaching and progress has been very satisfying. The boss has told me she has seen improvement in the employees English skills. I told her we all work well together and that I am instilling a since of self-confidence that many of them needed. With any luck she will renew my contract for another three months. The extra money is nice but this last week and the next few are going to be rough because of the marketing I was speaking about above. My father in-law was right when he said "give it time and these private teaching jobs will find you"
Now for something completely unrelated to teaching here in Thailand. As I have said above I have had the good fortune to run into a few native speakers out here in deepest Issan. After speaking with them and others on an Issan forum board we decided it was time to try and bring some of these people together. I have this strange habit/ability to bring many different people together. Back in the states I was a small town politician along with running a famous RPG game for a very diverse group of people (shameless plug: anyone looking to start a deepest Issan RPG group?). So now I am orchestrating the the first "Falang meet-up" in Mahasarakham due to happen at the end of February. I guess old habits die hard but I enjoy meeting new and different people as it makes for a much fuller life.
My next update will be in two parts, living in Issan and teaching in Issan. With this I hope to both attract and dissuade people to come here. Life here is not as easy as living in a city accustomed to "falangs" but at the same time life here can be very rewarding to a person with a sense of adventure.
It’s all good - 23rd February 2009
It sounds like things are still going well up there Dave. Just out of interest, are you getting paid for the marketing work or are you doing this out of the goodness of your heart? Remember that if it's the latter, then someone is still going to be making money. I don't think there's anything wrong with helping out your school now and again - a public appearance, a presentation or maybe simply turning up for a sports day, but I know that many teachers will agree with me on this - you have to know when to draw the line. Your life at work is important but your life outside of work is even more so. I'm not trying to bring the mood down here but Thais can sometimes adopt a rather annoying 'work the willing horse' mentality and you'll find yourself becoming known as the farang that never says no. You don't want to earn that reputation for yourself. By all means, do your bit to help out, but make those above you aware that you value time away from the job as well. No one wants to live and breathe work 24/7.
On a separate note, I didn't think it would be long before you landed your first corporate gig. Now this is how you could really put your marketing skills to good use - by contacting all the companies in the area and tell them what you are doing at such and such a company. I never hear from many corporate teachers working out in the sticks but I'm sure there's work out there.
Living and working in Thailand - 24th April 2009
I will make this update in two parts, living and working here in Thailand.
Life: As for living here in deepest Issan I am amazed how little I "need" western conveniences although living without an internet connection is not one of them. I will start by talking about the house the school provides for my wife and me to live in. The house is a common two-storey Issan style house made from concrete blocks with a second floor made of wood. The house has neither heat nor air conditioning or hot water but for most of the year it's fine. During the two month cold streak though it was very uncomfortable as the house is designed for maximum air flow and I was not a happy camper. Showering was another problem during this time as the house has no hot water. So to bathe I had to heat water on the single burner stove and pour it into a large tub and take a bowl poured shower. Also for those of you unfamiliar with Issan style bathrooms they typically have a large vat of water, a squat style toilet (thankfully mine is a western style) and a shower head, but lack any kind of sink. So when one takes a shower, brushes their teeth, washes the clothes by hand (no washing machines) or does the dishes, all the water along with anything else, goes on the floor then down the drain. Bathroom floors in rural Issan are seldom dry here. We also have a water tank outside that stores water as the water supply from the town is inconsistent at best. Also we have to turn on the water pump when we want to have running water in the house. As I said earlier the house has no A/C and there are only a few days that I wish I had it. The ceiling and portable fans do an OK job keeping us comfortable. Our home is a little more upscale as all the windows and doors have screens and that's not often seen here where I live. Surprisingly I don't get bitten by mosquitoes as much as I used to when I first moved here. I can only guess my Issan diet has made my blood less appetizing.
Living in a very small Issan town has a number of benefits along with some detractions. One, almost everybody knows me in one way or another and I am treated with respect and not overcharged for anything I buy in town. By everybody knowing me if I should "lose face" in some way everybody will know, so I must be conscious of my actions at all times. I am well known at many of the restaurants and businesses here and I do my best to inaugurate myself into the community as much as a "falang" can. Anything for day to day life can be found here and the fresh market is a personal favorite of mine. Just wandering through the stalls and taking in the sights, sounds, smells and other senses is a real treat. For any luxury items it's just a 25 km. ride up the road to the nearest "big" city. Entertainment is in short supply here as all I have to choose from is either video rental or three Thai karaoke bar/restaurants. I have found that living here I now have a strange appreciation for karaoke and jump at any chance to go to Mahasarakham to hear and sing English music.
City services can be iffy at times but you learn to adjust. The water seems to have most problems as it starts and stops without warning. The electricity here is good except when they are switching lines. There is a good one or two second drop in power, perfect for screwing up computers without battery backup. It also does a wonderful job of disrupting the school server which has a battery backup unit but sadly past its service life. The Internet here is similar to the water in respects to reliability as living here on campus my Internet connection goes through the schools server then to the service provider. So my internet browsing has two large hurdles to clear before receiving any information.
Transportation for my wife and me consist of our new Honda 100 Wave and the local buses. I live here on campus so I don't have to commute to work so the Honda is perfect for going into town (3 km. away) for the markets or restaurants. If we want to go to the big town up the road we either ride the bike or take the local bus. By western standards the local bus would not be allowed to leave a parking lot but we have ridden it on many occasions with no problems. Also our town is on the bus route so we can take the 200 km. trip to Udon to see my wife's parents any time we want. The main and secondary roads out here are in quite good shape but many of the roads leading to some of the isolated villages where most of my students live are poor and must be navigated carefully.
Traveling Thailand by bus isn't as bad as you may read on the forums but I love traveling by Thailand's railroad system! For those adventurers out there that want to see Thailand the fun way, then traveling in the 2nd or 3rd class non A/C trains is a must! Maybe in another year we will look into buying a car or pick-up truck although I have my eye on a Kawasaki 1000 Ninja an Englishman in a few villages away might sell.
Living here in deepest Issan has got to be one of the best decisions I have ever made. I was reminded of this on my two trips to Bangkok and increasingly on my visits to Udon Thani. Being in a town the size of Udon Thani is very unusual to me now with the amount of traffic, products available, and foreigners like myself. Don't get me wrong, I do miss going to a local watering hole and being able to speak English and to be understood but rural small town Issan life is great. As I write this I can hear a calliope of crickets singing their song and in the morning I will awake to the sound of roosters or a loud speaker playing moolum music or the daily news, both of which I can sleep through.
Both official and non-official holidays are quite a bit of fun out here. Three of the holidays I love are Songkran (Thai New Year), Bung Bang Fai (rocket festival) and Loi Kratong (casting away one's sins on the water). I have read and heard of many foreigners bemoaning Songkran and barricading themselves in their homes until the end of the holiday. I fully embrace these three days of madness as a chance to blow off steam and enjoy being with my Thai family and friends along with the few brave foreign souls that also enjoy this holiday. What can I say about Bung Bang Fai, large homemade gunpowder rockets, beauty contests, rice whiskey (real rocket fuel), and almost non existent safety standards, this is a party not to be missed. One must keep their wits about them with a possibility of launch pad explosions (I've never seen one at the many I was at last year), falling debris (I've seen more than a few ballistic missiles returning to Earth and landing in the crowd) and staying with my students families in their homes in the villages, priceless. Then there is Loi Katong where you buy a small boat made of Styrofoam, banana leaves, orchids, incense, a candle, and a few baht coins to cast away your sins. Speaking with the other expats living out here we agreed the burden of our boats must have been tremendous carrying away our sins.
There are numerous other things to keep me occupied out here so as you and the readers see, Issan is not as boring as many have been led to believe. The lifestyle is very slow and laidback and just the way I like it. I hope I haven't painted too rosy a picture of life here as it can be quite difficult at times too. If not for my lovely wife life, here would be very difficult. Living here has made me speak and understand Thai much better but it has also showed me how much more I need to learn. I would say if you're an adventurer at heart and have a Thai partner, pack your bags and come on up to deepest Issan. If you "need" some of the western conveniences then towns like Udon, Khon Kaen, Korat, and other Issan cities will fit you fine, just finding work may be a little difficult. Now if you crave the big city life with the hustle and bustle and wide variety of activates then Issan is not for you.
Work: Here it is, I have completed my first year of teaching here in the kingdom and I'm happy with the result. One feather in my cap would be I am the first western to ever last a full school year here at this school. This is a great school to teach at it's so isolated and hasn't much to do for a single man not looking to become attached. I must admit that my master plan was to only stay one year and build experience and confidence then try to find a school in Udon and move back there, but I have decided to stay. I now have my new one year contract, renewed visa, and renewed work permit, I'm golden for another year.
