Hot Seat

Matthew Noble

Matthew Noble wrote several blogs for ajarn.com well over four years ago. This was about the time he celebrated his first anniversary as a teacher in Thailand. Well, Matthew's still here teaching but about to return home to the USA. Let's find out what's happened in the last few years.

Q

Hi Matthew. I sometimes have a look at your Facebook page and your photographs and all the activities you get up to. You're also extremely active on the ajarn discussion forum. You strike me as a guy who can't sit still for too long?

A

Can’t sit still? Perhaps, but ask my wife and I think she might tell you something different! I suppose while my unwashed dishes linger in the sink I do get up to a few things. For the most part I’m a real ‘city person’. A big city is an entire universe unto itself. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. My liberal and trusting parents set me loose on the subway alone at a young age so getting happily lost wandering in cities became part of my lifestyle early on.

I think most people agree Bangkok is a bit of a monster of a city. Some visiting friends, after having been north and south, asked me earnestly and in a tone of real concern, “Why do you live in Bangkok?!?” Just back from some paradise beach, I honestly could not muster an answer. But in the nooks and crannies and the myriad neighborhoods old and new there’re endless wonderful discoveries to be made. I’ve been on the boats, trains, ‘motocys’ and buses and in taxis constantly, crisscrossing Bangkok in this infinite quest to find something more to see or do. And Bangkok has delivered. From great grungy bars to rare musical acts to serene meditations to high tea in style; Bangkok is a dynamo and I’ve only scratched the surface. Like they say in ‘The Hangover 2’: Bangkok’s got him now…

Of course it’s also really cheap. Despite less than ideal salary levels I think a relatively successful and conscientious TEFLer can get more ‘bang for their buck’ (pun very hesitatingly intended) in Bangkok than maybe any other city in the world. So this city itself has added a lot to the experience of teaching here and constantly beckons me out of my lair by its magnetism. Then you’ve got most of Thailand within easy striking distance and cheap Air Asia flights to the rest of SE Asia.

So the short answer is: who the heck would want to sit still around here?

Q

You wrote a few blogs for ajarn.com back in 2006 and then gave it up. It's difficult to keep coming up with decent content isn't it?

A

It really is. Which is why I appreciate your obvious hard work in keeping this website consistently fresh with new stuff. I wrote those initial ‘blogs’ (back when you could still call them ‘articles’ and not come across as hopelessly out of touch, eh?) as a way to help me process a world I was still very new to and extremely excited about. I also started and abandoned a handful of other personal blog projects mostly about living and teaching here.

The lack of follow-through? Well, if ADD really exists then I’ve got it bad! Plus, these days we receive almost instant feedback to everything we write on forums, facebook, twitter, etc. In this online environment writing a relatively ‘static’ piece on a blog or website can sometimes be a challenge. Undoubtably sad, but true. What was that famous psychological test involving kids waiting it out for extra marshmallows? I like the instant gratification and the interactivity of an online forum or a social networking site too much to spend the necessary time patiently building enough content for a proper blog or site. In fact, I think I may need to unplug and go get lost for a while in the nearest quiet wood. I don’t even have a smartphone and somehow it seems my virtual ‘status’ doesn’t ever sit un-updated for more than five or six hours!

The forum connected to this website was an invaluable resource when I was starting out here. I met a lot of friendly, helpful people through it and those connections helped a great deal with getting part-time jobs, finding and sharing resources, solving visa conundrums, and the like. At 32 years old I’m part of the last generation that didn’t grow up with and on the internet and take it all for granted. But I can still ask: how did we cope without it? Pre-internet TEFLing seems like it was a very different game.

Q

You kickstarted your teaching career in a small village in Sri Lanka. It seems an unusual choice of destination?

A

Unusual maybe but I had my heart set on it. Soon after I graduated from a small, funky Quaker liberal arts college in North Carolina called Guilford (shout-out to Thailand’s Lonely Planet guru Joe Cummings, a fellow alumnus!) I jumped into a volunteer teaching program on ‘The Teardop of India’ Sri Lanka/Ceylon.

The main reason for choosing Sri Lanka was its status as the oldest surviving Buddhist society/culture in the world. My BA degree was in Comparative Religion and my learning passion was eastern philosophy and Buddhist history along with Peace & Conflict Resolution. So, going to Sri Lanka – a majority Buddhist country in the midst of a long civil war - allowed me to get into teaching English while also following up on other interests as well.

I taught English at a Buddhist monastery located within one of the most important Hindu temple complexes south of Bombay. I lived with a Sri Lankan Catholic family. I assisted an American friend as he ordained as a monk. I visited many ancient and important temples and sites, had breakfast with one of my heros, A.T. Ariyaratne, and pored over the shelves at the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy.

All in all it was a fantastic experience and really hooked me into the whole TEFLing adventure.

Q

What does Sri Lanka offer an English teacher that Thailand doesn't?

