It may or may not be the case in other countries, but in Thailand it certainly is: teachers of English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) are frequently looked at with contempt.
If when asked in a conversation what subject one teaches the reply is “English,” there is inevitably a subtle reaction, as if a judgment has been made. Unfortunately, conclusions were indeed likely reached. Both Thais and foreigners alike hold biases towards the TEFL profession.
There is the aspersion that teaching EFL isn’t really teaching because it’s merely teaching one’s own native language. Expatriate teachers of subjects (e.g., science, literature, history and math) often disdain EFL teachers, suggesting they are lowly players in the edutainment game. Many point out that it is a job even a backpacker with little or no experience or background in education can do.
There is of course some truth to these beliefs. Teaching EFL may - perhaps - be less challenging than teaching math. In many TEFL contexts, the emphasis is upon fun and entertainment. Backpackers, in conjunction with willing educational institutes, do commonly teach EFL. The predominant negativity towards EFL teachers in Thailand raises questions in the broader area of teacher development, such as: What exactly distinguishes an EFL teacher from a subjects teacher? And what separates both EFL teachers and subjects teachers from educators?
Firstly, I suggest that EFL is a subject. This may seem a bloody obvious fact to point out, but somehow it gets lost in Thai culture where EFL has been subsumed by a bewilderingly complex array of culturalities (such as ‘face’, ego, smooth interpersonal relationships and conflict avoidance) which have endowed it with a singular status, at once prestigious, nerve-wracking, potentially soul destroyingly embarrassing, necessary in today’s global digital society, a mark of gentility and a lesser throw-away subject, the class where students feel free to catch up on sleep, shoot spitballs and gossip.
It is important to remember then that in the American educational system, and presumably in Western/European nations, EFL is a specialized subject taught by certified teachers.
While each state adopts different approaches, many elementary, junior and senior high schools provide EFL, although within the boundaries of America it is called ESL, English as a Second Language. It is a remedial course for those whose English is insufficient to meet academic standards, usually first generation immigrant children or simply students who speak another first language. The implication here being that teaching EFL in Thailand is not inherently lesser than teaching other subjects because EFL is a subject.
Yet EFL teachers in Thailand have long been condescended to because backpackers have done it and continue to do it. That is a blatant stereotype. Backpackers are unrepresentative of the majority of EFL teachers, who passionately resent being lumped together with them.
Backpacker EFL teachers only do so in entry level situations; they do not amble in off Chaweng beach and into a corporate office to teach English to managers who possess international travel experience and intermediate level English skills. That has undoubtedly been tried in the past and just as assuredly it failed every time. Thais are savvy and they can recognize a neophyte teacher.
It is the same for other subjects, as well: a Westerner with little to no experience in a given subject (e.g., math) may be able to teach that subject at lower levels, such as in a Thai elementary school’s EP (English Program). However, a backpacker could not stroll off Kao San road and into a high school to teach math at that level.
Following this line of thought, if it is inappropriate for a person wholly unaccustomed to teaching to begin with an intermediate level EFL class, then some expertise, set of skills, knowledge and know-how must be necessary. Therefore, if EFL is an actual subject, and if it does require knowledge and skills to do it well, then teaching EFL is not different from, nor better or worse than, teaching other subjects.
Perhaps, then, the main factor separating one teacher from another is not the subject they teach but the extent of their training and professional development.
Consider a teacher possessing a 120-hour TEFL certificate and another with a Master of Arts diploma in TESOL. If the TEFL teacher has striven to professionally develop themselves throughout their career by attending conferences, participating in professional development workshops, staying up to date on educational technology, and improving their soft skills (e.g., giving presentations, teamwork skills and ed. tech. skills), then s/he will be different than the teacher with a TESOL M.A. who has coasted complacently along, stagnating at about the same stage as when they graduated.
Although the M.A. holder’s diploma is much more esteemed than the TEFL teacher’s 120 hour certificate, there is a gap in the two teachers’ professional development. The EFL teacher who has discovered a genuine passion for teaching and been driven to develop themselves is transcending the stereotypes of the TEFL industry, surpassing the confines of the TEFL field, to become an actual Teacher, with a capital ‘T.’