Teaching at this school I have experienced and taught both the regular school program and what is called the MEP or Mini English Program. The difference in the students English abilities are amazing in the MEP compared to the regular program students. The MEP students take their core subjects in English everyday and use the English language at least six hours a day if not more, whereas the regular program students I only see for one hour a week. Class sizes are another advantage, MEP classes are small so I can give each student a lot of attention and sort out any problems they may be having, whereas the regular program classes have anywhere from forty to fifty students in the classroom and unfortunately I never get to know many of their names. Where as with my MEP students not only do I get to know them but I also know many of their parents or guardians as well.
The school director is a very good man and I believe is doing his best for the school. Since being here I have seen many capital improvements to the school as in the new Langstar room with A/C and eighteen new computers, a new school bus, and a new presentation room. The assembly hall is having its roof extended to accommodate a growing number of students and their parents for upcoming shows. In the works for the upcoming school year will be a cyber café for the students. Not bad for a school in the middle of deepest Issan.
Working with the teachers has been a positive experience and we are learning a lot from each other. There was a lecturer here about six months ago telling the teachers that they should practice their English with me but only a few do from time to time. I enjoy my chats with the teachers in the morning and to be brought up to date on what's happening in school that day or week. One of the English teachers here loves American idioms so I borrowed my father in-laws "American Idioms" book for him to copy. We will chat and he will ask questions on how to properly use an idiom or surprise me by using one he's learned.
Resources can be very limited here in rural Issan and having access to the internet is a must. One thing I enjoy is the challenge of finding and using different resources and items to help me make my lessons fun, interesting, and useful for my students. This skill of sniffing out information came in very handy this year not only for my students but me as well. The man that handled all of the foreign teacher's paperwork left the school for a better job. This left the school with no one who knew all the paperwork required so it was up to us, the foreign teachers, to assemble the paperwork ourselves. With copies of last years paperwork, helping a number of the school secretaries run computer searches and my own inquisitive/nosey nature we had everything we needed or so we thought.
All has not been perfect out here though. Regretfully the school has lost two students to motorcycle accidents, one girl eighteen and a boy fourteen. I know I could have lost more as I have seen some of the students coming in to school pretty banged up. Traffic laws are almost nonexistent here so when you're in Bangkok with what you think is a crazed Issan taxi driver, he's just driving like he's back home.
This year my classes will be English conversation and computer science. I am looking forward to both and my students are relieved to see all three of the foreign teachers will be returning this year. I have been given the Langstar room for my computer classes and it looks like my classes will be the only ones to use these new machines. During the month break we are being paid so I will use this time to "reset" the computers to make them virtually identical. I have also bought a number of new books to help make my lessons meaningful and interesting.
I returned to Text & Talk in Khon Kaen to see my TEFL trainer Steve and meet the new class of TEFL teachers. I related my experiences to the students and tried to tell them what to expect. One thing I tried to relate to them was the fact they must be resourceful and self-reliant if they decide to teach in Issan and more so if heading out in to deepest Issan. I remember when I was taking my TEFL training I was hoping a working teacher would stop by to relate their experiences but alas no one did. Anyone reading this and thinking of coming to Thailand to teach should do themselves a favor - take a TEFL course. It should be one that is in a classroom with a trainer and not online as the interaction is very valuable. Also a course that will give you real classroom practice, again invaluable.
So as you and the readers can see, I love living and teaching in Thailand and hope to do so for many more years. I especially love the Issan region as it is now my home. My updates may not be as frequent as I'm not sure I could add much more but who knows - this is Thailand.
P.S. Songkran has come and gone and I'm still alive and well contrary to what you read on the net and in the papers. My wife and I went to Udon Thani for my second Songkran and this one was as fun as the last. During the three day celebration I never saw any fights or malice towards anyone on the streets. The only concern was on the first day Songkran there was a "Red Shirt" rally and they closed down the main north/south highway so we couldn't make it to our farm that day. The only injury in my group of family and friends was to me as on the last day I stepped on a broken bottle, but not serious enough to need stitches. One amusing thing I did see this year is the Thai version of a "mosh pit" around one of the many music tents. I can sum up Songkran in Udon in two words - pure joy.
After being in Udon for almost two weeks it's nice to be back out here in the rice paddies. I missed the sound of the crickets at night and dodging cattle, buffalos, and the famous Issan "iron buffalo" tractors going up and down the roads here. Rainy season is almost here and again the fields will be emerald green with the new crop of rice. School will be starting in a few weeks and I look forward to seeing my students again, aside from the students that stop by just to visit and have lunch.
Thanks Dave - 25th April 2009
You've adapted so well to life up there in rural Isaan. I guess at the end of the day you're either a city boy or a country bumpkin. I shudder to read the parts about taking showers with bowls and living in rooms without air-conditioning but I suppose I'm not really the adventurous type. I do like my creature comforts. I like to walk into a room and feel the icy chill of the a/c and I do like my hot water shower under a ferocious jet of water. I'm coming across as a bit of a wimp aren't I? It's all about what lifestyle suits you best. I think that's great that you popped in to see your old TEFL course trainer and shared your wisdom with the raw recruits. I think a lot more TEFL courses should do that. Congratulations also on becoming the first foreign teacher to last a school year and also well done on your new admin position sorting out the teachers paperwork. You've obviously got talents I bet you didn't know you possessed.
Term break and student contests - 28th June 2009
In my last update I spoke about being not sure if I would be sending in anymore updates as I thought after a full year teaching here I didn't think I could add anything else interesting. Never say never, especially here in Thailand. Unfortunately this update will be a bit sadder than my previous reports.
What a difference a years experience makes teaching here. School started about six weeks ago and I'm no longer stunned and amazed at what happens. I can easily roll with the punches of special days, last minute meetings, and numerous schedule changes without even batting an eyelid. I have far more confidence in the classroom and even tried an experiment I thought up over the school break. It is a system to encourage the students to overcome their fear of speaking English. I am happy to say that so far it has been a roaring success although it does require a great deal of energy from me but is worth the effort.
As you know I live here on campus and used the time to prep the MEP computers for the students this year. About one week before school opened, all the computers were removed and the room was converted into two classrooms for the MEP. The new computer room was not finished on time so no computer lessons for the students. The room was finished about a week and a half ago but the IT man was too busy to set them up. Instead of waiting I simply told him I would do it myself and with the help of the students we now have our computer room. During this time when the computers were out of my charge, much of the work I put into prepping the computers was lost due to the staff not knowing what the new programs were for, so I'm slowly reassembling them again. I have also become the "honorary" IT and AV assistant along with the schools new software teacher trainer. The schools network can be less than cooperative at times much to the chagrin of the IT guy and me. I'm doing the network maintenance as it benefits me directly. The AV is minimal and besides I have my M3 student - who is a real techie - as an assistant and he reminds me of myself years ago. By the way, thanks for the good advice in previous updates on "working a willing horse" as the school has approached me with other projects which I diplomatically declined.
This year we had a good starting class for MEP but after a week the students were told that due to a budget shortfall the price of the MEP was almost going to double. I lost three students straight away and two in M2, I just hope I don't lose anymore. The new M1 students were quite nervous having to study with a native speaker but now they have lost their fear and are making slow but steady progress and enjoying their class. I have one student that at first I thought might be a gifted student in learning languages but now I believe she is simply passionate about learning English. She has outperformed many of the M3 students in public speech here at school. She has already been to two public speech contests coming away with a silver and bronze medal. Not bad for having a very short time to prepare - but she really is that good. Seeing my M2 and M3 students coming back has also been a joy. Seeing them grow both physically and intellectually fills me with a sense of pride as they comfortably speak English with me now.
Speaking about the EP/MEP contest in Korat I felt the location was great as it was held in a huge shopping mall assembly hall. It was a lot of fun seeing fellow chalkies again along with some new faces. I had to laugh as some of the teachers at the contest said the teachers of my school - along with myself - looked like country bumpkins. I guess this is one of the curses of living in deepest Issan. One of the new teachers here recognized me from my story on Ajarn.com. He was a nice guy and he was surprised to find that as regards moving up here to Issan - all my reports were "brutally" honest. He is teaching in Roi-Et and has a house with A/C and hot running water; I had to tease him about not being a hardcore adventurer. One other point I would like to make is a comment about the quiz part of the contest and some of the poor choices of questions posed to the students. Several of the native speaking teachers sitting with me let out a collective groan at some of the questions because they had very little or no relevance whatsoever to the students. As one of the teachers said "these are throwaway questions" as none of the students could answer them.
Last school year the school had two students die in motorcycle accidents. Tragedy has really struck the MEP this year. The father of one of my students also died in a motorcycle accident. The entire MEP went to pay our respects. I got to know him as I like to try and get to know all of my students' parents. He was a teacher here in the area and taught English, art, and music. He was a very talented man and he will be sorely missed.
