Book review

Book review

The essential guide to teaching English and living in Thailand

The Essential Guide to Teaching English and Living in Thailand
Written by Michael Plews and Sarah Abbott
134 pages
Amazon Kindle edition: Free

I approached ‘The Essential Guide to Teaching English and Living in Thailand' with one degree of apprehension and two degrees of jealousy. Jealous because I've had the desire to write a similar book for a long time - and it's only laziness and sheer lack of motivation that have held me back. Apprehension because the authors - Michael Plews and Sarah Abbot - actually only spent one year teaching in Thailand. Sarah and Michael are now both drawing stick figures on a whiteboard somewhere in Taiwan so they couldn't possibly have thought Thailand was that great a place for an English teacher or surely they would have stayed for longer.

So I'll confess I was ready to pick holes in the book wherever I could. These guys wouldn't know what it's like to be in an academic director's shoes and not have three of your teachers turn up on the first day of term. They wouldn't have experienced the delights of interviewing a new teacher and almost passing out from the alcoholic fumes. And Ok they haven't, but credit where it's due, the two authors learned an awful lot in their twelve months here and I was amazed with how much they managed to cram into 134 pages. They've set about creating the ultimate guide for new teachers in Thailand and they have succeeded on virtually every count.

Background first and it's a familiar story I suppose. Sarah and Michael were both working in the UK logistics industry. Both led comfortable lives with steady incomes and a nice apartment. Both realized that something was missing. The rest you can guess. They took an online TEFL course, booked a one-way ticket to SE Asia and ended up in the Thai city of Hat Yai, where they spent one year teaching English.

As they neared the end of that first year, Michael and Sarah suddenly realized that while chatting with new arrivals, they were answering the same questions over and over again. So they began to compile a guide to help others who might want to give TEFL in Thailand a try. The result was the ‘The Essential Guide to Teaching English and Living in Thailand'

To quote Michael from the introduction - "An important point to raise is that this book aims to give you all you need to know to make an informed decision, but it does NOT make your decisions for you. When looking for advice, you'll often find that people will tell you that the way they did something is the only way to do it. While it might be comforting to have someone telling you the ‘right' thing to do, please remember that there is rarely a black-and-white right or wrong answer, and what might be the best for you isn't necessarily the same as for other people"

The ‘tone' of the writing is what I most enjoyed about the book. Opinions are never forced upon you. There is always a sense of ‘well, this worked for us and it just might work for you'. Michael is absolutely spot on. Teaching in Thailand is never black and white. It's always fifty shades of grey.

So what does the book actually contain? Here's a walk-through guide of sorts. The book begins with a description of the qualifications you'll need before moving on to the types of institutes that are available to a teacher in Thailand including a lengthy and informative section on freelance or private teaching. The best time of year to look for jobs and an analysis of typical salaries also get a mention. And is it best to find a job online or apply directly when you're in the country? Michael and Sarah go through all those basics in more than enough detail.

"Don't let opinions on TEFL forums sour your judgement of a school" says Michael, who then goes on to discuss professionalism at job interviews and what to look out for to make sure you wind up working at a decent place.

Working for agencies is always a hot topic and deserves a place in any book about teaching in The Land of Smiles. The authors have the perils and pitfalls of teacher agencies covered as well. And as you would expect, there are certainly downsides as well as some good points, likewise for working in a city versus chalking the boards in rural areas. Which comes out on top and for what reasons?

Later in the book, the authors discuss the different types of Thai student and their motivation (or lack of it) for learning English. We get an in-depth look at teacher contracts, health insurance, TEFL courses, mobile phones, attitudes to skin color, setting yourself up with an apartment, opening a bank account, buying clothes, staying healthy and getting around Thailand,

I can already visualize the old hands reading this review and muttering "who on earth doesn't know this stuff?" but the book is not aimed at them. This is a book for the new arrival. And for the newbie ‘fresh off the boat' it's a treasure trove of essential info.

There is the usual section on Thai culture and etiquette - the ‘wai', the respect for the royal family, and what to do with your chopsticks - but while not exactly dismissed or breezed over, the authors do a good job of explaining it in layman's language and avoiding over-fussy guide-book speak.

They say that you're never too old to learn and for that reason I particularly enjoyed the section on teaching in Thai Muslim schools - something both Sarah and Micheal experienced down south. I could barely look as Michael described while in one of his early classes he used the sacred Qur'an to rest his paper on and provide him with a sturdier writing surface. OK, an almost unforgiveable cultural faux pas but something that's easily done I would imagine in the heat of battle when you're trying to control fifty rowdy teenagers in a classroom. Thankfully one of the students sitting in the front row discreetly pointed out the error of the teacher's ways and face was saved all round.

I admired Michael immensely for putting this particular episode in the book. If the authors wanted to present a warts-and-all guide to teaching in Thailand, this is stuff that just has to go in. Anything less is shortchanging the reader.

Shortchanged is most certainly not how you are going to feel acquiring this terrific book. It's available on Amazon Kindle for freemans and even the regular price on Amazon is no more than about four dollars. Four bucks for all that info. To use a well-worn cliché - for a new arrival, it could be the best four bucks you ever spent"

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