Ajarn Street

Life is unfair

Is the low salary for TEFL work acceptable?

A person is much more likely to achieve professional success and personal financial wellbeing by being born and raised in an affluent area of a developed economy as opposed to having been born and raised in a rural village in sub-Saharan Africa, Cambodia or Bangladesh.

So far the greatest minds on the planet have not come up with a realistic approach to eliminate this unfairness.

Lingua franca

English has become the world's Lingua Franca giving native English speakers a major advantage in working internationally. We native English speakers are more or less the only people who can travel the world and find work without learning a foreign language.

If you were born in Finland, if you don't learn a foreign language you would be limited to communicating with a few million people. This isn't fair, but as a native English speaker, I am not complaining. Someone from Finland who desires an international career can either learn English (and/or another widely spoken language such as Spanish or Arabic), or try to make Finnish the new world's Lingua Franca.

Which strategy is more likely to lead to personal success for the individual?

To have the option or not?

As native English speakers, we have an opportunity which few other people have. This is the option to live in a foreign country by leveraging the ability to speak our native language without significant training or experience (unless one considers a 4 week TEFL course to be significant training).

If you were born Thai, you don't have this option. If a Thai wants to travel and work internationally, the person will have to learn a foreign language and much of the time, unless having very specialized skills, have to start out doing menial jobs such as cleaning or working in the fast food industry.

There is no easy path for the average Thai (I am not picking on Thais just using them as an example) straight into a "professional" position like teaching. This is not fair, and the Thai person wanting an international career can try to develop and expand the Thai language teaching industry or learn English (and/or another widely spoken language) and develop the skills and experience needed to have a professional international career.

In many cases, at least at the university level, for a Thai to become a teacher in Thailand it even requires some foreign language skills. This isn't fair, but it is the way the world is now. Maybe in 50 years speaking Chinese will be the key to having a professional international career, but for now knowing English is the key.

There is no entitlement

It would seem, some teachers confuse having the opportunity to teach one's native language in a foreign country with the right to work anywhere in the world under desired working conditions. Having the opportunity to come to Thailand to teach English because of being a native speaker of English does not come with any specific entitlements. Pay and work condition are directly related to market conditions (in case some reader's haven't been paying attention Thailand is a developing economy with slow growth and decreasing investment and trade with Western nations)

Supply and demand forces apply to workers whether they have studied the concepts or not. Teaching English in Thailand (or other countries) is generally not the path to riches, but it does provide a fantastic opportunity to explore the world, settle in a foreign land and/or do something a person can feel good about at the end of the day.

Is the fact teaching English in Thailand pays less than being an oil or gas engineer in Saudi Arabia fair? I don't know, but I know the lower level of pay is a fact. One can accept this fact or try to eliminate or neutralize the forces of supply and demand.

Are you an agent or a victim?

If a person is thinking of becoming an ESL teacher, or other occupation for that matter, there are two basic approaches one can take. A person can approach one's career as either an agent or as a victim. An agent accepts the fact the world is unfair and works to maximize his or her opportunities. The victim whines, complains and "hopes" the world changes in a way which will favor the individual. Of course there is nothing wrong with trying to change the world in our political lives, but to rely on this strategy in our personal life would not seem to be playing the odds very well.

Which approach is more likely to lead to professional success and personal satisfaction while teaching English in Thailand? Adapt yourself to your new environment or try to change Thailand (or at least make sure everyone within earshot knows of your less than positive opinions of the country and culture)?

Those choosing the victim's path can try to change the world, but with around a billion people on the planet living on less than a dollar a day it is unlikely the UN, NGOs or national governments will make improving the lives of native English speaking ESL teachers a high priority.

Life isn't fair, I suggest all of us get over it and get on with creating a successful career and happy life.



I agree with the last sentence.

By Mark Andrew Newman, The awesome country of ENGLAND! (28th October 2020)

The Thai labour laws are very fair 'Liam Gallagher'. However, you can"t have studied them very closely because a contract written in English is as legally binding - as one in written Thai.

By Richard Constable, Bang Na (28th October 2020)

I'm paid very well although it took a great deal of clawing, five schools and six years to get here. If I were to have thrown in the towel three years ago it all would have looked like frustration and wasted time.