As you can see my adventure still continues though the sense of wonder is now somewhat faded as this place has truly become my home now. Still every day I wake up with a smile on my face and walk to work with a spring in my step. Even with some of unfortunate events that happen here the magic of living in Thailand and especially here in deepest Issan is still a priceless gem I jealously protect.
You’re the man! - 30th June 2009
Hi Dave. I wonder how many teachers have read your journey article and been inspired and encouraged to give teaching in Isaan a try? I bet it's far more than you think. Congratulations on the new position as the head of IT but always remember never to take on more duties than you feel comfortable with. It's in the classroom where the kids need you most, and becoming the school's resident jack-of-all-trades is only going to detract from your classroom performances. On a separate note, I'm sorry to hear about those tragic motorcycle accidents. Unfortunately it's part and parcel of life in Thailand. I've lost count of the number of Thais I've known either directly or indirectly and ended up paying my respects at their funeral.
An upbeat update - 2nd October 2009
I'm very happy to say this update will be a little more upbeat than previous ones. To be honest I really can't think of anything to complain about so with that - on with the update. Mid-terms are wrapping up here at my school in deepest Isaan and I'm happy overall about most of the students performances save for just a few. I have three students I feel are behind the group and I offer free lessons on the weekends to help them catch up. Two of the girls take advantage of this but sadly the lone boy will not. I have begrudgingly come to the realization that I can't save them all. My little rice paddy school has another reason to be proud. At the last Isaan school competition my school came in 8th overall out of twenty odd schools with EP/MEP programs here in Isaan. Needless to say the administration and staff here were very pleased and I'm glad I did my part to help. The real credit has to go to the students who worked so hard to achieve this goal and I am very proud of them.
I went to a government-sponsored seminar here in Isaan about new teaching methods. It was a very interesting concept and I would like to see it implemented here as it could really help the students learn English. At the seminar, I did get an education into how many of my students are taught in high schools and at the universities. We had a speaker, a well-spoken doctor of education, lecture us on education here in Thailand. Unfortunately she had lost the entire room as most, if not all of the teachers present, simply gave up listening to her and there was an uncomfortable silence at the end of her powerpoint presentation as the attendance finally realized that she had finished. Afterwards the Doctor seemed quite angry and left immediately after her lecture. Sadly, after speaking with a number of the teachers there and asking them what they got from or remembered from the lecture, none of them could remember anything she said. In fact many of us tried to remember something from the lecture, anything, but no one could recall anything she said! This has shown me that without interaction from the class you're just wasting your time. I learned a valuable lesson that day on how not to teach and I carry it with me when I enter the classroom .
I learned something else; I have developed what could be called a signature. Since the last EP/MEP in Korat a few months back the foreign teachers have noticed the attire I wear to these big events. Here in the province I live, it is common to wear very brightly colored provincial shirts. Americans, like me, would call them Hawaiian style shirts. The shirts depict province icons such as Pra That Nadun, our famous land crab and the small white wild flowers found here to name just a few. These shirts come in a variety of very bright colors and this is standard school attire for myself and some of the other teachers. You can imagine my surprise when people ask why I wear such attire and my answer is this is what we wear where I teach. So now if I come to Bangkok for a seminar it will be quite easy to find me in the crowd - just look for the tall falang wearing the brightest, loudest, shirt there and you'll know it's me.
I have been invited by the schools director to accompany him and other school heavyweights to go to Bangkok and meet with the MoE. They want their falang teacher there to help make a case for more money. It seems we are trying to get more money for the MEP program. I hope this could translate into the return of a few students I lost at the beginning of this school year along with dropping the price of admission. Time will tell but I am looking forward to the trip.
I have had another new experience here at school - English camp. For two days we had activities and games in English. I had a great time but afterwards I was exhausted. One interesting thing that happened during the evening when the kids were going to sleep. The Thai English teachers came to us (the foreign teachers) and talked about comparing the MEP students and the regular program students and they noticed something that surprised them. They knew the MEP students would be superior to the other students in English but what they also noticed was the self-confidence and candor of the MEP students. Hearing this has caused my heart to swell with pride as at that point I knew I was helping to make an impact on my student's lives in a positive way.
Here is another interesting tidbit. As you know, I am teaching at an American-owned company just outside of town. I now teach two classes, another conversation beginner's class and a business English class four nights a week. Just last week I was summoned to the general manager's office for a conference. Turns out the senior staff have noticed an improvement in the emails they receive from the employees (my students). Here at the plant, all emails must be in English so I have been focusing on this area along with others. I must say I feel very proud of what I'm doing and helping the employees to advance their careers makes me feel good.
Another positive point is the Khon Kaen Immigration Office. Before, I needed to go to Mukdahan for my 90-day reports and visas. Now I report to the Khon Kaen office and I couldn't be happier. Don't get me wrong, Mukdahan is a nice town but from where I live it's a four-hour bus ride each way. So arriving at the new Khon Kaen temporary office was a great relief. This has also given me a chance to pop into Text & Talk to speak with the new recruits. After a very short lecture I did a Q&A session with the class. Aside from the standard questions the class made an interesting observation. One of the students said that I seemed very happy and content with both Thailand and my school and the rest of the class agreed with him. This gave me a moment of pause and reflection to consider what he said. At that point I realized how genuinely happy I am here in Thailand, and the school I work at. I am indeed a lucky man.
People ask me if I have any regrets. My biggest regret is not being able to fly back to Florida and see my family regularly as it is quite expensive. However, my message to would-be expats is do not overlook Isaan. Life, although simple and at times difficult, can be very rewarding. The only other thing I regret is not being able to assemble an RPG gaming group. I was able to put together an ex-pat social group once a month. This had never happened in this area so again I feel proud of this accomplishment but my RPG group has fallen flat. I guess you can't have it all but I haven't given up. As you can see life can still be very rewarding in the grand scheme of things. I love my adventure here and I look forward to much, much more.
It’s the cool season in Isaan - 15th January 2010
Here it is again, winter in Issan. To many of the people here, it's their favorite time of the year but I'm not one of them. The cold weather reminds me how much I hate it. I have received email from Florida and it is much colder there so I am much better off being here here. The rice harvest has been wrapped up and it appears to have been a good year for my students families as I see a surge in building and many of my students have new clothes, cell phones, and computers.
As you may know, I teach part-time at an American-owned factory here. I have been teaching here for about a year now and I enjoy it very much. Because it is an American-owned company, they want their office employees to speak and write in English. Last month the general manager went to the Asian corporate headquarters in China for the yearly meeting. When he returned he told the employees that the people in China were amazed at the turnaround the the plant's English skills. Needless to say I'm very happy and the factory has asked me to continue. I have a new student in class and she has never had a western teacher and she was very nervous at first. I have been teaching her for about two weeks now and she is the first to class and has been telling the other employees/students how much she enjoys my classes. Again I couldn't be happier.
Only other thing to update you on is the monthly falang meeting for this part of Issan. As you know I helped to arrange a monthly meeting for foreigners living in the surrounding area. It appears to be growing as word of it spreads through the villages and we meet once a month to eat, drink, socialize, exchange information, and generally keep an eye on one another should any problems arise in the area. As one of my friends likes to say "living here in the bush may not be easy but it is by far more fun and interesting" and I must agree. So our social group could be considered a bit of a safety net for both those who live here and people that may be married but living abroad. I have noticed that rural Issan expats and those who live in the larger Issan cities are as different as back home. Living out here in the "bush" you tend to be quite happy to meet another westerner where as in the cities they tend to ignore one another, what a shame.
It looks like that trip to the MoE will be coming up soon and I'd like some advice. I will be going with my schools director to ask for an increase in funding to keep the cost of the schools MEP program affordable. I will dress smart but anything else I should be aware of or anything I should take or do? My Thai etiquette is pretty good now. I just want to make sure I present myself along with my school in the best possible light.
In closing please keep those letters coming as I love to read and respond to everyone. To people out there thinking of coming and teaching here in Issan don't be afraid and embrace the challenge. You may find you will treasure Issan as my as I do!
A very, very close shave - 8th March 2010
These last two months have been nerve racking for both me and my wife as we were not sure if we were going to stay here in deepest Isaan. Let me explain what has been happening up here. Things have been quite different this year from last in terms of the MEP program. The beginning of the year started with a very large price increase and the loss of 25% of the students. Then this year we did not go the elementary schools to market the MEP and finally many of the present students told us they could not return next year because of the cost. As you can imagine, the rumor mill was saying the end of the MEP was near and we (the foreign teachers) agreed.