A

Well, there aren’t so many foreign EFL teachers in Sri Lanka. There’s certainly no developed ‘TEFL industry’ there as that exists in Thailand. There’s no guruweriya.com (‘ajarn’ in Singalese). You can take the CELTA in Colombo at the British Council. But most Sri Lankan schools don’t have places for salaried foreign English teachers. I’d venture to guess there are more volunteers there than anything else. The folks at every place I taught were certainly thrilled to have a chance to study with a Westerner. I often ventured far away from the tourist trail in Sri Lanka and encountered genuine surprise and fascination (and sometimes shock!) from locals, something I think isn’t the norm anymore in much of Thailand.

Q

When you arrived in Thailand, you first did the CELTA course and then amazingly, you did another TEFL course a couple of years later. Do you just love doing TEFL courses?

A

Yeah I want to be the first TEFLer to take every single course on ajarn.com’s TEFL course page! I’m kidding of course, but the fact remains I really enjoy the theory and practice of language teaching side of things. I read nerdy TEFL books all the time. Taking two TEFL courses does seem a bit mad, I admit. But at the time, two post-training years into it, I thought doing a second course now armed with a pretty good batch of experiences and an even deeper commitment to the job and to developing my skills would potentially be worth it. And I think it was.

Q

You've done all kinds of teaching in Thailand from kindergarten to university to corporate. In which situation are you happiest?

A

I honestly can’t say. They’re all different and they’ve all good in their own ways. My early plans were to teaching in Thailand for a year or two and then move on to Cambo, or Vietnam, or Korea. I wanted to take 5 years to gain a lot of different teaching and travelling experiences one after the other. But then two things happened: I fell in love with Thailand and with my eventual wife, and I found that there was so much diverse teaching work in Bangkok that I could do it all in one place. Now that I’m ready to return home and do a Masters, I have a broad range of experiences to draw from and to choose from when it comes time to narrow my focus (ADD be damned!).

Q

You've also done an assortment of non-teaching stuff like vocal work for CDs and TV editing. I presume this kind of work comes looking for you because you're a serial networker?

A

Wow, I’ve never been called a ‘serial’ anything before…and I think I’m glad for it. But I suppose you’re right. As I said I used the ajarn discussion forum (among other things) to start networking and ‘gauging the scene’ even before my CELTA was completed. I imagined that it would help me navigate the teaching *scene here, and it certainly did.

While classroom teaching is the meat and potatoes of the TEFLer life, there are certainly lots of ways to branch out a bit and in the process break up the tedium of the classroom grind. Early on I worked at Andrew Biggs Academy and saw the ‘edutainment’ approach first-hand. Later I did some work on subtitling an ELL show on Thai Public Televison called ‘English Breakfast’ (an exceptionally good bit of ‘edutainment’ on Saturday and Sunday mornings, btw). I also helped a Thai teacher with her grammar book and provided the voice for the accompanying CD of her phonics book project. These kinds of involvements certainly help keep things ‘fresh’. English language learning materials in every medium are being produced here in Thailand. I only wish I’d gotten involved with and/or started up more creative projects outside of my ‘9 to 5’. Things like designing a very locally-focused coursebook and writing more songs for my students

Q

You strike me as a guy who gets on with most people. I mean you're proud of the fact that you've never ever had a falling out with Thai admin staff. What's the secret?

A

“He has a placid nature” - This what one former superior recently wrote of me in a letter of recommendation. And I think he hit the nail on the head (gently, of course). I’m generally very patient around Thais and ‘TiT’ situations. As I said I didn’t hunker down at any school or job for more than a year or two (a near two-year stint at AUA was my longest run, I believe). But at every full- and part-time job I’ve ever had here, I got along well with the Thai admin staff and never had any major problems. It’s not that I’m particularly ‘proud’ of this. It’s just that…well…I’ve witnessed a truly epic amount of ‘staffroom drama’, misunderstandings, quarrels, and entrenched bitterness – like one endless twisted bizarro soap opera - swirling around me and I see it as a huge issue in making a career or semi-career of TEFLing here. It’s so important to be able to step out of those storms and let things go.

Of course we all know how dysfunctional and wrongheaded school admin can be around here…but it’s one thing to be aware and responsive and another to be upset and reactive. Was I a ‘yes man’? Hell no. An apologist? Sorry, nope. As I’ve often said in forum chats, there’s a ‘zen’ thing to getting on sanely in the topsy-turvy world of TEFLing in Thailand. I’ve met a lot of happy teachers here so seem to ‘get it’. It’s not that they’ve necessarily ‘gone native’ but they’re basically comfortable here in a way reminiscent of one.

I don’t think there’s any ‘secret’ to it. I think some people are probably a bit better prepared to handle the culture shock than others. And I think it comes down to putting work into it and building up a base of stability in this totally wacky (to us) Thai world we’re ensconced in.