No one is a victim in Thailand. Korea perhaps but then you can do a year and leave.

Public schools are maxxed out at about 42k with very, very few exceptions. If you want more money you must leave schools repeatedly and be mercenary about sending out job apps.

Don't complain about poor wages. You signed the contract!

By Jim Beam, The Big Smoke (3rd November 2019)

Excellent article, Jack. As someone pursuing their Bachelors Degree specifically to teach in Thailand, I take time to peruse job openings and bulletin boards that have input from people already doing what I am doing.

I have noticed various grudges from people teaching in Thailand. Some are upset about the pay. Some are upset that "unqualified teachers" are allowed to teach in Thailand. I will be "unqualified" by the standards of some, given I've only taught Sunday School for a few years and my degree will be in business.

As a consumer, I'll take the "unqualified" teacher who wants to live and learn, adapt, learn Thai and be an overall asset to the country over someone disgruntled because schools don't hire according to their desired standards. I believe such attitudes, along with the entitlement mentality you noted, will manifest itself in a negative way in one's teaching efforts.

By Stan, United States (4th September 2016)


Simple economics, average ESL wages in rich countries are higher than in "poor" countries. Can you name a country with a similar level of economic development (measured by per capita GDP) where wages are significantly higher than in Thailand?

Expecting first world wages in a third world country for a job which is not highly specialized in unrealistic.

By Jack, In front of my computer (1st September 2016)

To me the saddest part of the low-TEFL wages are the Thai students who end up being taught by a rotating crew of inexperienced, untrained foreigners who will probably only stay in the job for a year or two at the most. But thats the result when the salaries are what they are. So long as thats the case, TEFL in Thailand will be a good option only for fresh graduates seeking a 1-year adventure abroad, or retirees looking to pad their pensions. Committed, trained career teachers will either end up teaching the elite in an international school, or quickly move on to greener pastures

By Danny, Bkk (29th August 2016)

As I've said many times before, the comments sections is not one of those Thailand expat discussion forums. Jack was good enough to write an article for the website and a lot of people liked it. Please don't use the comments section to criticize the writer's style or grammar just because it perhaps doesn't meet your own high standards. Comment on the article content; please don't use the comments section to attack the writer.

By Philip, Samut Prakarn (23rd August 2016)

If I thought the point of your article was simply 'Put up or shut up', I'd agree. I dislike a whinging teacher as much as the next man. But do you know what I do? Ignore them. Like most people I find boring or irritating - I ignore them. Life's too short.

You've written a detailed article about how teachers need to just accept the way it is. Don't complain, be happy and make progress. Couldn't agree more. Everyone is welcome to have an opinion. I just found your article was really really trying to push and persuade people to follow your way of thinking. Not so much offering advice, but telling people how they should behave when here. Well, as you're a foreigner here also, can you not see how that could be very condescending? Also, I really dislike when people draw comparisons with people less fortunate. Like it's a competition and you have no right to voice your issue.

To end of - I don't know you. Your name is 'Jack at his computer'. You don't know me. In fact, nobody knows who we are. Why would you be offended? That really baffles me. I have my opinion and you have yours. I simply felt your article wasn't written from a completely sincere and honest place. I personally found it to be contrived. As for me offending you which is probably illegal; yea, don't go there. We're not adolescent boys at school.

Anyway, I'm done on this issue. I apologize if I offended you, but this is life. If I got 100 Baht for every time the girls down Nana called me cheap - well, they'd still be calling me cheap, but you get my point.

By Samual, Bangkok (23rd August 2016)


You have not understood the message as intended. As they say down south in the USA, I don't have a dog in this fight; I am not currently connected to the ESL industry in anyway except as an observer.

The message is quite simple, worry about the things you can change (your qualifications, place of employment, career, country of residence, etc....) and do not spend all your time trying to change (or just complaining about) what you have no control over (The Thai educational system, Thai culture, Thai political system, level of economic development in Thailand, etc...).

If you find the advantages of teaching in Thailand outweigh the disadvantages, go ahead and do it, if you find the teaching environment in Thailand intolerable, don't teach in Thailand. This is not a controversial message.