Today was D-Day and I am very pleased to say that the MEP will live on. From what we were told, the teachers evaluation committee, board of trustees, and local government leaders agreed that the program was too important to both the students and community to just let it die. We were told that the combined evaluation of the foreign teachers along with the students' performance in English greatly pleased the various committees. The result is that the school will receive a grant to lower the cost to the families of the MEP students and possibly hire another foreign teacher. I can tell you that all three of us are overjoyed with the news. The teaching team will not be broken up!
I have both read and talked to teachers who work in English departments where the teachers do not communicate or worst still, do not get along with each other. I'm happy to say that is not the case here as we try to always have our lessons compliment our co-teacher's lesson. Obviously this cannot happen all the time but it shows the level of partnership and cooperation we have. We are very much a team and this has reflected on our students. Now that the "team" is staying together for another year, we couldn't be happier. Our contracts will be renewed and I am looking forward to another year out here in deepest Isaan - at a school I love.
Lessons learned? - 8th March 2010
Well done Dave! and well done to the other two members of your team as well. It's always important to take something away from these incidents and in this case, you have to realize that there is no such thing as 'a job for life'. Not in Thailand. Not anywhere. I remember when I worked for a language school for five years, and then new management was brought in. I voiced my concerns about certain issues and I was told that if I didn't like it the way it was, I should leave. Just like that! I can't hide the fact that I felt hurt given the loyal service I had showed the school for so long. Your situation is different but what I'm saying is that you never know when that rug is going to be pulled from under your feet. Enjoy the next school year but never get 'too comfortable'.
That said, all the wonderful work you've done at this school is now on your resume forever. I bet you could walk into a hundred schools in deepest Isaan and ninety would hire you on the spot (if they had the budget of course) Finding another job is something you needn't fret over too much but I do appreciate how at home you must feel right where you are now. Keep up the good work!
Just out of interest, why did the school increase the fees by a whopping 25% when they knew already that many of the students families were struggling to pay the existing rates?
Like the shirt? - 10th March 2010
Thanks Phil, You're right as you can never be to secure here.
Last school year the prices were risen by almost double and the excuse was the foreign teacher were so expensive. The school has been going through a lot of improvements so maybe that is were some of the money is going.
In one of my updates I spoke of my "signature" bright provincial shirts. Here is a picture of me from the Christmas party wearing one my shirts. Yes, we all wear and teach in these beauties!
Songkran Dave style - 18th April 2010
This update is going to span a week or so as to give you an idea of life here outside the ring road of Udon Thani during Songkran. As you know my wife and I have our own small farm named 'The Plantation' by a friend of mine who came to see the place a few months ago. I guess the reason for the name is when you walk around the side of the house, you can see all the mango and banana trees we have on the farm. At last count we have around 20 mango trees, 6 banana trees, and 6 coconut trees. This appears to be an off-year for the mangos as the trees are not as full as last year. Speaking with some of the local farmers this seems to be normal. I have been told that mangos will have one year with a lot of fruit followed by the next year bearing only a fraction of that amount. So next year I should have mangos for sale after family and friends get their share. The mangos are quite popular with the family and we have heard from a number of people they are very delicious. I have a standing order for our mangos at both the school and at my corporate teaching job back in Borabu.
The house has been going through a year-long renovation and is about 90% finished. That said, we are living in it while staying here in Udon Thani. The house is now almost 2 houses that are joined together and has turned out to be better than first envisioned. The house now consists of an outdoor kitchen, 2 bathrooms, a large master bedroom, a large multi-purpose room (previously a small bedroom and living room) and a long narrow living room to be turned into a home theater once we live here permanently. There is also a large front porch on the house, perfect for evening socializing and is in keeping with a good old American southern tradition. With the number of trees on The Plantation the house stays comfortable during the heat of the day and in the evening it is simply beautiful. Our house is about 15 kilometers from the center of Udon and I believe we have the best of both worlds. We can be in the main Udon shopping areas in 15 minutes and Udon has almost everything an expat needs. Staying here is perfect as the only thing you hear during the day is distance farm sounds and the occasional sound of building. At night just the sounds of the crickets and the "to-kay" lizard that enjoys its evening meals of bugs buzzing around the porch light at night.
Songkran: Day 1:
Day one of Songkran in now in the history books and yet again it has affirmed my love of this holiday. There is a slight change in my plans this year for celebrating Songkran. As you may know it's traditional to climb into the back of a pick-up truck with large barrel full of water and a number of buckets to throw water on people on the street. Likewise people in the street people are equally armed with barrel and bucket along with water hoses to return the refreshing splash of water as it is very hot this year. As for my plans, I have sequestered myself at my favorite bar to one, avoid getting sunburned, two, access to cold beer, three, and most important, loud hard rocking English music. The day ended with a Thai style BBQ with my in-laws at the neighbor's house when some damn soi dog snuck off with one of my shoes! I was lucky to find it before it was chewed or buried. Ahh, life in Issan, it's never boring! It is now the morning of day two and as I write this report my wife and I are preparing to head back into town to start all over again. As a side note you should see Udon preparing for Songkran. I have counted at least 4 large stages and I have had reports of others being setup around the lake in the center of town. This town really knows how to throw a Songkran party and I feel lucky to be here. Time to head back into the madness and fun so until tomorrow... I will give an account of the day's happenings through bloodshot eyes.
Songkran: Day 2:
The day started much as yesterday here at The Plantation has in preparing ourselves for another day of Songkran. We made our way into town through the gauntlet of the water throwing adults and kids before hitting the main road. Once on the main road we headed for my wife's family's home in town. Along the trip we were stopped at the gates of the Thai Air Force to splashed and powdered by the solders before going along our way. Once at her parents place plans were made to go to the brother in-laws motorcycle repair shop and my favorite bar. Once at the shop I didn't care for the music so my wife stayed as I headed for my new haunt. Sadly it was closed so I did what many would feel is suicidal and rode the motorcycle into the heart of darkness known as Nam Pajak Park. This is ground zero for Songkran in Udon and I had a great time. I would have impressed many a Bangkok crazed motorcycle taxi drivers at the maneuvers I pulled off weaving me way through traffic. Stopping at an American owned internet café I meet many of my friends here in Udon and many of them asked if I was returning this year. I told them I signed on for another year at the school in deepest Issan and would try to return next year with more experience under my belt. All and all, another great day of Songkran was had here in Udon and I look forward to what tomorrow has to bring. To loosely quote one of my favorite movies "sometimes you have to look that holiday straight in the eye and say "go ahead and give me your best shot, I can take it!" And with that let's see what day three has for me?
Songkran: Day 3:
Well, here it is, the last day of Songkran and I find it bitter-sweet. On the bitter side I am sad to see it go with the unabashed joy and fun this holiday inspires. On the sweet side is the wonderful and vivid memories I get to keep along with the break from 3 days of a water powered holiday. I just know my liver and brain cells are in complete revolt but hey, this is Songkran and all bets are off! This day was much like yesterday and found me touring Udon on the back of a Honda 100 Wave motorcycle. I'm happy to report I did not see any accidents or fights, just thousands of happy people and smiling faces, myself included.
So, to wrap up Songkran 2010, I am writing this last day report here on the front porch of our house here on The Plantation under a blanket of stars in a beautiful Issan night. These last three days have been very hot and the cool water splashes have been very welcomed. This year I have found this year's Songkran festival to be far tamer than last years. The crowds were smaller but as always the people were wonderful and polite. I don't know the reason for this change but I am still convinced that that those of you who do not enjoy Songkran should try to get into the spirit of the holiday. Nowhere on Earth can you have this much fun and have a chance to reclaim just a little bit of the youthful joy you have experienced in the past. Speaking with a few other American expats here we feel as though the "feeling" of Songkran can be related to having New Years Eve, Mardi Gras, and Independence Day (4th of July) all rolled up into a three day holiday day, just add water!
There you have it, Songkran, Udon style. I guess we will stay here a few more days before returning to my school and preparing to teach my corporate classes Monday afternoon. I just know I will become homesick leaving The Plantation but with another year of teaching experience under my belt will make me more attractive to schools in and around Udon. To me it seems strange to become so attached to a place? But, after living here in "our" house for just a short time it feels like home. All I can say is, it's good to be home.
I am back at my teachers' house here in deepest Issan and contrary to popular belief and what people read on the internet and forums I should be dead or at least injured or maimed in some way. I credit this amazing feat to basic common sense mixed with a fair amount of luck. Not to make light of some of the tragedies that do happen during this holiday but it's not as bad as you may have been reading, at least from my point of view. Saying this I have just seen one of the students here at school and it appears as though he didn't exercise his common sense but retained his good luck. From what I can piece together, he was drinking and riding his motorcycle during day one of Songkran. For his sin, his face has a serious case of road rash but otherwise he is up and walking around and seems to be OK. I guess his luck pulled him through this potentially fatal accident. All I can do is try and encourage him to learn from this mistake and use it as a learning experience.
