Ajarn Street

Can you teach science?

A simple question that led to a most unbelievable runaround

"Can you teach science?"

I got an interview for a science teacher position here in Thailand. The owner of the education employment agency started by asking me how long I plan to stay in Thailand. 

I said, "A long time because I like Thailand." He asked me what I like about Thailand. I said, "What's to not like about Thailand?" Friendly people. Beautiful, clean nature. Developed transportation system. Flights everywhere. 7-11 on every block. Cold drinks. Fresh fruit."

Then he started asking me science teacher questions. 

"How do you teach science?" 

"Well, science is conceptual, so you need vocabulary. But it's also visual. A chemist watches in a test tube. A biologist watches in a microscope. A rocket scientist watches on the pad. Tune into any science channel or nature channel and the presentation is very visual. So I would use videos."

"Suppose you don't have videos."

"Then I would use pictures."

"How would you get the students involved in the lesson. For example, if the lesson is on photosynthesis."

"Well, I would have the students draw an illustration of photosynthesis."

"How would you use competition?"

"I would have the students get into groups. Each student would draw an illustration of photosynthesis. Then they would look at the drawings of the other students in their group, take the best elements of each drawing, and make a group drawing. Then each group would show their drawings to the class and the class would vote on the best drawing."

"How would you test their skills?"

"I would make 2 columns. One for concepts, one for nouns. Have the students match the words in each column."

I've never taught science. I've never been interviewed for a science teacher position. I had no idea what questions he would ask. I was making this up as I went along. But he was pleased with my answers. 

Back-up teacher

His preferred candidate was in the States and struggling to book a short notice flight in time to arrive in time for orientation. I was his back-up plan. He called me to tell me his preferred candidate caught a flight and asked me if I was available for other positions.

While I was in Cambodia getting a new Thai tourist visa, he called me at my guest house to inform me that his first choice didn't work out and asked me if I still wanted to teach science. The other foreign teachers at the school where he sent me told me his preferred candidate showed up for orientation, didn't go to lunch with the group, and never returned.

Housing headaches

When I arrived at the bus station, the school's foreign affairs officer was not there. No sooner had I moved into the apartment the FAO had arranged for me, the building manager told me to move out. 

My tourist visa was only 15 days and she refused to submit a resident report to immigration about a resident with such a short visa. At an alternative apartment, the sink didn't have water, the bathroom had multiple chronic leaks, the wifi had reoccurring startup problems, and the door key didn't work.

Meanwhile, neither the apartment nor the building had a washing machine. The day after I moved in, the water went off. The landlord refused to answer the FAO's phone, so I got the agency's teacher supervisor involved. Finally, the FAO used my phone and the landlord answered. She told the FAO that the pipes were under construction. She didn't tell the translator when I moved in and she didn't put a notice on my door.

After 4 days without water, I was finally able to take a shower and shave. Meanwhile, I was told during the interview that coming to Thailand on a 15 day visa was no problem because the agency's visa coordinator could get the paperwork in order in a week or two and I could zip up to Laos and back (this school is on the border). 

Not so. The visa coordinator told me I would have to get a 60 day tourist visa at the Thai consulate in Laos, then return for a work visa when the paperwork was ready. I estimate the cost of two Lao visas, a Thai tourist visa, and a Thai work visa, plus transportation and lodging, at about 7500 baht.

So maybe I should have seen it coming.

Which science then?

The agency owner told me I would be teaching life science and that the agency's other science teacher at the school would be teaching physical science. 

Turns out the chairman of the science department expected me to teach general science. According to the textbook chapter order the Thai science teachers gave me, general science turned out to be mostly physical science. And the full range of physical sciences - physics, chemistry, electricity, geology, weather, global ecosytem, astronomy, space exploration. Plus nutrition, drug addiction, and even sex education.

They wanted me to use three textbooks and teach three different lessons per week to 7th, 8th, and 9th graders. And they had a prearranged order for the chapters. So one week, I would teach three different physics lessons to 7th graders, three different chemistry lessons to 8th graders, and three different electricity lessons to 9th graders. 

The next week, I would teach astronomy to 7th graders, geology to 8th graders, and ecosystem to 9th graders. The 3rd week, weather to 7th graders, space exploration to 8th graders, and nutrition to 9th graders.

I was expected to plan the lessons, build or Google the teaching tools, and write the exams. And make every lesson useful and interesting and fun. All this on a week's notice. So my lesson planning had multiplied nine times and the paperwork I was supposed to submit to the agency's curriculum director had multiplied nine times as well.

Even for someone who majored in general science or majored in education, such a feat was just not even logistically realistic without living at the office. I'm qualified to teach algebra and have taught algebra in Thailand successfully more than once (and aced algebra in college.) But I'm not qualified to teach calculus. I've never taken a calculus course and calculus is a completely different math field than algebra.

In the same way, I can teach life science, but I'm really not qualified to teach physical science. I don't have a strong science background and don't have any experience teaching science, but I have a lot of teaching experience and a lot of curriculum development experience and a natural aptitude for and strong interest in life science. 

