A long and winding road

A long and winding road

Reflections on a TEFL journey


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. 

Jesse Sessoms




Comments

I find much of the discussion about what makes a good teacher or what is needed to do the job well mostly ignores the student’s perspective.

I suspect most teachers have spent a little time in the classroom attempting to learn a foreign language, but often we fail to reflect or utilize our experiences.

While there are many types of “English teacher” and exam prep and preparation for passing specific tests might require specialized skills and knowledge, there are no magical way to actually “learn” a foreign language. Obviously some techniques work for some learning styles while others work better, but no foreign language teacher is going to have any special insight into the language which is both useful and unknown to most native speakers.

I have seen research suggesting it takes about 10,000 hours of study and practice to become fluent in a language (including our native one). Another study suggest it generally takes about 7 years of intense study to become fluent in a second language.

Looking at my own experience in learning foreign languages, I see most of the advice given to new teacher on this site conflicts with my own experiences. Although my studies have occurred as an adult which might be different from the perspective of younger students.

I can’t say there is any one style of teacher I prefer, of course there is nothing wrong with having some fun in the classroom, but generally I like a teacher who can provide structure, explanations, useful examples and some gentle corrections of my errors.

But there are two types of teacher I have had which deter my learning.

The first is the babbler. Once you get to the upper immediate of advanced levels schools tend ban the use of English in the class and students are expected to only speak in the language beginning learned. Fair enough, but there are times when 10 minutes of explanation, examples and confusion could be avoided by a 10 second translation. But also some teachers babble on just like they were speaking to another native speaker. Hey, if I knew every word in the language I was learning I wouldn’t need to be taking a class. Slow down and choice your vocabulary carefully.

The second is the type of language teacher who abuses their position as head of the classroom to expound on their own personal philosophical, religious, cultural or political views. I consider myself a highly educated person with a wide range of knowledge, generally far more than my language teachers. I really don’t want to spend my time listening to half-baked ideas, stereotypes and misinformation, I am there to learn the language. If I want to understand philosophy, I will take a class taught by someone who is an expert in the subject.

I prefer a language teacher who creates structure and provides guidance in learning the language, mixes explanation in both the native and target language and sticks to the topic they know.

But maybe I am a usual type of student. So I don’t necessarily follow the idea of speaking only English in the English learning classroom or as a language teacher try to impose one’s own specific values and world view upon the students. A love of languages and a desire for life-long learning, ok, but don’t abuse one’s position as a teacher to advocate one’s own specific values.

By Jack, Here and there (3rd August 2018)

Thank you for your thoughtful responses, Sash and Jack. The topic of the TEFL industry in relation to education in general is complex. An important distinction between them is that the TEFL industry is an explicitly profit based business while education, in most countries, is free from K-12. The mission of education is in part to serve the greater good of society. This point is crucial when considering whether to be a teacher, and if so, what career path to take. It is a salient point that more qualifications often do not translate into increased earnings, an obvious example being that persons with doctoral degrees working at the graduate/post-graduate level in Thailand often receive lower salaries than teachers in the TEFL sphere (especially compared with teachers at international high schools). Thus, if a person is seeking higher remuneration, the TEFL/international school pathway may be best; if a person is more intrinsically motivated, then a non-TEFL career path may be suitable. There is no right or wrong choice. Sash, it is commendable that you will look at a job candidate's character first, rather than their qualifications. I strongly agree with that approach. As for me, I'm a TEFL teacher who is now, alas, a poor, exhausted Ph.D. student!

By Jesse, BKK (30th July 2018)

I do quite a bit of extra work other than ABA teaching (Applied Behaviour Analysis) which is my main expertise. But over the last 18 months, I teach anywhere from 10-30 hours a week depending on the holidays, at an academy which has Thai students from UK boarding schools or looking to enter the UK or sometimes US.

I say this because many of the new entrance exams are less academic and more placement tests by Oxford and Cambridge. Ukiset is such an exam.

The skills to teach EFL are needed far more than people think. As every one of the academic students find the placements tests more difficult. I also work with so-called teachers from the UK, US - some with masters and Phd's. Its still the same for any work in any industry. You are either motivated to do well or your're not. Certificates, degrees etc are just an excuse to flirt around at university.

When i work with people I look at their desire and will to work and not care one iota about qualifications. All teaching is among the easiest jobs to master, it's just for some the pay packet never relates to their hard work.

By Sash, Bangkok (29th July 2018)

If you can drive a car and have a clean driving record you can become a taxi or Uber driver

If you can speak fluent English and have a university degree in any subject you can be an ESL teacher.

With a little experience and training you can improve at either job, but if you have the basic qualifications and can fake a fairly pleasant personality and put on a clean shirt every day you can start off doing either job adequately while learning the ropes.

Both taxi driver and ESL teacher are honorable professions. The only people who would look down upon people of either profession are those sad sacks who lack any self-confidence and are looking for someone to look down upon to make their sorry lives seem more important. For the vast majority of us, there are people lower on the social ladder and people higher. I don’t know of anyone who approves of being looked down upon by those on a higher rung and therefore it would be hypocritical to look down upon people a half-rung below oneself.

I understand the attempt to elevate one’s profession in the eyes of others and to try to improve one’s social status, but if we look at the industry from the perspective of the market or of an outsider we might get a more realistic picture. It is great to see ESL teachers take their profession seriously and try to grow, but in reality the market for “professional” ESL teachers is very small. There is no great demand from students (or parents of younger students) for teachers with 120 hour TEFL courses and such. The demand for “qualifications” is mostly industry driven with the intention of making a profit on wannabe teachers and not driven by market forces from customers.

I came to Thailand 20 years ago, with a new university degree and easily got a job teaching English at a famous three letter language school. After a week of quick training I was thrown into a classroom to teach my native language, I am sure I wasn’t very good, but no students dropped my course and I retained my job while I slowly learned a few tricks of the trade, Within six months I had moved to a well-known university where my hourly pay was five times what it was at the three letter language school. I liked teaching English at that point in my life. But I could see it was not going to take me either professionally or financially where I wanted to go so I worked in improving my skills and qualification and moved into other occupations (but remained in Thailand or other countries in Asia).

The TEFL industry was great for me. I was able to begin my expatriate life with enough income to feed myself and my family and I consider that part of my life an important “stepping stone” and also an enjoyable time in my life. But I realize how lucky I was to have been a native English speaker so I could take advantage of the opportunity the industry provided me. For me, the decision to move beyond being an ESL teacher and move into other professions was a good choice. But remaining as an English teacher might be the best option for others with a different set of skills and motivations.

While I generally agree with Jesse that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a basic ESL teacher for any length of time, and if you begin to hate the job you should get out of teaching as soon as possible, I do think it is better for an individual to take a realistic look at the industry and make a decision if teaching English is something you want to do for a temporary period or as an occupation you want to do for a long-term based on how the industry really is and not based on a wished for version of the industry,.

While a little extra training and education never hurt anyone in any profession, the income of ESL teachers do not rise automatically or directly with increased education or qualification (although sometimes they can). If you decide to make a career of ESL teaching, it would probably be a good idea to follow Jessie’s advice and become an “educator,” but that will not automatically result in riches and a high-social status, but instead it is likely to provide mostly intrinsic rewards.

By Jack, Here and there (27th July 2018)

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