Being back here at my teachers' house it just doesn't feel like home anymore, it's just a place to live while teaching here. I still enjoyed coming into town and seeing the familiar sights I have come to know over these past two years. I love this town and the people that live here. I have made a number of friends and professional contacts and will influence my future decisions. Who knows what the future holds but I do know that our home will also have great deal of sway in determining what will happen next year.
So with that I will end this update and enjoy the rest of my time off here in deepest Issan. I will continue to teach my corporate gig and lesson plan for the upcoming year. I am looking forward to seeing my new M1 students along with welcoming back last year's students.
A job lost and a job gained - 26th May 2010
Unfortunately I have bad news. You must have foreseen this coming Phil. The MEP program at my school was canceled last week and just yesterday, the foreign teacher staff had their contracts canceled. However, we are receiving a severance package to help ease the pain. The worst part of losing my job at this school is the fact that I love everything about the place. My students, along with the staff, have been an absolute joy to work with. Seeing my students faces when they found out the MEP was to come to an end was heartbreaking. I feel as though I'm letting them down but this is completely out of my hands. The one bright spot is that my best M3 student will be going to one of the best EP schools in the area and this makes me very happy.
On a brighter note I received a number of solid job offers. One being from Teacher Martin to whom we have debated on who is more "banok" or who lives in "DEEPER Issan". He told me that his school and MEP wanted very much to meet me as he believes I would be perfect for their program.
I was preparing to go when I received another call from one of the Issan EP powerhouse schools (the same one I'm sending my M3 student to) that I applied to late last week. Both the staff and students liked the demo lesson I gave and offered me a nice position in their program. So I will be moving 25km up the road to the big city. I'm not sure I'll like city life but we'll see. I will also be able to keep my part time corporate teaching job after school so it's a win-win situation for me. I will have to bring my A game to this school but I feel as though I will still continue to help the students to improve their conversational skills. Also I was asked to implement the storytelling/drama English club, to which I happily said yes. You may remember I had students placed in both the silver and bronze medals in storytelling, skits, and public speaking so I'm looking forward to it.
The students at the new school are quite good and I look forward to working with them. Meeting the teachers was another big plus as I feel as though there is a real team spirit there - much like at the place I am leaving. The resources at the new school are amazing and I feel like a kid in a candy store.
I know I'm going to miss dodging cattle, buffalos, and the "iron buffalo" tractors while riding through town but all god things must pass.
Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known As Borabue.
I think this bad news was coming - 26th May 2010
I think it's a case of commiserations and congratulations in equal measure Dave. I hate to say it but you probably saw this coming. Looking back at your update in March, you expressed concern then about the continuation of the MEP program. Still, let's not dwell on it. You're moving to a better school with better resources and no doubt a bit more money in the kitty. When you say you are moving 25km up the road, do you mean just in terms of work or do you intend to move house as well?
Welcome to Mahasarakham - 6th July 2010
As you know I have both a new job and new home and I have been in both for one month now so I feel it's time for an update.
I would like to welcome you to the mighty city of Maha Sarakham a.k.a. The Big Smoke. This is a term coined by a number of foreign teachers here at school at it especially rings true with me coming from deepest Isaan. That said it has been a rather large shock to my system as I'm not accustomed to dealing with a large number people, motorcycles, cars, and stores. Most people will have a hard time finding this place on an average map of Thailand as "The Big Smoke" is eclipsed by the larger cities of Isaan. Maha Sarakham ‘s claim to fame is that it is known as Isaan's "Center of Education". The Big Smoke has two universities and a large number of primary and secondary schools and an infrastructure to support all of this. I find this "infrastructure" to be very convenient and enjoyable.
Let me tell you about the school I work in now. As I said before, this school is one of Isaan's big EP powerhouse schools and one of my mortal enemies at a number of the "English speaking" contests here. To be honest I would have stayed at my little rice paddy school and continued to tweak the noses of the big schools but with the death of the MEP my fate was sealed. Now that I am teaching here I am amazed at the resources at my disposal. And if that wasn't enough, the students have been the icing on the cake. The students here are very different from their country cousins. The biggest thing I have noticed is their sense of curiosity and their desire to learn and experience new things. One thing that is very much like my old school is that I come to work with a spring in my step and look forward to everyday. Today, a day after my birthday, my homeroom students cornered me and sang Happy Birthday and bestowed me with birthday gifts and as I looked out over a sea of smiling faces it was all I could do to fight back the tears of joy.
I have another surprise; you may remember I worked with two Filipino ladies in my old school and we called ourselves "The Team". We worked together for two years as a close team helping our students to improve their English. Well 2/3's of The Team are back together again. As of this week Angel and I are working together again and she has the same sense of bewilderment I had when I first arrived here at this school. Speaking of the team I would be remiss in not mentioning the rest of the teachers here in the EP program. The program now has nine foreign teachers and from what some of the senior teachers are saying, they like what they are seeing in the staff. I can tell from what I've seen that these people are both creative and dedicated teachers and yet another reason to come to work with a smile on my face. I feel as though spending my early teaching years in deepest Isaan has been an enormous help in my new job. The biggest thing I learned was how to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear or how to do almost everything with next to nothing to work with. If I had it to do over, I wouldn't change my decision to come to the North East. I would also like to tell anyone thinking of coming here to teach to go for it! You will be most appreciated and personally rewarded by both the staff and students in most schools.
As for my new residence, this has been a huge upgrade from the teachers' house at my last school. I am not complaining about my old place as I loved it and you couldn't beat the price, free rent and utilities. But my wife and I are now in a beautiful modern 3 bedroom 2 bathroom house. The house has marble floors, glass windows as opposed to wooden shuttered windows and came with comfortable beds, a table, washing machine, A/C in the bedroom, and hot water shower. The house is just outside the city proper and 5kms from the school and also comes with a small lawn in the back, potted water lilies and a small fish pond - all for the princely sum of 3000 baht a month. Even better is looking out back and only seeing a large pasture with cows and buffalos grazing, Isaan at its best. This reaffirms my decision to turn my back on Bangkok and stay here in rural Thailand. If I had to find a fault with the place is that I am getting soft. Trust me, I'm no martyr and I don't like suffering but I am losing my hard edge. Living in Isaan does that to a man.
As you can see my adventure is far from over or dull. This place is called amazing Thailand for a reason and I'm living proof. I have been corresponding with a number of people thinking of coming and teaching here and I have been brutally honest with each of them as I don't want to paint to rosy a picture. But I don't want to paint a bleak picture either. So if anyone is reading this and thinking of coming to North East Thailand, don't be afraid, just suck it up and dive in - you won't regret it. On the other hand if you find yourself teaching in Bangkok or some of the other larger cities here in Thailand then you have my sympathies.
Inspirational Dave. Simply inspirational - 6th July 2010
Dave, it's hard to believe that we've been communicating on this journey of yours for almost three years now. My word, how time flies and what a success you've made of it all. This new job sounds great. You've landed on your feet. It's a school with good resources, dilligent students and of course, you don't have the burden of constantly worrying if there's going to be enough funds in the school kitty. And the house you're living in sounds amazing for just 3,000 baht a month. I think a lot of potential teachers will read your account here and fancy a slice of the pie.
I'm actually no stranger to Mahasarakham. It's one of the few places in North East Thailand that I've been to. About 15 years ago, I worked for a private language school who signed a deal to open a branch of the school on the campus of Mahasakham University. The idea was that the uni students could take extra English lessons after they had finished their regular daytime studies. I didn't actually work there but I did recruit the three full-time foreign teachers and organised their living accommodation, etc. They were three great guys and I remember they were all looking forward to escaping from Bangkok and starting a new life in amongst the rice fields. To cut a long story short, two of them were back in Bangkok within a few months, There just wasn't enough for them to do and life in a town that shuts down at 6pm got a bit too much. So it's important to stress that life teaching in the rurals is certainly not for everyone. But it certainly suits you sir!
Everything is almost perfect - 16th August 2010
I am writing this update from the front porch of The Plantation as the rain plays its hypnotic song across the roof of my house here in Udon. Being here on the farm can best be described as a sublime state of being. With the monsoon rains returning to Isaan everything bright green and lush at The Plantation and is helping to enhance the sense of serenity here at the farm. Some of the readers may not be aware that August 12th was the Queen's birthday and the government gave us an extra day off making for a 4-day weekend. My wife and I traveled to Udon for a short vacation. Seems progress is catching up with our farm because when we returned we found a concrete road leading into the jungle instead of just the old dirt road. The new road stretched to just 10 to 15 meters shy of our driveway so it's safe to say we are both pleased at the recent addition.
A number of my Thai and farang friends were asking the question "when are you coming back to stay" and also saying "Udon needs you". I simply informed them if and when a position opens up in a school with an EP or MEP program in or close to Udon I'll look into coming back. On this trip I was pleased to see that the Udon Dungeons and Dragons Club is slowly coming to life. The club is being hosted at a local expat bookstore/ restaurant and I spend the weekend afternoons gaming with both old and new members.