But physical science is another realm, just as algebra and calculus are drastically different. So I told the agency owner there was no sense in even attempting to accomplish all this.

Out on my ear

He decided to replace me. He didn't even bother to inform me. When I got back from my visa run to Laos, I called the school's FAO to tell her I needed my class schedule. She said, "The agency owner is sending the school another teacher to replace you and told me to tell you to return to the agency's headquarters. Never mind that the agency's headquarters is in Bangkok, a 12-hour drive, and that I had already paid for a month's rent.

While I was in Cambodia, I had three job offers from China. One was for teaching college students and the school offered to pay for the flight, the tourist and work visas, and the visa run to Hong Kong to change the tourist visa to a work visa. 

Another offered to process the paperwork and mail it to me so I could get a work visa from the Chinese embassy in Thailand. Another was from a school in the business district of Guangzhou, which is just two hours by express train to Hong Kong - and the school is in the same district as the train station. 

The third school was willing to let me teach kindergarten even though most kindergartens prefer younger, female teachers. All of these schools paid exceptionally well. And all of them wanted me to arrive immediately.

I turned down all these offers in favor of gaining experience teaching science. These bridges have been burned. The jobs have been taken by other candidates. And so has my science teaching job.

Several years ago, I got an offer to teach English from an international school in the Philippines. Then they said, "We also want you to teach science." I said, "I don't have a strong background in science and I've never taught science." I should have said, "Sure, I'll teach science." 

Experience teaching science would have helped me get a teaching position in the States. I have a college degree, I had teaching experience, I'm concept oriented, I'm pretty sure I could have taught science. If not, I could have just gone back to teaching ESL.

I got a call from a recruiter here in Thailand saying, "I've got a school that needs a science, health, and English teacher. I said, "I'll be glad to teach science. But just to let you know, I don't have any experience teaching science." The recruiter said, "The school is near you. Shall I submit your resume?" 

I had learned my lesson from the offer from the school in the Philippines. So I said, "You bet." Then came the above discussed offer.

Carl Slaughter


Better late than never, I suppose. You posted about a year ago. I have the same position you had in Science, and I also teach English to M5. Balancing the level of detail and the pace through topics so as to cover all the content in the time allotted is a prime consideration.

By Frank Riganelli, Thailand (19th November 2014)

For the first week, you could teach the same physics lesson to all the different years in order to a) save you the trouble of writing three different lessons and b) gauge your student's level. From my experience, Thai students at all levels of high school are uniformly bad at English, let alone Science in English. This means that you can use the same elementary lesson in M6 as you did in M1 and they won't complain because that's exactly what their level is: elementary.

If your colleagues don't mind, do this again for week 2 and 3 and forever, basically. What's good about this system is that it also helps you polish up your lessons plan since you'll be teaching the same thing 3 times per week. Then when you teach the lesson again next semester you'll be able to anticipate student reactions and common mistakes.

By Jerome, Hua Hin (14th January 2014)

Same old. Same old. The best thing teachers can do is relax.

"When I arrived at the bus station, the school's foreign affairs officer was not there"

No surpises there.... you wanted them meet you..??!!

"No sooner had I moved into the apartmen the FAO had arranged for me, the building manager told me to move out." Strange... I have never been told that....

"The visa coordinator told me I would have to get a 60 day tourist visa at the Thai consulate in Laos" It is well known this is the proces. You cannot get a work permit on a 15 day tourist visa....incur the cost...

Thai's don't like complaining teachers but teaching is becoming more and more of a problem here. More demands, less money, old teacers leaving, newbies coming in and experiencing all the same things before because no one told them, and no incentive for older teachers to help them. Thailand continues to shoot itself in the foot, because the way it treats older teachers who then leave ane leave nothing for the new guy because no incentive for it. Agencies in it for the money and so is everyone else - the schools, complaining parent's who complian when their little darling do not get high marks. etc etc.... sould destroying after years and the only teachers left are the one's who comply. A month ago was end of semester and some teacers were told that their "ticks were not beautiful". Only in Thailand!!! They had to remark their books and make their ticks "beautiful'. and that says it ALL!!. While Thailand continues on this path it will always find it self the bottom of ASEAN because of the idiotic system and management who care for little else than lining their pockets and looking "good" while the kids learn little or nothing.

It is amazing in the end what sh*t teachers are putting up with. There must be a better way of making a living than this.

By Marvin, Bangkok (2nd November 2013)

As soon as I saw the word 'agency' in the third sentence of this narrative, I know there'd be a disappointed teacher by the end of the story.

By Guy, Bkk (25th October 2013)

You must be daft Carl!!!! How much do you like Thailand to put up with that? Good grief, as long as teachers (with a credential from country of origin!) are willing to put up with such crap there will always be agencies and schools willing to exploit. If you can get a proper teaching job, Thailand is wonderfull, I know I have one. Are you sure this is worth it?

By Chris, Bangkok (22nd October 2013)

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