Q

When you look back over your half a dozen years in Thailand, which job do you point at and say "that was the job I enjoyed most"?

A

Like I said before, what I liked best was the diversity in the kinds work I did. But if I have to single out one particular job I’ll have to choose my very first job here. I taught in a Thai elementary school in Bang Na. I was the only farang there. It was a great opportunity to hit the Thainess of it all head on. It sucked seeing classes of 30+ once a week. It was all so shallow compared to what I’d just been trained for on the CELTA. But then it was here that my Thai assistant teacher introduced me to my future wife, so takes the cake.

Q

How do you think the Thailand TEFL scene has changed over the last six years?

A

The Thailand TEFL scene has definitely been through some changes since I first arrived. Things seemed a bit simpler in 2005. There definitely weren’t as many agencies. Jobs were word of mouth or found by directly contacting schools who were advertising a vacancy. Now you call a number and get an agent who vaguely describes the jobs on offer but won’t tell you what it is! There certainly seems to me more competition for jobs here now as well. Resumes are flying through the air. I don’t know for sure whether it’s related to the US economic crisis or not but there seems to be more Americans around now, too. But it’s the nature of the beast, all these changes. It’ll be interesting to see how it all develops in the next 10 years. I’m guessing slowly (TiT! ) but surely.

Q

You're about to go back to the USA and take your wife with you. What are you going to do? It must have been a big decision after spending so long here?

A

First of all, six years is a good run but not particularly long time compared to a number of my friends here. Unlike them, I don’t yet have children, a house, and a car here in Thailand. We’re still pretty easily uprootable, mobile. Sure, it was a difficult decision to leave because I can easily get decent work here, I have good friends, and I really just love Thailand. But something just says ‘it’s time to go for now’. It’s also hard for a Thai woman to vacate and stretch family ties such a distance.

But I don’t want to overdramatize it – it’s been a relatively easy move to make (though don’t get me started on the myriad vexations involved in obtaining my wife’s US immigrant visa) because we’re still young. I’m just about to turn Larry Bird (that’s 33 in Boston-speak) and my wife just turned 30. She might be more excited and eager to move back than I am. I’m following her lead actually. And I think it’ll be great for her, he’s pretty driven. We’ll both go to school and work. She has recently taken bartending and cooking courses among a bunch of other things. I’m narrowing it down to doing a Masters in Education at Lesley University in Cambridge.

Q

You told me that if you came back to Thailand, you would probably think of starting up a teacher training program of your own. What do you think you could do better than those that currently offer courses?

A

Yeah, that’d be something! Seeing as I like taking TEFL courses so much, it’s only natural that I start one of my own someday. Then I’d never have to stop. I have no idea whether I could put together something ‘better’ than what’s out there now. But there are a number of things I think I’d focus on and shape the course around. Among them would be an emphasis on the practicalities of teaching in Thai schools. Every trainee should start their first teaching job in Thailand fully expecting classes to be cancelled at least 10% of the term! Another would be resources. Trainees should learn how to use the internet to find the best materials, advice, and jobs. They should also know where the local ELT bookshop is. And…surprise! A follow up course a year or two later.

Q

How do you think your wife will take to life in America and what are you most looking forward to showing her or to have her experience?

A

That’s a good question. I think everyone who brings their spouse back to the West has to ponder these things thoroughly and be prepared for some challenges and probably some surprises. I’m sure she’s going to get on fine but there’ll surely be difficulties. We had a long holiday visit a few winters ago and she was well into it but at times got worn down by the bitter cold and deep snow. We’ll be arriving in the summer this time so she’ll actually be able to see the ground.

She gets along great with my family and friends and she’s definitely looking forward to the task of finding work and diving into further education. The Boston area has a pretty large Thai population, a few temples, and Thai restaurants seemingly on every 4th corner. But while these reminders of home might eventually feel needed, her approach is similar to what mine was coming here. That was to dive into a new culture and just figure out how to swim. I know she wants what I’ve already got: a thoroughgoing multi-cultural experience and the ‘broadened horizons’ referenced in the old cliché about travel. I’m now an American with a ‘home’, in many senses of that word, in Thailand. She wants to match this with her own expansion of her world and I think it’s great. I’ll be right there with her just as she’s been right there with me here.

Q

You wouldn't put people off coming to teach in Thailand though.......or would you?

A

No, I wouldn’t put people off. Thailand’s great. It’s deceptive, though. There’s a world of difference between visiting and living here. That’s true for every country, of course. The one word that sums up what’s needed to be happy in Thailand is equanimity. There are a thousand ways to be knocked off balance in Thailand. Whether it’s 24-hour sweating, overcrowded sidewalks, dysfunctional management, lazy students, lustful temptations, iffy food, double pricing…anything…you just need a capacity to tolerate it all and stay composed. Then you can focus on enjoying all the things that make you think, in your happiest moments, “Man, I don’t ever want to leave Thailand!”

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