On the job front, ss I said earlier, it would take a special school to get me to leave where I work now. This school is basically perfect for me. The students are wonderful and the staff is great. That combination is hard to beat. Being still very new here I'm still trying to get settled in and learn the students' strengths and weaknesses. That said, we just had the EP/MEP open house in Mahasarakham. My school fared well in the metal count but unfortunately my student in public speech placed 8th out of 26. Not bad considering I've only known her a few months. She has never done anything like this before and I was very proud her because she worked very hard. If I could coach her next year I feel she could do a lot better.
As regards the school admin side, there was something of a foul-up with my paperwork and this meant a trip to Laos to obtain a new visa. It was actually my first time in Vientiane but unfortunately I had to do the trip as cheaply as possible as I also needed to make a trip to Bangkok. Picking the brains of my contacts in Udon, I found a clean and cheap hostel to stay in. Good thing too as the trip started off on the wrong foot. Early that morning the family pick-up truck decided it didn't want to start so I had to take a bus to Nong Khai and it seemed the bus-driver was in no great hurry. When I got to the border point, Lao immigration took forever to dish out out visa-on-arrivals. So by the time I made it to the Thai embassy it was after 12:00 PM and closed for visa business. So that meant an extra day in Laos for me but it turned out fun as I met a large number of expats, vacationers, and backpackers. By day three I had my new visa and returned home.
The trip to Bangkok went a lot smoother. I was in the capital to apply for a new temporary teacher's license. Being in Bangkok brings home to me just how "banok" I have become. But I don't have any regrets. That should do it for this update as I want to fire up the music, crack open an ice cold beer, and enjoy this wonderful rain storm here on The Plantation in deepest Udon.
We missed each other again - 16th August 2010
Sorry Dave, yet again, we missed each other in Bangkok. As I said to you in an e-mail, I've been waiting at home for the immigration officers to come and check up on me regarding my one-year visa extension. And guess what? They still haven't shown up. Oh well. Glad that the trips to Vientiane and Bangkok went well. I haven't been to Laos for about fifteen years. I bet Vientiane has changed so much in that time.
Mid-term break - 21st October 2010
Hello again from The Plantation. As you may know most of the government schools here are on mid-term break and I'm enjoying being back in Udon and staying on the farm. It seems to me as though these updates are developing a pattern of being compiled on the farm.
I'm happy to say that most of my students have passed their mid-term tests and many did quite well and I am very proud of them. The few that didn't pass were the ones that made it a habit of not coming to class regularly or not even trying in class and the tests spoke for themselves. I do have one girl in my M1 or 7th grade class that I am concerned with. Throughout the first half of the year she sat in her seat not paying attention - even if she showed up at all. Several other teachers were equally concerned and a bit put off by her until I questioned some of my students about her. They told me that she simply did not understand any English. You see, the students must pass an English proficiency test to get into the English program so this situation does not come up. She was admitted when the head of the program was on vacation and did not take the test and sadly it showed. I'm not sure what is going to happen to her next term but she has to be in an absolute beginners class and not an English Program because it is way over her head.
Other events at school have been the M3 or 9th grade class trip. This year the kids and a group of teachers went to both Malaysia and Singapore. My student from my old school, now here at this school in the English Program has returned and I spoke with her briefly. She was amazed by so many new experiences. I think once school reopens I will spend at least a week having the students describe their vacation experiences. These should make for an interesting lesson and a chance to inject new and relevant vocabulary.
The only other school-related news is that we lost our science teacher during the mid-term break. He gave plenty of notice but the number of native speaking teachers applying for the vacant position has been very low. To make matters worse, you wouldn't believe the number of badly written résumés we have received from native speakers. We had one résumé from a native speaker that demanded more than 45k a month with spelling and grammar errors worse than what many of my students could produce. We did have a few applicants that looked very promising but I feel they got cold feet when they realized they would be coming to Issan. This city is defiinitely not deepest Issan like my last school and it doesn't have the nightlife of say Udon or Khon Kaen but it's a very nice place to live and we have a great English program with a great boss. Where are the adventurers? - someone looking for a comfortable Issan lifestyle at one of Issans top government schools? I guess only time will tell.
The other applicants we have been getting are from native speakers currently living in their home countries. While many of them looked good, by not being here in Thailand it makes their résumés non-starters for my school. In fact I was speaking with other people that are in a position of hiring and they have told me the same thing. Anyone reading this and thinking of coming here to teach will find you need to be here before most schools will even look at your résumé. I understand moving to a strange country with no promise of employment can be scary, but on the flipside, look at it from the standpoint of the school. How can they hire you just based on your résumé and not seeing you in person or seeing you in a demo lesson. My only advice to anyone thinking of coming here to teach is you need to be here first before you have any real chance of finding a job.
I have some good news not related to school. You and the readers may remember from my earlier updates about me speaking about "Old Blue" - the families old blue Honda Dream. This motorcycle got me through school in Khon Kaen at Text & Talk and then six months in Issan before we bought our new Honda Wave, which my wife nicknamed "Sexy". Well, Old Blue is coming home with me at the end of my vacation. The family doesn't need her anymore so they are giving her to us. She has 80km on the clock but still rides just like I remember her. With two motorcycles, my lovely wife won't be stuck at home while I'm at work. Riding Old Blue is like being with an old familiar friend and will be a welcome addition to the family.
The Udon D&D Club is now up and running and I'm very pleased with it. I have been gaming all week with the members and having a great time. We have been getting emails from possible new members getting ready to make "the move" and make Udon their home. The older crowd in Udon doesn't seem to care for the game, but as younger people start to move in I believe membership will grow. As a side note, I have both a boys and girls group running at school and the students love the game and it gives them a chance to use their English language skills for something fun.
I don't have anything more to report on at this time. Just another week to go before heading back to school. I find I am starting to miss the students and I'm looking forward to seeing them in a week or so. I guess you could say I lucked into a great school and I am happy to be there.
Good point about being in the country - 21st October 2010
I don't think too many teachers truly relish the thought of going back to work Dave after a nice mid-term break, so that really shows how much you enjoy your job. You've made some good points there about always making sure you are actually in Thailand before you do a serious job hunt. There are so many reasons not to set up a job before you come here. In fact, one of the main reasons you go to an interview is to get a feel for the school you will possibly be working at. Oh and one more thing - how come you didn't wangle a place on the Malaysia / Singapore trip? You're the star teacher!
Another school year over - 11th March 2011
Wow it's been a while since my last update. Sorry about that. I got into a regular routine and I didn't notice the time going by. Another thing I find strange is that I am not surprised or astounded by many of the sights that after 3 years have become quite common. I dislike this to a degree as this is one of the reasons for moving here. I mean seeing the monks in the early morning wearing their orange/yellow robes receiving their daily food and offering blessings or seeing an elephant with its mahout walking through town doesn't even afford a second glance nowadays. That doesn't mean I don't love this country any less, on the contrary. I find living here to be one of the greatest decisions I have ever made. I could use many adjectives to describe life here, for example, exotic, strange, and beautiful along with frustrating, confused and sometimes dangerous. To give up both this lifestyle and my career at this stage would be a huge mistake.
One of the biggest things Thailand has taught me is balance. Coming from the USA, we are told from an early age that "too much is never enough" and many of us grow to believe this, myself included. I live a simpler lifestyle than I did in the USA but I find I'm comfortable and I don't work nearly as many hours as I did back home. Don't get me wrong though. I still enjoy luxuries like a nice house to live in, hot water showers (you don't know how much you miss them until you don't have them) and an internet connection (though when my contract is up I'm changing companies as this one is terrible)
Let's get the pain out of the way now. With the greatest regret, my student that followed me from my old school will not continue the next semester at my present school. I'll be honest and admit that I'm heartbroken by the fact she has not lived up to her potential. It seems as if coming from a country school to a city school was too much for her and to make matters worse, she didn't try to fit in. Top that with adolescence and the usual boyfriend troubles and it was a recipe for disaster. Having taught her from M1 to M3 and seeing her progress nicely, it is simply killing me to see what is happening to her, but as my lovely wife says, "you must move on as there are many more kids that need your help"
Now for the good news, I am now holding my new contract! I have been offered another year here at my present school. Even though I have heard rumors of a job opening in Udon Thani, I will stay here for a number of reasons. The students are great and I come to school looking forward to seeing and teaching them every day. The staff are a great bunch too, very dedicated, and friendly. Then I would say the management because without their hard work, this EP wound not be as successful as it is. Speaking of being successful, the staff was asked to interview the new incoming students for their ability to learn in English. We had 120 students apply for just 30 seats! Then there is the second tier that can get into the "B" class on just their test score, and again we had 105 students apply for 30 seats. Running a popular program produces a fair amount of stress inasmuch as we have to live up to both the students and parents expectations. We even have students coming from Bangkok to study in our program.