From my personal experience and research into "expatriates" I have found taking a less judgmental and positive approach is more likely to lead to more positive results while working abroad.

This is only a suggestion, if you think being unhappy and negative will lead to happiness and positive results feel free to ignore my advice.

I don’t know you and I have no intention to insult you.

Apparently from your incorrect assumptions about me, you don’t know me either. I am not sure what I have written that you have taken as a personal insult, but inferring someone you don’t know and you have no evidence about is engaging in illegal activities is in poor taste, silly and probably illegal according to Thai law (but we aren’t going to go there).

My message is pretty simple, and it a positive message and is not directed at you as a personal insult.

It would be ok if you stop hurling insults now.

By Jack, In front of my computer (22nd August 2016)

"Those choosing the victim's path can try to change the world, but with around a billion people on the planet living on less than a dollar a day it is unlikely the UN, NGOs or national governments will make improving the lives of native English speaking ESL teachers a high priority" - Jack at his computer

Wow! Just wow! I didn't know 'being a victim' was a competition. I'll be sure that 'John - who got shot in the stomach with a shotgun' posthumously receives his 'Most Hard Done By' award. Everyone else, quit your bellyaching and wait for the 2017 award. Sorry, that last part was in poor taste. RIP, John.

"The ESL industry offers low pay and high turnover, much like the fast food industry. Obviously employers want to hire the best teachers possible within their budgets but they are highly unlikely to lose any sleep when a foreign ESL teacher leaves. ESL teachers come and go at about the same rate as workers at a burger joint back home" - Jack at his computer.

"Life isn't fair, I suggest all of us get over it and get on with creating a successful 'career' and happy life" - Jack at his computer

What career? By your own admission you've compared TEFL teachers to burger flippers. Would the real 'Jack at his computer' please stand up?

I know why I have a vested interest in expecting decency from my employers, but what's your motive for not? Even the most die hard apologist would simply say "It's just the way it is" and not think about it anymore. You seem to actively want to keep the status quo which makes me think your motives for writing this are anything but honourable.

There are many different cultural values, but there are also universal rights and wrongs.

By Samual, Bangkok (22nd August 2016)

Nice article. Quit your bellyaching and get on with your job.

I'd also like to add one other thing. Abide by the law. Thailand can be a confusing place for foreigners. It's not always easy to know what's socially acceptable and what's not. You learn as you go along. But what is very clear, and stated in writing, is the law.

You may not agree with the laws, you may not even respect some of them, but you must abide by them. For example: If you get pulled over for not wearing a helmet when on your motorcycle, and you're given the chance to pay there and then, don't! Go to the police station and pay the fine officially. Some people may say "well, it's pretty normal here to just pay 100 Baht and be on your way". Wrong! That would be an ignorant assumption that this is what Thais do.

When you apply for a teaching job here, make sure everything is legal and above board. Don't let anyone tell you "well, we work within a budget" or "this is how things work here". Again, this would be an ignorant stereotype of how the schools work here. Walk away. Make sure your contract is legal. A contact will only be legally binding if in Thai; this is no excuse for not being given a contract in English also, or a contract at all, for that matter. The law states you work by contract. The Thai labour laws are actually very fair and decent. I've always studied them closely.

If you're paying tax on your salary, make sure you've got a registered tax number. You don't pay much in tax and you almost always get a tax rebate at the end of the fiscal year. Don't quote me on the latter part though.

Sick pay: every Thai and foreigner is entitled to sick pay as stated 'by law'. Don't work without sick pay. Your company or school are breaking the law. Don't be complicit in breaking the law here. Know your rights. Yes! As foreigners you have rights, as stated by law.

If you wanna show your host country the ultimate respect, abide by its laws. Delusion and selfishness can justify your indulgent behaviour, and that's why we have laws.

Mark Twain once said "Give a man a reputation as an early riser, and that man can sleep 'til noon". If someone you think you can trust says something questionable, do your research. There's even a hotline in English.

Don't complain, and get on with your job legally. I totally agree, John.

By Liam Gallagher , Republik of Mancunia (21st August 2016)

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