In a way it is ironic since we have already noted that as EFL is a real subject, the deliverer of EFL lessons must already be a teacher. It is just that a backpacker or similar novitiate, whatever the subject they teach is, may not perceive themselves as a teacher or be perceived by others as such because they lack educational training and expertise.
Therefore, the next step in the educational journey is becoming a teacher. Teachers possess both pedagogical knowledge as well as knowledge of the science of learning. Moreover, teachers have a mindset distinct from the beginning TEFL person.
Those just starting out tend to have a narrower viewpoint. They see English as just English. Seeing it this way, it may not matter much to them whether their students learn English, because, after all, it’s just English. In the end it matters not one bit if the students can speak it.
In contrast, EFL teachers who are more professionally developed have a global outlook. For them, English is an example of one useful language to learn, of which there are others (e.g., Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, French).
Their outlook shifts from teaching English to teaching languages. They begin to teach process, the process of language learning. They begin to teach strategies that are not necessarily specific to English, but of language learning generally. This type of teacher perceives themselves differently. Although in title they are EFL teachers, they have actually become teachers; they are language teachers, and they perceive themselves in that way.
There is at least one further stage in the teaching journey, becoming an educator.
From my perspective, it is not so much the pedagogical or curriculum development competencies that differentiate educators from teachers, but the mindset. For educators, the heart of the educational enterprise is the matter of student learning. The focus is no longer upon learning a language but on learning itself.
Knowing this, the educator seeks to equip students with the skills necessary for lifelong learning because s/he wants students to be able to learn on their own, outside of class, and throughout the course of their lives in order to keep pace with today’s knowledge society and its ever changing, ever advancing technology.
What is crucial for educators is to help students learn how to learn. This area is called metacognition and it is incredibly challenging.
It involves helping students to first become aware of their own thinking habits, then the teaching of useful learning strategies that are often new to them, and finally helping the students to apply those strategies for themselves, enabling them to practically, consistently use them on their own.
Another crucial aspect is enhancing students’ awareness of the wide array of resources now available to them, in such forms as educational podcasts, educational YouTube channels, language learning websites, educational app.’s and related technologies.
The educator works at the intersection of lifelong learning, metacognitive learning and soft skills, striving to imbue each student with just the right mixture that will help each one have post graduate success.
These three stages of teaching are broad categories, yet they may be a useful heuristic in reflecting upon our educational and professional journeys. Personally, for the first six years of my career I was an EFL teacher. As I have become steadily more exposed to teaching theory, research and praxis my mindset has progressed to the outlook of the educator, someone who sees learning itself, learning for life, as the heart of the matter.
Below are a set of questions that a person might typically ask at each stage of their career:
1) The beginning EFL teacher: What are the best practices in teaching English? How to convey the importance of being skilled in English?
2) The language teacher: What are the best practices in teaching languages? How to teach language learning strategies? How to heighten students’ awareness of English as but one example of a useful language to learn?
3) The educator: How to instill motivation to learn? How to increase students’ awareness of the necessity in the 21st century of lifelong learning? How to help students learn learning strategies? How to teach for deep learning? How to teach for leadership, character and ethics?
EFL teachers are frequently allotted a low status by Thais, expatriates and even other teachers. However, might not the beginning TEFL teacher with a 120 hour certificate possess within them the stuff of a Master Teacher?
People come into the profession of teaching from a variety of entry points; some left unsatisfying careers because they found teaching to be more meaningful; others became English teachers to pay the bills while they work on their novel.
There are many travelers who dabbled in TEFL, found they liked it and went on to become excellent educators. There is nothing inherently wrong in teaching EFL. What is wrong are the teachers who stay in it even though they dislike it; they do not develop professionally, and being bitter about their circumstances, do a tremendous disservice to their students. However, these people are unrestricted to the TEFL field: Burned out, bitter teachers are found across subjects.
My own teaching journey has led me to discover the simple yet powerful truth that life is learning. Thus what you teach is secondary to the act of learning itself.
Nowadays I teach EFL, electives in my specialty areas (psychology and literature), and topics such as leadership, creative thinking and critical thinking. Each is uniquely interesting as well as challenging, and one is not naturally superior to another.
When I teach EFL, I try to integrate into it the enriching learning areas of lifelong learning strategies, metacognitive techniques and creative and critical thinking.