I'm happy and somewhat embarrassed at the teachers' performance report I received. I got good marks in everything except classroom management. I didn't need a report to tell me this as I fully agree with it. I have been asking senior teachers for advice and looking on the internet for any tips that may help. I will also be going back to Text & Talk in Khon Khan to get a refresher on classroom management. I know I have a very delicate line to walk balancing classroom order with the student's natural extreme shyness to speak English. I want to remain the friendly approachable teacher but I need to be firmer with the students. I know it is not going to be easy.
I have another piece of interesting news; I met another one of my readers. He turned out to be Welshman married to a beautiful Thai bride. He invited both my wife and I to his wedding and we had a great time. Although we were freezing, this poor guy was sweating buckets in his new wedding suit. I informed him that it will take him a few years to get used to the heat of Thailand - just like back in Florida when new people moved there and were shocked by the heat.
He will be taking a TEFL course soon and be ready for the new school year. I would like to wish him the best of luck and I will help in any way I can to help him settle into his new life - just like my father in-law did for me. As I see it we more experienced expats need to work together to help the newbies coming here. I helped start up the Maha Sarakham Expat Social Club and three years later it is still going strong with more members joining all the time. Because of this club we have helped a number of new members avoid the many pitfalls they may encounter.
The school year has now ended. It looks as though I will lose a few of my favorite M3 students as they will be going on to study math and science in the Thai program to try to get into the best universities. I find I am missing my students a lot already and going to school and encountering an empty homeroom is quite saddening.
On the upside, I have another group of scared and shy M1 students to both teach and mentor. It looks as though many of the students want to continue in the English program here at school and this makes me and my boss very happy. If this is true, then this will be the largest class to ever be progressing through the higher levels and shows why we are becoming the most popular English program in the province.
Speaking with some of the long time teachers here, they say this is the best staff the program has ever had because everyone is working together, unlike in the past. And it appears both the parents and students have noticed also. Sadly we will be losing our Filipino science teacher as she will be going home. What a shame as both the students and teachers liked her and are all very sad to see her go. So if there is a science teacher that wants to join a great program please forward your résumé to Phil so I can take it to my boss.
It looks like I will be spending this Songkran in Maha Sarakham as summer school starts right after Songkran and I don't want to go endure that ‘sardine can' bus-ride home. So I will make a report on the Thai New Year in Maha Sarakham and many of my students seem happy to know I'll be out there with them during this time of madness. I don't mind. It's a tradition I have come to love.
Why not give Isarn a chance? - 12th March 2011
Thanks for that update Dave. Yes, it's always sad to say goodbye to students but every kid has got to grow up and make their own way in the world I suppose. Dave also mentioned to me that he had taken a look at the ajarn teachers who want to work page and he was horrified that no one seemed willing to give the North East a chance. It seems that everyone wants to work in Bangkok, Pattaya or Koh Samui. Dave's message is simply "come up and give the North East a chance, because there are some great schools here"
I don't know Dave. Although you've settled in very well and you obviously enjoy your life out there in the rurals, many of us are still city people. I think for many folks it's that fear of getting bored that turns them off the idea of working in Isarn. And it's not without foundation. I was in Phichit a few years ago and after getting a room in the only decent hotel in town, I went out for a leisurely stroll. I walked up one side of the high street, down the other side, had a look at the open-air market and had sampled pretty much every delight Phichit had to offer. Many of those North Eastern Thai towns take the expression 'sleepy backwater' to a new dimension. They are certainly not for everyone. That's one reason I love Chiang Mai. You've got the hustle and bustle of a large Thai city if that's what you crave but just a short taxi ride to some of the most green and peaceful countryside in Thailand.
My fourth Songkran in Thailand - 2nd May 2011
It's that time of year when I do my Songkran update and I still can't believe this will be my 4th Songkran in the kingdom. This year was different because I celebrated it in Mahasarakham this time. I must admit this has to be the best Songkran yet because during the event I saw many of my students. They were pleased to see my wife and me participating in the festivities. In the evening we were invited to one of my student's shop-houses after throwing water all day to relax, eat, and of course sing karaoke. The Songkran holiday celebrations are much like the town itself compared to the celebrations in Udon; it's all much smaller in size. It's also a bit more civil than in Udon, which was nice. Also this year's New Year was cooler than that of past Songkrans.
Songkran seems to be a love it or hate it type of holiday for foreigners here. There is no middle ground. A few of my friends in Udon barricaded themselves in their homes for three days while others like me were out in full force. This year started out with me buying a large high powered water gun. I was able to sit comfortably out of range of most of the thrown water but still able to squirt people on both sides of the street. I also never aimed at anyone's head or shot at motorcycle riders. After the first day I was exhausted and thought of giving day two a miss, but as the afternoon came around I found I was ready to go - so out into the fray we went again. This happened on day three also but after all that fun and 'sanuk' I needed a few days rest to recover. This is a great holiday but thank goodness it is only once a year as the spirit is willing but the body has too many hard miles on it now.
The two-week summer camp has just finished and this was my first look at the new students. Many of the students seemed excited to be in the English Program and to have a chance to learn from many different foreign teachers. The new tests and interview process my boss instituted looks to have done its job. The new students appear to have a good understanding of basic English and eager to learn more. This will make my job easier and my lessons more interesting.
School will be starting in a few weeks and I'm looking over this year's text books and preparing my lesson plans. Looks as though they will be fine and I'll dress them up where it's needed. I'm looking forward to the start of school and seeing my returning students along with the new ones. I think I found a great school to work at and a terrific boss to work for and looking forward to another great year in wonderful Issan!
Bah humbug! - 2nd May 2011
Glad you enjoyed Songkran Dave. My word - four Songkrans already. You are becoming a real veteran. I spent Songkran in Holland this year. In fact it's been about six or seven years since I last experienced a Songkran in Thailand. One of the reasons is that it's the only time of year that my wife can get significant time off work. It's also a lovely time to travel around Europe because the weather is mild or cool and you can do crazy things like wear sweaters and scarves. Remember those? I certainly don't miss all that water throwing though. I don't think I actually hate Songkran per se - but I've just got out of the habit of joining in the fun. I think I would rather stay indoors and watch TV. Or travel of course.
Life is still great up here - 23rd October 2011
Greetings. It seems the mid-term is upon me and time for an update on my journey. It appears that both life and work are on an even keel and no great surprises - good or bad - have happened since my last update. Not to say there aren't a few things that have happened so I will fill you in.
I am feeling a lot more comfortable at school now as I have a feel for the place and generally understand how things work here. As many people know, I am still responsible for training the public speaking students for the school competitions. This year has been fair to good with 3 students competing. The first competition had my lower level student come in 5th out of 10 and my upper level coming in 4th out of 7.
I didn't have a chance to work with my upper level student as much as I would like, but she spent a fair amount of time in the UK so her English was quite good. In fact I'm told she speaks with an East London accent.
Before the next public speaking contest, Mahidol University and the EU sponsored the 7th annual Thailand/EU English debate contest. My boss asked me to take three of the upper level students to the training seminar so we could learn more on how everything worked. The three students had recently returned from their time in the student exchange program so their English should have been up to the task.
Of course I had the girl from the UK along with two girls that had returned from the USA. Again the girls from the USA had a beautiful American accent and sounded and acted just like a pair of American teenagers. The work shop was three days long and very intense. The girls got a crash course on Asian style debating and I got the same on adjudicating. I was surprised on how much work is involved in adjudicating and my notes filled a small note-book.
One thing I was happy to see was the seminar was given in English but many of the other teachers I saw there were struggling and finally it all had to be translated into Thai for them. Talking to a number of the organizers they wanted to include the Issan area in these competitions and try to show the importance of English. Sadly once we entered the competition we were the only Issan public high school to enter.
Once the competition starts, not only are the contestants judged but so are the adjudicators to make sure they are judging fairly and listening to all the arguments. To cut a long story short, my girls finished 2nd and 4th but they feel it should have been higher. Alas, poor judging did them in. I on the other hand was picked to be on the finals judging board and the judge that sank my girls didn't make the cut. I politely declined as we were all tired wanted to head home. Many of the more experienced teachers there felt my students did well for their very first time and I am proud of them because they worked very hard and deserve to be recognized for their hard work. We may be coming back to Bangkok for another debate sponsored by the British Council and rest assured - this time my girls will be ready.
By the time the next public speaking competition came around, my upper level student was ready to kill, and she did - first place gold medal. At this time I had two other M3 students approach me asking if they could try out for the public speaking contest. So after training both of them I had both students go head to head in impromptu speeches. After five impromptu speeches I felt they were both very good but I can only take one.
So for the final I tried something new; I invited my best speaking M2 students to help judge, along with my UK speaking student. The competition was fierce but in the end the girl edged out the boy. In the lower level competition, there were 24 students. Out of that, Pim came in 7th place (not bad for her first time)
I noticed that another school brought their top gun student, a little girl that had lived in the USA for a number of years. Needless to say she won easily and I remember hearing a few of the UK judges saying" she sounds like a bloody American" and I had to grin.
I am not sure about other parts of the country, but here in Issan in the EP/MEP circles, there is definitely a good sized fraternity of teachers that come to all the speaking contests year after year. I find this a good sign as these are not the roaming/ backpacking/ never satisfied type of teachers. These are teachers that are devoted to their craft with the students best interests put first. Strangely this blog has become popular with them and they enjoy questioning the new teachers at the competitions as to see if they recognize me before the now famous/infamous "this is Dave of Dave's journey".
One thing they do like is that someone is still carrying the torch and telling people that life is good both living and teaching in Issan.
There was a bit of friendly competition between me and another teacher on who was in the deepest part of deepest Issan. I saw him at the last EP open house and since moving to the big smoke, I conceded my crown to him. But to my surprise he has also moved to a bit more civilized part of Issan but not by choice - much like myself. It turns out that certain deductions that are taken out of his pay didn't make it to their destination. When it came to the time for him to need the service, he found it was never paid.
The school did eventually pay the bill but he never felt comfortable there because he would never be sure things would improve so he left for a better-run school. As much as I hate to admit this, it seems to me that a number of the rural schools have problems keeping teachers and I feel it is a 50/50 problem. On one hand, you have these teachers that hate living in rural areas and cannot relate to the staff and students but the other hand, the schools carry a lot of blame for being poorly run or for their nefarious actions. Life is never boring out here for sure.
Life in the big smoke
I am happy to say that the "falang social club" is still alive and kicking, and in fact growing. Once a month we still meet to exchange stories, rumors, and information on new/changed visas or laws. One of the new members is in fact one of my readers who has moved into the area and is now happily working at a good school. He was pleasantly surprised to find I informed him of what he needed to do once he was here - and I was brutally honest. I do the same with all the emails I get and I fear I may have scared a few teachers away but hardened the resolve of others. I don't want to paint a rosy or bleak picture of the place just a boots-on-the-ground, eyes-on-the-target view of what life is like in this part of Issan.
Other developments? I have started a new hobby - virtual railroad modeling. The downside to this new hobby is that I need to build a new desktop computer as the poor laptop machine is being pushed to its limits. Seems not one but two of the big computer stores in Thailand have just moved into the area. Since I plan on building my own rig, this comes as a big bonus.
I'm not sure if I told you in the last update that a few of the watering holes along the canal here have live bands that like playing famous English late 60's, early 70's Vietnam War era music. In the past week, I was introduced to a Swedish fellow that has opened a new heavy metal bar and restaurant, I thought I had died and gone to Heaven - or maybe Hell depending on your style of metal. Bangkok eat your heart out as life just keeps getting better and better out here in Issan.
In a departure from other updates, this one is being written here at home and not on the plantation. Seems as though my wife and I have carved out a life for ourselves here and we have a nice circle of friends. I do miss my friends in Udon along with the D&D club there, but this is home for now.
I do miss the plantation and one day I will live there but it's just not the right time now. Life is comfortable for us here and we don't feel the need to return to Udon every chance we get. If I ever get a good offer to return to Udon I will consider it but I am not actively looking to return.
I'm happy to say that everything is dry here and our farm in Udon is safe, but is seems my in-laws house is on the edge of having floodwater come inside their home. From what I see on the news, it seems Bangkok is in trouble as I see areas north of the city are submerged. Best of luck to all of you south of us and I hope that you stay dry and safe. If anyone is thinking of coming up here, I know of two jobs in the area so just let me know. You never know, Issan might not be the end of the rainbow for you but it is definitely part of the way.
Good news and bad news - 19th April 2012
Greetings from the plantation, but unfortunately I must start this update with grim and bitter news. Just a little over a week ago I lost not only my father in-law, but a man I called both a friend and a mentor. I heard from the medical examiner that he died from a massive heart attack. What has made this even more shocking is that I spoke with him just a few hours before he passed away. He was in good health for an 83 year old man with no signs of anything wrong. Just goes to show - you never know when.
I'm pleased to report that all the teachers in the EP have been offered a new contract and that they will all be staying another year. This is good news for our head teacher as he can enjoy his time off and not have to worry about replacing a teacher. It has been a good year for the EP also as a number of our students did well in school English competitions. The program seems to becoming very popular with the number of applicants trying to get into the EP. This year we had a little over 200 students apply for just 30 seats. For the upper level entrance the students must pass an English interview and returning EP students do not get an automatic entrance. Many of my returning students were scared of this interview and I was a bit harder on them than new non-EP students. Most did well and some of the new students had good English skills.
This year I have finally coached a student to a gold medal and I am very proud of her. She did upper level public speech and won the best public speaker in all of Issan and then went to Bangkok and was placed in the gold medal round.
Also my school had a school-wide English test and once the grades were tallied, the students in the EP not only did well but scored far better than the rest of the school. I believe many of our students will be ready for the upcoming ASEAN treaty.
I have become increasingly busy in the speaking department. As you know I am responsible for training students for public speech and now I will also coach students in storytelling. This is one of my passions so I'm looking forward to it as this year, I have a number of very talented M3 students to train. I was a judge in the storytelling competition last school year and I loved it. I really enjoyed the work the upper level students put into their presentations and it was a treat to watch and judge.
What happens during these competitions is the students give a copy of the story they are going to tell to the judges for them to read along. I made some of the students nervous as I didn't read along with the story. I simply told the students "tell me a story" and sat and listened intently. I'm of the opinion of not worrying if a student can memorize a story word for word but do they understand what the story is about and use their own words and actions to help me understand the story? One story I liked was an Issan folk tale called The Girl That Wore Too Many Clothes. I explained to my students that story telling can be a useful skill because if you can tell a good story you can influence peoples thinking.
Sitting here on the now famous front porch of the Plantation where so many of these updates seem to come from, I can't help but feel something is different with my father in-law no longer being here. Being in the housing business back in America I know what happens to houses when no one lives in them. My wife and I agreed that she will spend two weeks at the farm and two weeks back with me and I will come to the farm a few times a month to do repairs or maintenance on the place.
Being responsible for the Plantation is a game changer as regards life and work. I intend to teach another year at my school and use this time to weigh up my options. Either way I know this is going to be a difficult year. I do find the Plantation very comfortable and has an interesting quirk - the cat. This cat came with the farm and he is a noisy one - but what makes him odd is his love for doughnuts. Another nice thing about the place is that many of the trees are maturing now and providing some much needed shade. The downside is I have to maintain a fire pit to burn the enormous amount of dead and dry leaves and palm fronds.
All in all, this upcoming school year is going to be busy and full of decisions and I'll do my best to keep readers abreast of what happens. As I have said before there is never a dull moment in Issan.
Sorry to hear the news Dave - 19th April 2012
Hi Dave. Many thanks for the update. Firstly, I'm sorry to hear the news about your father-in-law. I know you were very fond of him and if you read back through your previous tales and updates, he played a big part in helping you settle into your life in Thailand. I'm sure he's left a massive hole in your life that can never be filled, but unfortunately that's the way it goes isn't it? At least he had a good innings and had a happy life right to the end.
It sounds like you have your hands full with the farm Dave. Reading between the lines, it seems you are going to make a decision whether to carry on teaching or become a full-time farmer. I bet you never imagined you would be in this position ten years ago. I sometimes think working the land is a great way to spend the day but toiling under the hot Isarn sun, often to earn peanuts, is a far cry from farming in our own respective countries. And I bet you would miss the teaching as well.
Anyway, all the best for the new school year Dave - and good luck with your decisions. I'm sure you will do the right thing.
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Ajarn.com was started as a small hobby website in 1999 by Ian McNamara. It was a simple way for one Bangkok teacher to share his Thailand experiences and pass on advice. The website developed a loyal and enthusiastic following. In 2004, Ian handed over the reins to Phil Williams and 'Bangkok Phil' has run the ajarn website ever since.
Ajarn.com has grown enormously and is now the most popular TEFL site in Thailand - possibly even South East Asia. Although best-known for its vibrant jobs page, Ajarn has a wealth of articles, blogs, features and help and advice. But one principle has always remained at Ajarn's core - to tell things like they are and to do it with a sense of humor. Thailand can be Heaven or Hell for an English teacher. It's always been Ajarn.com's duty to present both sides of the equation. Thanks for stopping by.